Review for Samurai Champloo Complete Series - Anime Classics
For me 2013 has turned into the year of Shinichiro Watanabe on Blu-ray. First the UK got Kids on the Slope in high definition, the recent jazz slice of life story that reunited the director with composer Yoko Kanno. Then new distributor All the Anime went back and brought their first collaboration together out on Blu-ray and we became the first in the world to see Cowboy Bebop in high definition and in English. Quite recently I went and imported Michiko and Hatchin, on which Shinichiro Watanabe serves as music producer, and that whispers to me constantly from my to-watch pile. But at the top of that to-watch pile, waiting patiently since early this year is the first purchase that I made of Shinichiro Watanabe goodness on Blu-ray, Samurai Champloo, and I finally make the time to watch it.
You may be wondering why Samurai Champloo on Blu. After all this is a show from anime’s awkward period. Pre-2000, anime was old-fashioned, hand painted on cels, and shot on film, then converted for NTSC broadcast. As happened with Cowboy Bebop, you can go back to the film elements and get a genuine HD transfer from them, hopefully resulting pristine looking Blu-rays. After 2000, anime began to be made in computers, eliminating the cel and paint stage altogether, and since around 2006, more and more anime has been animated in various levels of HD, again conducive to superior Blu-ray performance. But Samurai Champloo was made in 2005, and most television anime at this time was produced in native NTSC format, 480 lines of resolution. You probably won’t expect better than DVD quality, even on Blu-ray.
You’d be wrong though, as while Samurai Champloo is an up-scale to be sure, you are still getting more with the HD format. It all depends on how good the up-scale is though, and it took Funimation two tries to get Samurai Champloo right. The first try was a disaster, with the image quality of the show ruined by excessive DNR, destroying the intentional grain, and degrading detail levels. That’s a yellow box if you’re wondering, with the discs locked to Region A. Funimation tried again and released this version on the Anime Classics label coded Region A and B, and they got it right, so right indeed that the Japanese company went and used this second transfer for the Japanese domestic release!
Technically you’re getting the same detail as the DVDs, but remember you’re getting it in 24 frames progressive format, you shouldn’t get any aliasing, and there won’t be any visible compression artefacts. You’ll be able to pause an action sequence and see a perfect frame, with no pixellation break-up, while the colour depth offered by Blu-ray will be superior to DVD. But the big draw of Samurai Champloo, indeed any Shinichiro Watanabe series is the music, and here the Blu-ray wins hands down, with Dolby TrueHD lossless audio as opposed to lossy Dolby Digital or DTS. If I had the Region 1 NTSC DVDs from Geneon, I would be inclined to double dip. I don’t. I have the Region 2 MVM discs, which source Australia’s NTSC-PAL standards conversion; a soft image prone to ghosting, judder and blended frames. That’s a decision that made itself.
Former waitress Fuu wants to find a nameless Samurai who smells of sunflowers. To that end she recruits a couple of itinerant warriors, the wild and undisciplined Mugen and the more refined and precise Jin. The two fighters’ first encounter results in them trying to kill each other, and it’s only because Fuu saves them from an execution that they reluctantly put aside their rivalry long enough to help her. That’s the set-up to Samurai Champloo, but think of it as a historical Cowboy Bebop, with each episode offering a new story with a different style and its own brand of anachronistic wackiness.
26 episodes of Samurai Champloo are spread across three discs from Funimation.
Ep 1. Tempestuous Temperaments
Ep 2. Redeye Reprisal
Ep 3. Hellhounds For Hire Part I
Ep 4. Hellhounds For Hire Part II
Ep 5. Artistic Anarchy
Ep 6. Stranger Searching
Ep 7. A Risky Racket
Ep 8. The Art Of Altercation
Ep 9. Beatbox Bandits
Ep 10. Lethal Lunacy
Ep 11. Gamblers and Gallantry
Ep 12. The Disorder Diaries
Ep 13. Misguided Miscreants Part 1
Ep 14. Misguided Miscreants Part 2
Ep 15. Bogus Booty
Ep 16. Lullabies Of The Lost, Verse 1
Ep 17. Lullabies Of The Lost, Verse 2
Ep 18. War Of The Words
Ep 19. Unholy Union
Ep 20. Elegy of Entrapment, Verse 1
Ep 21. Elegy of Entrapment, Verse 2
Ep 22. Cosmic Collisions
Ep 23. Baseball Blues
Ep 24. Evanescent Encounter Part 1
Ep 25. Evanescent Encounter Part 2
Ep 26. Evanescent Encounter Part 3
Let’s get this out of the way first. Samurai Champloo on Blu-ray is an upscale of an SD source and it is going to look like an upscale of an SD source no matter what, short of being completely reanimated from square one. That said, there are up-scales and there are up-scales, and Samurai Champloo’s second bite at the Blu-ray cherry is a sympathetic and appealing example of one. There are better examples out there, with Black Lagoon and Baccano! springing to mind, but Samurai Champloo certainly does well by the HD format.
It’s presented in 1080p 1.78:1 widescreen, which is already a step up from the DVD’s interlaced transfer, and with each frame rendered with Blu-ray’s superior compression codecs, you don’t have to worry about pixellation and mosquito noise during fast action scenes, as you did with the DVDs. On top of that you have Blu-ray’s superior colour rendition, which even with Samurai Champloo's rather selected colour palette delivers far more pleasing and atmospheric results. When you have image clarity of this level, with character artwork with smooth and unbroken lines and barely the occasional hint of aliasing, it’s going to be a major leap over the DVDs, and given that I’m upgrading from NTSC-PAL standards conversion as opposed to US NTSC discs, the leap in quality is unquestioned. There is a smidge of banding, but given that it’s from an SD source, and it’s less prevalent than on some dedicated HD releases, it’s not worth complaining about.
Most importantly of all, Samurai Champloo was made in a cinematic style, with digital film grain added to the image in post-production. This second Blu-ray release maintains that grain structure intact, holding to the animator’s original vision. It’s not perfect, with one or two instances of aliasing apparent, and I did notice a little judder in pans and scrolls over ukiyo prints and maps in episode 12, but I have no hesitation in retiring those DVD volumes on the strength of the image quality alone.
You have the choice between Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English and Japanese, with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. These are great audio tracks, bringing out the best in the show’s music, giving space to the excellent action sequences, and keeping the dialogue clear and audible throughout. The Japanese version is preferable, as I love the voice actor performances for the three main characters, but the US sourced English dub is pretty fine as well, and this is one of those rare shows which offers equal levels of enjoyment in either language version. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typographical error, and appear to be the same script as used by the Geneon discs, albeit in a sharp, white and clearer font.
There is one small issue. In episode 21 at 12:57 there is a partial audio drop. Part of Fuu’s dialogue is missing in the Japanese audio. It’s just an exasperated “Geez!” which you can read in the subtitles, but for which the dialogue alone is missing (The background audio is still present). I adjourned to the DVD of that episode, and checked the Japanese audio there. Sure enough the word is missing in the DTS 5.1 Surround Japanese track, but, it is there in the DD 2.0 Japanese stereo track. I guess Funimation were working with the same source material as for the DVDs, and so the error remains.
All 3 discs are presented in a US style Blu-ray Amaray case, a little narrower, with one disc at the back, and two on either side of a central hinged panel. The reverse of the sleeve has some artwork and an episode listing on the left hand (transparent) side of the case. The outer sleeve art and blurb is repeated on the O-Ring card slipcover.
Disc 1 presents its 9 episodes with an animated menu, which loads up following a trailer for Afro Samurai Resurrection.
Disc 2 also has 9 episodes, and loads up its menu following a trailer for Samurai 7.
Disc 3 has 8 episodes, loads its menu with a trailer for Witchblade, and holds the collection’s extras. All of the extras were originally available on the Geneon single disc releases, some of which made it to the UK release and most are presented here in 480i resolution.
The Battlecry (Opening) Promo Video lasts just under 2 minutes, and there is a second minute long promo that heralds the second half of the series.
There are two teaser trailers to the show running to a minute, and you get the textless credits, the opening and the first closing sequence.
In HD you’ll find the concept art gallery with 32 colour and line art images, and the Bumper Gallery, with 34 of the eyecatches that pop up in the middle of each episode where adverts should go.
There are trailers here for Funimation releases of Devil May Cry, Burst Angel, Full Metal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa, Tsubasa, Shigurui Death Frenzy, Basilisk, Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, and Ichi. All have been released on Blu-ray, up-scaled or native by Funimation, and some have even been released on Blu-ray in the UK.
It isn’t quite Cowboy Bebop, and I had to have a little think to figure out just why. After all, Samurai Champloo does feel like another bite at the Cowboy Bebop cherry, an irreverent take on a familiar genre, with likeable offbeat characters on a road movie of sorts, playing hard and fast with genres and styles within its simple premise, delivering episodic nuggets of narrative gold. Samurai Champloo is still one of my favourite anime series, and on Blu-ray it becomes just a little bit favourite-er. Even up-scaled, the image is gorgeous, and against the standards converted DVDs, the progressive animation, coupled with compression free action sequences, topped off with lossless audio makes it a simple upgrade to make. You won’t regret double dipping on Samurai Champloo, and hopefully MVM will make it happen in the UK as well.
You have three off the wall characters, the elegant and refined samurai Jin, the wild and unprincipled ruffian Mugen, and the kooky and cute Fuu. They’re travelling through Japan on the road together for the most nebulous of reasons, thrown together through shared adversity, and in the case of Jin and Mugen, barely restrained rivalry. Each story is set further down the road, offering something a little different and unexpected to the week before. You have your all-out action stories, such as the opening story which throws the three together, you have out and out comedies, such as Fuu getting involved in a people trafficking incident, or the legendary baseball game for the fate of Japan. You have dramatic interludes as when Jin encounters a woman who’s sold into prostitution to pay for her husband’s debts, or when Mugen has to deal with his past. There’s even a bit of sci-fi thrown in, with a meteorite heading for earth, and our heroes eating the wrong kind of mushrooms. There’s plenty of homage with call-backs to popular movies and TV shows (I love the Yojimbo episode), and it consistently throws in anachronistic weirdness for the viewer to appreciate. Hip-hop has never been so out of place, yet so appropriate.
It’s a show that is consistently entertaining, can have you laughing out loud one minute, on the edge of your seat, gripped with the action the next, and then emotionally engaged with the characters too. In between all the wackiness and fun, there is an overarching story, the search for Fuu’s nebulous samurai smelling of sunflowers, and as the story progresses and evolves, it becomes a poignant and affecting tale; a consistent touchstone with actual Japanese history despite the show’s countless anachronisms. There is also sufficient character development to make investing in the show worthwhile. Fuu, Mugen and Jin have their stories to tell, and the way that their pasts are revealed and resolved is certainly worth watching.
So why wasn’t this the next Cowboy Bebop? Why didn’t Samurai Champloo get the accolades that the space sci-fi adventure rightly did? For me it still comes down to the characterisations, and perhaps to a lesser degree the setting as well. The future is an open book, and there were always aspects of the Cowboy Bebop universe that we never got to see on screen. Too, the characters were more complex, their back stories were richer, and that complexity, and indeed variety allowed for the viewer to engage with Cowboy Bebop on a deeper level. The series begat a feature film, and to this day, fans still want more Cowboy Bebop, whether anime or live action.
The same isn’t true for Samurai Champloo. Its world is defined by the past, and hip-hop filter aside, there’s not a lot that you can add to it. It also limits the stories that can be told, and the further out of whack you get, the harder it is to take the show seriously. My least favourite of the Samurai Champloo episodes is the most far-fetched, the one with the meteor, the mushrooms and the zombies. And when all is said and done, in comparison to Bebop, Samurai Champloo’s characters are single-note and single minded affairs. The character descriptive I gave to Mugen, Fuu and Jin pretty much sums them up. There’s not a lot else going on beneath the surface. Samurai Champloo manages to have a whole lot of fun with these simpler characterisations, but in the end, there is no Samurai Champloo feature film, and there’s no vocal call for another series. It’s a show that is wrapped up, nice and complete in these 26 episodes.
So regardless of what you think of the music, Samurai Champloo is not a timeless classic anime. It is still one of my favourite anime series though, simply because it’s just so much fun. And that makes it well worth upgrading those DVDs to this Blu-ray release. Of course if you’ve never seen the series before, you might as well skip straight to the Blu-ray goodness.