Postscript on Samurai Champloo.

Spoilers: I discuss the ending in some detail.

Finally finished Samurai Champloo — what a wonderful series to watch. It’s nice to see how one’s predictions bear out in the end, and I was right in most ways.

Except with Jin and Mugen’s final duel. I was a teensy bit disappointed that it wasn’t what I expected or predicted. I thought it would’ve been more in line with Shinichiro Watanabe’s style, as exhibited in Cowboy Bebop, to make their ending ambiguous or tragic.  That happier resolution felt like pulling punches.  But the fact that both samurai lived is also appropriate for the themes in the story, as Mugen and Jin are more than merely human: they represent the eternal duality in Zen. The climactic episodes had the Japanese titles of “The Cycle of Death and Rebirth”, and indeed there was death and rebirth for all three characters, literal for the samurai, and figurative for Fuu.  So while I think the themes would’ve been more powerfully driven home if the ending was more tragic or bleak, I wasn’t terribly disappointed in the resolution.  It was also good to see in the final episodes that both samurai still retained a measure of humanity, in the way that they cared for Fuu and enabled her to complete her quest to their own detriment.

Update: After pondering more, I realize there’s another angle on the ending.  Since Mugen and Jin helped Fuu to accomplish her quest, they would not die, but continue on the reincarnation cycle — because they still demonstrated a measure of human interest and earthly concerns, and so have not achieved complete dissociation from the world yet.  The adversaries they faced recognized that and explicitly called it out.  If they were completely disinterested from her quest all the way to the end, they would both have achieved nirvana, as what reason is there left to keep living?  I guess between a happy ending (Fuu succeeding) and a tragic one (Fuu failing), a happy one was more appropriate for the tone of this series.  Still, I can’t help but feel that the story did not go all the way to its ultimate conclusion, but stopped just short of it, retreating from the full measure of Zen towards something a bit more human.  I suppose that’s why I felt a little disappointed.

Overall, I really enjoyed this series. Some episodes were rather random and had nothing to do with the main story, such as Ep. 9 (Summer of Love — although that double-entendre on “grass” was ace), Ep. 22 (zombies), and Ep. 23 (of course there would be a commentary on baseball) — I thought these detours were a bit weak. But the other episodes kept pushing character development and plot forward, and overall it still was still a strong storyline. Good to see how Jin and Fuu’s histories wind together and resolve at the climax; Mugen’s wasn’t so tightly resolved, but I suppose it’s in his nature to have such a random, chequered past.

And I caught that cameo of Lone Wolf and Cub in an episode — what a treat!  That by the way, is another excellent series with strong Zen themes.  And the ending… not so happy.  Now that I think about it, Champloo bears a lot of similarities to Lone Wolf and Cub.

As Fuu said, I was sad to come to the end of the trio’s story. And in a way, it didn’t end either, for they are continuing on separate adventures, and will surely meet up again. I’m certain this is a series I’ll revisit in future.

It’s about time I rewatched Cowboy Bebop too, as it would be interesting to see what kind of themes are embedded there. But before that: Gunslinger Girl awaits. I’ve had it for ages and it’s long overdue for a full playthrough.

Thoughts on Samurai Champloo.

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.

Code Geass, and looking for anime recommendations.

I’m super-picky about what anime I watch. Not much can top Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Cowboy Bebop, in my opinion.

But lately I’ve been itching to watch a new anime series. It has to be a good story, and I have to like the artistic style: two very important criteria, especially with the varieties of anime artform out there. Finally settled on Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion: it seems like the right mix of anachro-futuristic epic saga that I’m fond of. And I’m not averse to this variety of CLAMP’s artistic style.

I finished the first collection (episodes 1-5) today. This is winding up to be an interesting saga. The setting has been descibed, most of the important characters have appeared, and some intriguing clues of identity and motive have been dropped. Lelouche is a most fascinating protagonist. While his motive and actions can be construed quite simplistically, I suspect that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Time to find out more…

Okay, I’ve been sucked in to Code Geass and want to watch more. But my two local libraries don’t have any more of the series… time to go twist some arms nicely ask some university friends if they can borrow it from their library for me.

Samurai Champloo is probably next. (It would’ve been first, if I was able to get it.) Other anime that look promising (somewhat in order): Macross, Full Metal Panic!, Bubblegum Crisis, Serial Experiments Lain, The Vision of Escaflowne, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rurouni Kenshin, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, and RahXephon.

Should also get my hands on Appleseed and Battle Angel Alita manga. And EGADS — I believe my local library has the complete Akira. I may actually get to finish it after all.