Samurai Champloo (Shinichiro Watanabe, 2004)

Shinichiro Watanabe's Samurai Champloo shows promise--it has excellent animation, and an intriguing mix of the historically accurate (the clothes, the architecture, the bits of historical details and figures) and the intentionally anachronistic (the rap music, the graffiti artists), plus some eroticism and sophisticated humor.

There's even Watanabe's preoccupation with humdrum reality--where they should sleep, what they should eat, how they should earn money for food and shelter. Superefficient heroes who look fine and even look like they've had a manicure and beauty salon session are fine and good, but ronins who've spent days on the road and actually look (and almost smell) as if they did are more interesting fare--they help convince you of the reality of what you're seeing, prepare you to accept the more fantastic stuff, the blindingly fast, intricately choreographed fight sequences.

What's quite not there are a set of truly memorable characters. Cowboy Bebop, Watanabe's previous major work, had this teasing tension between Spike and Faye; here, with two men to choose from, Fuu barely strikes any sparks from both, just maybe some romantic longings and silly sentimental ideas (which the men for some reason sometimes take seriously).

It also helped Bebop that the main thrust of the action was Spike's attempt to reconcile his present with his gangster past. That allowed the other characters--Jet, Edward, Faye, even the dog--to branch off in all kinds of interesting stories, but it's Spike's story that held it all together, gave it unity and shape. Here, Muugen, Jin and Fuu all have to go meet their fates separately, and the climactic episode goes from one storyline to another, frittering away momentum; in Bebop, Spike said his goodbyes--some of them painful--and walked away to his destiny. Simple yet effective.

Interesting, worth seeing, but not the kind of breakthrough series that Bebop was, I think.

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