• Subverting Chanbara: The Case of Samurai Champloo, Part 1

    [Retrospective: I recently rediscovered this paper from my last semester in FSU’s Religion Department. At the time, I was enrolled in a course titled “Samurai Ethics,” which emphasized the deliberate modern construction of a singular ideological system that came to be known as “bushidō.” I was never able to do anything with this one, but it turns out I don’t hate the argument as much now as I did when I first wrote it.]

    [Note: Part 1 focuses entirely on my methodological approach and it’s a bit dense for my liking now. If you’re into Japanese cinema or history, you may want to check it out. If you’d prefer to get into the anime, skip ahead to Part 2. A full list of sources will be included at the end of Part 3.]

    Released in May 2004, Watanabe Shinichirō’s Samurai Champloo tells the story of three unlikely traveling companions — Fuu, Mugen, and Jin — and their journey across Japan in search of the Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers. The twenty-six episode anime series gained popularity amongst American audiences for its novel combination of medieval Japanese and hip-hop cultures, not least because the latter plays a prominent role in its soundtrack, character design, and narrative trajectory. Subsequent analyses of the work, most of which remain confined to the realm of popular discourse, tend to focus on the apparent incongruity of these two thematic elements through a series of simple oppositional binaries: East versus West, Japanese versus Okinawan, and traditional versus modern. As a result, though, the series’ message has often been reduced to one of discontinuity and irreverence. Jin and Mugen, samurai and criminal, come to represent two opposing worlds, neither of which prove capable of meeting in any meaningful way.

    In this paper, I push back against these interpretations and argue that the series subverts conventions of the melodramatic chanbara (チャンバラ, samurai films) by inverting expectations of history, morality, and reality through its depictions of its primary and secondary characters. The series is thus concerned more with similarity than difference, a fact that stems from Watanabe’s unique response to “samurai films” and bushidō ideology as a Japanese director embedded within a Japanese context. I consequently begin by nesting my argument among three discourses pertaining to history and film in Japan, including the link between tradition and modernity, the role of melodrama as a form of vernacular modernism, and the oscillation between reality and fiction in anime. Then, I turn toward Mugen, Jin, and a loose grouping of secondary characters and antagonists — and in each case show that the simplicity of the characters’ superficial appearances and actions is ultimately undermined by a deliberate illustration of their shared moral complexity and embodiment of both past and present.

    Mugen, Jin, and Fu form three points of a triangle. Jin stands to the left, Mugen to the right, and Fu's back is centered in front of the camera. All three face one another.

    Tradition versus Modernity

    My methodological approach is guided by three interrelated discourses. The first is concerned solely with perceptions of the Japanese transition to modernity, including the ways in which “traditional” culture influenced the composition of both classical and postwar cinema. While it does not explicitly address the film industry, Gerald Figal’s Civilization and Monsters provides an interpretation of the traditional-modern divide that is rather useful in this regard. He argues that the construction of the “fantastic” (fushigi) in Meiji Japan represents a deliberate attempt to “rule by ‘modern reason’ [that recast] past ‘reason’ as well as past and present ‘imagination’ as folly.” One of the “principal [tasks] of Meiji ideology” was thus to “fashion from disparate beliefs in spirits a modern and unified Japanese Spirit,” a project that effectively rooted the present in the past. As a result, Figal presents the relationship between tradition and modernity as neither a harsh break nor a continuously straight line, but rather a weaving path characterized by deliberate transformation along the way. When elements of tradition survive the process, they emerge forever altered in order to meet the needs of an evolving society.

    Similar arguments about the “survival of tradition” permeate scholarship on early Japanese cinematic history. In his introduction to Noël Burch’s To the Distant Observer, for example, Harry Harootunian describes the volume as a reminder of “the ceaseless process of interaction between past and present where[in] the latter is constantly called upon to conjure the former.” According to him, Burch skillfully showed that “older cultural practices and artistic forms [often] had to be radicalized to make Japan’s modernity something more than simple imitation.” It was for this reason that elements of theatrical forms like kabuki and bunraku inevitably found themselves “pressed into the service of film’s early formation” in any of a number of ways, not the least of which was the survival of live narrators (benshi).

    Jennifer Coates sees the roles of postwar-era actresses as functioning in much the same way. Stars like Hara Setsuko (1920-2015) and Tanaka Kinuyo (1909-1977) began their careers prior to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and therefore came to prominence as the conflict reached its peak. During the American occupation, major film studios sought to “maintain an element of consistency” by building on this “extant popular appeal,” even as they simultaneously repackaged the actresses’ personae to fit postwar society. The end result was a cinematic culture that provided reassurance and “a sense of connection to the past” to audiences struggling to cope with devastating personal and national loss. Familiar faces onscreen served as tangible reminders that some things still remained the same.

    By comparison, Darrell William Davis’ discussion of the “monumental style” of Japanese film builds more directly upon Burch’s earlier work. In Picturing Japaneseness, he defines the style as “a prewar cinema permeated by a hieratic, sacramental appropriation of a classical heritage in order to promote an apotheosis of Japanese national identity.” In other words, the monumental style consists of those movies that actively employ (or deploy) pre-Meiji culture to construct and elevate a singular myth of Japan and its people. This “mythologization” is accomplished through the concurrent presence of myriad factors, ranging from the incorporation of certain cinematic techniques (e.g., long takes, moving cameras, etc.) to a concern with sociocultural themes (e.g., bushidō). Perhaps more importantly, Davis also acknowledges that monumental films influenced the composition of postwar cinema; Kurosawa Akira’s Ran deliberately “unravels the indigenous associations of monumental style itself.” Even in the case of comparatively recent films, then, it is possible to trace an unbroken — but hardly unaltered — line from the memory of historical foci to the manifestation of contemporary concerns.

    This notion of a “transformative continuity” applies to not only the fictional world of Samurai Champloo, but also my own attempt to situate it within the real world of Japanese cinema. Within the series, modernity and tradition prove to be fluid concepts. A cursory glance suggests that they manifest and clash most frequently through the appearances and actions of characters like Mugen (i.e., the modern) and Jin (i.e., the traditional). However, as we will see below, the dichotomy is a false one, and both characters actually embody at least some of the characteristics of their respective counterpart. A related measure of temporal fluidity guides the
    construction of the series, as a whole. That is to say, Samurai Champloo may be a modern cultural production, but it is a modern cultural production rooted in earlier cinematic and theatrical traditions. Elements of its story, character design, and visual style all exist along a continuum that stretches back through postwar and prewar film to , kabuki, and bunraku plays, as well as other ideological concepts (e.g., bushidō) that coalesced around the time of the Meiji Restoration. None reflect contemporary societal concerns in exactly the same way, but all have nevertheless had some impact upon the series’ final form. The end result is a narrative that actively engages with the past in form, despite occasionally rejecting it in content.

    A title card that lists Tsutchie, fat jon, Nujabes, and FORCE OF NATURE as artists on the series' soundtrack. On the right-hand side of the image, a praying mantis stands atop a red flower.

    Chanbara versus Melodrama

    With this in mind, my argument draws from a second related discourse surrounding manifestations of genre in the Japanese context. Although Samurai Champloo is popularly described as a chanbara-style anime in the West, the overwhelming focus upon its setting, combat scenes, and the “samurai-ness” — or apparent lack thereof — of its main characters has largely led to the neglect of other potential cinematic influences. It is therefore worth considering the series as more than just a modern chanbara variant because of a handful of superficial similarities; instead, we would do well to question the historical and cultural circumstances surrounding the construction of both genre and the genre in Japan, as well as the broader implications of its exportation to the United States (and beyond).

    Catherine Russell’s reconceptualization of the studio era of Japanese cinema provides a solid foundation for this analytical turn. Drawing on the works of Miriam Hansen and Christine Gledhill, Russell proposes that films of the studio era can be treated as a “parallel form of classicism” through a theoretical framework rooted in the concepts of vernacular modernism and melodrama. The former, she notes, “incorporates the various cultural practices by which the experience of modernity has been articulated and modified,” and thereby situates cinema “alongside the ‘everyday’ discourses and practices that it also mediates.” Put differently, a framework of vernacular modernism insists that films cannot be separated from a given sociohistorical context because they necessarily reflect (and reflect back upon) the institutions that gave rise to them in the first place. Japanese studio-era productions in particular represent the “changing structures of Japanese society” that came about as a result of its response to modernity — and do so through their reliance upon a stock set of visual and thematic principles.

    Meanwhile, melodrama, which Russell sees as a supplement to vernacular modernism, serves to undermine the very notion of modernity itself. Here she draws from the extensive work of Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro, so it is worth considering his own understanding of the term at some length. According to Yoshimoto, the notion of melodrama is a somewhat vague one, and its characteristics often seemingly contradictory. The term can be applied to both a “generic mode” rooted in socio-economic tragedy or a specific narrative form associated with the romantic opposition of good and evil. Its content appears realistic at first glance, partly because it intentionally “manipulates [an] audience’s emotion by presenting the tension between the possibility and impossibility of the final gratification.” At the same time, though, it exists “beyond [the] reality of daily life.” Meaning is found not in the superficiality of verbal discourse between characters, but rather through the “mood and atmosphere evoked by the mute [bodies of characters] and the environment” that surrounds them. The aforementioned moral conflicts are embodied more than they are articulated, and characters undergo a process of psychological flattening that precludes the existence of any rational complexity in terms of motivation; most are merely pulled forward by “transcendent forces” as “events inexorably unfold themselves” over time.

    Using these contradictions as a starting point, Yoshimoto outlines a tripartite classification system for melodramas in Japan. He lists the three primary types (and their respective subtypes) as follows:

    1. Conflict between Individual Desire and Social Constraints
      a. Giri vs. Ninjo
      b. Tragic Love Story: Typically Illicit Love
    2. Dilemma of Social Mobility
    3. Power of the Inevitable
      a. Incurable Disease
      b. Inability to Keep Up with Historical Changes / Current of the Times
      c. Helpless Victim and Powerful Villain

    Yoshimoto emphasizes that this system can be interpreted either structurally (i.e., as a means of categorizing plot) or historically (i.e., as a chronological trajectory) depending on the film or films at hand. In the case of the former, the three types prove capable of “[accommodating] almost any Japanese film melodrama.” In the case of the latter, they correspond to specific themes of melodrama that emerged in Japan in the mid seventeenth, late-nineteenth, and mid-twentieth centuries, respectively. Both approaches are also inextricably linked with the other, at least to the extent that each of the three types represents a unique socio-political response to a broader concern with modernity. A structuralist application is thus never simply structural, just as a historical application is never simply historical.

    My analysis builds upon these concepts by treating Samurai Champloo as a reflection of vernacular modernism in melodramatic form. Its loose interpretation of the traditional-modern divide is indicative of Watanabe Shinichirō’s response to the world around him, but it is a world centered largely upon Japan and the Japanese situation at the end of the twentieth century. As a result, we can only hope to interpret the piece — and understand its intended purpose — by considering its form and content as products of Japanese history and culture. Labels like chanbara are useful and necessary, but only if we recognize that the idea of chanbara has come to mean something different in the American context. The so-called “samurai film” is, after all, comprised of more than just a series of choreographed duels between gruff-yet-honorable warriors. Postwar chanbara (and jidai-geki, as a whole) were highly melodramatic, including even the innovative productions of Kurosawa Akira himself; much the same holds true for the early-modern theatrical performances by which they were inspired. And by ignoring or failing to consider the implications of such factors, we risk not only overriding authorial intent, but also reducing Japanese society to the image or few images that we ourselves have constructed.

    A swordsman named Ishimatsu kneels in silhouette, dead. The hilt of his sword rests against his right shoulder. Behind him, blue-green water glistens.

    Reading Anime

    The third and final discourse connects the preceding discussions of Japanese history and film by dealing directly with the medium at hand: anime. The academic study of anime is a relatively nascent field, and its general viability a source of debate, but I have chosen below to accept its existence and cultural import as matters of course. Meanwhile, my definition of anime and understanding of its characteristics are heavily influenced by the work of Christopher Bolton. In his Interpreting Anime, he adopts a rather loose approach to the former, defining it simply as any “Japanese animation based on a drawn image.” These visual productions, he says, differ from other media (e.g., theatre, art, manga) because they possess a unique “ability to move the viewer very rapidly back and forth between […] two poles of immersion and distance.” Anime consequently allows for some form of “resonance” between the viewer’s world and its own, despite regularly interrupting this immersion through its use of “self-conscious textual devices that call attention to the form of the text itself.” The end result is an ongoing oscillation between “identification” and “alienation” that may or may not be resolved over the course of the narrative.

    Now, I must admit that I do disagree with certain elements of Bolton’s argument. Undoubtedly the most problematic of these is his insistence that anime is somehow “unusual” or “unique” in comparison to other media. While different media will inevitably reflect different socio-cultural issues in different ways, I find it difficult to believe that anime, as a whole, can ever be entirely separated from manga, its printed counterpart. The same holds true for his attempts to split feature-length anime films from televised anime series, which Bolton says “often fails to generate the [same] kind of oscillation.” Both arguments ultimately serve to undermine the breadth of his earlier definition of anime, and thereby overlook the potential for connections between disparate forms of narrative media.

    [Retrospective: Reading the first half of this paragraph roughly four years later is strange because now I agree with Bolton. My current research relies almost entirely on the fact that anime and games do bring something different to the playing field in terms of representation and embodiment.]

    We must also acknowledge that the rapid oscillation between identification and alienation, or reality and fiction, actually mirrors our earlier discussion of melodrama. On the one hand, such a parallel further problematizes the narrative of anime as a particularly “unique” medium. On the other, it further reinforces the way in which we read Samurai Champloo as a particular manifestation of the animated medium. The series’ sustained reliance upon simple binaries is indeed indicative of its position as a melodramatic, chanbara-influenced anime, but it does not mean that it accepts this role blindly. Watanabe instead uses these apparent contradictions to undermine the existence of the categories themselves. Tradition and modernity, giri and ninjo, good and evil, and even fiction and reality all fall apart because he shows that the distinctions within each pairing are little more than artificial constructions. In this way, Samurai Champloo functions as a tale of internal similarity despite external difference, and thereby inverts popular expectations of both content and form at every turn.

    A full moon sits in the upper-right corner of the image. It is slightly out of focus, but white text reading "つづく" and "To be continued" appears more clearly on the left-hand side of the screen.

    [Continue to Part 2!]