• Subverting Chanbara: The Case of Samurai Champloo, Part 2

    [Continued from Part 1!]

    The following sections seek to combine these three discourses — of a transformative continuity between tradition and modernity, vernacular modernism in melodramatic chanbara, and rapid oscillation from identification to alienation — through a focus upon Mugen, Jin, and a conglomerate of secondary antagonists and side characters. In doing so, I intentionally position myself against popular interpretations of Samurai Champloo in the American context, many of which emphasize themes of difference and historical irreverence. For instance, Macy Park argues that Mugen, Jin, and Fuu are “undeniably different in their respective roles,” and “each represent an aspect of Watanabe’s ideal social champloo.” A blogger named onereadleaf admits that the series is a “dialogue with history,” but almost immediately afterward insists that it has a “sense of irreverence and an unwillingness to take itself seriously.” And William Benzon, author of one of the very few academic articles on the series, proposes that it “goes beyond subverting postmodern interventions into culture, identity, [and] antihegemonic subalterns” by “rendering such critical expostulation irrelevant.”

    As I see it, all three authors, and the broader body of work that they represent, singularly fail to consider Samurai Champloo as a product of Japanese history, society, and even the mind of its creator, Shinichirō Watanabe. We will see below that difference is superficial, especially in the case of the relationship between Mugen and Jin, and that tradition and modernity are really not that far removed from one another. At the same time, I show that the series’ lighthearted approach to history is indicative of Watanabe’s own awareness of cinematic and moral expectations tied to chanbara film. Samurai Champloo is thus far from “irreverent,” not least because the term necessarily implies a lack of respect for its subject. Watanabe may intentionally subvert the norms of the melodramatic chanbara, but he never loses sight of the past and those to whom he is indebted.

    Inadvertently intoxicated by a burning field of unidentified plants, Mugen's perception of reality is warped. The sky is tinged green and the ground bends into the horizon.

    Mugen: The Ryukyuan Criminal

    Mugen is intentionally constructed as a rebellious antihero. He first appears in shackles alongside Jin, calmly awaiting his execution at the hands of a corrupt prefectural governor. When asked for his final words, he sneers and says that “if living means bowing down to the likes of you bastards, then I’ll die on my feet with my head held high.” He echoes this sentiment in a flashback to an earlier encounter with the governor’s son. The latter, a corrupt thug himself, refuses to believe that Mugen would defy him; as he puts it, the Warring States period (Sengoku jidai) is over and “folks swinging swords are anachronistic.” Mugen responds with a simple proclamation: “Your common sense doesn’t mean jack to me. I hail from the Ryukyu Islands.”

    We see the implications of this attitude throughout the remainder of the series. Most obviously, Mugen looks the part of the freewheeling vagabond. His hair is unkempt, he sports a short goatee, wears simple blue earrings, and has blue bands tattooed around each of his wrists and ankles. Unlike Jin, he prefers a loose, unbelted happi-style jacket and shorts, as well as metal-soled geta that he employs in battle. Mugen also carries his sword, which itself has a curved blade and pronged tsuba, in a patterned sash around his right shoulder; as a last resort, he secrets a shorter tantō at the small of his back.

    Mugen’s actions consistently reflect a similar lack of refinement and inclination toward immorality. Although the entire trio often finds itself perched on the brink of starvation, only Mugen allows his appetites to override any semblance of self-preservation or restraint. He eats crabs like apples, apparently swallowing the entire shell; consumes unknown mushrooms picked from a forest floor; steals food from the table of the Nagatomi Yakuza; and mugs members of another yakuza group for ferry money, only to spend it instead on an abundance of squid. And these appetites extend beyond food, as well. When Fuu falls asleep after drinking in the second episode, for example, Mugen, now responsible for carrying her in a wooden cart, implies that he is going to teach her a lesson and says, “I’m gonna rape you, you dumb broad.” He later bets the Sunflower Samurai “raped [her] and threw [her] away like garbage,” even as he forces himself upon — and is physically rebuffed by — women on several different occasions. The idea here is not just that Mugen is a criminal or criminally-minded, but rather that he possesses this proclivity toward excess and fails to understand the need to temper it in any situation. According to him, “I don’t know the meaning of the word [restraint].”

    But nowhere is this more evident than in his approach and willingness to engage in armed combat. Whereas Jin’s swordsmanship is characterized by fluidity and grace, Mugen’s movements are erratic, unpredictable, and “inefficient.” His style is less reminiscent of any form of kenjutsu than of American breakdancing or Brazilian capoeira, not least because he habitually employs his feet as both offensive and defensive tools depending on the terrain and skill of his opponent. More importantly, though, he kills without hesitation. At various points in the series, we see Mugen cut down local retainers, members of multiple independent yakuza, Buddhist warrior priests, Shogunate soldiers, and at least three yojimbo or samurai who hesitated at the last moment or otherwise allowed themselves to die by his hand. Moreover, he actually fails to recognize three brothers he injured in a previous maritime raid, presumably because he has killed so many others in the interim, and tells the “Street Killer” Ukon / Shōryū that he is having “the time of [his] life” in the midst of their duel. Mugen clearly lives for the fight, the opportunity to prove himself against a worthy adversary. He is willing to admit the untenability of such a lifestyle, and questions whether each morning will be his last, but he never makes a sincere effort toward meaningful change. It seems that he simply cannot stop.

    At this point, we can read Mugen through two separate socio-historical lenses. Since popular analyses of Samurai Champloo often highlight its loose interpretations of Japanese history and Tokugawa society, it is worth considering a similar type of treatment first. In order to do so, we would be forced to assume that Mugen is a reflection of a specific group in Edo Japan, and therefore beholden to the norms by which they abided at the time. A superficial reading might then emphasize certain parallels between his physical appearance and the style of the late-Tokugawa and early-Meiji shishi, or “men of spirit.” According to Eiko Siniawer, the shishi were violent, anti-shogunate political activists who hailed from domains like Satsuma, Chōshū, and Tosa. Their endeavors carried them to prominent cities across the country, but shishi active in the capital city of Edo were particularly recognizable as a result of their “long hair, unshaven faces and unwashed bodies, light and casual clothing, and bare feet in wooden clogs.” These contemporary descriptions are almost an exact match for Mugen, and are further reinforced by his apparent lust for physical violence; it was not uncommon for shishi to intimidate, assault, or assassinate their opposition. The only problem is that the character himself is apolitical. Despite the breadth of his moral shortcomings, he is steadfastly opposed to following orders and outright rejects any notion of life lived in service to others.

    In keeping with this Tokugawa-oriented approach, we might alternately consider Mugen to be an embodiment of historical mainland stereotypes of Ryukyuan peoples. There is a slightly greater amount of textual support for doing so. After all, Mugen is meant to serve as a foil to Jin, the “noble samurai.” Everything about his character, ranging from his gluttonous eating habits to his frenetic movements in combat, exists in stark contrast to Jin’s refined nature and “proper” training. Mugen is the Other, an outlier from a place far beyond the confines of mainstream Japanese society as it appears in the series.

    Ryukyuan islanders may have occupied a similar space in Tokugawa Japan. Indeed, contact between Japan and the Ryukyu Islands can be traced to the end of the Yamato period (250-710), at which point the court “sent envoys for the purpose of establishing relations” with the “Southern Islands (Nantō).” However, Japanese influence was relatively limited over the ensuing six or seven centuries, and the islands themselves maintained strong ties with Ming China from 1372. The shadow of Chinese culture consequently loomed large through the establishment of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879) and its subordination to Satsuma’s Shimazu after the Battle of Sekigahara; Chinese models of architecture, court ranks, rituals, land ownership, and even animal husbandry were not uncommon throughout the island chain. Meanwhile, a Satsuma-led “de-Japanization” policy intended to appease the Ming — and ensure a continued source of trade — might have subsequently contributed to “preconceptions on the mainland of Okinawans” as “inferior,” “strange,” “exotic,” and/or “Chinese.”

    The issue here is that discriminatory attitudes were not limited to the Tokugawa period. Mainland prejudices against Ryukyuan / Okinawan individuals still mirror historical perceptions even today, but are arguably more widespread due to the increased frequency of travel between the regions and widespread nature of visual media. They also reflect the added weight of history, including the economic impact of the American occupation upon the island of Okinawa itself. In fact, it is not uncommon for Okinawans in Japan to experience discrimination in the housing or labor markets linked to lingering assumptions about their poverty and criminality. And while a post-1972 “Okinawa boom” is commonly touted as a step forward, it has only served to commodify, fetishize, and thereby reinforce the other-ness of Okinawan culture.

    Recent issues like these comprise the foundation of our second analytical lens, which insists upon viewing Mugen as a product of contemporary Japanese society whose story just happens to be set in the not-so-distant past. By adopting this approach, we retain a greater ability to account for the active role of authorial intent, as well as the passive influence of thematic subcurrents of life in late-1990s / early-2000s Japan. The former is undoubtedly most important for our purposes because Watanabe intentionally links Mugen with a minority identity through a disconnected series of visual and aural sequences. On both occasions when he is near death, for example, Mugen has visions of being surrounded by shadowy figures in “robes” of leaves; in one case, they appears as graphite-style sketches on a white background. The figures are never identified in the series, but fan theories suggest that they might represent the Paantu, a group of supernatural beings celebrated on Miyako Island. This would make some sense, especially considering the fact that it is also on one of these occasions that we hear “Obokuri-Eeumi,” a song by Asazaki Ikue of the Amami Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture. A similar musical shift takes place when Mugen encounters the Ainu Okuru playing Andō Umeko’s “Pekambe Uk” on the tonkori. He inquires of the song’s origin and expresses his surprise: “We’re from places nowhere near one another, but I’ve heard similar music.”

    Despite his apparent reliance on ethnic stereotypes and clear effort to link Mugen with traditional elements of Ryukyuan / Okinawan culture, Watanabe never actually engages in processes of discrimination or fetishization himself. In fact, he has previously described his inclusion of racial and social minorities in both Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop as part of a conscious effort to ensure they are represented accurately. It is therefore unlikely that he intended for audiences to read Mugen as little more than a “backward Ryukyuan criminal.” Instead, Watanabe evokes this stereotype with a stock set of images (e.g., casual clothing, a crude nature, and an inclination toward violence) in order to actively deconstruct it through further characterization.

    Mugen, after all, remains with Fuu and Jin for a reason. He tells the pirate Mukuro that “they ain’t [his] friends” and he just “promised [he’d] protect them,” but even a willingness to abide by such a simple promise is admirable for a so-called criminal. There is something inside of him akin to a code of honor, albeit in an amorphous (and perhaps inconsistent) form. It is for this reason that he refrains from killing Koza, a friend from his youth, after she betrays him: Mugen knows the struggles that she faced on their home island and empathizes with her decisions. The same holds true for the conclusion of his duel with Jin. After their swords break, Mugen says, “I don’t feel like killin’ you at all.” If he were a “true” criminal, or nearly as detached as he pretends to be, he could have easily found a way to continue the fight. But he instead chooses to prioritize his respect for — and friendships with — both Jin and Fuu in the end.

    A title card of Mugen. On the left, he rubs his neck and yawns. On the right, he faces forward with a smug expression. Behind him are overlapping images of a rooster. The entire shot is tinged in red.

    Jin: The Noble Warrior

    As noted briefly above, Jin initially appears to differ from Mugen in nearly every imaginable way. If Mugen is callous, reckless, and unrefined, Jin is considerate, prudent, and cultured. His fighting style is graceful and minimalistic, characterized by a finely-tuned economy of motion, and he regularly carries himself with a disarming poise that belies his confidence and strength of will. At the same time, he is a man of few words; Fuu criticizes Jin for “speaking” in non-verbal utterances (e.g., “Hmm,” “Mmm”) during their capture, and admits that she knows little about him at the end of their journey. Jin’s actions, and the words of those around him, ultimately serve to tell us more about his character than any measure of emotional openness on his part.

    Of course, each of these characteristics is to be expected. Jin is meant to embody the cinematic stereotype of the noble samurai, which is itself derived from conceptions of bushidō that emerged around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Such conceptions are fairly diverse, and typically oriented toward the unique social concerns of their respective creators, but one in particular provides a clear glimpse into his nature. According to Nitobe Inazō, author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan, bushidō is “the code of moral principles which the knights [of Japan, the samurai] were required or instructed to observe.” These principles encompass a wide range of personal qualities, all of which are inextricably linked and many of which have since filtered into the popular consciousnesses of both the United States and Japan. Thus, Nitobe says that a true knight-samurai is loyal to their sovereign and country, courageous and calm in the face of danger, morally upright, benevolent, polite, truthful, and honorable. They should be appropriately educated in the various military arts, but still have enough practical (i.e., nonmilitary) knowledge to reinforce their sense of self-awareness. And, lastly, they must disdain “the art[s] of making or hoarding” money.

    [Nitobe’s Bushido was not particularly well received after its initial publication in Japan in 1900. However, it rapidly gained traction amongst English-speaking populations and experienced a surge in popularity in Japan in the second half of the twentieth century. I have consequently chosen to rely on Nitobe because I feel it more closely reflects the popular perception of bushidō around the time of Samurai Champloo’s production.]

    Jin possesses each of these qualities to a certain degree, but none guide his actions more than loyalty and honor. In one of his first lines in the series, he condemns the corrupt governor’s retainers for their choice of lord: “To serve your lord and do his bidding. Is that honor? Even if that lord is a piece-of-shit nobody?” He poses a similar question to Kariya Kagetoki in their final duel, expressing his astonishment at the fact that “a man as skilled as [him would] stoop to being the Shogunate’s dog.” Both lines suggest that the decision to grant one loyalty is necessarily contingent upon the capability of a given swordsman; a “true” samurai must refrain from serving an inferior lord, lest they sacrifice their own honor in the process. As a result, honor itself becomes something that must be retained at all costs. Jin repeatedly refuses to part with his swords because he deems them “the embodiment of a warrior’s soul,” a tangible source of pride for a samurai. He also elevates his rivalry with Mugen, and their promise to finish their duel at the end of the journey, to a near-sacred status. When he believes that the pirate Mukuro killed Mugen, Jin tells him that “I was supposed to be the one who killed him” — and then cuts Mukuro down in turn. The obvious implication here is that Mukuro deprived Jin of the ability to fulfill his own obligation, and thereby put his honor as a warrior at risk. The only way he could hope to rectify this wrong was by slaying the transgressor.

    However, Jin is not the perfect samurai. He places such a strong emphasis upon loyalty and honor that he spends much of his life alone, bereft of a lord and anything akin to real friendship. Nobody is worthy enough to warrant his loyalty, and every other path in life is less than honorable for a man of his skill. He is consequently stuck, a ronīn without a way out. In fact, Jin refuses to pawn his swords for food — despite knowing that the trio is perpetually penniless and starving — on at least two separate occasions, but then decries the alternative of using them in a street performance for coin. Meanwhile, he seems to struggle with the very notion of life in service to another person. A flashback to his encounter with the swordsman-monk Zuikou reveals the extent of his uncertainty: “Man is naturally born into a state of freedom. He is not born so that he might submit to rules or a master. But does this not contradict the duties of a warrior?” This line of thinking might even explain Jin’s relationships with his former sensei, Mariya Enshiro, and Fuu, the only two individuals to whom he ever seems remotely beholden. He believes in loyalty, but not enough to stop him from killing Mariya and repeatedly leaving Fuu or allowing her to be kidnapped and insulted.

    The end result is a complex figure. Jin is neither the idealized samurai of the American consciousness nor a complete embodiment of Japanese bushidō à la Nitobe. His conception of loyalty is not uniform, but his effort to understand it is sincere. He looks toward the past and martial tradition for guidance, but wears modern glasses “for show.” And he believes in sacrificing himself for the “greater good” of Fuu’s mission, but fails to do so properly. In these ways, Jin subtly exhibits the same qualities of imperfection and superficiality that supposedly make Mugen a “criminal Other.” It is therefore not surprising that he readily admits “[he’s] no saint” at the start of their journey — and that in the final episode, we see this made manifest. As Jin returns to confront Kariya one last time, the camera tilts upward over his body: He has lost his glasses; the right half of his haori hangs loose, revealing his chest; and his long hair is undone, blowing in the wind. Like Mugen, he looks “wild.” Moreover, although the subsequent duel initially proceeds with a rapid and highly choreographed series of sword strokes reminiscent of traditional chanbara, it takes a surprising, “last resort” technique — the use of his daishō — for him to win. It is in his final battle of the series, then, that Jin chooses to fight “wild,” as well.

    A title card of Jin. In the center, he thrusts forward with his katana, one knee bent to the ground. A rotated image of the same stance appears behind him, shifted slightly to the left. A close-up of his foot appears enlarged behind him to the right. The image is tinted blue, but the center image of Jin is red.

    [Continue to Part 3!]