Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Samurai Champloo

"Hey, kids, do you like violence?"

Eminem - My Name Is

So I wanted to talk about Into the Woods, which led to wanting to link it to other successful stabs at incorporating our fascination with faerytales and epics into modern storytelling, like Snow White and the Huntsman or Beowulf and Grendel, which made me realize I've never posted my impression of Beowulf and Grendel, which reminded me that I'd meant to write something about Samurai Champloo along that same train of thought and, well, if I'm chasing that many rabbits down so deep a hole, I may as well start with hip-hopping katanas.

I've been meaning to watch Samurai Champloo for years (it's a decade old now) mainly because of Shinichiro Watanabe's name. Cowboy Bebop was the first anime I actually enjoyed. Even when I was young I despised the Ballz of Dragons and Pokey-men and all the rest of the simplistic mass-market tripe flooding out of Japan's thriving consumer-detainment industry. Though I've found myself fascinated by quite a bit of anime over the decade and a half since I first allowed myself to consider it as a viable medium, I still despise anime as an industry... but then again I despise most of most any entertainment industry, from opera to MMOs.
We've all heard of Sturgeon's Law, right?
Wait, does that mean 90% of my blog is crap?
Hey, I'm doing better than I thought I was...
Moving quickly along:

Cowboy Bebop was more than anime. It flowed, it danced, it struck classic Cyberpunk notes in a rock'n'roll rhythm and built an amazing story by developing characters based on seemingly cheap cliches. For instance, I hated the character Faye Valentine as a facile oversexualized lure for (teenage boys like myself at the time) because I don't appreciate being so blatantly manipulated - until the ending of the episode Hard Luck Woman tore up my preconceptions, tying together the hints I'd ignored so far in half a minute of a music montage to elevate the bimbo I'd despised into a truly solid character worthy of the rest of the show.*

For those who expected a repeat performance of such brilliant moments and overall construction, Samurai Champloo might have seemed like a let-down. Then again, it was just a different breed altogether. It's less likely to serve as a "gateway drug" into anime. I doubt that Jin, Mugen and Fuu have remained as memorable to their audience as Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed. It's much more solidly a shonen-aimed tirade of swordfights, not striving for extensive character development or truly deep moments or message - hitting a narrower target audience and prizing style more than substance.
But damnit, the show had style!
If samurai movies are the Japanese version of American westerns, then Samurai Champloo is the equivalent of a neo-western aimed at boys in their early teens, and its fascination lies in modernizing just enough of the setting to make it flow in modern language without tossing out the elements which made that setting so captivating to begin with.

It succeeds wonderfully in this, ladling on way more historical references than my meager knowledge of Japanese culture can place, but the topic of modernization is a touchy one among would-be literati. You may not like seeing a puffed-up self-promoting samurai pimp-strutting about an Edo-period village accompanied by beatboxing hangers-on, or hear a challenge to monster-slaying heroism rapped out like an MTV song introduction, but Watanabe's crew managed to escape self-ridicule by the skin of their teeth to deliver a coherent story in which creative anachronism served mainly to offset, to illustrate a love of older modes of expression.

It's true that Samurai Champloo has much less to offer a mature audience than Cowboy Bebop did. Yet much like some Studio Ghibli movies, it still serves as an example among the others I cited at the start of this post, successfully dredging up an awareness of the essence of historical styles and settings which transcends shallow, slavish adherence to form, a lesson which many Hollywood adaptations and modernizations utterly fail to grasp.

P.S. Though if you liked Faye, watch Michiko and Hatchin. Michiko was basically an expanded version of Faye.

P.P.S. The ugly-american baseball episode? Alternatively hilarious and overdone, but still worth seeing. A strike back against every shovel-toothed asian stereotype in older American cartoons... and also perhaps unintentionally a somewhat uncomfortable reminder that anime as a whole makes liberal use of racist Japanese stereotypes of Europeans.

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