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Samurai Champloo Complete Series Anime DVD Box Set Review

16 min read

samurai-champloo-coverTwo swordsmen find themselves acting as bodyguards for a young woman seeking a mysterious samurai who smells of sunflowers.

What They Say
Mugen’s a buck-wild warrior – violent, thoughtless and womanizing. Jin is a vagrant ronin – mysterious, traditional, well-mannered and very strong as well. These two fiercely independent warriors can’t be any more different from one another, yet their paths cross when Fuu, a ditzy waitress, saves them from being executed when they are arrested after a violent swordfight. Fuu convinces the two vagrant young men to help her find a mysterious samurai “who smells of sunflowers.” And their journey begins…

The Review
Samurai Champloo got a really nice audio mix back when it first came out and that’s all the same here. The release is interesting in that it features not only the stereo mix for the Japanese track but also a DTS 5.1 track. The DTS track is a half rate one done at 755kbps while the English 5.1 mix is done at the standard 448kbps setting. The included Japanese stereo mix is encoded at 224kbps which gives us nearly 1.5mbps of bandwidth given over to just the audio on this release. As we’ve learned when this came out originally, a number of shows are released to their rental version with a DTS 5.1 mix to attract people to renting the show in addition to buying or to rent it after seeing it on TV so they get something new there as well. The 5.1 mix isn’t extremely active but it does a great job of adding to the depth of the show and enhancing the overall directionality. The music probably makes out the best by this but there are plenty of moments throughout that the ambient sound effects are well placed. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we had no problems with dropouts or distortions on this track.

Originally airing in 2004, the transfer for this series is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. This release is identical to the previous singles so we get seven volumes in the set, five volumes with four episode each and two volumes with three episode each. Not completely unexpected, but the transfer here is just a great looking piece of work. The animation features a wide range of colors and detail to it that’s vividly reproduced here and generally free of problems. Backgrounds are solid throughout and don’t show any manner of blocking, but one or two characters showed a bit for like a second or two in one or two scenes. The colors are reproduced here beautifully with some very lush looking reds for the sunset early on and later with the blue skies and rolling fields. Once things kick in and the story gets you, the transfer just serves to make it all flow beautifully and you just get lost in it.

Samurai Champloo has finally received a priced down release as the previous box set was done using the big heavy chipboard one that came with the first volume of the singles. This collection has a very thin slipcover holding seven clear keepcases inside. The front of the slipcover is surprisingly dark with its background and with Jin’s character design. This lets Fuu stand out, serious look that she has, while Mugen has some striking reds to draw the eye as well. It’s not a bad piece, but it comes across as yet another samurai kind of show without showing off its real hooks. The back cover doesn’t try to sell itself on anything other than text as it pushes its pedigree with the creators behind it and that it aired on Adult Swim. There’s a string strip of nice artwork through the middle but it doesn’t really represent anything. The summary covers things well and there’s a good clean listing of what the set features with its technical side. The remainder is given over to it production and technical information

Using the same artwork as the Japanese release and being identical to what we saw before albeit in thinpaks, the individual keepcase covers are nicely colorful as it goes with various color shadings for the background and has full length shots of various characters across each volume. The background mixes in a lot of details, colors and designs that aren’t easy to make out at first but look neat the more you look at it and try to find the details. The back cover provides a small sample of small shots from the show but gives a good idea of the premise with the summary. The discs episode numbers and titles are clearly listed as are the discs features and extras. Production and technical information round out the bottom half. The inserts aren’t included with this set but the reverse sides of the covers do provide various text interviews.

When that 5.1 light comes up in the menu, I know it’s another Nightjar piece. The menus here use the look and style of the cover artwork with the logos and the jitter to create a very warm feeling piece that has a bit of animation that’s red filtered playing through the center. Using a bit of instrumental music from the show, it’s done up in 5.1 and sounds really good here for the brief loop that it plays through. This is probably one of the more average looking menus from Nightjar but that alone puts it ahead of many others both in ease of use and visual design. The disc also correctly read our players’ language presets without any problems.

This release retains all the extras as seen on the original volumes which are mildly well done overall but nothing that’s all that engaging in the long run. There are a couple of promo teasers that run either 15 or 30 seconds that are here plus there’s a bigger promotional video that runs a few minutes and plays out a bit more like a music video to sell the series than anything else. Several volumes have a a brief selection of conceptual artwork sketches and there’s also a really nicely done widescreen and full screen version of the eye-catches provided in one gallery. The most amusing extra I think is the far too brief video game trailer that was made for the series.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Samurai Champloo had a lot of expectations to live up to when it came out because of the pedigree it had with its creative staff. After achieving quite a lot of success with Cowboy Bebop, the next project that had most of them together was going to get a lot of scrutiny as well as a lot of attention. The downside was that a lot of people wanted another Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo is in no way trying to replicate that show and it’s silly to think it is. If Watanabe wanted to make a knock-off of his own thing, he’d just do more Bebop. And if all people take away from Bebop is that it had jazz music to make it cool, then they missed a lot more of that show than most already do.

Samurai Champloo drops us back in time to after the Warring States period. It’s not calm and civilized but there is an element of control still out there. The people are still living in a strict caste system and lives are taken at the whim of those above them. The peasants live in fear of not only their own lives but that of their families. Upset the wrong Lord with the wrong thing and he can demand the death of an entire family. Lose a particular job and it’s all over for all of you as the shame can drive you to utter despair. Best to end the thread than to extend the shame and dishonor. If you’re the offspring of a noble though, you practically walk on water in the town where the control extends, doing what you please and getting away with it and never called on it. The breakdown of the code of honor is most definitely happening here.

It’s in this setting that we meet the two primary characters and the third that binds them together. In separate incidents that bring them together, the two swords man get brought under a promise that has them working together. Mugen’s the wild child type, the rogue type that uses his charms to get what he wants from the women but backs it all up with a very deadly blade that he wields with a real sense of style to it. It’s not all flash as there’s a heap of substance behind it but you can see that he enjoys the swordplay. He ends up in a fight inside a local teahouse after some of the ruffians in the employ of the governor’s son there cause’s trouble. For a hundred dumplings, he takes on the numerous men there and goes at it with a wild thrill.

Jin is more of the traditional type, a ronin by nature now who dresses appropriately, speaks with intelligence but keeps it to words that are necessary but has a real sense of justice that doesn’t allow him to leave too many things alone. But there’s still usually some price attached to things and it’s not all altruism that keeps him going. When he sees a worker being harassed by the local lord and his entire family threatened by the loss of his job, he’s got the sense to intervene. What seals the deal is when someone warns him that the lord’s bodyguards are hired fighters that are Yagyu in origin. The challenge is there and it’s something that he really lives for but keeps under control.

The two end up in the same teahouse after some time and events there go wildly out of control due to Mugen’s style and the two men find themselves being held captive and tortured, ready to be executed publicly the next night. With nothing left to lose, the young waitress from the teahouse who has nobody left decides that she’ll break out the two fighters. Convincing them that they have to work for her in payment, she wants to find a samurai she’s been looking for that “Smells like sunflowers.” With plenty of violence and bloodshed, the real story starts moving along from this point as the trio break out of captivity and head on their road trip for find this mysterious samurai.

The series works through a number of stories by alternating between standalone episodes that slowly progress little bits of the larger story and the mutli-episode ones that go for more. To set all of this up, the trio continually faces their continually broke status. Arriving in one town where they need to take a ferry to cross the river, they find themselves out of luck again and needing to get some cash fast so they can cross. Naturally, the three of them find their own ways of making money and the stories all slowly wind towards each other. Fuu ends up becoming a model for an up and coming ukiyo-e artist but ends up in a slave trade situation, Mugen lives for roughing up local punks for their money so he can eat well while occasionally remembering that he’s trying to get ferry money while Jin is drawn to the challenge of a board game with an older gentleman. Like a lot of stories done in this manner, each of the subplots have links to each other, some obvious and some not, and it’s fun to watch how it all comes together, especially when you have things like Jin chasing a punk and running across Fuu somewhere in town. The coincidences are both simple and complicated.

A two part story brings us into a bit of history for Mugen which is a really good thing by this point. While I don’t mind characters being cipher’s for the most part with their pasts since sometimes explaining it away can ruin a character, they did it nicely enough here that it helped to build up the character more and explain some of his motivations. The trio has finally reached the coast in their journey towards Nagasaki but in their arrival they’ve ended up in a trap. The local village had been purged of all the women and children as well as men who couldn’t fight so that all that would be left would be a group of warriors that could be controlled. The person in control is a nasty guy named Mukuro who just happens to be Mugen’s brother.

Over the course of this story, we learn how the two of them, and a slightly younger girl who is still with Mukuro, grew up together on a small island off of the coast where only criminals were sent and kept. Being born to criminals and raised that way, they all grew up feeling that they had experienced hell and through various machinations made their way off island. Mugen’s story is given the most time since he ends up being captured and held for execution but the general gist is to see how they’ve all suffered and tried to deal with it afterwards. With so many ties to the past brought up, Mugen’s easily manipulated by Mukuro to take on a new job with him that involves hijacking a shogunate ship that has far too much gold for just one person to ever spend their lives with. The resulting drama around that is exciting enough to watch but that barely covers the first half of this reunion that does so much to explain Mugen’s way of life.

One of the later episodes in the set, the kind that goes in an unusual direction that the series does at times, is so completely wrong in so many ways but it manages to be hysterical to watch that I can’t really complain about it. The group tries to do a cut and run meal but they did it in one of the worst places as a former ninja is watching nearby and as Mugen makes his run for it he ends up being beaned on the head with a baseball. Ok, let’s ignore all baseball history here for the duration as well as the arrival of a group of ships from America that’s come to conquer the local village. The village has managed to convince the ships commander that they can play baseball to determine whether they’ll be invaded or not and the American’s are all up for it.

This will have a different view depending on which language you watch it in as the American’s speak English in the Japanese track outside of the interpreter character. The dialogue is mostly well matched when done in English but there’s more of an impact to it when you have the rest of the characters speaking Japanese. The American stereotypes used here are priceless and had me laughing out loud several times as they made their way through the game and in dealing with the locals. The episode simply has so much wrong with it in historical terms but it more than makes up for it with the comedy. Samurai Champloo has certainly pulled in plenty of modern elements into its run and some of the rap and music stylings have been amusing but it’s never really taken over an entire episode like this. I was particularly amused that there was more of an issue in the dub though by going with the phrase “Freaking Japs” as spoken by one of the American sailors instead of the original “Fucking Japs”. I can understand it from a broadcast perspective but it’s interesting that they didn’t step back from softening that bit of dialogue.

Samurai Champloo does finish out the series in a good way by devoting three episodes to tie it all up and wrap it together. This storyline brings essentially everything in the series to a close with nothing left to deal with from the main storyline points. In a way it’s almost surprising that it ends like that since so many series seem to keep a few loose ends open just on the off chance of doing a bit more or having to deal with continuing manga series. The three parter here caps it all of nicely.

The series has had a fairly basic plotline to it since the beginning when Fuu, Jin and Mugen first came together and she got them to serve as her traveling companions while she went north in search of her father who “smelled of sunflowers.” The actual journey brought in various elements and subplots that provided for some engaging arcs and over the course of it we got to know the characters better, parts of their pasts and the various things that motivate them. Across each of the smaller arcs we dipped into their pasts and with Mugen in particular spent a lot of time covering his youth. Mugen’s past was covered easily enough but it played out more in the present as those who were hunting him continued to come across him and try to take him down. Fuu was typically more focused on the present than anything else but her journey to deal with a problem of the past kept them all moving forward and each event brought them closer together though they didn’t realize it for quite some time.

As they move to the last location just north of Nagasaki where her father is supposed to be, Fuu puts her own plan into motion to deal with her two companions at the same time that a power much higher than all of them makes their involvement known. While I’ve not cared for this kind of occurrence in a lot of other series since it feels like it’s coming out of left field and doesn’t really fit in well with how the series has gone up until this point, the introduction of Kariya and his “master” with the plan that’s been in motion for some time feels like it fits over the existing series almost transparently. The inclusion of this storyline not only ties together smaller pieces from previous episodes that stood well on their own but it gives a very good sense of closure to this last storyline since it doesn’t feel forced.

Style and Design:
While this comes across as your somewhat basic samurai/ronin drama series, what helps it to rise above is the sense of style to it. The first and most obvious aspect is the music which headlines the show from a number of popular and famous artists that give it a Japanese hip-hop feel. Since it’s not a common thing to anime series, it’s definitely adding a new feel to the action sequences and to the quiet moments as well. As said before though, this wasn’t all that Bebop brought to anime and too many series took just that aspect and went forward. Champloo’s music score is really fun to listen to and they make it a fun part of the show as well, such as shifting between scenes like moving a record back and forth.

Another bit of style to it that I really like is the character designs themselves. Most of the men in this world look like they do in those old dramas; skinny, lithe and generally unsavory. While Jin keeps some amount of refinement to his features just in how he dresses and carries himself, Mugen feels like he’s just a step away from crawling in the muck at times. Even when you start getting to some of the “Boss” level figures in this world, most of them are still the unsavory types, bloated from their spoils and generally unattractive. The old men in this world show the real weariness in their faces and frames as they skitter along and try to keep things peaceful. A good number of the women though of course make out much better and have a sense of beauty about them, though a fair number are shown at the peasant level as well. Fuu, the young woman who brings the two warriors together, plays a middle of the road approach as she’s got some beauty to her but she’s dulled a bit by her working and what she’s enduring.

In Summary:
Samurai Champloo had a huge level of expectations on it when it started for a lot of people since it was following up another popular series by the creative team here. I do my best to avoid comparing series since each one is a creative endeavor of its own and should be able to stand on its own regardless of what the people behind it have done. That said, Samurai Champloo is one of a few series that I’m actually sad to see end and wish there was more of. The mix of the modern bits worked well in it, the animation and action scenes are gorgeous and the characters became more and more interesting and fun to watch as it progressed. It’s a very accessible show that we’ve been able to introduce anime to others with and as we know now at the end, it has a very complete and satisfying ending to it. Samurai Champloo is one of the few shows that I know I’ll be able to watch again easily and enjoy just as much if not more the next time around. Fantastic stuff, very highly recommended.

Japanese 2.0 Language, Japanese 5.1 DTS Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, “Battlecry” Opening Promo Video, Teaser Trailer, Conceptual Art, Bumper Gallery, Video Game Trailer

Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: A-
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B

Released By: Geneon Entertainment
Release Date: June 30th, 2009
MSRP: $69.98
Running Time: 625 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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