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The Sons of a Battlecry: Samurai Champloo and Hiphop Culture

Anime and hip hop are two artistic mediums that, perhaps when first considered, do not appear to blend well together. The simple mention of anime will undoubtedly trigger a variety of references in one’s mind, ranging from action/adventure, male-oriented (also known as shonen) stories like Naruto to the glittering visuals and butt-kicking escapades of female-oriented (shoujo) shows such as Sailor Moon. However, just as hiphop does not neatly fit into a defined set of thematic categories, anime comes in a variety of flavors, thereby embodying a diverse Japanese cultural framework that shatters mainstream stereotypes of homogeneity and the broader hegemonic structures that produce them (McLeod 2013). While significant scholarly attention has been devoted to exploring the ways hiphop and anime challenge dominant structures as individual art forms, less focus has been placed on understanding how the two might merge to amplify this motif even further.

Samurai Champloo, a 2004 anime series created by Shinichiro Watanabe, serves as a premier case study of the power of a joint hiphop-anime production. The show follows three main protagonists: Mugen, an ex-pirate who brashly wields a samurai sword; Jin, who utilizes Tokugawa era, traditional samurai swordplay; and Fuu, a 15-year-old girl who enlists Mugen and Jin in an adventure to find a samurai that smells like sunflowers.    With a swing and a slash, Samurai Champloo thrusts its viewers into an alternate version of Japan’s Edo period, an adolescence-defining space filled with comedic mishaps, tenuous friendships, and lo-fi beats to swing your samurai sword to.

While the show follows a familiar coming-of-age storyline, it is far from conventional. The show remixes Japanese history by sampling the four elements of hiphop – deejaying, rapping, graffiti, and b-boying -strategically contesting techno-orientalism, a stereotype that views Japan as a homogenous dystopia driven by its desire to achieve technological domination (Morley and Robins 1995; Benzon 2008). Thus, Samurai Champloo exemplifies the value of a polycultural framework as a broader strategy for challenging racial hierarchies through coalition building.

The traditional Japanese-hiphop cultural mashup that Samurai Champloo centers is evident throughout every aspect of its cinematic execution. During its opening sequence, silhouettes of traditional Japanese architecture (ninon kenchiku) decorate the background as calligraphy characters spelling  out the show’s title and creators flash across the screen. Meanwhile Nujabes, a Japanese producer, composer, and deejay who frequently samples from hiphop and jazz, sings the show’s critically acclaimed theme song “Battlecry” while the main characters are introduced. In another episode, Jin, Fu, and Mugen play baseball with a 19th century American warship crew. In others, graffiti covers the Edo era wooden structures and thatched roofs, and record scratching marks the back and forth jumps across the show’s timeline. 

Thus, Samurai Champloo re-constructs hiphop rapping and traditional Japanese iconography to create a hybridization that sets the show in an anachronistic menagerie of the historical, futuristic, and fantastical. In doing so, it openly challenges techno-orientalist stereotypes as it simultaneously plays homage to traditional Japanese culture through its historical setting and samurai ethos, while borrowing from contemporary hiphop culture. However, rather than juxtapose the two, Samurai Champloo blends them together into a seamless, aesthetically pleasing viewing experience that forces the audience to reckon with its consciously-hybrid identity. 

Here, it’s important to acknowledge that Samurai Champloo is in no way the first instance of Japanese pop culture-hiphop convergence. Rather, it follows a long line of movies, tv shows, art, and music that uses a polycultural framework to amplify marginalized voices. From Ghostface Killah’s 1996 Speed Racer inspired music video for “Dayton 500” to the 2002 Afro Samurai manga and anime series, these art forms provide “an alternative understanding to the postcolonial” and “evince a new and increasingly cogent globally hybridized experience of identity formation in the 21st century” (McLeod 2013, 275). 

Works Cited

Benzon, William L. 2008. “Postmodern is Old Hat: Samurai Champloo” Mechademia: Second Arc 3: 271 – 274

McLeod, Ken. 2013. “Afro-Samurai: Techno-Orientalism and Contemporary Hip Hop” Popular Music 32(2): 259 – 275.

Morley, D., and Robins K. 1995. The Space of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes, and Cultural Boundaries. New York: Routledge

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