- Postmodern Is Old Hat: Samurai Champloo
Watanabe Shin’ichirō’s twenty-six-episode Samurai Champloo is seductive, tempting the sophisticated critic to read it in terms of postmodern eclecticism, cultural hybridity, and self-consciousness. A more sophisticated critic, or perhaps one utterly lacking in such sophistication, knows better. It is not that Champloo does not exhibit those signs of postmodern times; it does. Very much so. Casually so. So casually, that one suspects Watanabe is up to something else.
Like Watanabe’s previous series, the very popular Cowboy Bebop (1998–99, Kaubōi bibappu), Champloo is episodic and centers on a small group of misfits thrown together at the margins of society. Mugen is an ex-pirate who looks like Spike from Bebop, wears pants that look like long baggy b-boy1 shorts, and has a wickedly eclectic fighting style. Jin is a rōnin who wears Armani eyeglasses, dresses traditionally, and fights in an equally effective but highly traditional style. Fuu has worked as a waitress and is searching for an unidentified samurai who smells like sunflowers. She saves Mugen and Jin from ignominious execution in the first episode and thereby enlists their aid in her search.
Like Bebop’s, Champloo’s mise en scène is culturally eclectic. But the mix is different. Bebop is set in the future and in space: mostly Mars, its moons, and asteroids. As the title suggests, the music leans towards jazz even as the plot and imagery invokes the Old West. Champloo is set in early modern Japan, though the exact time period is radically indeterminate. The title theme is hip-hop, and hip-hop occurs in the soundtrack, imagery, and thematics.
Champloo is also anachronistic, and therein resides its genius. We see this in the title sequence, which combines traditional Japanese paintings, drawings, and lettering with thoroughly modern graphic styling. Anachronism is pounded home in the opening segments of the first episode. We see Jin and Mugen bound and in position for decapitation; the sound track has no music, just spoken words of condemnation from the executioner and defiance from Jin and Mugen. The second segment is introduced with the title “one day earlier,” followed by a contemporary street scene: a graffiti-covered wall in the background and a b-boy ambling right-to-left across the screen to the discordant hip-hop soundtrack. Then, STOP, and rewind. As the b-boy moves backward, left-to-right, time accelerates backward as the buildings, dress, and modes of transport become older and older. In the compass of 81 frames, this two-seconds-plus sequence returns us to Tokugawa Japan. Now we learn how Mugen and Jin met Fuu and how she saved their lives.
Rather than either summarize the action or comment on miscellaneous moments, actions, themes, and motifs across the entire series, I will comment on two episodes only. Each involves an anachronistic encounter between Japan and America, but only one is staged that way. Episode 18 is set in Hiroshima and is about graffiti, the written word, old debts, and Andy Warhol. Episode 23 is about a baseball game in which a Japanese pick-up team defeats the crew of an American warship visiting from the nineteenth century and captained by Alexander Cartwright, who formalized the rules of baseball for the New York Knickerbockers. Let’s start with 23 and finish with 18. [End Page 271]
Those of us born and raised in America know that baseball is an American sport. It is a familiar part of our world, this national pastime. We watch baseball games on television and in person, and we play the game too, though mostly when young. It is not something foreign and exotic.
The odd thing is, that is also pretty much how it is for those of us born and raised in Japan, where the game has been played since the late nineteenth century. Sure, we know that sometime in the dim past, before any living Japanese was born, the game came here from...