Samurai Champloo is one of the reasons why I like anime. It was one of my first exposures to anime for better or worse. It is hard to enjoy Hershey’s chocolate bars after eating Swiss chocolate. I watched Samurai Champloo before Cowboy Bebop. Perhaps this shapes my opinion of the show, but Samurai Champloo is better than Cowboy Bebop.
Champloo smashes Tokugawa Japan with hip-hop culture in a way that works quite well. In many regards, today’s hip-hop culture is similar to Edo period Japan. Hip-hop originates from modern cities that have strict economic divisions. Much of hip-hop focuses on overcoming these divisions in one way or the other. Tokugawa Japan was also urbanized. During this period, Japanese cities expanded as people left their farms to try their luck with the wealth cities offered. The period also had strong economic divisions that were difficult, but not impossible, to cross. Hip-hop contains gang culture elements not unfamiliar to Edo period Japan. During this period, Yakuza, or Japanese gangs, vied for economic control of cities, much like street gangs today. Like today’s street gangs, they sold drugs, demanded protection money, owned prostitutes, and used other income avenues. This is the world of Samurai Champloo.
Samurai Champloo is a road story. Mugen, Jin, and Fuu are homeless: the poor of the poor. The story plays on this by using hunger as one of their main motives. Much of the series has the three struggling to make money. At the time, money was something new to Japan. For most of Japanese history, people were paid in koku, measures of rice, and barter. The three vagabonds often lived in the present. Each have their reasons. Mugen seeks to leave his past behind. Jin hides his dishonor by focusing on the present. And Fuu, well, she is simply hungry.
Samurai Champloo is about the journey and not the end goal. When Fuu finally finds her father, he lies dying. This prevents her from realizing her goal. An assassin from the Shogunate promptly kills the sick man. Only Jin’s intervention keeps Fuu from being killed by the assassin. While the ending is exciting for the viewer, it is anticlimactic for the characters. Fuu fails to punish or fully reconcile with her father. Mugen kills just another pair of enemies in a long line of enemies. Jin kills a master swordsman, but it will do little to improve his reputation as a fallen samurai. In the end, they are back where they started. However, they are not the same people. That is the point of a journey story.
The Ending of Samurai Champloo
I will jump to the end of Samurai Champloo. I’ve already written about it, but it is the type of ending that sticks with you. In road stories, there isn’t a true ending, a happily ever after. They are among the most realistic of stories for this reason. Life goes on.
The ending has the three go their own ways, alone. For many people this is shocking. They developed a friendship over the course of their journey. Then they just left without looking back. How could they?
Because the journey isn’t over.
Each have their own lives to live. If you look closely, Mugen, Jin, and Fuu are all smiling. For Jin and Mugen to smile, that shows just how the journey changed them. The ending gives us hints to where each goes.
The statues lining the path are jizo. They are said to protect travelers, women, and children. They represent Jizo Bodhisattva, who personifies the Buddhist vow to liberate all beings from suffering. They often line rivers and lakes. Jizo is said to make souls pile rocks by a river in penance. Remember Shino? She was Jin’s love interest he saved from prostitution. She fled to a temple where she must stay for 3 years in order to be divorced from her husband, who sold her to a brothel. Couldn’t Jin visit her? Nope. Men were not allowed at such temples. In the ending, Jin is passing by this island temple, waiting for his lady-love.
Mugen doesn’t have a destination or someone to wait for like Jin. He also doesn’t have a home. He was born in a penal colony on the Ryukyu Islands. It isn’t likely he will return there. However, as the ending shows, he is drawn to the ocean. In Mugen’s case we can be certain of one thing, the ninja Yatsuha is certain to find him.
In the episode Bogus Booty, Yatsuha proves to be a match for Mugen. At the end of the episode, she claims Mugen is the man she will marry, and she will find him after both their journeys are over. In other words, Mugen’s adventures are far from over.
As for Fuu,,the ending shows her traveling through various towns. Many look like locations from previous episodes. She appears to be traveling back to the town of the first episode. Her likely destination is Kikuzo and Ogin, the elderly couple who she worked for in the first episode. They offered to take her with them after the teahouse burned down. Like Mugen, her adventures have just begun.
This is all speculation, of course. We can each write own stories for Mugen, Jin, and Fuu. That is what makes these endings appealing. Life goes on.
Samurai Champloo reveals the potential anime has for storytelling. When the ending lingers in memory, as this ending does for so many of us, you have a good story. Fiction enriches us. It shows us different worlds and ways of living, Good stories help us see through the eyes of others which improves our ability to empathize with others. Good stories resonate long after they are over. In many ways, their journey never truly ends,