Hip-hop is cool. Samurai are cooler. Put them together, like Cowboy Bebop helmer Shinichiro Watanabe has, and what you end up with is one of the hottest and most anticipated releases of the year.
Set in feudal Japan, Samurai Champloo follows the barmaid Fuu as she meets two very different swordsmen, the wild and unpredictable Mugen and the cold and calculating Jin. After the pub she works in is reduced to a smoking ruin during a fight between the two they are both captured and sentenced to execution, however, Fuu offers to help them escape on one condition - they must both help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The problem is that Mugen and Jin are both complete gits who are only interested in fighting, and if there isn't anyone else around they're quite happy to pitch into each other...
Samurai Champloo really begins with a bang, pitching you straight into the action almost immediately, and what action it is. Fast paced and visceral, the fights ooze style and Mugen's combination of swordfighting and breakdancing is awesome to watch. The fights are brilliantly choreographed in all four episodes and the animation is superb, whilst a special note must also be made of the music which is very different to the usual anime fare. However, despite the whole volume being very good it can't quite maintain the momentum it built up with the first episode.
The second episode sets up the oft used scenario of a character who appeared previously seeking elaborate revenge on both Mugen and Jin, whilst the third and fourth bear some similarities to the classic Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo as Mugen and Jin take up bodyguard roles on either side of a Yakuza turf war. Whilst these episodes are superb to watch they don't have the originality that episode 1 had, and because of this are a bit predictable. However, it is in these episodes that you begin to get a feel for the characters, and it must be said that they are one of the most appealing aspects of the series.
The main trio of characters are interestingly balanced and are so far pretty enigmatic, there is going to be a lot to learn about all of them in volumes to come and I get the impression that it's definitely going to be worth seeing. Mugen and Jin are both pretty unlikeable but by episode four you begin to understand their twisted codes of honour, and there are a few tantalising hints about Fuu's past that really pique your interest too. Samurai Champloo manages to tell you enough to keep you intrigued but not so much that you lose interest, which is a difficult feat.
At the end of the day Samurai Champloo vol 1 is well worth buying. It's hugely enjoyable and massive amounts of fast paced action easily keep you interested whilst the plot and characters are skilfully developed in the background. The hip-hop elements are brilliantly blended with the feudal Japanese setting and the animation and music is excellent, more importantly though you end the volume really wanting to know what will happen next. Whilst it's true that there is a slight air of familiarity about episode 2 to 4 Samurai Champloo packs in everything that makes anime great, it rocks!
Several trailers are on offer, but the main draw is the 'Battlecry' promo, which is a music video created from clips of the show put to Samurai Champloo's theme tune. The video is quite well done but the song will appeal more to hip-hop fans than it does to me, and the trailers have little replay value.