When a happy ending left me hollow: Samurai Champloo

The key to enjoying a subject is to manage your own expectations. I’ve intuited this over the last couple of years when my anime consumption started increasing. This key hasn’t prevented me from dropping a number of series that are acclaimed and popular. It did however, allow me to read subjects in ways I otherwise wouldn’t because I was not getting what I expected from the anime. This accounts for the diversity of my viewing selection, while I retain my preferences for robot anime.

I didn’t expect a Cowboy Bebop from Samurai Champloo. Spike Spiegel’s swan song still stands out in my mind as one of the finest finales in anime. It punctuated a drawn-out horn solo celebrating, but mostly putting up with the emptiness of life in space after the colonization of the solar system. Samurai Champloo echoed that sadness – a kind of resigned and uncommitted farewell to the age of samurai.

With Cowboy Bebop, through its tragedy, I felt nothing else but vividness: for music, for discourse, a longing for a smoke and someone to talk to. Cowboy Bebop’s finale made me want to be around humans. Samurai Champloo had all its cast members improbably live through their final battles and pretty much find whatever was missing in their lives that made them want to go on. Their eventual breaking up however, even if pregnant with the possibility of new life, gives me nothing. Not disappointment, not elation, not a thing. It doesn’t quite leave me to a kind of apathy, because here I am, writing wanting to care about them still. But all I have is an absence of feelings, and I realize how much I long for these feelings: make me mad, fill me with sorrow, stuff my heart with bitterness and revulsion if you must. But don’t leave me with nothing!

I understand that throughout the series, even as the age of the Samurai withers around them – rarely in overt ways, the hip-hop style and urban culture presentation of the adventure seemingly indicates a positive kind of change is in the air. There’s new life in the same spirit of the passing age, even if it is a departure from the traditional and honored forms. This is probably best exemplified by heirs of the Niwa dojo, who didn’t continue with the martial arts but found expression in graffiti. I sensed Samurai Champloo wasn’t going to be a tragedy. Cowboy Bebop only had a mad cartographer that had a misplaced belief that the Earth’s surface can be habitable once more despite the perpetual rain of lunar debris. I’ve come to the idea that the metaphor for the Earth in Cowboy Bebop is in the episode where the Earth references (and the storylines of 2 other cast members) reach their end: episode 24 “Hard Luck Woman“. A broken bird, and she just can’t buy a break. Spike’s death was just the punctuation mark. What then is a possible metaphor for Samurai Champloo’s changing Japan?

Part of my problem with Samurai Champloo is how Jin managed to live after his suicide technique. The premise of the technique, a final recourse against a technically superior opponent, goes like this: let your opponent connect: the moment his strike lands will yield an opening for you to strike back. He is told by his master to use this technique only as a final recourse. I’m bothered with Jin’s survival because his opponent, Kagetoki “The Divine Hand” Kariya is decidedly superior. The blow that Jin allowed him to land should have been a fatal one. It doesn’t make enough sense to me that a cut at that level and in that situation didn’t irreparably slice Jin open.

Had Jin died, it would be tragic but there’d be closure that can open up a future for Mugen and Fuu. The thing is, the story has been set up for a Jin v. Mugen final, and I don’t blame the creators for their commitment to it.

Mugen’s battle needed to be symmetrical with Jin’s, and this was accomplished with 3 opponents, whose styles all somehow evoked – when they couldn’t exactly mirror, Mugen’s unorthodoxy and randomness.

As a contrast to Jin’s formal kenjutsu duel, fully steeped in bushido forms and codes, Mugen’s fights are chaotic and rife with sneakiness and tricks. Nobody fought “fair.” If Jin’s opponent is formidable and is portrayed to be so through his technique and anticipation, Mugen’s foes (Umanosuke, Denkibou, and Toube: brothers) had wild physics and escalating dirtiness in the tricks they employed. To match the implausibility of Jin’s survival, Mugen lives through a massive dynamite explosion.

Here’s the symmetry of the two (penultimate?) battles:

Jin v. Kariya

  • Early on Kariya was fighting both Jin and Mugen, but it was in a linear fashion (no simultaneous coordinated attacks).
  • Kariya respected Jin’s skill and therefore did not intend to have a prolonged fight.
  • Jin “came back from the dead” surviving what seemed to be a fatal technique.
  • Jin’s character development hit its peak when he figured out that he has access to greater power when he had someone beyond himself to fight for (Fuu at Kariya’s sword-point).
  • Jin finally bested Kariya by letting himself receive a (should have been fatal) strike which allowed him to thrust his own sword into Kariya’s bowels.
  • Jin lives, and wins.

Mugen v. Denkibou, then Umanosuke, then Toube

  • The brothers probably intended a torture scenario (via hostage blackmail) rather than a fight.
  • However, Denkibou was too out of control and attacked Mugen where his style of fighting is compromised (on a small boat). Mugen kills Denkibou under water.
  • Mugen somehow gets Fuu free at the cost of his disarming. Umanosuke does a drawn out torture sequence on Mugen (oblivious to the warnings of the evil overlord manual).
  • Mugen outwits the Kusari-gama (variant) wielding Umanosuke leading to a gruesome decapitation.
    The wheelchair-bound Toube shoots Mugen through the guts with a gun.
  • Toube took a page from Jin’s playbook: he had no chance in beating even a wounded and shot Mugen, so he allowed him to get near and set off over a dozen (probably) sticks of dynamite (intent on killing both of them) for a massive explosion.
  • Fuu and the should-have-been-mortally-wounded-Jin find a non-smithereen and fully functional (if beat-up) Mugen among the rocks where he fought the brothers.

Then they try to fulfill their promise to fight each other after fulfilling their mission for Fuu. But at this point their characters have grown such that they fully appreciate what they’ve come to mean for each other. They’ve found friendship in an otherwise empty life, and this has made them forsake the now nonsensical promise.
It should have been a really touching scene. But the sheer demand on the suspension of my disbelief distracts me from its poignancy. The demand still distracts me even at the crossroads where all three go in separate directions. The separation feels forced: there was no real need to part ways. There was no new direction in each of their lives other than they want to live, and the reason for such was that they found each other. So why part ways then?

Well, it certainly looks dramatic I’ll give them that. It provides another sense of symmetry that the series, for all its claims of being a mish-mash hangs on to beyond my abiltiy to understand.

So what am I left with? It’s not that I don’t get the big picture, I gave Champloo the benefit of the doubt for that. I bought the into big picture at the beginning of the series: Individuals find meaning in their empty lives through friendship with each other as the era that made them so fades away. I bought into the storytelling and into the characterizations with all their idiosyncrasies. I feel right now that they tried just a bit too hard to be cool, when I don’t feel they should even try anymore. The whole idea is cool. Most of the characters are cool. I felt the ending was forced into a tight symmetry, and it betrayed the mashup style – betrayed the chaos it portrayed, the kind of chaos that was cool. Instead it went for classical ideas of completeness and sensibility. They just had to end up that way, against all odds and against most sense.

So right now I’m having a smoke with Faye and Jet, as they talk about Spike a bit. I want to tell them about this girl Fuu, who forced two fools to help her find a samurai that smelled of sunflowers, and gave them both reasons to live in the end. Jet seems to let on some interest, but Faye is yawning already. I’ll tell them anyway, I don’t think they have anything better to do.

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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14 Responses to When a happy ending left me hollow: Samurai Champloo

  1. coburn says:

    That symmetrical fighting climax absolutely does feel forced and unreal. The betrayal of the the mashup style idea is interesting though. I’d always put the slight anticlimax down to overexcited writing, but it does make sense that the more thematically solid Bebop would have a more natural pathway laid out.

    My way of justifying the thing, at least for Jin, was that the absurd logic of the series won out over the fatalistic logic of the samurai proper.

    For me, even if the show forced its hand to get there, the fact that after all the threats of death it left with The Right Ending was enough. So I didn’t feel hollow, I felt happy, I just wasn’t prostrate in worship like I was when Bebop fell into place.

    [side note: you didn't finish FLCL! horror!]

  2. lbrevis says:

    My biggest problem with the end was, as you said, there was no real reason for them to part ways. Sure this isn’t One Piece, I didn’t think they’d stick together forever but when the time finally came it just felt flat. I was expecting something more though I’m not entirely sure what.

    I’m willing to overlook the end, though, because the journey was worth it. I’m especially fond of how they played fast and loose with history and inserted anachronisms all over the place.

  3. ghostlightning says:

    @ coburn

    Oh in the end I justify it to myself. I love it as Bebop’s runty kid brother. And it is a fierce love, a love that will always accept invitations to re-watch it when a friend heretofore unexposed to its goodness invites me; a kind of love that makes me look at baseball funny, and makes me read infinity as “Mugen”.

    But like you, I won’t prostate myself to it the way I do for Cowboy Bebop.

    I will finish FLCL soon. I consider myself chastised.

    @ Ibrevis

    The journey is everything here, and I’ve argued before that it’s the same case with Cowboy Bebop, even if the truly awesome finale takes the attention away from the journey.

    Me too, I don’t know if I wanted them to stay together as well, only that the ending was not what I thought it would be – or at least it didn’t give me what Cowboy Bebop gave me.

  4. Spike’s death felt right in the end. I can’t see any of the Champloo characters having died feeling right, especially Jin. They had only JUST fully come into being, it was way too early for them – they needed to go on with newfound potential.

  5. ghostlightning says:

    @ digitalboy

    I thought real hard about not feeling right had Jin died. You know what, you’re right.

    What could have been different? If the way to kill Kariya didn’t ask for a suicide technique. I would easily have eaten up the butterfly technique – used in “Program” in the Animatrix, as well as in Voltes V. It’s really cheesy but it should work because it is Champloo. Well, I just maybe imposing too much of Tarantino’s aesthetic on it but I think it would’ve worked.

    Same thing with Mugen. He could’ve break-dance kicked every single stick of dynamite away save the one that would kill Toube.

    These alternatives would make the finales less suspenseful, but then they could invest more in the stare-down that could’ve made the Jin v. Mugen final showdown more dramatic. They’ll choose to hug instead of fight, and it would be win.

    And in the end they could be secretly plotting to hook up with Fuu when they all went their separate ways. Mugen will get her, bet we won’t be needing to be told that.

    Okay, I’m not suggesting in any way that I’m better than Watanabe and co. I’m just sharing that this is a possible ending, one that satisfies my own personal quirks.

  6. Cuchlann says:

    I responded a bit to this over on the other post, but here are some more thoughts: Both Bebop and Champloo have a sense of invincibility due to fate. That is, Spike, Vicious, Mugen, and Jin all survive everything except each other — somehow, they’re linked in a way that guarantees their survival. Given how much I like the overall shape of stories, that appeals to me. That makes the two shows opposing forces: Spike and Vicious separate after a friendship and grow further apart, until the only thing that can happen is their mutual death. On the other hand, Mugen and Jin meet as minor rivals and spend so much time together the only thing that can happen is their mutual survival. It’s like Mugen is Jin’s mirror-universe doppelganger, and vice versa, so they survive stupid injuries because the other is still alive — like William Wilson, the eponymous character of the Poe story, who dies when he kills his double. In this case, though, life is affirmed, not death, in the thematic way you’re describing, with the promise of new life.

    It’s not very realistic, but it works thematically. And, by the way, I just talked myself into liking the ending more than I did an hour ago. Weird.

    I’ve also convinced myself that I *really* need to write that doppelganger post for Superfani. I kept bringing up doubles tonight during our discussion of Absalom, Absalom!

  7. ghostlightning says:

    Cuchlann you’ve just talked me into liking the ending more than I do. Here’s the rub: I like symmetry – I’m not so much obsessed about it but I’m compelled to perform actions that will complete a symmetry in an idea, no matter how vague.

    For example: I’m not much of a beer drinker (I prefer Scotch whiskey), but a friend invited me to go to this bar with him sometime for the unique brew. I’d normally refuse, but I saw the name of the bar: QUATTRO.

    A few months ago, I signed my name on a check as ‘Char’ out of pure fanboy whim. The banks paid no heed and cleared it (it’s very subtle). So for the past 2 months I’ve been ‘Char’ to the banking system.

    I’m not a big Char Aznble fan, I’m not that big of a Gundam fan. Yet Quattro Bajeena is my favorite incarnation of Char… who is accused of liking lolis too much, I like lolis…

    I agreed to go have a beer at Quattro.

    And yet, it doesn’t necessarily feel right or comfortable. It’s the same way with your compelling argument. At the end of the show, when the friends part ways in a symmetrical set of diverging paths, it didn’t feel truthful. So as much as I acknowledge your point and my goodness it really is good. I just feel the same way I did when I started writing this post. Or is this a greater symmetry that compels me to comment this way? Someone stop me from writing any further!

  8. cuchlann says:

    Oh, I agree, there are still problems with it. Like you (I think), I was left sort-of numb by the ending, wondering what I was supposed to take away from it.

    Character arc change is absent in a way, I think. In some ways, the characters would make the same decisions in the hypothetical future that they would have made at the show’s beginning, so I think the epilogue thing highlights that and makes us (or at least me) uncomfortable.

    I should rewatch Champloo sometime, though, as I got it haphazardly, with a gap of months between most of the show and the ending.

  9. Pingback: The Party of Awkward Hats is Diminished: I was drunk, but many interesting guests are leaving and it’s a sobering thought. « We Remember Love

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  11. Shiva Srinivasan says:

    Hey! You obviously have studied more and evidently well versed that me with regard to anime appreciation and understanding.However in my humble opinion,Samurai Champloo ended well. It seems that certain parts like the execution of Jin’s suicidal move and his subsequent survival would come across as improbable-but the feeling i got was ‘Man, miracles can happen’ and no matter how bad the circumstances are you may just be able to survive and incredibly find a friend you did not seem to acknowledge before.
    I felt the Samurai Champloo ending filled be with a sense of happiness..Anime can do wonderful things like that-Don’t you agree? Ha ha…
    Have a wonderful day!
    Shiva Srinivasan from Bangalore,India

  12. New Jack says:

    i think you all missed an important fact in this anime ending: maybe its because you guis have another version but in the end they stay together:the parting scene was a kind of “joke”.after the ending theme,there’s a kind of “bonus” where we see the 3 of they finally sticking together because they have nothing else to go for.hope this fact will be widely spread as its an amazing anime who wouldn’t have deserved the ending you all seem to believe had happened

  13. LVUER says:

    Sorry for very very late post, I just recently finished watching Samurai Champloo.

    There’s only one thing in my mind when they’re all went separate ways at the ending… open ending and possibility of season 2. Fuu said it, right? That she hope they all can meet again sometime. And seeing they often magically meet each other again even went separate ways several times before… this is a good set for season 2 and a good ending at the same time.

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