Welcome to the IMPACT series where I dissect notable and iconic sequences from games and movies, and how they broadened my mind and left a lasting impression on me, years to come.
Find the samurai who smells of sunflowers.
I will the first guy to admit that I am not much of an anime viewer. My foray into anime mostly consist of Studio Ghibli and a few limited episodes of Digimon, Pokemon or One Piece that I caught on TV early in the morning before I went to school.
I am aware of the cultural impact of many different series, and have researched a whole host of them, from DragonBall Z to Attack on Titan. I know enough about the lore and the plot to engage in some basic conversation about the most popular anime.
But I don’t watch any of them. Maybe it’s the length of the series that prevent me from getting into them … Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.
OK, that is taking McCauley’s advice a bit too literally, but the point is … I can’t really find myself getting into long shows.
But for the works of Shinichiro Watanabe I will gladly devote many waking hours obsessing over his artistic creations.
Samurai Champloo is my favourite anime of all time and I don’t think there will ever be a time when I won’t treasure my first viewing of this revolutionary anime.
This anime is as treasured to me as a kiss from a woman. It is of that much significance, and importance to me that I rank it that highly. Expect this to be an incredibly long swan-song.
When I first started watching the show, I was expecting the same level of quality I had experienced in Cowboy Bebop. I got that and a whole lot more of emotional resonance than I was expecting. This is a show that picked me up, abused me and threw me around in a cage before depositing me onto the floor, leaving behind a emotional wreck.
The gauntlet in which this show made me run through, with its incredible visuals, score and characterisation left me breathless at the end. Certain episodes had me bawling my eyes out, others; laughing out loud and many smiling like an idiot.
Jin, Mugen, Fuu … they became my friends over the course of 26 episodes. I wanted to hang out with them more. I adored their dynamic, with Jin being my idol, for his cool, calm, collected nature. I loved Mugen’s unpredictability and his wild nature that clashed with Jin’s more measured approach to life. Fuu was the sweetheart that no-one could hate, a girl that was the true glue that held the trio together and the heroine of the story.
I was addicted to the adventures they went on, the multiple twist and turns, the strange discovery of how much Japan was changing … modernising and how it seemed to leave people behind. I loved how many of the episodes were miniature stories that showed the real cost of modernisation and the varying attitudes people had to such rapid change.
In particular, the ability to create such compelling, unique and fascinating side characters in the space of 20 minutes is nothing short of remarkable. I can still recall multiple characters like the blind Sara, the tragic Shino and the disturbing Umanosuke with crystal clarity, despite their brief introductions and encounters with the main protagonists.
The pacing of the story overall is amazing, Watanabe’s deft touch to keep the story fresh and engaging whilst juggling an adventurous tone, a sign of a true artist at work. He knows exactly when to inject action, emotion, humour and drama and barely makes a step wrong throughout the entire series.
In particular, episode 11, Gamblers and Gallantry is the one that struck me with all the force of an emotional bullet, the tragedy of the ending leaving me a wreck afterwards. I recall feeling hollowed out by the mix of emotions that it stirred in me and swearing from that moment on, I would immediately download every single song featured in the series, just to capture this feeling I was experiencing.
It was sorrow, melancholia, goodbye and farewell, mixed in with a healthy dose of love, regret and necessary separation and all of these feelings were coloured with nostalgia.
No anime since, has managed to capture this complex array of emotions. Arguably, no piece of fiction I have read, watched or listened to since has managed to get anywhere close.
And I haven’t even touched on the beauty of the animation yet …
There is a lot I took away from Samurai Champloo. I will break it down according to the subheading. It goes without saying that this anime has impacted me immensely in my life. This is in part due to the timing of when I watched it (I was a teenager) and the fact that I was also a massive Japan history buff at the time, having read the James Clavell’s epic Shogun.
A) Samurai Culture
I was also obsessed with samurai culture when I had finished reading Shogun, so to see this fresh take on what were traditionally stiff, honour-bound warriors was quite a shock to the system. It was the swordplay and action that gripped me, seeing how quick and deadly the samurai were and how cruel they could be, with their superior skills and weapon. I loved seeing how Jin and Mugen got injured during fights, how their styles clashed frequently and how they seemed to attack any obstacles head on.
More importantly though, the show made me aware of how anachronistic the samurai culture was becoming in a more modern world, and what that must have felt like for the class that once ruled Japan and defined its culture. You could really see how honour could turn easily into corruption and malice, how the extreme modernisation of Japan created an arrogant, gleeful middle class that were previously subjugated under the noble class of the samurai. So many episodes dealt with how Jin, Mugen and Fuu’s quest was out of touch with the times, the trio barely scrapping by on their adventure.
The infusion of hip-hop in the music and scenes lent this gangster vibe to the three protagonists. They were freed from the constraints of the society they were living in, and due to hip-hop’s natural tendency to encourage rebellious behaviour, it made you sympathise and envy these characters and their inherent freedom.
Of course they were destitute, struggling to find food and board, but there was a freedom and simplicity to their life. They were on a quest to find the samurai that smelled like sun-flowers. Life had a meaning and to hell with what society thought. Isn’t this what the essence of hip-hop is? To make do with what you have, and celebrate life regardless. Sometimes it is better to be poor and free to be able to express yourself than well-off and constrained by society’s rules and pressure.
Jin, Mugen and Fuu did just that.
What can I say about Nujabes that hasn’t been said? I will probably end up making an IMPACT post on Nujabes because his music has been so influential and instrumental in my development growing up. There was a time when all I listened to was Nujabes and I couldn’t bear a single day without hearing his smooth, unique take on jazz and hip-hop.
One of the main reasons why Samurai Champloo works as well as it does, is because Nujabes’ score is the perfect accompaniment to the tone and style of the anime. His score is evocative, slow, and singularly Samurai Champloo. It is moody without the sad overtones, nostalgic without cynicism and emotional without deviating too far into happiness or sorrow. The hip-hop influences kick in during action sequences, whilst the more mellow jazz style soars over the emotional scenes.
To listen to Nujabes’ score is to tap into the unique appeal of Japan, where you hearken for a time that existed long ago and the world seemed more exciting, fresh and alive. His music reminds me of a wonderful dream, where you visit incredible places in your sleep, and when you wake feel that sense of deprivation, of being robbed of something that never existed.
It is why I always listen to his album, Samurai Champloo – Departures when reading Haruki Murakami books. A dream like sound to accompany a dream like read.
Samurai Champloo more or less weaponised melancholy as an emotion and turned it against me. I actually became entranced by the sensation of melancholia and would often put myself into a deliberate funk just to capture that emotion again. There are so many tragic sequences in Champloo that evokes this sensation and I couldn’t help but wallow in them constantly.
It actually took me awhile to recover from this addiction to this emotion. It is inherently self-destructive but when utilised right, it really allows you to explore all facets of your identity and self. Melancholia is almost crucial to self-introspection. You long for a time when you were “yourself” and so you end up diving deep to try and find yourself again. Samurai Champloo style, art and music really allowed me to weaponise the melancholic feeling against myself and create actual mind palaces where I could truly explore all facets of my identity without self hatred or loathing.
The series’ style was so influential in that aspect, that my most private and healing sanctuary is actually based on a location in the series, and I retreat there often when confused, and in search of meaning. I can picture every single door, room and location in that mind palace and I have always found answers to my questions there whenever I visit.
In a lot of ways, Samurai Champloo allowed me to be my own therapist, guide and conscience without ever having to resort to a therapist or psychologist. I have to thank this show and Murakami for allowing me to truly unlock my psychological id.
D) Japan’s Artistic Style
Samurai Champloo, much like Studio Ghibli films, showcased some of the finest Japanese modern aesthetics I had seen in a while and perhaps ever. Whilst Ghibli emphasises immense detail in all aspects of its animation, Champloo employs a unique blurriness to its art style. It knows when to showcase clean, lean lines of the characters and then have that juxtaposed against a blurrier but still distinct backdrop.
Water in Champloo has a mystical effect and a shimmer that isn’t seen in other animation studio works. I particularly love how the backdrop of a lot of scenes evoke a certain emotional response, whether it is eeriness or startlingly beauty. It is such a testament to actual Japanese landscape that are one or the other.
When it comes to action, I love the glint effect that Wanatabe showcases when a sword is flickering through the air, at intense speed and the overall dynamic of clashes, dodges and final moves.
The opening credits, which I have employed liberally throughout this blog, is a stunning showcase of animation, talent and art. The way how dark cel shaded lines interplay with brighter colours and semi realistic depictions of animals and landscapes create this unique art-style that can’t be replicated by anyone else.
Like any sad fan, I have a lot of Fuu wallpapers. Her style is so remarkably entrancing, which when combined with unique poses and her kimono, creates a really incredible visual art piece. And if there is one anime that generates endless wallpapers, it is Samurai Champloo.
Samurai Champloo has been responsible for a lot in my life. It has allowed me to discover more about myself, to experience a phenomenal story that is uniquely Japanese and exposed me to the genius that is Nujabes.
I found a soundtrack that I could listen to forever and let it heal parts of my life.
I learned to trust and unlock my subconscious and seek the truth in all the things I do.
I made some friends along the way and waved a sad but happy farewell to them.
I learned to understand and process deeper emotions and how to recognise them in the future.
Samurai Champloo was responsible for all of it. No other media has managed to achieve so much in just 1 season of episodic TV. It is as deeply personal to me as my first novel I ever wrote.
If I had to answer the question about an anime that actually “changed” parts of my life, it would be Samurai Champloo. It’s impact on me cannot be understated.
If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and check it out, alongside Cowboy Bebop. They are the gold standard when it comes to anime and Japanese story-telling. If you refuse to do so, then just listen to the entirely suis generis genre that Nujabes created called nu-jazz.
Wind, Limitless and Benevolence.
Fuu, Mugen and Jin.