At last, after a long delay and an abortive start last year, I am watching my way through Samurai Champloo. I’m at Ep. 16 at the time of writing, and currently I’m enjoying it more than Cowboy Bebop. (Granted, it’s been about 5+ years since I watched Bebop, and I might have grown enough since then to appreciate it more. Probably time to watch it again.)
As usual, you might find some spoilers here.
I think I was quite neutral towards the main characters in Bebop, so it’s a real treat that I adore Mugen, Jin and Fuu. All for different reasons, and all for hard-to-articulate reasons. –Well, Jin is easy: I like the strong and silent types. I especially like strong and silent types who are lean and bespectacled. (If I so desired, I’d have a huge fictional character crush on Jin. ^.~;;) It’s a bit harder to define just what I like about Mugen and Fuu. I didn’t think I’d like Mugen, but he grew on me very quickly.
It probably has a lot to do with the dynamic in their relationships. By themselves they’re good characters, but together they have a synergy that takes their likeability through the roof. They just complement and interact with each other so well.
Beyond them, there are a whole lot of interesting themes in Champloo that I’ve been noticing so far.
The first is Zen, emptiness and void. I think both Mugen and Jin embody the void of Zen in a yin/yang dichotomy, which is contrasted in the series. Mugen (whose name means infinity) is yang, striving towards the all-encompassing infinite through absolute mastery of self and the world — and judging by his conceit and absolute self-confidence, he has achieved that. Jin is yin, who is “annihilated” through void within his own person. Others might call him the stoic ronin, but I beg to differ. Jin is beyond stoic: he has emptied himself of self, hence he comes across as immovable and indifferent, even apathetic. (The only time — so far — this façade cracks is when he falls in love with a woman sold into prostitution in Ep. 11 and acts to save her from her fate in the brothel… I must say, that is the most poignant episode I’ve watched so far. So sad. Then again, all stories involving unrequited love make me especially melancholy.)
So the two ronin have achieved Zen, but through different means, and they are constantly contrasted throughout the series. Beneath their different methods, they are both absolutely indifferent to the world and their circumstances. Why else would they accompany Fuu on her quixotic quest, if they still retained any self-interest? And their promised duel against each other would be the meeting of yin and yang to achieve unity, or annihilation. On the other hand, Fuu embodies all the fullness of life, the antithesis to Zen. However — AND PLEASE DON’T SPOIL IT FOR ME, I HAVEN’T FINISHED THE SERIES YET — I believe her quest for the samurai who smells of sunflowers is also going to end in void. She will find what she is questing for… and at the same time, she will not find it.
The second theme in Champloo is embodied in ukiyo-e, the Floating World, the world that is constantly passing away into vapour. It’s no coincidence that the opening titles depict the three characters in ukiyo-e artform. Champloo is distinctly set in the shadows of society: all the characters are the lowlifes, the criminals, the forgotten, the neglected, the outcast of society. While this matches the hip-hop theme (and I ADORE the anachronisms that appear in the episodes), it also represents the shadows that are constantly yearning for transfiguration and apotheosis… yet it is an apotheosis that is momentary and fleeting. Characters that the three meet die, or disappear and are never to be seen again. They come and go — the fleeting world.
Once again, I’m quite certain that ending will be characterized by the Floating World: Fuu will reach her goal, but it will disappear and pass away as soon as she lays hold of it.
So many parallels between Bebop and Champloo. Champloo is full of pathos and melancholy, probably even moreso. Even the closing credits on each episode makes me cry a little bit inside, listening to the song and watching the images of Fuu’s past. It also has the same kind of ambiguous morality and outcomes as Bebop has. If Bebop’s ambiguous ending is anything to go by (it’s never quite clear whether Spike Spiegel dies — though I think he does), Champloo is going to end in the same manner. I’m going to predict that when Jin and Mugen have their final duel, we will not know which one will die. Or, both will die.
I’m actually rather reluctant to finish the series, because it’s so great. I’ve been relishing every episode so far, and it just gets better as it goes… and I’m trying to stretch out the experience. I have watched very little film as of late, but this is definitely worth my while.