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Kill Bill marked a huge comeback for cult director Quentin Tarantino. Bristling with all of his trademark panache, it also showcased some new styles in storytelling, not least a brief but stunning use of animation to tell the history of one particular character. This animation brutally, violently but succinctly told the story of a young girl who witnessed the bloody death of her father at the hand of Yakuza assassins. Now the creators of this short episode have come up with a new series, stupidly entitled Samurai Champloo. Aside from this silly title—that is not related to any hair products that I am aware of - the animation is simply superb, everything you would expect from the same people who added that extra colour to Kill Bill.

Samurai Champloo: Volume 1
Film
We are (supposedly) in Feudal Japan and Fuu is a capricious young lady having a hard time working as a waitress in a bar. One day her customers get a little too physical and she enlists the help of a stranger who breezes into the town to take on her oppressors. The stranger, a young man named Mugen who is a little rough around the edges, is a gifted street fighter and swordsman, unmatched by any of the local crime family members or their bodyguards. Across town the mafia boss is exacting an unnecessarily severe punishment of an innocent member of the townsfolk. Another stranger, an older man by the name of Jin, decides to intervene—despite protestations by onlookers who maintain that the boss's bodyguards will cut him down in the blink of an eye. He too is a great warrior, a masterless samurai—a ronin—seemingly with no equal. When these two strangers clash, however, all hell breaks loose. Fuu finds herself jobless and homeless and the three of them reluctantly go on the run together, also searching for a mystical samurai 'who smells of sunflowers'.

Samurai Champloo: Volume 1
This first volume features four episodes: the opening episode—Tempestuous Temperaments—sets the stage, the second episode—Redeye Reprisal—is a standalone adventure, and the third and fourth are a two-part story, Hellhounds for Hire. Utilising flashbacks and rapid editing, the stylish production borrows concepts from everything from Frankenstein (for the second episode) to Kurosawa's samurai movies, and even their Sergio Leone / Clint Eastwood remakes (for the two-parter). However if you are not gripped within the opening few minutes of the pilot then I would be surprised because, despite the homage it pays to many other works, the style and energy of this production makes it almost unique. Similar but slightly more accessible than the great works of Peter Chung (Aeon Flux, Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury and Animatrix), the characters, setting, action and dialogue are all fantastic, with some rip-roaring epic samurai and yakuza conflicts over the course of this first volume. Personally, I can't wait to see the rest of their adventures.

Video
The presentation is immaculate. The show has been given a 1.78:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer that glistens at every opportunity. The detail is superb throughout, with a crystal clear image that does occasionally display softness—but only when it is intentionally trying to bring certain aspects into focus. There is no grain and the animation practically comes to life in this transfer, flames melting the scenes and electric blue slashes tracing the paths of the deadly samurai blades that are wielded. The colour scheme is broad and beautiful, not least the wondrous red sunsets and dreamy blue skies. Of course the transfer exhibits no print damage whatsoever and overall it looks simply fabulous.

Samurai Champloo: Volume 1
Audio
We get several good audio tracks with this release, although it does make it difficult to chose which one is best because the DTS is only available in the original Japanese language, whereas the Dolby 5.1 is only available for the English dub. Both tracks are superb, with dialogue being given significant directionality, and always clear and coherent, effects coming fast and furious from all around—particularly during the sword-fighting—and an interesting soundtrack that utilises everything from hip hop and rap to standard HK ballad. The trouble lies in the voice actors they chose for the parts. Normally I would advocate the original Japanese soundtrack for any production, but with animation you can seldom notice lip-synch issues no matter what language it is in, and with productions like Ghost in the Shell, the English alternative is often superior. Here the Japanese track sounds the most natural for all of the side characters and the lead female, but the two lead males come across as almost indistinguishable—primarily in age—something which does not ring true in the story. In particular, the young rogue Mugen seems desperately misrepresented.

Samurai Champloo: Volume 1
Conversely, on the English dub, the dialogue seems slightly less natural, more forced, and the side characters slightly of-kilter, but the two male leads are spot on. Mugen sounds suitably young and brash, whilst Jin comes across as more mature and cultured. The biggest downside though, is that the girl sounds just plain irritating—we're talking irritating like the bubble-gum blowing prostitute from the Steve Martin comedy The Man with Two Brains. Still, if you're prepared to take her screechy, grating twelve-year-old schoolgirl voice for the duration (which isn't that bad when you consider her screen-time is not as much as that of the male leads) then I would recommend the English Dolby 5.1 dub. The Japanese 2.0 track is clearly inferior to both other offerings, but is a nice touch for those without DTS who may like to hear it in its original language. The English subtitles are fairly good throughout, for those who do chose to go down that road.

Extras
There is a limited set of extras that comes with volume one of Samurai Champloo. The 'Battlecry' promo video is a ninety-second music video for the opening title track, showcasing some of the best bits from the series. Presented in a basic Dolby 2.0 track, it is quite a good hip-hop offering, but the visuals are merely scenes you will already have seen. There are also two teaser trailers—a thirty second one and a fifteen second one, which is just a shorter version of the same material. Both give you a good taste of the series without giving anything away at all. Finally we get a compilation trailer for two other animated releases, R.O.D. and Gungrave. From the former, the first makes absolutely no sense (mainly because of a lack of English subtitles) but features a random naked chick writhing amidst Japanese lettering, whilst the latter looks like quite a good pseudo-cowboy anime in the same style as Vampire Hunter D.

Samurai Champloo: Volume 1
Overall
Please don't be put off by the silly name, Samurai Champloo is well worth your time. Fans of classic Japanese Samurai films, classic Leone westerns and of course modern animations like Aeon Flux, The Animatrix and Ghost in the Shell will not be disappointed. This release has a fabulous transfer and several solid audio tracks along with a nominal collection of extras. If there's a boxed set slated then that's what I would buy, but if you can't wait then volume one is definitely worth your money, or at the very least worth a rental.


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