How to Build a Series: Samurai Champloo

I don’t talk enough about Samurai Champloo.

I guess that’s because it’s Shinichiro Watanabe’s second series, and let’s be honest: Once you’ve made Cowboy Bebop there’s only one way your career can go.

Which not to say that Watanabe’s a disappointment or anything remotely like that. He’s a brilliant anime director with a tremendous sense of timing and movement. His films ALWAYS look great, so great the animator in me sits around going, “Mmmm…..Watanabe…..(drool).”

But unlike Bebop, the plot of Champloo is hanging right there in your face. It’s great stuff, but it’s not as complex, so you watch Bebop and then you watch Champloo and you say, “Wow, that’s really good…” but that’s it.

Out of the context of Bebop, of course Champloo is a great series. How did he do it again?

Okay, to make a series you need characters, a plot, and a hook of some kind.

The main character, the protagonist, of Champloo is really unusual for the setting, mid-1800’s Japan: she’s a fifteen-year-old tea house girl. Fuu’s a great character; she’s not as downright cool as Spike Spiegel, but she’s built the same way, with obvious strengths and weaknesses that make her complex and consequently her responses to situations potentially unexpected.

When she looks at the painting of herself and says, “Well, at least he gave me nice hooters,” it kills me every time. Unexpected … but in character, right?

They put her together with Jin, a very traditional samurai very in touch with the Code Bushido, and Mugen, a nut with a sword. Note the contrast right there: Disciplined Jin versus frantic Mugen. We’ll see Jin again before we’re done here.

From left: Mugen, Fuu, Jin. No sign of Momo.

They need a plot. Hmm. I don’t know. Let’s see. Oh, I know: Let’s say Fuu is looking for her father. And all she knows about him is that he’s a samurai who smells of sunflowers.

Yeah, that’s all she knows about her father. Can you say, “One Night Stand”?

But that’s a plot, specifically, The Quest, right? They spend the whole series looking for the samurai who smells of sunflowers and when they find him the series is over. Yeah, that’s The Quest all right.

The cool thing about The Quest as a plot is that it can run however long you want. I mean, seriously: One Piece is still running, right? What makes it work is the minor characters and side plots you can run in there on the questers.

That’s another of the real strengths of Champloo: You have Fuu, who is a GREAT character and you have a wide variety of minor characters and side plots. Jin’s old dojo comes after him. Mugen’s old pirate buddies come after HIM. You’ve got the Dutchman, the painter, Sara the blind shamisen player, Yatsuha the cop, Inspector Manzo, the krazy khristians, and Abner Frickin’ Doubleday.

As I was thinking about this on one of my longs walks I realized I completely forgot about the crazy graffiti artists. Them, too.

Great side characters sprawl across the series, one after the next. More importantly, they are all DIFFERENT, which means the team has to deal with them differently. This gives variety to the plot as it runs, instead of having to have a Fight of the Week format.

That’s how The Quest works: as long as you have places to go, and as long as the audience cares what happens to the characters, the show can go on.

You know who else did that really well? Outlaw Star. Just sayin’.

Okay, but here’s the problem with The Quest: People have been doing it since Homer.

I mean, right? The Iliad is Overcoming the Monster, and the Odyssey is The Quest. Works just the same, right? Odysseus wants to get home, and Homer runs Circe and a few gods and Hades in on him, and the story can go on forever. Which made sense since as a storyteller Homer got paid by how long he was able to keep his audience interested.

So, since they’ve been doing The Quest since before Pontius was a Pilot (really old joke), how do you keep it fresh? What is there are THIS Quest that makes it different from all other Quests?

In the case of Champloo, what’s new here is the deliberate mixing of new and old.

I mean, in places they shove your face right in it, right? I mean, there are beat boxers and graffiti taggers and rappers right in the show, and we’re supposed to accept that as part of 1850’s Japan?

But it goes deeper and is more pervasive that that. Think about the music (again provided by the brilliant Yoko Kanno), how it is sometimes VERY traditional and sometimes VERY avant-garde. I mean, alongside the shamisen player you still have the rappers, right?

And then there is the historical context the narrator provides. “Look,” he says. “In modern Japan this same sort of thing goes on, just as it did in the feudal era.” He draws parallels between other times and the time of the story. He talks about modern thinking on van Gogh and the influence of Japanese art on his work.

One more thing, to quote Uncle from Jackie Chan Adventures: Did you also notice the stress between the traditional and the modern between the characters? Jin, in particular, represents the samurai life and values. In certain ways he is the equivalent of a chivalric knight, a character from the 1500’s, as much as an 1850 character. But how about Fuu, who is strong-willed and as independent a woman as she could be and still make the story work? She has a job and does not need a man (husband) in her life; her thinking is about as modern as you could pull off in a historical.

Yes, she makes Jin say, “Hmmmm.”

In fact, it’s that hook, that contrast of old and new that really sells the series, because that contrast is jarring, right? You’ve seen baseball played … but in a yukata and geta (wooden sandals)? You can see a rich man having friends … but a hip-hop backup band? You can see sibling rivalry … but in painting slogans on houses?

In 1850?

Oh, yeah, that gets the job done. Great characters, a plot that works, and a fascinating hook: That’s how you build a series!

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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