Shinichiro Watanabe and the power of creative diversity | Samurai Champloo: Anachronisms, counterculturalism, and going against the grain


In 2004, Watanabe followed up Cowboy Bebop with his second original work Samurai Champloo. Being the very first show to come out from studio Manglobe, one of two studios (the other being Bones) that around the millennium shift got formed by ex-Sunrise members, Watanabe was once again given entirely free creative rein. Along with him from the Bebop team came both Dai Sato and Keiko Nobumoto working as scriptwriters, as well as storyboard artists Kazuki Akane and Tensai Okamura, among a few others. Just like with his previous show, Watanabe once more created a project where an extensive amount of creative staff members came together in all various departments, creating a series with all sorts of stylistic nuances and a comparatively high production value. Many of these staff people had either prior to or have upon the series grown to become acclaimed creators in their own right, including episode director and storyboard artist Sayo Yamamoto (whose later main directorial efforts consist of the acclaimed shows Michiko to Hatchin and Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine), storyboard artist Hiroyuki Imaishi (the man behind widely popular shows such as Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill), and key animators Mamoru Hosoda (known for his major hit movies such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars), Takeshi Koike (who since his recognition in 2000 has become one of the most celebrated animators in the industry) and Masaaki Yuasa (the creative oddball behind acclaimed shows such as Kaiba and The Tatami Galaxy). Just from these examples, it is clear that the blending concept is present in Samurai Champloo from as fundamentally as the production standpoint alone.

It is also now even more evident than before that the embracement of the concept is highly intentional, as it’s being stated out in the very title. The term ”champloo” is a play at the Okinawan word chanpurü, which translates to ”to mix” in relation to cooking. And as if the very meaning of this term wasn’t enough for the concept to get expressed through, it also does so in relation to the term’s cultural context. During the Edo period – i.e. when the show takes place – Okinawa Island as part of the Ryukyu Kingdom was separate from the rest of Japan, and with that also its language. Furthermore, the term ”chanpurü” is not just limited to cooking, but is sometimes also used to describe the Okinawan culture in general, as it can be seen as a mixture of a number of outside influences stemming from its neighboring countries. In contrast, Japan was contemporarily under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate; an authoritarian military regime driven by conservatism and isolationism. In a way, the title’s two halves can thus be seen as representing each of these cultures – “samurai” representing Japan (and more particularly in reference to its military leadership) and “champloo” representing Okinawa. Consequently, we see how the concept of blending becomes expressed through the title in no less that two ways; firstly in the form of the chanpurü term alone, and secondly in how it creates a crossover between the two terms’ associated opposite cultures (a crossover which we later will see also serves a major role in the show itself). So if Samurai Champloo‘s major quality of being a mixture gets so thoroughly expressed in the title itself, what then are the main ingredients in this dish and how are they stirred together?

Whereas its spiritual predecessor depicted cultural diversity through a colonialist canvas, this show does it through an anachronistic one. Just like Bebop, the stylistic basis for Champloo‘s narrative is at its core a combination of two originally separate categories, although unlike Bebop it is not a pre-established one, neither is it one that has even the remote possibility of having any logical basis. The first of these categories is (quite self-evidently) samurai fiction; with its Edo period setting, action-packed sword fights, extremely skilled swordsmen and gritty violence, the typical chanbara flick aesthetic is highly present through and through. The second category however is hip-hop, a subculture that (also quite self-evidently) was nowhere to be found in either Japan or anywhere else in the world until at least a hundred years later – yet we constantly get to encounter instances of rapping, beatboxing, breakdancing, graffiti painting, DJ-scratching and more.

Aside from just being a cool idea, the main incorporation of hip-hop into the show serves several essential purposes. Firstly, as a music genre it closely parallels to the chanpurü theme in a lot of ways. Since its inception, hip-hop music has been heavily based on the act of sampling, that is to say taking out various snippets from preexisting songs and putting them together into musical collages, or ”beats”, which then one raps over. These tracks are furthermore often distributed in the form of mixtapes, which is an independent variation on the album format that artists would make use of especially during hip-hop’s early days, before record deals was an option. Just like Cowboy Bebop’s blend of a variety of different elements can be likened to the wide diversity of jazz music, the same thing can be said about Samurai Champloo and the acts of sampling and mixtaping within hip-hop music.

Naturally, this is also expressed through the show’s own hip-hop oriented score. Being a collaborative effort between four different Japanese hip-hop acts – Tsutchie, Force of Nature, Fat Jon and Nujabes – the music for Champloo has an overall relaxed and leaned back tone to it, featuring samples of jazz, soul, funk, symphonic music and more. It is divided into four full-length albums, all of which except one have several of the four composers working together on it, further enhancing the collaborative vibe. The score also features guest vocalists such as Shing02, Minmi and Kazami.

Beyond hip-hop’s musical aspects being conceptually tied to the chanpurü theme, as a culture it serves an even deeper purpose. If the themes of disbelonging and identity-searching was in Bebop explored through characters trying to find themselves in a multicultural society suffering from post-colonial instability, then in Champloo they are explored through cultural minorities and antiauthoritarianism. We see the show’s main trio as traveling social outcasts always struggling to get enough money for the day, but who are nonetheless in constant opposition against the social environment that surrounds them. This is hence beautifully expressed through the incorporation of hip-hop; a culture that if anything is a minority within its own social environment, which it also carries a great opposing attitude towards. And according to a statement made by Dai Sato in a 2009 interview with Mechademia, this was also largely the intention:

People asked me why we portrayed a ’black’ culture rather than samurai (in Samurai Champloo), and I said that it is a story about a minority culture. ’Hip-hop’ is minority culture and the members of Champloos were a counter- or minority culture in the perspective of that time as well. So connecting them created some cultural meaning.

This central theme of counterculturalism is then only further enhanced by the historical context of its setting. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the Edo period was one of the strictest eras in Japan’s history, during which the Tokugawa shogunate’s isolation of the country lead to a society infused by traditionalism and cultural narrowness. The show’s trio are as much unfitting in this society as they are against it, by both maintaining a rebellious attitude towards the authorities and a contrasting attitude towards those that are undermined by them. Throughout their journey, they stumble across several people who carry a pessimistically passive mindset towards their problems, who give up before they’ve even tried solving them and do nothing but adapt themselves to their unjust situations. This mindset is then ultimately almost always unjustified, with the people carrying it either ending up dead or in misery, while those who do decide to take a stand against their unjust fate are typically rewarded. Thus it becomes clear that this is a show about self-determination, going against the grain and not giving in to the supposed order of things.


But that is not all; there is yet another dimension to this countercultural theme, as hip-hop isn’t the only culture through which it gets expressed. I’d like to suggest that what Dai is referring to with “the members of Champloos” is not actually the show’s main trio, but the people of “chanpurü”, in other words the Okinawan culture. As I said earlier, Okinawa was during the Edo period a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which geographically consisted of the Ryukyu Islands and was a nation separate from Japan. Because of its small size both geographically and nationally, as well as its history as a major trading center which lead to a broad variety of outside cultural influences from both China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, Ryukyu’s social environment can be seen as the straight opposite to that of its very isolated and conservative neighbor. Neither is it too inaccurate to suggest that Ryukyu’s relation to Japan was that of a minority culture, not only because of its (once again) smaller size, but also because of its political relationship with the country. During the majority of the Edo period, the Ryukyu Kingdom worked as a vassal state for the Satsuma Domain of Japan after a successful invasion in 1609. While officially recognized as a continued independent nation, in practice they were under political control of one of Japan’s domains until 1872. Japan and the Ryukyu Kingdom undeniably had a very complicated, if not straight up conflicting relationship with one another, being so culturally separate and nationally discorded yet geographically close to each other. One can thus only imagine the social dichotomy that would emerge through a meeting between two people from each of these nations. In fact, that is exactly what we get to witness in the form of two of the show’s main characters; Mugen and Jin.

51569Born and self-raised in the violent environment of a prison camp in Ryukyu, Mugen is a vile, lazy and ill-tempered anarchist who lives life one day at a time. He always prioritizes his own personal interests above everything else, and his dislike for rules and authorities often leads him doing the exact opposite to what he’s told to just for the sake of it. One could very much say that he is the pure definition of a rebellious outcast. And while he is a samurai (or at least in terms of physical abilities), he’s far from a conventional one. His unorthodox fighting style – self-developed and dubbed ”chanpurü kendo” – is one that, beyond its reminiscence of breakdancing, consists of combining various pieces from other forms of martial arts and then making the rest up as he goes along (to draw a connection to hip-hop, one could see this as metaphorically creating a sample beat and then free-styling over it). He wields a sword that, with its curved blade and pronged hilt, is a suggestive crossover between the Japanese katana and the Okinawan sai. Also his outfit is an amalgamation of traditional Japanese martial arts clothing and hip-hop fashion, wearing a red long-sleeve gi as a loose jacket, and a cut off hakama that resembles baggy Bermuda shorts. Out of all the three main characters, Mugen is undoubtedly the one where not only the hip-hop theme shines through the most, but also where the mixing of different influences and the countercultural rebelliousness is most prominent.

Jin on the 62969other hand is the exact opposite to Mugen in every sense. Stemming from an aristocrat samurai family, he is your typically quiet and reserved ronin who wields his sword with pride and honor, and whose fighting skills are classically trained and disciplined to utmost perfection. Jin spent most of his life training in kenjutsu dojos, with no other interests in life than mastering his sword skills. The subsequent reason for his sudden department was due to him killing his sensei in self-defense during an attempted assassination, which led him fleeing the dojo and wandering the streets as a ronin. Thus in contrast to Mugen, Jin isn’t so much a social outlaw by will and nature, but was rather forced into it. He nonetheless holds the same opposition against the authorities of his time, who’s corruption he sees as unjust and dishonoring. Aside from the anachronistic design of his (fake) glasses, Jin’s physical appearance is as faithful to samurai traditions as one can get. He wears a traditional pair of gi and hakama – whose indigo blue color is in contrast with Mugen’s red gi jacket – and carries a daisho (a pair of katana swords) with a classic tsuba design, which his legal usage of indicates that he is officially of the samurai class.

Here, it becomes clear how Mugen and Jin are with their personalities and cultural backgrounds in a large sense personified representations of Ryukyu and Japan respectively, and that their clashing opposites depict the conflicting relationship between the two neighboring nations. However, I do not mean to suggest that this parallel is to be interpreted as a direct commentary on the social and cultural relationship between Japan and Ryukyu during the Edo era, but rather that this relationship is used as a tool to further enhance the show’s message. Any other two social communities that are on culturally opposite ends could have been used for the exact same effect; what’s important is that we through Mugen and Jin see the instance of two opposite cultural attitudes clashing together – the first one being wild, rebellious and youthful, and the other being rational, reserved and traditional. And while the two may not get along very well at first hand, they subsequently grow to recognize their similarities over their differences. Because whereas the two are separated from one another due to cultural differences and conflicting personalities, they connect with each other through their equal lack of belonging in society and hatred towards the powers that be.

Thus, we can in the form of Mugen and Jin see how the central message of Samurai Champloo is two-folded; on one hand it is about doing whatever you want with your life and not compromising in favor of rules and authorities, and on the other hand it is about connection and openness between different people and coming to terms with one another’s cultural differences. This two-folded message is also strongly related to the show’s heavy use of anachronisms and overall logical inconsistency. As I’ve stated earlier, cultural diversity is in Champloo depicted through an anachronistic canvas; just like Bebop‘s colonialism, it is the very foundation for how the show’s central components come together. But beyond having a basic setting that’s anachronistic in the most extreme sense of the term – tying together two elements that are as chronologically far apart as they are culturally – the show is also filled with references to historical events and people who either don’t belong to the time period at hand or are simply nonexistent. It also contains a significant amount of inherent logical inconsistency, with several events not adding up to the show’s plot continuity. Watanabe and his teammates don’t care so much if their series doesn’t make any sense a lot of the time – if some or several plot points don’t add up together, or if the depictions of historical persons and events are mainly or even completely false. This is something that they even express at the very beginning of the show with the following statement: “This story is fiction. There may be parts that aren’t exactly historically accurate but like we care. Now shut up and enjoy the show.”

vlcsnap-2016-03-17-20h15m36s80.pngSo what does this have to do with antiauthoritarianism and cultural openness, and the connection between them? In his article ”Postmodern Is Old Hat: Samurai Champloo”, William L. Benzon examines two anachronistic instances that each utilize exactly that – one in episode 18 and one in episode 23. Episode 18 centers around graffiti tagging, which is used as a twist on the artistic activity between people of all social classes present within the Edo-era street life. Episode 23 features Alexander Cartwright, the main developer of the knickerbocker rules for baseball, who visits Japan with the demand of a treaty threatening with war if they decline, which then leads to a baseball game challenge between the Americans and a local team (which includes our three protagonists). Benzon points out that, while both tagging and baseball are American in origin, both activities have since their introduction to Japan grown into beloved parts of its culture, and the fact that they vlcsnap-2016-03-17-20h33m02s31.pnginitially are from somewhere else is rarely ever taken into account. The exact same attitude is held by Champloo; even though baseball didn’t make its entrance to Japan until 1872 and tagging was nowhere to be seen in the country until the 1980s, that is of no importance within the context of the show’s plot.

The final point here is that just like it doesn’t matter if the events taking place in these episodes are historically accurate or not, neither does it matter who invented baseball or where and when graffiti tagging originally stems from. What matters is how these things are perceived and appreciated by each culture in which they exist. In this sense, both tagging and baseball are no more American than they are Japanese activities; and in the same sense, both Mugen and Jin are, despite their opposite cultural backgrounds, no more than equal people living and breathing on the same planet. Watanabe deliberately uses anachronisms, an element that by definition is perceived as “wrong” within the rules of storytelling, as a method of showcasing that things like origin and correct cultural context are in actuality completely irrelevant factors when appreciating different people and experiences.

So, to relate all this to the overall theme of cultural and creative diversity, what central aspects can we take away from Samurai Champloo? If Cowboy Bebop showcased the blending concept as resulting in a lost sense of identity and belonging, then this is about the blending concept as a counteract against conservative notions of authoritarianism and isolationism. The show’s main strength truly lies in its rebellious attitude and constant willingness of going against the grain, which it holds on as much an interior/narrative level as an exterior/technical level. Ultimately, this attitude results in not just a strong creative glow, but also an opening for social and cultural interaction. If there’s any valuable lesson that we can take away from Samurai Champloo, it is that the defiance of traditionally rooted rules and the “correct way of doing and perceiving things” can sometimes lead to the connectivity between the most unlikely pairs of cultures and personalities.


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