• Subverting Chanbara: The Case of Samurai Champloo, Part 3

    [Continued from Part 2!]

    As a final note, we have to acknowledge that neither Mugen nor Jin are unique in their subversion of chanbara tropes. Although they — and their battles — are ostensibly the focal points of the series, the two are surrounded by a rotating cast of characters whose actions and/or words continually highlight the complex nature of human morality.

    In one episode, for example, random villagers and soldiers believe the giant, disfigured Oniwakamaru to be an ogre, yet he ultimately saves Fuu by crushing the neck of her captor and would-be assassin. On another occasion, we learn that the Kawara Yakuza is led by Heitaro the Buddha, a middle-aged man who refused to disband the group lest “the [local] youngsters” lose the only place they could call home. Later still, a young man named Shinsuke fences opium to buy medicine for his terminally ill mother; the Niwa Brothers appear to be little more than thugs, at least until they inform Jin that they want to graffiti Hiroshima Castle as vengeance for their father’s disgrace and suicide; and Sara, a blind goze who travels with the trio for some time, reveals herself to be a skilled assassin, but admits that she was forced to take her most recent contract in order to see her son.

    Each of these cases serves to undermine the oversimplified moral narratives that characterize (Japanese) melodrama — and the melodramatic chanbara, by extension. The heroes are not always heroic, and the villains are not always villainous; rather, they exist somewhere in the middle by the end of the tale. At the same time, the series leaves us with only questions about the validity of “good” and “evil” because it never attempts to provide any answers to their moral dilemmas: Oniwakamaru and Sara allow Mugen to cut them down, Shinsuke dies at the hands of local guardsmen, and Heitaro takes his own life to save his son. None are given the opportunity to experience any real character development, and none are forced to face the long-term repercussions of their negative actions.

    But this is intentional. All are merely brief encounters on a much longer journey to find the Sunflower Samurai. They are side characters, literally and figuratively, but their actions show that honor, courage, and benevolence are never limited to the samurai alone.

    Historical characters undergo a similar type of treatment. Whereas the aforementioned criminals actively subvert audience expectations by showing that they are capable of goodness, the series takes extensive liberties with its portrayals of real-world figures to passively illustrate the limits of reality over fiction. Thus, an ukiyo-e artist named Hishikawa creates a print of Fuu that finds its way to Holland and inspires Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; Isaac Titsingh, Governor General of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), inadvertently falls in love with a male kabuki actor before revealing that it is “even better” because he is actually gay; and Jin is nursed back to health by a red-haired, gap-toothed, half-crazy hermit who claims to be the legendary Miyamoto Musashi.

    All are meant to be read as lighthearted instances of artistic license because they seem so absurd. However, the world of Samurai Champloo is a world in which tradition and modernity are connected and good and evil exist within a single individual — in other words, it is a world not entirely unlike our own. The “fictional” idea of a red-haired Musashi is therefore implied to be hardly any more absurd than the “real” legends that surround his swordsmanship, and hardly any less difficult to verify. Here, then, the series undermines its roots in chanbara by problematizing the super-reality of melodrama. It reminds us that the idealized past, a past that supposedly produced legendary swordsmen, might have not been so ideal after all.

    But aside from Mugen or Jin, no single secondary character better embodies the inverted expectations of history, reality, and morality than Heike Shige. As his name suggests, Shige claims descent from the Heike / Taira Clan of Heian Japan, one of the most prominent side branches of the early modern imperial line. Mugen, Jin, and Fuu encounter Shige in a crater-turned- excavation site, which he insists is home to the treasure of the Heike and the key to his goal of overthrowing the shogunate. He tells the trio that he and his workers have been searching for the treasure for five years, but Fuu soon discovers that the target of his ire is the Kamakura Shogunate — and not the Tokugawa. At the same time, she realizes that his workers seem to subsist on wasabi root alone, and appear to have the ability to recover from gruesome bodily harm.

    She confronts Shige to inform him that he has been digging for five hundred years, but he refuses to listen; instead, he responds by resurrecting dozens of his deceased workers and threatening to add her to their numbers. Fuu is only saved when a weakened Jin reveals that the genealogical scroll Shige keeps with him is actually incomplete: There is a clear break between his own name and those of his Heike ancestors. When the zombies turn toward Shige, furious that they have wasted their (after)lives, he strums his biwa; turns his head toward the sky; exclaims, “Thank you for watching!”; and summons a meteor onto the dig site. The episode ends with a shot of Ogami Ittō and Daigorō (of Koike Kazuo’s Lone Wolf and Cub) observing the resulting mushroom cloud from afar.

    Casual observers treat the tale of Shige as pseudo-filler, a deviation from the main plot that serves only to underscore Watanabe’s flippant attitude toward history (and passion for zombie flicks). For them, it is simply the “bizarre” zombie episode. The problem with these descriptions is that they necessarily fail to acknowledge the ways in which Shige mirrors both Mugen and Jin. His intentions are, after all, noble: He aims to restore the Heike to their former glory by overthrowing the “usurping” Kamakura. The plan itself is a romantic one, but it turns tragic as Shige loses track of time — and loses his own humanity — in the process. Meanwhile, this stoppage of time leads to a conflation of tradition and modernity that manifests through Shige’s own body. He is simultaneously young and old, alive and dead, a relic of the past unable to live within the present. And when he learns that he is not a true Heike, he breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly. In that moment, the line between reality and fiction collapses, and the entire narrative falls apart as even the primary trio seems to be caught in the meteor’s path.

    But Mugen, Jin, and Fuu all return in the next episode, the beginning of the series’ final arc. Shige and his zombies thus subvert our expectations of not only history, reality, and morality, but also the structure of a standard narrative. The conclusion is not a conclusion, despite its atomic implications, and the heroes live to journey onward another day. More importantly, Shige illustrates the extremes of a “fanatic” devotion to the past (Jin) and “criminal” life without thought in the present (Mugen). Neither is tenable in the end, but both are ultimately capable of mediating the other.

    Ogami Ittō and Daigorō watch the mushroom cloud rise along the horizon.

    Concluding Thoughts

    On a panel in February 2006, Watanabe Shinichirō gave a list of Samurai Champloo’s cinematic influences. Among them were Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), and a Japanese character named Zatoichi, the focus of a television series (1974-1979) and more than two-dozen films (1962-1989, 2003). Unlike his chanbara predecessors, Zatoichi is blind, yet still capable of wielding two blades (or a blade and scabbard) simultaneously and to deadly effect. The character is also known in part for his checkered past, one for which he attempts to atone through his present actions. Even so, he remains a perpetual outsider, a wanderer incapable of fitting into society and consequently forced to survive on its literal and figurative borders.

    Similar themes of inverted expectations, moral complexity, and liminality permeate the entirety of Samurai Champloo. As we have seen, neither Mugen nor Jin fit the stereotype of Ryukyuan criminal or noble samurai; rather, both characters subvert popular assumptions about their respective roles by embodying characteristics of their counterpart. Mugen thus exhibits an amorphous code of honor at least somewhat reminiscent of bushidō, while Jin struggles with the notion of loyalty and the need to subordinate himself to a lord. And in the process, they each come to embody and undermine a series of binaries — tradition and modernity, good and evil, Japanese and non-Japanese (Ryukyuan) — that are themselves derived from historical manifestations of chanbara and bushidō.

    Mugen, Fu, and Jin stand at a crossroads.

    Additional Reading

    [Note: As with other academic papers posted here, I’ve removed footnotes to ease the experience of reading in a web browser. This means that paraphrased or summarized material is not always explicitly attributed, particularly in the introductory “lit review” in Part 1. My writing is heavily indebted to each of the authors below, academic or otherwise, and I am always happy to provide additional citations from my original paper as necessary.]

    “Episode 22 – Cosmic Collisions.” Amalgam: A Samurai Champloo Fansite. Accessed 24 April 2020.

    “Shinichiro Watanabe at Detroit Film Theatre, Feb. 8th, 2006.” Amalgam: A Samurai Champloo Fansite. Accessed 24 April 2020.

    “The Complete Guide to Anachronisms in Samurai Champloo – Cosmic Collisions.” Amalgam: A Samurai Champloo Fansite. Accessed 24 April 2020.

    blautoothdmand. “Samurai Champloo: Anachronisms, counterculturalism, and going against the grain.WordPress. Published 16 April 2016.

    drealyn22. “Untitled Response to Anonymous Question.Tumblr. Published 14 July 2017.

    onereadleaf. “Samurai Champloo: Creative, Cynical History.WordPress. Published 18 February 2013.

    Benzon, William L. “Postmodern is Old Hat: Samurai Champloo.” Mechademia: Second Arc, Vol. 3 (2008): 271-274.

    Bolton, Christopher. Interpreting Anime. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

    Coates, Jennifer. Making Icons: Repetition and the Female Image in Japanese Cinema 1945-1964. Hong Kong, PRC: Hong Kong University Press, 2016.

    Davis, Darrell William. Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    DeHart, Jonathan. “Forbidden Ink: Japan’s Contentious Tattoo Heritage.The Diplomat. Published 4 October 2016.

    Figal, Gerald. Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

    Harootunian, Harry. “‘Detour to the East’: Noel Burch and the Task of Japanese Film.” In Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, ed. Annette Michelson. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979.

    Kearns, Angel. “Inked and Exiled: A History of Tattooing in Japan.” Bodylore. Accessed 15 April 2020.

    Rabson, Steve. The Okinawa Diaspora in Japan: Crossing the Borders Within. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

    Park, Macy. “Anachronistic Anarchy: A Linguistic Character Analysis of Shinichiro Watanabe’s Samurai Champloo.The Eagle Feather. Accessed 24 April 2020.

    Siniawer, Eiko Maruko. Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan,1860-1960. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

    Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro. “Logic of Sentiment: The Postwar Japanese Cinema and Questions of Modernity.” Ph.D. Dissertation: University of California, San Diego, 1993. ProQuest ID: 9330404.