Samurai Champloo and Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

Recently, my dad asked me about what would be a good anime to watch, out of curiosity since I’m watching them all the time. When I told him about how anime isn’t really just one genre but a medium that’s used for many genres, he asked for an action show to start with, so I recommended Hunter x Hunter. That didn’t end up working out particularly well; he watched the first episode and said he thought it wasn’t bad, but he wouldn’t necessarily be interested in investing a lot of time into watching the whole thing.

Now, I will stand by my judgement that Hunter x Hunter is a great show, but in retrospect it was a bad choice for a beginner because the plot takes so long to get started. While the show is always at least decently interesting right from the beginning, it doesn’t start really gaining momentum until the Yorknew City arc, which, according to Wikipedia, doesn’t start until episode 37. Then the high point of the series is in the chimera ant arc, which starts at episode 76 and continues until episode 136. So you have to have a pretty long attention span to be able to watch Hunter x Hunter.

So that got me thinking what would be a good show for a newcomer to anime, and my conclusion was that Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo would probably be the best choice.

I haven’t actually watched much of Cowboy Bebop myself, but I have watched a sizable chunk of Samurai Champloo (not all of it, for reasons I’ll mention later), which was directed by the same guy, and I understand the shows are pretty similar. So the following points were written with Samurai Champloo in mind, but they’re probably  generally applicable to Cowboy Bebop as well.

I think that of all the shows I’ve seen, Samurai Champloo makes the best use by far of the episodic storytelling format. A lot of serial TV shows use episodic storytelling in one of two ways. Either they make every episode end with a cliffhanger (e.g. pretty much any shonen series), or they end every episode right where it started so that the status quo never changes (e.g. Ranma 1/2, any harem series, or any sitcom). Either way, the shows are not making particularly good use of their medium. An episode is a division with a natural beginning, middle, and end. With the endless cliffhanger approach, each episode begins and ends right in the middle of some big event. Thus the episodes’ beginnings and endings are just formalities corresponding to nothing real in the story; in reality, each episode consists of nothing but middle material. With the eternal status quo approach, the bounds of the episode are respected, but the series of episodes as a whole goes nowhere. This reduces the value of watching the whole show; once you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen it all.

Between these two, Samurai Champloo is closer to the latter approach. For the most part, each episode in the show is a complete story with its own proper beginning, middle, and end (though there are some story arcs that are split into two or three episodes). Once an episode ends, it doesn’t affect future episodes much, and apart from the protagonists, characters that show up in any given episode are pretty unlikely to return in future episodes.

But it also avoids falling into the eternal status quo trap. The story is framed by the main characters’ journey across feudal Japan to find someone known to them only as “the samurai who smells of sunflowers”; the division of the show into episodes reflects the incidents they encounter as they go. And as the show progresses you start to see subtle changes in the characters’ dispositions toward each other. At the start of the show, the three main characters are constantly at each others’ throats. Then in the middle, there’s an incident where one of them comes close to dying, and the others cry over him. And the progression from the start up to this point feels perfectly natural, precisely because you, the viewer, have seen everything that they’ve been through together up till then. The show uses the episodic format’s division and prolongation of the unfolding of the story to make the characters’ changing relationship believable. It’s a masterful use of the medium.

But of course, nothing is perfect, and this storytelling approach has one big drawback that I know of. The series of episodes as a whole feels like one long, well-written story, but each episode individually can feel pretty insignificant. That makes it hard to get back into the story after taking a long break from it, because whichever episode you left off on will probably fail to recapture your interest.

When I first started watching Samurai Champloo, I was hooked instantly; it felt like it was doing everything right. But then I had to take a break for school and whatnot. When I finally got started on it again, it was on an episode about a charlatan who poses as St. Francis Xavier’s grandson (which already gives him away right off the bat since St. Francis was a priest and shouldn’t have had kids) and tries to hoodwink a Japanese Catholic community into building guns for him to sell illegally. And it felt like the stuff I was seeing was meaningless. It came out of nowhere, and then suddenly it was over; that’s all I can really say about it. At this point, I think I might be better off starting over from the beginning rather than continuing where I left off.

Then again, I guess part of the reason I wasn’t sucked into it was because I was watching at a cousin’s house and there were small children present, so I was scared the kids would see something they shouldn’t (“Mommy, look! That person got cut in half!”). So maybe I’ll give it one more try in a safer environment before starting over.

(By the way, the aforementioned Japanese Catholics were portrayed as being good people in the end, which, as a Catholic, I thought was nice. They didn’t have any disillusionment with religion or anything like that either.)

Anyways, since I started on this train of thought thinking about what would be a good show for a newcomer to anime, one word about that. Samurai Champloo is set in feudal Japan, which might not be familiar to Western audiences, whereas Cowboy Bebop is set in a more generic sci-fi setting. On the other hand, Samurai Champloo often has a silly, humorous, maybe even flippant tone; by contrast, Cowboy Bebop… Well, let me put it this way: According to Wikipedia, it falls under the neo-noir genre, and its themes include existential ennui and loneliness. It still has its humor and whatnot, but it’s not as flamboyant as Samurai Champloo. So I guess all in all, Samurai Champloo is probably the more accessible option, whereas Cowboy Bebop would probably be a better example of what “serious” anime looks like.