“That’s what everyone says. The meat. But that same meat could be used for anything. Curry, goulash, it’s the same ingredients.
It’s the stew mix that makes it a stew.”
—Cowboy Bebop: Knocking on Heaven’s Door
To the average person outside of Japan, one of the most familiar images of the country is undoubtedly that of the samurai. While the age of the samurai lasted approximately 700 years, from roughly 1185 to 1876 CE, these stereotypical images are almost always drawn from the early-modern Edo period (1603-1867), when Japanese society was “frozen,” at least according to official ideology, in the patterns it had acquired in the sixteenth century and before.
One of the primary vehicles for constructing this image of Japan, both in Japan and abroad, is that of the moving image. Samurai films and samurai anime are probably the most familiar forms of Japanese cinema and television in the West, and they remain among the most popular genres in Japan itself under the name chanbara, meaning ‘swordplay.’ Most such movies and anime are understandably set in the Edo period, as it provides an appealing combination of the traditional/familiar and the historically distant. As Hiroshi Yoshioka writes in The Decolonization of Imagination, “I do not know where there ever was a ‘real’ or ‘true’ samurai, but I am sure that people like to imagine that there was (and still is?)” .
The samurai drama developed as a genre even during the Edo period itself, and kicked into high gear in the modern era, acquiring a copious amount of clichés as time passed and the samurai was depicted again and again. As Alain Silver writes in The Samurai Film,
The samurai is a figure grounded in historical realities but embellished by oral traditions, isolated in an unfamiliar past, and elevated through repeated representations in art to the level of myth. […] As a result, the samurai as a character […] is inextricably bound up not just with the samurai as he was when still a viable institution but also with all the perceptions of Japanese society, both past and present, which colour the individual fictional depictions of that institution.
Perhaps the newest and in some ways the freshest iteration of the samurai genre is the 2004 anime Samurai Champloo, directed by Watanabe Shinichirou. The anime tells the story of three outcast/misfits, Fuu, Jin and Mugen, whom fate throws together on a journey through the length and breadth of Edo Japan in search of a mysterious “sunflower samurai.” Watanabe, the creator-director of what is arguably one of the most popular anime in America, Cowboy Bebop, subverts almost every cliché of the genre and then some in his hip-hop, mash-up take on the Edo period. Although historical accuracy is never the first priority of any artistic work, it is worthwhile asking to what extent this iconoclastic series’ rebellion against genre is a rebellion towards history. In other words, how much, if any, of what Watanabe sees in the Edo period was ever really there in the first place?
‘Champloo’ itself is a Ryuukyuuan word meaning ‘stew,’ and it is the all-purpose meal of the archipelago in the same way that the bowl of rice is the staple in Japan proper. Watanabe’s anime contains many of the same elements as other samurai dramas, most notably the samurai themselves, along with all the trappings of the Edo period. In this respect the meat of his stew could indeed be used to make another dish. But the two samurai leads, which this paper will consider alone out of the entire anime, are spiced very exotically indeed.
One of the ironies of the samurai genre is that, for the sake of drama, it more often focuses on former samurai rather than those currently gainfully employed within the legitimate Tokugawa social order. In this regard Champloo is no exception; its two sword-wielding dramatic centers (and as Silver notes, in the samurai genre the man carrying the sword is always the dramatic center ), Jin and Mugen, couldn’t be farther outside the system if they tried.
The politest term for such ‘masterless samurai’ was rounin 浪人, literally ‘man of the waves.’ A samurai might fall from his position, losing all his government perquisites including his rice-stipend income, for a variety of reasons both honorable and dishonorable. Once dismissed from service he was left to make his way in Tokugawa society outside the confines of its ‘four class’ ideology. While this could be liberating in a purely personal sense, a samurai without a lord was, according to bushidou 武士道, the warrior ideology, a contradiction in terms. [Wilson 278]
Still, in many ways Jin is the most stereotypical character in Champloo, despite being a ronin; he is a man of few words and a fantastic warrior, a description which could be applied to almost every protagonist in samurai drama. But from the very first time Jin speaks it becomes clear that he is in fact very unusual; in the anime’s first episode we meet him on a street in a provincial town asking several daimyo retainers, “Serving your lord and doing as he says, is it really honorable?”
The local samurai answer in the affirmative, unsurprisingly. Samurai literally means ‘one who serves,’ and bushidou explicitly equated the way of the warrior both with death and with the fulfillment of one’s social obligations; the opening of the bushidou text Hagakure declares, “The way of the samurai is death.” The one, which the proper samurai was always to hold in the forefront of his mind, led inevitably to upholding the other, and with reason. A samurai’s master supported not only the samurai himself but his entire family, and one’s clan was the primary unity of samurai identity. [Silver 23; Wilson 161-2]
Jin excels at keeping death foremost in his mind. At the end of the first episode he and Mugen both declare that every day when they wake up they think that day could be their last, and he proves his cavalier attitude towards his own life many times, most notably when he wagers it on a shougi match against the price of a ferry fee. But for Jin, again contrary to bushidou, death has no connection to social obligations, called giri 義理 in Japanese. Jin is much more concerned with the contrasting concept of ninjyou 人情, literally ‘human feelings’ but more often used in the sense of an individual’s conscience. The potential for dramatic (and ethical) dilemmas between such a dualistic set of concepts, with the warrior code thrown in to stir things up, is obvious, and before the Edo period Japanese society recognized two methods of remedying conflicts: revenge, and suicide. Both recourses were steadily de-emphasized over the course of the Pax Tokugawa; by the end of the period, revenge was outlawed and suicide discouraged. [Silver 23]
While the murder of an innocent might reasonably stir up compunction in a samurai’s ninjou, the local samurai in Champloo have no such qualms. Their lord has just ordered them to kill an indebted man begging for mercy in the street, and they obey. Jin tosses his hat into the air, and the samurai (whom, the audience has learned, are top-notch ringers brought in from Edo) are dead before it hits the ground.
The ‘wandering do-gooder’ is another samurai drama cliché, but as soon as the audience has pigeonholed Jin into this handy box he escapes it by taking a fair amount of the money with which the man had tried to petition for mercy as payment. While the man gets off cheap compared to the cost of losing his life, samurai were officially supposed to have no concern with money. Merchants were on the lowest rung of the Tokugawa social system, which was profoundly Neo-Confucian in its philosophical outlook and underpinnings, and which became even more anti-commercial as time went on and economic development continued to beggar the samurai class and enrich the commoners, merchants foremost among them. By contrast, Jin at one point tries running a food stand for the sake of the wages.
As might be expected, neo-Confucian giri, ninjyou and bushidou all endorsed the sanctity of certain (mostly vertical) human relationships: parents-children, lord-servant, teacher-student. Indeed, as more samurai dedicated themselves to the formal mastery of martial arts, one’s 道場 or ‘training hall’ affiliation (which determined one’s style and which accorded one the prestige of the lineage of one’s teacher) came second only to that of a samurai’s family or clan. Doujou masters were addressed as ossho, a title also given to monks, or as sensei, ‘honorable master.'
It is hard to overestimate the respect in which one’s teachers were to be held, especially among samurai. The fact that Jin killed his master places him beyond the pale of Edo ideology in general and samurai drama in particular. Moreover, he did so out of purely personal, ninjou considerations, and instead of killing himself, continued to live his life as a ronin whose primary concern, as far as the anime shows, is to be true to his own idiosyncratic sense of honor and to make enough quick cash to keep body and soul together. Ronin are often associated with stray dogs (in the language of the Edo period, animal rather than people counters were used to number them), but Jin by any Tokugawa measure is far lower than a dog.
Still, if Jin is lower than a dog then Mugen, Champloo’s other warrior character, is so debased as to be indescribable. His primary interests are fighting and food; in the first episode he saves Fuu from mutilation, and kills several men, for the price of a hundred dango (a kind of baked good on a stick). When Jin and Mugen meet they immediately begin a fight to the death, which continues intermittently throughout the entire series. Jin even saves Mugen’s life several times to have the pleasure of killing the other man himself, a wish he reiterates even more frequently: Jin sees Mugen as the very antithesis of a warrior, “a man who does not know measure,” and indeed Mugen resembles nothing so much as a berserker at times, which contradicts the entire spirit of the Japanese martial arts tradition. Nevertheless, at one point both men admit that the other was the first man they’d ever met whom they were unable to kill, which is shocking because Mugen isn’t a samurai at all. He isn’t even Japanese. [Wilson 166]
Mugen, it transpires, was born in the Ryuukyuu Islands. This archipelago, whose natives speak a family of languages related at several removes to the Japanese dialects of the mainland, was an independent kingdom until 1609, when it was invaded and conquered by the Kyushu domain of Satsuma. The Satsuma daimyo, for the sake of maintaining trade relations with China via Ryuukyuu, found it necessary to continue the subterfuge that Ryuukyuu was an independent kingdom and thus set himself up as a kind of concealed suzerain over the archipelago. The Ryuukyuuan king was allowed internal autonomy and authority provided that he and his government swore an oath subjugating themselves to the daimyo. Later monarchs were also officially confirmed in their positions by the shogun as head of the bakufu, the military bureaucracy, as Ryuukyuu was incorporated into the domain (bakuhan) system by 1634. [Shibatami 189; Smits 17-20]
Moreover, to maintain the subterfuge that Ryuukyuu and greater Japan had nothing to do with each other beyond normal foreign relations, Satsuma forbade Ryuukyuuans from adopting Japanese customs or language, while people from other domains were forbidden to travel to the archipelago except on official business. As part of their incorporation into greater Japan (as well as their pacification), Tokugawa policies such as the sword hunt were extended to the islands; even Ryuukyuuans’ knives were confiscated, and in response they began to develop effective hand-to-hand combat styles. This hand-to-hand tradition is doubtless one component of Mugen’s devastating effectiveness; his fights look more like break-dancing with a sword than like ‘classic’ kendo. Of course, Mugen’s martial skills in and of themselves, as well as his lack of compunction about killing people, directly contradict the modern Okinawan construction of their Edo-period forebears as traditionally a peace-loving group, in contrast to the ‘warlike’ Japanese. [Hien 9-11; Smits 19-21]
Ryuukyuu was allowed to maintain a substantial degree of autonomy, but the northern islands in the archipelago, called the Satsuna or Amami Islands, were annexed into Satsuma proper; they are today part of the Kyushu prefecture of Kagoshima. The islands’ inhabitants became second-class citizens on their own land, and one of the islands, Yuo Torijima, was settled with forced labor to work in the sulfur mines; sulfur was one of the primary tribute commodities desired by China. While never mentioning its name, Mugen describes his childhood home as a ‘hellhole,’ and it is hard to conclude that he could have been born anywhere else. As Matthew Allen points out, two-thirds of the volcanic island, approximately 10 square miles in size, is uninhabitable, local fisheries were erratic because of seismic activity, the island’s two harbors are extremely dangerous for the same reason, and it is impossible to grow rice, for which the islanders were forced to trade sulfur. Moreover, the forced labor would have been drawn from the worst of Tokugawa criminals. [Allen 59-60]
Although Mugen escaped Torijima by becoming a pirate, a very common Ryuukyuuan occupation in the Edo period, he eventually parted ways with his nautical comrades and wound up wandering around Japan proper. In this respect both he and Jin resemble a specific type of ronin, the shuugyousha 就業者. These peripatetic swordsmen lived their lives on the road, honing their skills by engaging in duels with other warriors, but unlike Jin and Mugen they accepted disciples and usually hoped to attain some sort of salaried position with a clan, whether as an arms instructor or as an informant. [Wilson 25]
In the end, every wandering swordsman in fiction is based to some extent on Miyamoto Musashi, an early Edo-period swordsman who in his own lifetime was the most renowned warrior in Japan despite the fact that he had no formal martial arts training, fought on the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and never accepted employment from anyone, let alone official status as a samurai (which was denoted by wearing two swords, the katana and the wakizashi, as Jin does). Musashi fought most of his matches (sixty-odd before he was thirty, only one of which ended in a draw rather than victory) with a wooden sword, and in modern Japan his name has become synonymous with the true samurai. [Wilson 63ff]
Mugen’s most profound resemblance to Musashi lies in the fact that neither he nor the Edo warrior had any formal training, but he also resembles Musashi in his fixation on victory, which Musashi declared in his Book of the Five Rings was the real way of the warrior, not death. Mugen “fights dirty” whenever the occasion requires it; Musashi would likely have endorsed the goal, not the methods. Moreover, unlike Mushashi, who exhorted his readers to constant discipline and training, Mugen is incurably lazy, to the point of nearly losing his life on at least one occasion for want of keeping in training. And unlike Musashi, who became a devout Zen Buddhist, both Mugen and Jin hold human life in very little regard. [Wilson 161-6]
Finally, throughout his life Musashi showed his extreme sensitivity to social obligations by never undertaking any, as well as by taking care for the social status of others. Mugen has little regard for any social niceties whatsoever, let alone other people’s social obligations, and while Jin remains sensitive to the demands of others’ social status, he inevitably acts based on his own ninjou. Neither shows the slightest interest in (re-)entering the social order. That two men such as these could face (and defeat) the best samurai Edo has to offer offends every cliché of the samurai genre as well as the actual Tokugawa ideology on which those clichés are to a substantial degree based. [Wilson 53-4]
Hopefully it will have been clear to my reader before beginning that the odds that a waitress, a ronin and a berserker Ryuukyuuan ever made a journey through Edo Japan together are absurdly low. The world of Samurai Champloo is blatantly unhistorical, but ironically in its very inaccuracy it is more accurate than many samurai dramas which repeat the same “Pax Tokugawa, homogeneous Japan” clichés ad nauseam.
Instead, Champloo’s fantasies are of a different nature than those of its more conventional counterparts. Samurai drama, which Hoshiori accuses of embodying an “eternal present,” in fact looks back to a monolithic past which never really existed in the first place.  History is as much a process of selective forgetting as anything else, but under the influence of the received wisdom on Edo Japan popular culture and even historians have forgotten a lot. The Tokugawa era was not a time of stasis but of great change, samurai were human just like everyone else, and problems concerning the integration of the Ryuukyuu archipelago with greater Japan did not begin in the Meiji period. Watching Samurai Champloo gives us the opportunity to remember that the stew of Japanese history contains many ingredients not evident at first taste.
 I will pass over the many obvious anachronisms in Champloo without comment.
 Written in kana as チャンプルウ。
 In many ways Fuu, the questing waitress, is the most interesting character; she is certainly the fulcrum of the plot. But her historicity (or lack thereof) is even more difficult to discuss than that of the other two, and this paper will leave her to art.
 The official conception of exactly what these social obligations were changed as the Edo period went on, particularly after the affair of the forty-seven ronin in 1703 CE, when the actions of a group of samurai in accordance with the ideals of bushidou led the government to declare that a samurai’s highest loyalty was to the shogun rather than to his own personal lord. It was not until bushidou was in danger of being lost under these government pressures that its ideals were put into writing in the form of the Hagakure, copied down in 1717 CE. The Pax Tokugawa created a warrior class but denied them anyone to fight.
 Often, especially in drama, the story was not complete without both; self-immolation was the expected end of the avenger.
 The samurai class as a whole was most affected by neo-Confucianism, with a corresponding decline in the status of samurai women. The husband-wife relationship was decidedly second-tier.
 One memorable anime involves a high school girl periodically possessed by Musashi’s spirit.
 Musashi did take lessons from his father, but these ended by the time he was eight. [Wilson 29]
- Allen, Matthew. Identity and Resistance in Okinawa. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.
- Beasley, W. G. "The Edo Experience and Japanese Nationalism." Modern Asian Studies 18.4, Special Issue: Edo Culture and Its Modern Legacy (1984): 555-66.
- Drazen, Patrick. Anime Explosion!: The What? Why? & Wow! Of Japanese Animation. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2003.
- Early Modern Japan. The Cambridge History of Japan. Ed. John Whitney Hall. Vol. 4. 6 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1991.
- Hein, Laura Elizabeth, and Mark Selden. Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.
- Nederveen Pieterse, Jan, and Bhikhu C. Parekh. The Decolonization of Imagination: Culture, Knowledge, and Power. London ; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1995.
- Shibatani, Masayoshi. The Languages of Japan. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Silver, Alain. The Samurai Film. South Brunswick N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1977.
- Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.
- Treat, John Whittier. "Beheaded Emperors and the Absent Figure in Contemporary Japanese Literature." Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 109.1 (1994): 100-15.
- Wilson, William Scott. The Lone Samurai : The Life of Miyamoto Musashi. 1st ed. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 2004.