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Leselupe.de > Fremdsprachiges und MundART
Appeal of Amalgam - Samurai Champloo Review
Eingestellt am 08. 04. 2008 21:33


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At first sight Samurai Champloo by Schinichiro Watanabe of “Cowboy Bebop”-fame might seem like a clear case of style over substance. The plot is rather straightforward– two swordsmen kicking ass in a very liberally re-imagined Edo-period-Japan, keen on killing each other to see who’s stronger, but forced by strange circumstances to delay their battle in order to play bodyguards for a fifteen-year old girl on her quest for the mysterious samurai who smells of sunflowers, leaving a trail of blood in their wake. (Read: not for kids). The show is very episodic in nature and occasionally slightly formulaic, going from slapstick to action to drama sometimes within one episode and the characters start out as pretty stereotypical: sweet and feisty Fuu, dizzy damsel in distress and comic relief and her two unlikely allies, rash rowdy Mugen, ex-pirate and prison escapee and his polar opposite Jin, a stoic silent samurai - both adequately badass and almost ridiculously cool but not exactly original. But ah, the style! The style takes your breath from the first moment you lay eyes on this exquisite gem of animation.

“My modus operandi is amalgam.” This is a line from the opening theme, it describes Mugen’s fighting style, which he basically makes up as he goes along, drawing inspiration from break dance and capoeira. It also fits well to describe director Watanabe’s approach towards his art. Whereas Cowboy Bebop was all about “Jazz meets Science Fiction”, Samurai Champloo is a fusion of hip-hop and Edo-period-Japan. Does it work equally well? I’d say yes – maybe not quite equally well as in Cowboy Bebop (which is however insurmountable anyway when it comes to the use of music in anime), but well enough. Traditionally praised for giving a voice to the street, hip hop highlights the anime’s heart for outsiders and outlaws, the people at the fringes of society. The hip hop tracks serve perfectly well to create that certain atmosphere of cocky combativeness that is so integral to a character like Mugen and for this reason alone the choice of genre is justified.

Yes, I admit, I’m a sucker for style. I would love this show to pieces even if I had nothing else to say about it. But I actually think that there is quite a bit of substance to it too. Let me elaborate.

Note, I said the characters start out as pretty stereotypical. They don’t remain that way. So what about the girls for instance? Samurai Champloo is pretty accurate with regard to the constraints imposed on women in the depicted society (one of the more authentic aspects of the portrayal of the period), addressing problems women had to face such as being sold to a brothel in order to work off the debts of their family (actually a recurring motif), being unable to get a divorce from an abusive husband or being not allowed to cross a border when travelling on their own. Yet there are strong female characters in Samurai Champloo, who get to outwit Mugen and Jin on several occasions. The first opponent who really gives them any serious trouble in a fight is actually a woman and she is probably the most memorable minor character in the anime.

As to Fuu - of course there’s more to her than just the damsel in the distress. Hell, without her Mugen and Jin would kill each other in the first episode, end of story. Granted, all it takes her to stop them is basically giving them something – anything – else to do, but this just goes to show how much these two lack direction, how profoundly lost they actually are behind their façade of competence. In addition to a direction Fuu has two other things Jin and Mugen markedly lack in the beginning; that is compassion and a certain sense for the value of life.

Embracing death might be the way of the warrior, but there’s a thin line between death-defying and downright suicidal and Jin and Mugen occasionally seem to be just on the verge of crossing it. They are prepared to die any moment, but are they prepared to live? One could dismiss this as just another popular trope of this genre, yet Samurai Champloo manages to convey a subtle sense of the emotional damage behind the coolness that rings a lot truer than the usual melodramatic insights this kind of stories allow us into the tormented souls of their callous heroes.

The idea of the function of women consisting in helping bring out the finer emotions in men is a pretty old one and not altogether unproblematic. In this case however I’d dare say it has less to do with Fuu being a girl, but rather with her being essentially still a child and a civilian, that is: not a hardened criminal, not a trained killer and therefore comparatively innocent. Making her female just charges her with the additional function of providing a response figure for the fan-girls. True, she does have a certain propensity to get herself kidnapped, but as the series progresses, the perpetual purpose of rescuing her, initially not much more than a convenient occasion for Mugen and Jin to showcase their swordplay, gradually gains a meaning of its own.

So there is character development. It does not seem to be the main concern of an anime so much in love with its own style (but who can blame it? Who wouldn’t be in love with this style?) – but it’s there and the fact that it is not so heavy-handed actually makes it more appealing to me. It’s not so much in the dialogues (neither Jin nor Mugen are men of many words; Mugen usually confines himself to curses, insults and vulgar jokes and Jin… just confines himself in general), but in the actions. You have to watch body language rather closely to get the interior development.

But what exactly is the development? Well, two men – rivals already in their professional field – and one girl. Who would win in a fight? Whom will she choose? Questions that seem to hold endless fascination for not infrequently mutually exclusive parts of the audience…The constellation is probably the oldest one in the book, but it’s a classic for a reason, never failing to create suspense, provided the choice is tough enough. There are only so many ways this can play out. And all of them should be rather predictable, shouldn’t they?

You simply have to admire how artfully Samurai Champloo plays with the viewers’ expectations, encouraging them to make their predictions, occasionally dropping hints supporting either camp, revelling in ambiguity. The resulting suspense might well be what hooked you on the series initially. But when it reaches its closure, you might find yourself deeming the outcome of these particular conflicts no longer all that relevant. Because it’s about the journey, not about the destination, you see? Ultimately Samurai Champloo is neither about fights nor romance. There’s something else at the heart of it. (And it’s very simple and not all that surprising either and entirely unspectacular and you are free to make fun of me, because I actually think it makes a good core for a story in spite of all this).

Last but not least, Samurai Champloo is a lecture in cultural relativism. Most obvious of course are all these anachronistic elements – hip hop, beatboxes, fast food, tagging, baseball, zombies - and then there is the foreign influence, a Dutch merchant on a sightseeing tour in Edo, a Portuguese Priest and American sailors. The Japan of Samurai Champloo is clearly less isolated than the country was supposed to be at that point in history. And its own society is not that homogeneous in the first place. There are persecuted Christians and underprivileged ethnic minorities – Mugen himself might be somehow linked to the Ainu (the indigenous people Hokkaido).Ironically, hip-hop inspired Mugen turns out to be less anachronistic than model samurai Jin, who represents Japan’s past, its traditional warrior culture in a time of transition, in which the principles he was taught to base his life on are gradually fading away.

This is why you might spend some time searching if you look for coherence in Samurai Champloo – it’s hardly in the episodic plot, not the in fictional world, its culture and its period in history both so interspersed with alien elements and certainly not in one all encompassing underlying philosophy. All the disparate elements of the anime, coming from various different cultures and different times seem to be hold together by nothing but formula and style in the beginning, both of which can only account for cohesiveness, not for coherence. And it would indeed be an irredeemable flaw, if this would stay this way to the end.

Only it does not. Suddenly there is coherence. It has not been there all along, it is not provided by some last minute plot twist – no, it is created by the characters themselves, by their conscious decision to finally become a permanent part of each others stories instead of moving in and out of them as they please (- a major difference to Cowboy Bebop by the way, where the band of unlikely allies is finally dissolved when everyone gets pulled back into their own back-stories). And this is exactly the point. This is why the plot is not intricate, why it lets the individual back-stories run parallel for such a long time, instead of interweaving them – to leave it up to the characters themselves. In a time when value systems are crumbling, when no homogenous culture provides a common ground, when there’s no fate, no plot to draw you inevitably together, you have to create your own kind of coherence, if you don’t want to drift away. It’s in the relationship to the people you choose to care about; it’s in the story you decide to make your own. And that’s really all the coherence there is.


__________________
.A mesure qu'on a plus d'esprit, on trouve qu'il y a plus d'hommes originaux. Les gens du commun ne trouvent pas de différence entre les hommes. (Pascal)

Version vom 08. 04. 2008 21:33
Version vom 10. 09. 2008 09:25

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Raul Reiser
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Samurai und so ...

I' sorry,
couldn't understand anything.
Think, we here in the western hemisphere are not able to understand samurai. Though the film of this fucking american Scientolgy actor tried zu show, that Samurai is a thing, we can understand and practise.
Please try to write things, you understand best, like your live - Hemingway said anything about it ...
Greetings
Raul

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The Challenge of The Other

I aggree that the claim to fully immerse oneself in another culture is presumptuous, as no matter how deep you delve into its intracies, there will always remain a residue of Strangeness, of The Other - something you just cannot make your own. It takes a life of being raised in a culture to grasp its more subtle elements and even then you might not fully understand it. I would not even claim that I fully understand my own culture.

Only,
a.) this shouldn't keep you from trying to broaden your horizons.
b.) I never made this claim, did I?

I did not try to make a work a work of Art based on Samurai culture, which might be indeed presumptious as this is not the culture I come from - I reviewed a work of Art made by someone who comes from that culture, because even if I probably did not get every allusion, every finer aspect of it, I was impressed enough to want to share the experience of watching it.

There's no rule against enjoying works of Art coming from another culture and describing one's impression, is there?


If we always sticked to what we knew in every aspect of life - what a boring life that would be.

(Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai is a terrible film and a very good example to stress your point indeed. Tarantino's Kill Bill however is also heavily inspired by Asian Martial Arts and I think it was very watchable. Only, this film never pretended to be authentic. It had other merits. There's more to Art than authenticity.)

By the way, if you don't feel comfortable with English, we can switch to German....
__________________
.A mesure qu'on a plus d'esprit, on trouve qu'il y a plus d'hommes originaux. Les gens du commun ne trouvent pas de différence entre les hommes. (Pascal)

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