The Power of Two Plus One: Samurai Champloo

One thing I really like about Shinichiro Watanabe’s work is the way he avoids having his characters fall into the same old patterns.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “the same old patterns.” The tropes and patterns exist because they work in terms of storytelling; they create tension that drives plot or meta-plot forward, so you see the Eternal Triangle (two people vying for the love of a third), or Father-Mother-Child, or Hero, Sidekick, Girlfriend, or Mind, Body, Soul all over the place.

The Eternal Triangle is such a classic that it’s a cliché. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. There is a natural narrative tension between the two suitors, and also a separate tension internal to the person they are pursuing. If the characters are roughly equivalent in terms of what they bring to the table, the balance between them can sway back and forth both powerfully and also for a lengthy period of time.

Watanabe’s made five series, and you don’t see any of those patterns fully realized in any of them. Spike and Jet are Hero and Sidekick, but Faye is not a Girlfriend. He overlaps Eternal Triangles in Kids on the Slope, but neither triangle is real. He’s got a trio in Terror in Resonance, but again, while Nine and Twelve are Hero and Sidekick, Nina is not a Girlfriend. And Space Dandy is Hero with Two Sidekicks who couldn’t get a Girlfriend with a giant stack of woolongs.

Samurai Champloo is where he’s messed with the Eternal Triangle trope the hardest and it shows. You’ve got Mugen, Jin, and Fuu. In certain ways they are Mind (intellectual Jin), Body (active Mugen), and Soul (emotional Fuu), but they also routinely violate the boundaries of those roles. Fuu, for instance, is pretty smart, and constantly schemes for ways to keep them on their journey and to find money. Jin is a fighter the equal of Mugen. Mugen uses his muscles but follows his heart; they are each more than the trope implies and that’s why they are a great cast.

Champloo

From left, Mugen, Fuu, Jin

It’s worth looking at them from a second perspective, though, and that’s the Eternal Triangle. I mean, two guys, one gal, one the road together, bathing in the same streams, sleeping in the same rooms, right? *wink*wink*nudge*nudge*. This is amplified by the fact that the guys are already rivals. Part of their relationship’s subtext is that Mugen and Jin have vowed to fight each other at some point, to see whether Jin’s discipline can match Mugen’s raw physical ability.

So that’s one leg of the triangle. Mugen and Jin respect each other to a certain degree, but they are committed to fighting each other. When? Whenever. That’s a constant source of tension in the series: When will Mugen and Jin fight each other?

And then there’s Fuu. She thinks the guys should both be attracted to her. In fact she says as much at one point, when boys’ dicks lead them off to some women of ill repute: “Why would they want that when they have me?” Except, of course, they don’t “have” her. If she’s actually attracted to either of the guys, it never shows. Instead, she assumes they must be attracted to her.

Are they? Well, at several points they both ditch her; at others, Jin chooses the blind shamisen player Sara over Fuu; and Mugen is clearly more attracted to his childhood friend Koza (until she betrays him), the ninja Yatsuha, and, as Yatsuha knows, even the slightest suggestion of a naked woman, than he is to his companion of the road.

So we have an Eternal Triangle that only exists in the teen-aged mind of Fuu. That’s a neat source of narrative tension. We keep expecting for one or both of the guys to pursue Fuu. After all, that’s how stories are told, right? We describe the Comedy meta-plot as “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” If it’s “Boy loses girl to other guy, boy gets girl back,” it’s literally the Eternal Triangle.

And in Samurai Champloo it never happens.

Now, if I was a betting man, I’d bet if either of them end up with Fuu it’s Jin, since Yatsuha has already set her eye on Mugen, but that’s down the road. In the series as it stands we have two guys in a (straight, please, no yaoi here) bromance protecting a woman who neither of them is interested in or expects anything from romantically. You keep expecting Fuu to hook up with one of them, but it never happens. In fact, it’s never even suggested or implied. Fuu plays no favorites between Mugen and Jin, and neither shows interest in her.

And so Watanabe subverts the Eternal Triangle. Two guys, one gal, but the guys aren’t interested in the gal, and the gal’s not interested in the guys. You keep waiting for it but it’s not going to happen. The Eternal Triangle is a trope! It’s a source of tension! But in Samurai Champloo you keep waiting and waiting – it’s a source of a completely different sort of tension – and it never comes, but the show works anyway. It’s an example of what makes Shinichiro Watanabe a great director: he subverts the Eternal Triangle and makes it work.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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