By now, everyone’s seen Cowboy Bebop, right? For better and worse, it’s garnered a reputation as something like The Wire of anime, a foundational ur-text that helped lay the framework for the acceptance of its medium as one worthy of critical interest in the United States and elsewhere. While a place in such an illusory “canon” can certainly help a creator’s career, it has a way of overshadowing your subsequent work—just ask David Simon.
And though director Shinichiro Watanabe’s follow-up—the anachronistic Edo period piece Samurai Champloo—has remained popular within the anime community since its 2004 release, it lacks the crossover appeal that Bebop has enjoyed for almost twenty-five years. But though both shows represent a stylistic zenith that few works have been able to match in the intervening years, there are certain aspects of Champloo that remain relatively under examined despite its mammoth success. And it all goes back to the somewhat hokey idea of “character alignment.”
Even if you’ve never played a roleplaying game, I’m sure you’ve seen the memes, the 3×3 grids that categorize fictional characters, or your favorite athletes, or even household appliances according to two different axes running from “chaotic” to “lawful,” and “evil” to “good,” with neutral in-between. Though the latter distinction often defines the spectrum entirely in tabletop games, D&D’s original conception of alignment only included lawful, neutral, and chaotic as character options, leaving players and Dungeon Masters to determine a hard-and-fast system of morality for themselves.
Bebop and Hip Hop
For all the frenetic, intoxicating flavor of Bebop—a show that demolishes and reknits itself on an episode-by-episode basis, like the improvisational free jazz that inspired it—its lack of overarching structure gives it a distinct atmosphere that few have tried to emulate. In contrast, Champloo follows a much more linear structure, employing no less than five multi-part episodes crafted with a sharp eye towards continuity and character development. Bebop has only two, including its finale.
In the pilot, teenage waitress Fuu recruits two reluctant swordsmen—the calm, controlled Jin and the brash, temperamental Mugen—to accompany her on a nation-spanning quest to find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. Despite all their shenanigans, party break-ups and reformations, Champloo manages to stick to this formula all the way through its 26-episode runtime. Whereas Bebop excels at pushing its static characters into dynamic situations—with the exception of Spike, the clear series protagonist— Champloo’s characters grow and change over the course of their adventure.
Despite their individual quirks, Bebop’s beloved cast of bounty hunters all land somewhere on the “chaotic” side of things, which makes true character-driven conflict among the leads a relative rarity. Intra-party feuds typically only spring up when money is at stake, either through a particularly lucrative bounty or otherwise. In Champloo, however, the stark divide between Jin—lawful—and Mugen—chaotic—is the engine that powers much of the plot, as well as providing much of the show’s social commentary. After all, the real reason that Jin and Mugen stick with Fuu is that they feel a strange desire to kill the other.
Lawless and Order
I can see fans of Champloo already raising their hands in protest: surely Jin isn’t really a “lawful” character. After all, he illegally cuts down countless thugs and soldiers throughout the series, as well as flaunting everyday regulations, like sneaking through a border. While that’s certainly true, Jin’s character tendency isn’t exactly aligned with the law, but rather towards a vague concept of “order” that varies from episode to episode. Unlike Mugen, who rushes into lethal scraps based on nothing but an insult, Jin tries his best to stick to a personal code, largely derived from bushido, a somewhat nebulous collection of ideas associated with the samurai of the Edo period.
As a masterless ronin, Jin once occupied a higher strata of society than his two travelling companions. This somewhat-exalted origin is reflected in his highly orthodox fighting style—all straight lines and linear movement, a far-cry from Mugen’s hurricane of limbs and strikes. Though his faith in his social position proved to be misplaced, Jin continually expresses a desire to serve a just master, as bushido says a samurai should. As a result of his experience, however, he concludes that all the lords of the era are corrupt and self-serving, and thus undeserving of his sword. Unfortunately for him, this choice leaves him without a title, status, or ties to anyone else—under the law, he is little more than a vagrant living under a shroud of disgrace.
His chaotic counterpart Mugen’s upbringing is far less auspicious. Though Champloo leaves many of the particulars up in the air, it’s clear he was born on a penal colony in the Ryukyu Islands. It’s unclear which exact island Mugen hails from, but indigenous Ryukyuan people have faced some degree of discrimination and xenophobia from mainlanders for the entirety of Japanese history, and that certainly factors into his character. As such, the episodes of Champloo that deal with Mugen’s apparent homeland take great care to depict the struggles he was born into, including many shots of desolate fishing villages patrolled by toughs itching for a fight. These circumstances ultimately forced him and some childhood friends to turn to piracy, which probably resulted in at least one term in prison, if his tattoos are to be trusted. Unlike Jin, Mugen never really had a choice: his chaotic nature was thrust upon him.
At its best, Champloo uses this strong dynamic—along with Fuu’s sense of naive pragmatism—to its full effect. For example, in one standout episode, Jin sacrifices everything to try to save a woman from sexual slavery following a chance encounter on a bridge. At the same time, Mugen tries to make money by gambling on a series of rhinoceros beetle battles, only intervening on Jin’s behalf to get some winnings back from scumbag brothel bodyguards. While Jin chooses to adopt the gallant rescuer act—sometimes unwittingly bringing the consequences down on his comrades—Mugen is much more reactive, resorting to such a pose only when the universe pushes him towards it.
Ultimately, over the course of the series, the two characters learn to respect each others’ approach to life, and the downsides of their own. In the final episodes, Jin is forced to reckon with the fallout from the death of his former master. At the same time, Mugen is faced with the consequences of his most chaotic decision in the series, and the price he pays is severe.
Rather than succumbing to the past like Bebop’s Spike before them, the protagonists of Bebop manage to leave it behind in tatters, forging their own uncertain paths forward. While some might deride it as a slightly simplistic ending, for me, it comes off perfectly: three distinct individuals coming together, having some adventures, and then simply walking away at a crossroads, their journey complete—just like a classic game of D&D.