Samurai Champloo looks and smells (when you become a hundredth as insane as it is) and sounds like the botched memory of a fallen God, drunk and out on his ass alone, in some unpopulated corner of the planet, residing in a time where unfinished business was a virtue; a land of mystic uselessness, the era of the death of purpose, the directionless abyss of the perpetually bored.
Its three fascinating protagonists inevitably bring to mind Cowboy Bebop’s magnificent failures masquerading as people with actual ambition, without any hint of irony. Being broke is their superpower, second only to stumbling headfirst into unneeded trouble for no reason and to no reasonable end whatsoever. There is a reason Edo Japan and 22nd century outer space connect in this manufactured continuum, running like parallel rays in opposite directions and creating an illusion of difference so perfect it is shattered only when you acknowledge how much of it is like real life.
I have been wondering a lot if Shinichiro Watanabe is God. What passes for plot in his anime series is ridiculously close to the LSD-laden dream visions of a crazed genius who is hair-split close to the truth and lie of the universe. After the aforementioned genius makes his or her peace with the realization that the universe’s truth IS in its lie, it’s like s/he calls up Watanabe through some unobtrusive communication device, and asks to share these worthless secrets with mankind in disguise.
Watanabe, being the unrestrained beast of insanity that he is, puts it first in an anime where space cowboys merrily bounty-hunt through the chaos of creation, sets it in the future of what lesser humans falsely perceive as Time, and sets the score of a 22nd century tale to old-school jazz.
Then, being the unrestrained beast of insanity that he is, he does it again, not satisfied with only one once-in-a-century masterwork, prepping up another anime offering in the next five years, this time plotting the invisible outline of that scattered wisdom set in the Edo period of Medieval Japan, punctuated and enlivened by a score of modern rap, R-n-B and stir-fry hip-hop.
Most surprising of all, though, is that it works. Spectacularly, soul-shatteringly well.
Now, I do not presume to really understand what both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo are about. I have made my peace with the fact that every time (once every year, no less, no more) I watch and re-experience these fictional universes, the less I will know about them. Their existential bullet-points redact slowly with time, or so I thought, disappearing into the dusky night of my subconscious like an untamed monster baring its fangs in front of me for the last time.
And then, out of nowhere, you miss the son of a bitch monster.
The cycle of rediscovery begins again, this time informed by your perception of what the respective shows stand for in your head, ready to be twisted into unrecognizable shards of what sane fanboys and girls call psychological implications. Bebop and Champloo stretch beyond that horizon of self-important and vain critical analysis, resting on the impressionistic gaze of its piercing meaningfulness into your soul rather than your flawed mental faculties.
It sets Watanabe’s work apart from lesser anime: anime which focuses on wonderfully brilliant plot twists, bizarre settings and profoundly imaginative characters. I’m often asked by my blinded-by-live-action popular culture compatriots why anime holds such a special and objectively superior place in my mind. The reason is simple: it makes me feel like less of a freak for having dreams where I am consumed by my own being. There is, quite literally, no limit to what you can conjure up to tell your story in an anime, combining sights and sounds to put forth the nakedness of the dark human will, spirituality or plain voyeuristic fun awesome enough to give the viewer a time of his life and then have him die a la Infinite Jest due to overexposure to pure magic.
You can say the same with regular 3D animation and live-action now that visual effects evolve exponentially faster than our human sensibilities. Technically speaking, you can very well show anything you want in a film or TV show in live-action without compromising on your vision (Tim Burton’s gorgeous rendition of Alice in Wonderland comes to mind). But there is something in the texture and canvas of a frame of anime that makes me imagine in a new color. It’s painting and poetry in motion with the depraved creative impulses of a maniac who happens to be the sweetest, most emphatic person that you’ll never personally meet during this lifetime.
Paradoxically enough, the restriction of anime to two-dimensional artistry is what raises it beyond the trappings of time and context. I really believe every person who has watched the best of anime, including front and center, of course, Miyazaki’s films, has experienced that particular work independent of everything and everyone else in his or her surroundings. No two people in the millions of fans worldwide could ever agree on what Bebop is actually about.
When I pass away, if there is a heaven, I would like visit there once, call in favors from the obscure, alcoholic God there, set up a kickass home theater system all to myself, and binge on Shinichiro Watanabe’s works for my soul’s redemption.
And this beautifully crazy hope is this only thing that fuels every decision I make in life from here on out.