Volume 3 of Samurai Champloo was a high point for the series so far, but was marred by the inclusion of an episode comprised of clips from previous episodes. However, Samurai Champloo vol 4 doesn't contain such a drawback, and takes the series on to an even higher level.
This time round our intrepid trio make their way ever closer to Hiroshima on their search for the 'samurai that smells of sunflowers', but it isn't going to be easy to get there. Finding and trying to spend a bag of counterfeit money lands Mugen and Jin in the midst of a criminal group made up of deadly ninja, when all they wanted to do was sample the delights of the local red light district. If trying to fight their way free wasn't enough, they've also got to contend with a bandit who brings Mugen's past into the present and a samurai seeking revenge on Jin. On top of this Fuu has gotten fed up with the pair deviating from her quest and decides to go it alone. Considering the danger she faces in feudal Japan it is unlikely this is a good idea, but will fate conspire to bring her, Mugen and Jin back together, or will the kindly stranger she runs into prove to be a more reliable bodyguard?
I have been constantly impressed by how each new volume of this series has succeeded at being progressively better then the superb volume it follows, but if the next volume can top this one I will be extremely (and pleasantly) surprised. Samurai Champloo vol 4 has everything that has made the series good so far, and then more. As well as containing more impressive action scenes than you can shake a stick at this time round the drama and humour are ramped up too, and brilliantly so. If you don't find yourself cracking up as a half-naked Mugen battles his way through a building full of ninja just so he can get his leg over then there is something seriously wrong with you.
This volume is all about Mugen, and for the first time in the series it really delves into his back story. We learn about his past and how he has become the wild devil-may-care swordsman he is, we learn about the people he knew and the environment he came from, and we get to see a shedload of action while it happens. Some of the action set pieces in this volume are the best of the series so far, particularly the superb ending to episode 14 and Jin's brutal dispatching of an enemy gunman, however, the action scenes are matched in quality by the comedy and drama. Whether Jin's hilarious attempt at fishing or Mugen's dramatic escape from execution in the past, there really isn't dull moment and the volume entertains and grips you in equal measure. You learn about Mugen and even get hints of Fuu's past, and the volume even ends on a cliffhanger with one character in serious trouble and another seemingly saved. Once again the visuals and music match the story and action for sheer quality, and with the intrigue really building about Fuu's past and Jin's yet to be fully explored, this volume is really a complete package of greatness.
Samurai Champloo vol 4 takes all of the action, drama and comedy of the previous volumes and turns it up to 11. The overall story is moved forward and the shorter sub-stories are the best yet, particularly the two parter which takes up episodes 13 & 14. Great characters, superb visuals, great music and a strong story would be enough to recommend any series on, but the fact that Samurai Champloo is also the best action series currently available in the UK makes it an absolutely essential purchase.
After the shocking dearth of extras last time round at least we get some this time round, however, trailers and two conceptual art galleries make up a pretty average selection. A series this good deserves more.