Samurai Champloo: Creative, Cynical History


Title: Samurai Champloo
Director: Shinchiro Watanabe
Publication Date:2004

This is a pretty entertaining anime series, but I probably wouldn’t have written about it here if I didn’t remind me so strongly of Mushi-shi. I use the word “remind” not to imply that the series are at all akin but rather that they contradict each other and have exactly the similarities that opposites require. (i.e, if the opposite of up is down, it is only because they are both measuring the same qualities. The opposite of up is not birds.)

I wrote about Mushi-shi soon after I watched it. I had taken great pleasure in the series, enjoying its empathetic protagonist, familiar but slightly..well, odd… format, and the beauty of its traditional Japanese setting. It is not at all clear in what time period Mushi-shi is set, but it clearly belongs in some sort of idealized pastoral history in which, perhaps, the slow pace of life matched the pace of the series, mystical beings seemed to exist, and people lived in tight-knit communities with breathtaking views. Obviously, this is, ahem, a slightly romanticized way of looking at history. It resonates with viewers in our current culture because we feel like the present is stressful, ugly, fast-paced and alienated, and we justify this by figuring it against an imaginary idyllic (calm, close-knit) past which it is comforting to visit in shows like Mushi-shi. This view is ahistorical at best, but undeniably persistent. Like Mushi-shi, Samurai Champloo is set in the past and isn’t interested in improving our understanding of Japanese history. In fact, the word “Champloo,” which refers to a dish that combines many disparate elements, appears in the title precisely because the series throws in anachronisms with wild abandon, gleefully combining what’s been described elsewhere as a hip-hop sensibility (I’m too ignorant to make this assertion myself) with Edo period Japan. It’s full of modern language and contemporary music, throws in references to baseball and Van Gogh and graffiti and, uh, zombies and generally refuses to admit to a discourse of accuracy in a pretty belligerent way. At the same time, it also evades the romanticized “past” of a show like Mushi-shi, opting instead to portray a cynical and mostly corrupt society in which violence is ever-present, hierarchy is a significant factor in how life works, and everything is a bit seedy. (Note that, because of the show’s self-conscious use of anachronism, the show is not making the claim that this is how this period of history “really” was, either.)

In Mushi-shi, there is a singular protagonist, Ginko, who wanders around Japan helping people, listening to them and understanding their problems. He’s kind of a hippie, eschewing material possessions and seeking, maybe not enlightenment, but certainly a series of small insights. He is deeply, even supernaturally, aware of the world around him and interacts with others from a position of great empathy. The poignancy in his life comes from his inability to form deep connections with individuals or communities because he can’t stay in one place for too long, because the mushi are attracted to him. This is also an excellent description of exactly what doesn’t happen in Samurai Champloo. The three protagonists in the latter show are also wanderers; each episode, in a Mushi-shi-like fashion, features them arriving in a new place and finding that there are problems there. The difference is that Ginko is wise and compassionate and tries to get to the bottom of the problem, whereas the three companions of Samurai Champloo are self-centered and often violent, and they often end up getting caught up in the problem–making it worse and/or putting themselves in danger. One of the three travelers is Fuu, a naive teenage girl who wants to find a particular person and manages, through the sheer force of her personality and the general shiftlessness of the others, to convince them to travel with her. Her primary concerns are her quest, keeping the group together, and finding food, not necessarily in that order. The second is Jin, a ronin. The show really does put some consideration into what it means to be a ronin; Jin is a highly trained warrior who is allowed to carry the appropriate swords but otherwise has no social standing. He’s traveling because he’s been ostracized from his dojo, and because he doesn’t wish to submit himself to a lord. His personality is best characterized as “phlegmatic;” he’s reticent and unexpressive. The third is Mugen, a street tough whose primary method of interacting with other humans is to begin riots. He picks fights with powerful people for no particular reason other than that he resents the exercise and even the appearance of power, and the audience is left with the impression that he has survived this long mostly because he also happens to be really, really good at fighting. Although there isn’t much effort to make these characters “realistic” per se–they are certainly all exaggerations of a type–they make mistakes and have personality flaws that a viewer can identify as “human.” We are less likely to think that we are or would like to be like these characters, but they are still closer to our experience. Then, too, there is conflict among the members of the group; Mugen and Jin are each impressed by the sword-fighting skills of the other and would therefore like to kill each other, while Fuu desperately wants to group to stay together and does her best to maintain progress toward a goal that, in reality, only she really cares about. She believes that the three of them are or can be a group of close-knit friends working toward a common goal, but Mugen and Jin do not cooperate with her dream. For most of the series, it is the aggression between the two men that holds the group together rather than Fuu’s efforts.

Fuu, Mugen and Jin arrive in town, then, with their own agenda(s), generally to seek money, food, and shelter (or sometimes just passage). There is often something wrong, but these are generally problems caused by corrupt humans; unlike Mushi-shi, this show does not attempt to construct a harmonious society in which all the problems are caused by psuedo-supernatural beings. Instead, they run into mobsters, human traffickers, men who sell off their wives to pay their debts, religious feuds, passport scalpers, etc. Interestingly, many of these episodes are concentrated toward the beginning of the series, which is of course the point at which the series needs to situate the audience in the world it constructs. Later on, the show reminds the audience of its intentions not to be taken as historical reality by throwing in the episode about graffiti artists, and of course the bizarre episode late in the series in which our heroes arrive in town, and by “town” I mean “an old mine which is being worked by zombies,” just in time to participate in a treasure hunt, and by “participate,” I mean “question the head zombie’s claims of aristocratic birth.” This episode is atypical, but its self parodic nature helps to maintain the show’s don’t-take-this-too-seriously ethos at a moment when we may be at risk of becoming invested in the characters. It warns us against that. In any case, the problems that the travelers encounter in towns are not only of human origin but usually caused by people acting in destructive or shady ways. Fuu, Jin and Mugen (especially Mugen, although Fuu has her moments too) get involved not as heroes who can potentially solve the problem but as suckers who fall into it by accident and need to extricate themselves (i.e., oh, look, Mugen got poisoned by a prostitute again?!?). They often work as bodyguards, that is, the side on which they are fighting is determined not by morality but by economics. By the end of the episode, things usually degenerate into violence; there are a lot of drunken bar fights, street riots, and the occasional actual duel. Life in Samurai Champloo proceeds not through careful counseling but as a constant search for the necessaries of life, punctuated by violence. The attention of the series is focused on the seedier portions of the population, focusing on disreputable characters such as artists (not at all well-thought of in the Edo period), vagrants, secret illegal foreigners. Occasionally we get up into the merchant class. Representatives of the state do show up from time to time, usually as a threat to more central characters.

The scenery is also very reminiscent of Mushi-shi; I swear that mountain they are always walking by is the same one. But the relationship of the characters to the landscape is very different. Although the towns through which the travelers pass are often quite small, there’s an urban feel to the action. These landscapes are always inhabited, and usually by the sort of people I described in the paragraph above. There’s no sense of luminous wonder associated with the landscape, but rather a recognition that it is a huge pain to walk all the way from Edo (currently Tokyo) to Nagasaki. A viewer may lift her eyes to admire the landscape, which is quite beautifully drawn, but the characters never do.

I n any case, despite everything that I’ve been saying here, and its lack of respect for the time stream, Samurai Champloo actually is concerned with some historical realities that were part of life in Edo-era Japan. It deals with the closed borders of the era by bringing in a secret foreigner in a poor disguise and by considering the flow of culture between Japan and Europe. Toward the end of the series, there are several episodes that deal with the banned status of Christianity, and the secrecy therefore practiced by Christians. Some of the problems with the refusal to accept diversity are explored here. The rigid social structures of the time are certainly in evidence here, and I’ve written above about the show’s portrayal of the ronin life. So without adopting the concept of accuracy, the show is, in fact, in dialogue with history.

Samurai Champloo was produced at about the same time as Mushi-shi and probably isn’t intended to be a direct commentary on it, but when you watch the latter and then the former, it feels as if it were. The relationship between them reminds me slightly of the relationship between Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, except that Samurai Champloo has a sense of irreverence and an unwillingness to take itself seriously that A Song of Ice and Fire never had. This makes it a little more effective as a critique; it also is short enough not to bog down. In any case, it performs a similar function in that it reminds us that we are all guilty of romanticizing the past, and although THIS is not what it was like, it certainly wasn’t what you keep thinking of it, either.

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Filed under Anime, Television

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