If you haven’t seen Samurai Champloo, watch the first episode below and then read the rest of this article. Without question, it’s one of anime’s greatest treasures but now that it’s more than 15 years old, we worry that younger and newer fans won’t go out of their way to watch it. There’s so much to love about the show and so much in it that’s wholly unique to this show. We’re not saying that Champloo is ultimately better than Bebop, nor are way saying the opposite, but it’s worth pointing out it does offer a number of things its older brother simply doesn’t. From its one of a kind (mostly) instrumental hip hop soundtrack to its exaggerated look at Edo area Japan to all the character moments and one-off stories that happen in between, this anime is a force to be reckoned with.
With Samurai Champloo being so much of a spiritual successor to Cowboy Bebop, fans have never been able to help but compare the two. Instead of focusing on what the two shows similarly do though, we want to dive into what makes Champloo unique. To begin with, its brand of ‘western influence’ and how it’s applied to the show is entirely different. Where Bebop took heavy notes from Jazz, Film Noir, and Martial Arts cinema, Watanabe had the stroke of genius to infuse Edo era Japan with hip hop culture. Imagine a time where samurai and beatboxers walk side by side, red-light districts filled with geisha and gambling houses whose streets are covered graffiti, rappers and the shogunate side by side. All this paired with the show’s slick character designs, It has a visual aesthetic all its own.
What makes a bigger impact in Samurai Champloo than its captivating visual style is its boundary-pushing, never before heard in anime music. Orchestrated by the late great Nujabes who tapped his pals Fat Jon, Force Of Nature, and Tsutchie, these producers crafted a world’s worth of instrumental hip-hop that blends up jazz cuts, some traditional Japanese instrumentation, and true boom bap spirit. The show and its music put the realm of Japanese instrumental hip hop under an international spotlight. For years, fans couldn’t get enough and eventually thanks to Samurai Champloo being an overseas hit, we eventually ended up with the ‘instrumental hip hop beats to chill/study/relax to’ phenomenon. You can still go back to any of the songs, whether while watching the show or listening to the O.S.T.s on their own, and you’re guaranteed to feel some type of way.
Of course, Cowboy Bebop also has one of anime’s most celebrated soundtracks, one crafted by the medium’s most prolific composer Yoko Kanno. Again we’re not here to say which show has the better soundtrack, only that Samurai Champloo’s instrumental hip-hop foundation gives it an effect unlike another. Not only does the soundtrack bang, but it’s how this music’s applied from scene to scene that truly gives Champloo an edge. Battle scenes are given a groove to them, conversations become atmospheric, from the biggest climactic moments in the series to small transition occurrences, it all has additional flair thanks to the music. It turns the show into an experience that as satisfying for the ears as it is the eyes heart. Plus! Champloo sports one of the all-time best opening ending combos; ‘Battlecry’ and ‘Shiki No Uta’ are untouchable.
In regards to “Shiki No Uta” we had the chance to sit down with Nujabes’ collaborator on the song, MINMI, and speak with her a bit about the development of the song and how she got involved with the soundtrack for the show itself:
OTAQUEST: The anime Samurai Champloo was made in 2004, so it is already 15 years old, but the production is still incredibly popular in America. Please tell us about the background of how you got involved with the soundtrack.
MINMI: Nujabes was in charge of the overall music production, and he gave me the offer.
OTAQUEST: Did you already have a connection with Nujabes?
MINMI: I had never met him. I sing riffs and runs in my song called “T.T.T.” and he told me that he thought “She is the one!” when he heard it. He researched who sang the song and I was contacted.
OTAQUEST: So, your first contact was when he approached you with the offer.
MINMI: Yes. I didn’t know who Nujabes was, but I got an offer to make a song for the anime.
OTAQUEST: Did you have any connection with Director Shinichiro Watanabe?
MINMI: No, I didn’t.
OTAQUEST: So, it started with an offer from Nujabes. Can you tell us a little bit about how you and Nujabes made “Shiki No Uta”.
MINMI: I was getting many offers at the time since I had just debuted. Because I wanted to do something that would make a good production, I asked him to send me some tracks first when I received the offer for “Samurai Champloo”. Both of them (Director Shinichiro Watanabe, and Nujabes) are amazing people, and I wasn’t really in the position to request such a thing, but it was important for me to check if the track would fit me. I received some tracks and I really liked one of them, so I said: “I want to sing with this track.” It was a song that Nujabes had already released, and it was against his policy to reuse the same track for a different song, so my request was turned down. I was in contact with him through staff from the record label, but I couldn’t compromise, so we didn’t reach an agreement immediately. Later, I visited his office and we discussed it all one on one. I told Nujabes “I’ve read Director Watanabe’s plot, and I made a story for the song in my mind. I already have the melody, lyrics, and image, so I want to sing with this track. I won’t make you disappointed.” Nujabes understood where I was coming from and said, “If you have this much confidence, please let me listen.” I made a demo immediately and it became “Shiki No Uta”.
OTAQUEST: The song was made with some difficulties.
MINMI: Yes. He said, “Reusing a track that has already been released will never happen again.” So, it was the first and the last time.
OTAQUEST: By thinking that the song was the result of the energy from both of you colliding, I can understand the reason for the influence. You released the English version of “Shiki No Uta” this year. What’s the story behind making an English vocal version 15 years later?
MINMI: It was because of attending the anime convention “OTAKON” in Washington DC. The artists who participated in the soundtrack for “Samurai Champloo” gathered together for a Nujabes tribute concert. “Shiki No Uta” was released when I was signed to Victor Entertainment, so it wasn’t officially released internationally. Since I had my first performance in America this summer, I wanted to officially release it for the world. Another reason is that I wanted more people to understand the meaning of “Shiki No Uta” from “Samurai Champloo” by translating it to English. I think more people around the world can learn about the song by not only attending conventions and festivals but also singing in English.
OTAQUEST: What is the difference between singing the song in Japanese and English?
MINMI: It sounds different in English. Also, the BPM is faster, so it’s more difficult to sing. I had to finish the song in a very short period of time because I started working on it when my appearance at “OTAKON” was decided. I recorded it in America and asked the studio engineer to give vocal direction. I received some advice to sing naturally for English native speakers. It was a very challenging production to make.
OTAQUEST: What does the production “Samurai Champloo” means to you?
MINMI: I feel fate in this production. I wrote the 2 songs, “Shiki No Uta” and “Fuu’s Theme”, but both songs were written in Fuu’s point of view, who is the main character. Fuu is looking for “the samurai who smells of sunflowers” and the story goes that this samurai may be her father. Actually, my father passed away around the time when I made these songs. I was very attached to my father, so I linked myself to Fuu, who was going after the warm memory of her father. I wrote the songs by having a synchronized feeling with Fuu. Also, this year I made fan goods with a sunflower motif, and I sang a song called “Sunflower” at OTAKON, but I completely forgot that sunflowers relate to “Samurai Champloo”. I realized it later, and I was so surprised. When I think back, it all connects to the story that Fuu is looking for the samurai who smells of sunflowers. I felt that “Samurai Champloo”, Nujabes-san, “Shiki No Uta”, and I are meant to be connected.
The most genius part about Watanabe blending hip hop culture into traditional Japan, however, is a little more meta than just having cool visuals and a unique soundtrack. What really made this mix so poignant, so successful, basically anime equivalent of Peanut Butter & Jelly is how it accentuates what Samurai Champloo was trying to convey. Champloo depicts Japan on the eve of big change. At its point in the Edo period, Japan had just begun openings its door to foreigners, which means western influence would begin to creep its way into Japan. You had episodes centered around Japanese people playing baseball for the first time, a false Christian prophet trying to introduce the religion into Japan for his own monetarily gain, and heck even a proto-weeaboo who came from Europe because he had romanticized Japanese culture. By interjecting hip hop culture so purposefully out of place, it neatly accentuated the oncoming changes Japan would begin to adjust to. While Bebop’s jazz and film influence was just as successful in how they gave the show internal consistency and incredible direction, they didn’t add a meta-layer in the same way.
This hip hop and western stylistic influence wasn’t the only part of Samurai Champloo that addressed these changes. Everything down to the three main characters and their episode to episode shenanigans to built to that very point. You had Jin, a classically trained Samurai who tried his best to stay reserved and calm in all situations, a manifestation of ‘traditional Japan’. Fuu is more the contemporary to the time analog who’s the standard of what a common young woman from mid-century Edo might act like. Finally, you had Mugen; A beast in human skin whose sword talents were all self-taught. He doesn’t listen to anybody or care about the constrained social order one bit, an exaggerated look at the future. Of course, these characters still all had their individual and endearing personality traits separate their existence as metaphors. This all ultimately offers a different experience from Bebop too where its episode to episode was more in service to its character development, artistic cohesion, and the feeling of its world, which isn’t to say it wasn’t incredibly successful at that.
Ultimately though, take away the stylistic and meta differences and, the biggest advantage between Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop in Champloos’ favor is that’s it’s honestly just more fun. The show’s warmer and is a more kinetic piece of art. Banger after banger after banger, each episode has you lusting for more because it’s such a delight to take in. You want to exist in that alternate boom-bap Edo and travel through historic Japan with your three hard-headed friends forever. It’s lighter in tone than Bebop and in some ways that make this show more endearing and easier to return to. You might argue that’s it’s not as much of an artistic accomplishment as Watanabe’s earlier show, and on that vague point we wouldn’t exactly disagree, but it’s maybe a more enjoyable one.
As Cowboy Bebop is one of the defining anime of the 90s, Samurai Champloo is for the 2000s. That speaks to Shinichiro Watanabe’s ability to constantly innovate and evolve. He even changes his approach to art from show to show and it makes each piece in his filmography something unique to itself and Champloo is firing on all cylinders when it comes to doing what no other show does. It’s music resurrected an entire musical movement, its blend of hip hop visual and audio aesthetics combined with traditional Japanese culture made for an incredibly fun viewing experience, and through that fusion, beneath the surface, the show mediates plenty on the westernization of Japan without condemning it. It’s a hell of a moment in time, and one you should visit and revisit and again.
We’d also like to thank MINMI for participating in this article and our feature month about the works of Shinichiro Watanabe. You can follow her activities and career on Twitter and her official website.