Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Samurai Champloo

With the school year starting up again, life is hectic. I have been reading a very long manga. Very long. Oh. Man. It's called Bakuman and it is about...Manga. A manga about manga? Yeah. If you like manga and often find yourself wondering what a mangaka's life is like, then Bakuman might be for you. I haven't finished it yet, so I am not going to review it here now, but I encourage manga fans to check it out. I like the characters a lot and enjoy their brainstorming to face different writing and drawing challenges. And Eiji Niizuma, the mad, creative mangaka prodigy, bedecked in feathers and swooping between the stories in his head and real life conversations, has to be one of the best manga characters out there.

Eiji Niizuma- I wish I had half his energy...and joy for what he is doing.

Anyway, Bakuman has taken all the (almost nonexistent) manga-reading time slot. Most of the time I am so tired I just want to be passive and watch something.

I came across this fantastic anime called Samurai Champloo. I did not know if it would be to my taste, since I'm not huge into Hip Hop music and so many descriptions of this anime reference the connection.

Let me just say that the first episode hooked me in and I was done for. It's not too long a series and the premise is lovely: a young woman basically "hires" two ronin to help her find "the samurai who smells of sunflowers." The characters are Fuu (she is named after a bird, which makes some of Mugen's dreams more poignant), Mugen, a brash and impulsive swordsman who is unconventional and unpredictable, and Jin, the slightly older, more serious, introverted, and insanely skilled swordsman. Together they undertake a voyage through Japan in the 1800s running across all kinds of strange scenarios and situations. Van Gogh, baseball, outlawed Christian sects, and pirates all fit in the narrative of this anime.

The art is very good. Understatement. Sometimes I was simply reminded of Yakuza tattoos: colorful, bold, mythic and modern at the same time, and containing a certain urban grittiness. Urban grittiness, by the way, is very much a backdrop to the story as little anachronisms and nods to Hip Hop culture abound (see the episode with the spray paint rival artists or the beatbox competition, for example). It would be very easy to imagine Mugen walking the streets of some big city, despite his steel-lined geta. His despondent attitude camouflages his depths.

Without much explanation or huge digressions, except where strictly necessary (Mugen's whole backstory), the characters develop gracefully and you begin to piece together who they are, where they come from, and begin to grasp their complexities. By the end of the series, I loved all three characters: Fuu is feisty and stubborn, but kind and sympathetic. And she can kick butt at all-you-can eat restaurants... Mugen is volatile, prone to lash out without much warning and is filled with good old-fashioned trash talk. But he is also fair, and even loyal. Jin is the quiet one: stoic, reserved, holding on to a past way of life that is no longer honored...or practical. He is heart and soul, idealistic to the core, kind and selfless. But this isn't suddenly revealed; you catch glimmers of it and have to build your own opinion and make your own conclusions. It's wonderful!

There is plenty of humor, such as the meeting with "Musashi," or my favorite episode, Artistic Anarchy, which introduces the daffy inspector character who tries to solve certain disappearances. There is also so much heartache, such as when Jin falls in love (in Gamblers and Gallantry) or when Mugen crosses paths with people from his past (Misguided Miscreants). The narrative even shifts to different storytellers as it does in Beatbox Bandits, making each episode interesting and fresh.

And the music works beautifully. I don't know if I would like the music as a stand-alone as many of the fans of the series do, but together with the images, the effect is awesome: you feel immersed in that world.

The series can be viewed on YouTube under the Funimation channel.

Check out the opening credits:

Good stuff...Enjoy!

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