"Fairy tale time is over. Please, go home."
Can a samurai fall in love? Are samurai allowed to be vulgar? Is it OK for a samurai to get high? Can a story about samurais include a history lesson about 1950's San Francisco hippies?
In Samurai Champloo they can.
By now you should know Champloo isn't your average samurai tale. Two morally opposite sword-wielders accompany a girl in her search for a samurai that smells of sunflowers, scrapping for food and gold on their journey by working odd jobs and performing strange tasks. Why are they searching for this samurai? I don't think they know, and it doesn't really matter. Champloo is about fascinating and flashy characters on a road trip, about how the trio is going to overcome the next obstacle in their path and find their next meal. Sometimes they find sex along the way, more often they find a battle. Champloo is all about a journey, not a destination.
In this third volume, we get stories of love, honor, and hookers. Not much of a change from the homosexual angst and fights from the second volume, but still fresh, fun and interesting forays into the lives of our traveling band of fools during the Edo period of Japan. Our focus in this show is Mugen, a brash and smirking swordsman who looks like an anorexic version of Spike from Cowboy Bebop; Jin, a soft-spoken serious samurai who has yet to crack a smile in the first 12 episodes; and Fuu, a wisp of a girl with a taste for adventure and an impatience for her traveling companions' desire to kill each other. Hey, they've got to find out which one's a better fighter at some point, right?
The stories of Champloo range from formulaic to original. One episode is about a showdown between Mugen and a supposedly unbeatable warrior, a worn concept. Another is about anti-government rebels who chase Mugen before everyone gets ... high. One episode is funny as hell, another is strangely sad. Jin –who is rarely heard from in many episodes– actually finds a romantic interest in this third volume. His tale in episode 10 is engrossing, because we all know it can't possibly end with happily ever after. She's a married hooker with debts for Buddha's sake. You'd figure this guy would know how to pick a nice, innocent girl.
Yet while he's fighting for a whore's honor, Mugen is earning money by training a giant beetle to win a fight. Just when you think Champloo's going to fall completely into the serious side of things, it yanks us all back into Mugen's world, where chaos, womanizing and sake rule.
Some stories are better than others, though every episode of Champloo is entertaining, with dialogue that ranges from thoughtful to flippant, attitude ever-present among the characters, and a look that's vibrant and vivid. A lot of what makes Champloo a good show is the way it's presented. Take the editing as an example: in the opening episode of this third disc, a flashback tale is told with past scenes cut to by use of a faded movie reel. In the second episode, cut scenes are done via a choppy, jagged radio wave line which moves up and down the screen. One flashback is told in full, lively color, another is told in scratchy, fuzzy black and white. Episodes of Champloo are fresh, not necessarily because of the stories, but because of the way they're directed. The accompanying hip-hop soundtrack and bloody sword fights don't hurt things either.
If you're joining the Champloo story late, Fuu catches us up in episode 12, which is a throwaway recap bit, something you'll find in a lot of anime series (though it is told via her diary, which Jin and Mugen somehow acquired). While it's nice to have four episodes on each of these Champloo DVDs, this third disc ends with disappointment for those who've already seen all the episodes on Adult Swim or DVD. You could take that to mean I'm looking forward to seeing the next real episode, even if Mugen, Jin and Fuu are no closer to their destination.
The 16:9 anamorphic widescreen picture is mostly sharp and free of flaws from what I could see. Black levels are solid, red sunsets and red clothing each have their distinct flavor, and characters move fluidly across the screen. No signs of scratches or spots.
Options include Japanese DTS 5.1, English 5.1 and Japanese 2.0. The DTS track is good, though understated. Long stretches go by where the rear channels are hardly used, and then suddenly music, laughter and ambient background noises pop up. Bass is nearly nonexistent in most of these episodes, though there are few times where you'd expect it to be thumping. Later episodes on the disc utilize the rear channels more consistently. Spot checks of the other tracks found no apparent problems. You'll notice that the English subtitles are geared toward an American audience, but done so with the same attitude – if not the exact same words – as the Japanese language track.
A series of 10 sketches of Mugen, Jin and Fuu is about as fun as it gets in the extras department. There are three previews and DVD credits as well. Sadly, nothing fun to report in the bonus department of the DVD, though a DVD insert has an interview with writer Dai Sato (Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex, Wolf's Rain).
It's all the little things surrounding the Samurai Champloo episodes that makes them worthwhile. The music, the editing, the credits, and the animation add to stories that never try to be too serious or too grounded in reality. Add solid action sequences and hardly any slow points, and you have anime fun. The lack of extras on these DVDs still upsets the spoiled among us, but that's no reason to shy away from Highly Recommending this third volume. Another option if you can be patient: enjoy the episodes on TV and wait until Geneon releases the complete collection on DVD. My money says a complete collection box set is announced before the end of the year.