Samurai Champloo (manga) vol. 1

Samurai Champloo (manga) vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: manglobe
Format: Paperback
Price: $9.99

The all-powerful profit motive aside, I’ve never truly understood the compulsion to produce dinky little two-volume manga summaries of long-form TV series. They never seem to amount to much. But giving this treatment to shows whose identity depend heavily on things that are impossible to reproduce on the printed page – like music, cinematography, high-speed action – especially seems like a fool’s errand. This is a large part of why the manga for series like Princess Tutu, Cowboy Bebop, or in this case Samurai Champloo often feel like the very soul of the series has been ripped out during the conversion between mediums. Out of all of these, the Samurai Champloo manga seems to have escaped with the smallest amount of damage; it’s still entertaining for what it is, but it’s difficult to escape the fact that it’s just a gutted retelling of the original story.

Much like its predecessor Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo is a series of loosely-connected episodes connected by a common plot thread: a waitress named Fuu travels with vagrant ronin Jin and illegal immigrant/unorthodox swordfighter Mugen in search of “a samurai that smells of sunflowers.” Most of the episodes chronicle the various ways in which Fuu and company manage to get in and out of trouble – with the shogunate or with each other – along every step of their journey.

champloo!
Even though I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of the TV series thus far, the first chapter reveals a certain tradeoff in the trip from TV to print. The TV pilot episode was darker, richer in plot, and had much better action, but the manga has a more pervasive sense of humor. There seems to be a lot more witty repartee between the characters, and Mugen is less menacing and more comedic, and the overall tone is more lighthearted than its source material. And to its credit, most of the humor is actually pretty funny. The physical comedy and slapstick, what little of it there is, actually works, and the chemistry between the characters is genuinely amusing. The manga has a brand of laid-back, acerbic wit that saves it from being yet another joyless exercise in summarized storytelling.

But what the manga gains in humor value, it loses in everything else. The stories aren’t as involving; they play out as amusing incidents more than stories of any real weight or consequence. Despite the search for the sunflower samurai, it often seems Mugen, Jin, and Fuu are really just around to get into trouble, slaughter some bad guys, fight with each other, and have money problems. One of the more interesting parts of the story, the dynamic between Jin and Mugen, has been changed somewhat. They still genuinely dislike each other, and still hanker to duel each other to the death, but their relationship also a bit less interesting because their contempt for each other is less serious; it feels more like something out of a buddy-action-comedy than it probably should. And finally, there was a lot of stylistic flair that simply couldn’t translate to print – the fight choreography, hip-hop influence, use of music, and all the little directorial decisions that made the TV series so distinctive are gone from the manga version. Because of this, the story’s lost a large part of its identity, what originally made it so distinctive and appealing. It maintains the weird anachronisms of the TV series, but it lacks the hip-hop aesthetic that made the original so compelling.

But even so, Samurai Champloo is modestly entertaining to read, which automatically places it a cut above most of its anime-adaptation peers. It’s funny and mildly inventive, so if you’re interested in seeing the story redone in an abbreviated, more lighthearted form, then this series may not be such a bad investment. But if you want a more involved story, it would probably suit you best to just stick to the anime. Not having seen all the anime, I enjoyed the manga enough to recommend it, but if you asked me to choose between the manga and the anime, I wouldn’t have to give that choice a second thought.


Added:  Monday, March 27, 2006

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