The Cast of Samurai Champloo

(---updated and revised on a regular basis as more information becomes available or is imagined;
First posted July 2004; current version dated June 11th, 2005.
No thanks to Madman Entertainment Australia, who swiped huge chunks of this for their own website. Way to treat the fanbase, cobbers.--)


Mugen

A tough street fighter, Mugen is as straightforward as they come, a smartass bundle of attitude and appetite. Orphaned at a young age, he raised himself in rough-and-tumble Ryukyu--modern-day Okinawa--a wide-open seaport/prison camp where toughs, pirates and sailors from everywhere were only too eager to show off a wide range of brawling tactics. Mugen early on began developing the free-for-all fighting style he calls “champuru kendo” (at least, the writers say he does...), swiping bits and pieces from everything thrown at him and making up the rest as he went along. He’s done jail time for an unknown offense as well (the blue bands on his wrists and ankles are probably convict tattoos), which doubtless taught him even more tricks as well as providing a chance for him to use and hone his skills. His lazy, sloppy exterior covers a feral temper that can flare into violence in an instant, but he’s equally capable of forming quick loyalties and defending girls in peril when it suits him. He’s shrewd, suspicious, perceptive, but basically relaxed and happy-go-lucky; utterly practical and pragmatic (his name literally means “no illusions” or “dreamless” ***), trusts nothing but his own abilities and instincts, and has zero compunctions about kicking your lights out for lunch money, or any other reason that amuses him. His distrust and dislike of authority figures is deeply ingrained, and he'll basically do anything he's told not to, just because. By the time we meet him, he’s about 19 and barely civilized, well set in a course of devoting his life to nothing but his favorite pursuits: eating, sleeping, chasing women and swordfighting, in no particular order. A rough case with great charm, satisfied with his life and his freedom, willing to handle whatever fate throws his way as long as he need follow no rules and serve no master--and yet, every day he says, ready to die.

Except when he's not. In the remarkable first half of episode #14, we see him have a near-death experience he's apparently had before; he sinks down into the sea and comes out on the other side, as if through a mirror, falls up through the water surface into a strange,luminous, inverted world. [I think this must be Nirai-Kanai, the Okinawan traditional other-world, where spirits go when they're ready to seek peace. It's represented as an island that can be reached only underwater; if you try to sail there it will always be on the horizon ahead, no matter how far you go. I think that Mugen leaves it because his spirit isn't ready to seek peace, even if he's died.] He's surrounded there by mysterious, tall figures, warrior-spirits or gods bearing spears and wrapped in shaggy cloaks, and what does he say to them? "What, you again?..." and then "Hey, wait, I don't want to go yet..." at which they vanish and he falls back into the water to begin his return to the surface and his unfinished life. This is a charmed life, unassuming as it seems on the surface, one that' s been nearly lost at least twice and saved both times. Definitely someone ready for a greater destiny to step up and take his hand...

And as the series has progressed, we've watched him develop a remarkable depth of feeling, a conscience almost, a growing sense of the wrongness and injustice in the world around him. He's no social crusader, but he knows in his bones that people deserve freedom and self-determination, that one's life is --and should be--one's own to shape, and the anger at official oppression that used to be just a punk dislike of cops and soldiers has steadily developed into something much deeper and stronger. His clear-cut sense of right and wrong plays into this, as well. By the time of episode 17 we see him taking out a bank of Matsumae-Han militia just because he's angry at the way they've treated an Ainu villager, which is so far from the casual brawler we met back in Edo. There's a huge destiny looming for this pirate kid, I can just feel it.

[**--footnote: There are many possible translations of Mugen's name. One writer suggested that the stress in the meaning should not be "no illusions", but rather "not an illusion": hence something more like "genuine, the real thing, no bullshit". Another reassembled all the elements and rendered it as "nothing but a dream". --More recently, Episode 18 offered yet another interpretation--"infinite/limitless"--though this is not a translation of the exact kanji used to spell his name on the show's official website. In this case we have a clever pun: the kanji "mu" read (in this case) as "no/none/without", but paired with two alternate kanji for "gen", one of which means "dream/illusion/fantasy" --the one used on the website--and one of which means "limit/boundary". So "Mugen" means both "no illusions/dreamless" and "no limits/infinite", depending on the characters used to spell it.]

His visual design is so ingenious–a perfect cross of baggy hip-hop attire and traditional samurai garb. As befits the fire half of this fire-and-water pair, he wears red. He wears the typical wide-legged hakama but cut off at shorts length, jacket likewise. His accessories have been modified as well: his shoes are traditional wooden geta, but resoled in metal for a lethal kick that can crack skulls and take down walls; his sword has the subtle curved blade of a katana mated to the hilt and guard of a martial-arts sai. (Any number of origin stories and exotic sources have been proposed for this blade, from a Chinese sword, to an Afghan pulwar or a Persian shamshir (which it does resemble)-- though how and when he would have gotten such things is as mysterious as many other things about him.) Truly his modus operandi is amalgam, everything is a unique new design invented by adapting, mix-and-matching things from everywhere.

Speculations:--so, how long has Mugen been in Japan and why did he come here? It's a heck of a long journey from Ryukyu/Okinawa, 400 miles or so. Did he have something to get away from? Moreover, prison tattoos are a Japanese, not Ryukyu, custom, so he did his jail time after he got here, and he's still only supposed to be 19. Quite an adventurous life! Was he already running from the law in Ryukyu? Or from a gang? What did he do time for anyway? and what the heck is that earring attached to?



Jin

Quiet, dignified, disciplined and enigmatic, Jin is in every respect the polar opposite of Mugen, a classically-trained (and, forgive this fangirl, heartbreakingly beautiful) swordsman with a precise and lethal fighting style. As Mugen wears red, he wears indigo blue. His age is given as 20. Everything about him says “aristocrat”: his glasses, his pale complexion and stately height, his manners and his devotion to the code of the samurai. The very fact that he's permitted to carry a daisho (matched set of two swords) says he's from a samurai family. His name means “benevolence and compassion”. He carries himself with unshakable self- confidence, and is virtually unbeatable, a devastating duellist with superbly pure technique and a blinding-fast draw. Jin keeps firm control of himself in every possible aspect from his appearance and appetite to his level monotone voice, speaks little, and has but once been heard to laugh: when kneeling at the headsman's block. He seems to be seeking inner peace and balance in warrior’s discipline, and possesses a core of deep calm, but he's a creature of fierce pride and intensity who typically kills with a single stroke. At his darkest he radiates bitter, repressed anger, and observes the world with a narrow, resentful stare; at his best, he's all a samurai should be, capable of great gentleness, courtesy, martial skill and dauntless courage. He's almost two people, the detached and passive Jin who does as bidden, permits his friends to drag him around and unfailingly respects his elders, and the lightning-fast nemesis he becomes when he draws his sword. He only seems truly awake and alive when fighting.

There's a great crime in his past: He trained in a dojo whose claim to fame was that its master--Mariya Enshirou-- had fought a thousand sword duels without a defeat. He was praised as a prodigy and a genius, but something went very wrong: Jin killed his master, was obliged to leave the school and took to the road. Even now others trained by this master have sworn revenge and are seeking his life. What’s one to do when the system one was raised to respect turns and punishes you for doing, as told, your very best? Yet his faith in the warrior’s way remains the only thing he owns--and even that he has begun to question, a deep, surfacing feeling that no one was born to serve and obey all his life--along with his honor and his katana, and it would be worth your life to try taking any of them from him.

His weapons are katana and wakizashi, dark blue like his costume, with a beautiful tsuba design of Buddha-eyes and lightning.


His blue bead bracelet is a Buddhist mala or more precisely nenju. Thanks to IRC_Fansubber for this note: "Nenju are Buddhist prayer beads for a "lei" person, a beginner on the path to enlightenment. The more beads, the more holy the person is. Nenju are often in the form of a bracelet, similar to a rosary. Japanese Buddhist monks use a longer set of beads called "shozoiki jiu-dsu" or simply "juzu".

photo: A typical Buddha's-eyes amulet.
Buddhist prayer beads.
The Nenju or Juzu.


" Speculations:--what happened here? This is an educated young man of good family; there's just no way he ever expected to be a starving, homeless wanderer before the age of 21. Why did he kill Enshirou? He doesn't deny it, but says he didn't betray the man, so he feels it was deserved: what did his master do to warrant such an act, and why is Jin the only one who knows about it? So many questions! --whatever it was, he definitely feels it wasn't fair...

December '04, more thoughts: there's something so worrisome about this boy. I mean, we all know the classic figure of the silent, stoic, inward-focused ronin, but Jin is like someone who's barely even had human contact, and hardly knows what to do with it when he gets it. He knows how to behave in public, and speak politely and formally in social situations, but he's so detached from everything, even himself. He's been on the road with these two for months now and still barely even calls them by name. His reaction to almost anything that isn't a direct attack is to freeze and think it over, and it's painfully hard for him to make decisions because he has to weigh and balance every possible option. Even in episode 11, which is remarkably impulsive and emotional for him, there's a sweet but totally unrealistic wish to just not have to worry about all this anymore, followed by a resolution of the situation that is clear-headed, tactical and leaves him completely out of it. He has no spontaneous responses; he doesn't trust words; when anyone touches him he locks down; even when Shino kisses him we don't see him so much as blink. (And say what you like, I don't think it's at all clear what happens that night.) There's just something so troubling about a person whose only effective way of communicating his feelings is to kill someone...

"Takeda Jin"?--Though Jin's family name and clan affiliation are never mentioned or even alluded to in the course of the series, I believe we have excellent reason to give him a name: Takeda. The Takeda are a noble and aristocratic house of very old lineage; descended from the Minamoto, who were the conquerors of the Heike/Taira and the first shoguns of Japan. A hundred years before the time of Champloo, they were one of the most powerful samurai families, famous for the effective strength of their army and especially of their renowned cavalry. Under the leadership of the clan's greatest warrior, Takeda Shingen, they were in direct head-to-head contention with the Nobunaga and Tokugawa houses for the throne of Japan, and had things gone differently Shingen himself might have become shogun. But things went badly...

Why do we think Jin is a Takeda?
--The four-diamond emblem on his kimono isn't just a geometric design, it's a mon or ka-mon: a family crest, much like heraldic crests and shield designs used in the UK and Europe in the Age of Chivalry. To be exact, it's the Takeda mon. (-see illustration, right.) Several other houses did use this design, but the Takeda are by far the most notable and appropriate. The four diamonds stand for Shingen's motto: "Swift as the wind; silent as the forest; fierce as the fire; steadfast as the mountain", which was drawn from the writings of Chinese strategist Sun Zi or Sun Tzu ("The Art of War") and became the clan's inspiration. (Side note: the three-triangle mon Yukimaru wears in 16/17 is the emblem of another noble house, the Hojo, who were neighbors of the Takeda and over the passing of time were both allies and adversaries to them. Having Yuki and Jin show up as both past friends/lovers and current opponents is thus a lovely little microcosm of their probable families' relationship.)

More to the point: there's a general feeling that Jin's symbolic role in the series is as the representative of Japan's past, its warrior history, the noble bushido ideal that is fast slipping away even in his lifetime. And if one wanted to choose a single samurai clan to exemplify this role, the one most dramatically affected by the simple change of time and technology, you could hardly do better than the Takeda. As said above, a hundred years in Jin's past--the mid-late 1500s--they had been powerful enough to be direct contenders for the shogunate, but two events, directly caused by the future replacing the past, broke them down almost overnight, and they would never retain their former glory. The events were (1) the death of master warrior Takeda Shingen and his succession by his headstrong, impulsive son Katsuyori, who refused to seek or accept advice from his father's seasoned generals; and (2) the arrival of guns in Japan. Nobunaga was the first Japanese warlord to see their potential as a weapon of mass warfare and to deploy them as his entire front line of assault. While there are many other complexities involved, and this isn't the place for a long lesson, it's still beyond doubt that the Takeda family history-- and the entire idea of Japanese warfare--was changed at the battle of Nagashino in 1575, when the Takeda army of 15,000, armed mainly in classic samurai fashion with swords, lances and shields, charged Nagashino castle and was met by --for the first time ever--the Tokugawa-Nobunaga front rank of 3000 gunners armed with Portuguese matchlocks. The clan lost ten thousand men: its famed cavalry and command ranks were shattered: it never recovered. By the time Jin was born it would have been no more than a still-aristocratic house with a fading heroic history, whose days were coming to a close. Of course this can be said of many samurai families, but none other, I think, came to this pass by so dramatic a clash of old with new.

I think --especially as a writer--that it therefore makes exquisite sense to go with this idea: it gives him a solid reason to resent and distrust the Tokugawa shogunate, and to place his complete trust in the ancient art of the sword alone; and it makes him an even more ideal candidate to represent the past in a one-on-one battle with the undisciplined, innovative, reckless and foreign-bred future (guess who...=). Plus one more little thing: I think that making him the first character in the series to fight a sword-vs.-gun duel--with Mukuro in #14--and having him swiftly and elegantly destroy said gunman, is the series' little way of letting Jin avenge his gunned-down clan, a century after the bloody event. And I very much approve.

(my correspondents the Gishes also point out that it can be seen as a parallel to Spike and Vicious' gun/sword showdown at the climax of Cowboy Bebop. As such it's a nifty reversal on Watanabe's part: in the Jin-Mukuro duel the gun is the new weapon that will soon overcome the emblem of reigning power, the samurai sword, and Jin's victory is a final revenge and triumph for bushido; in the Spike-Vicious duel the gun is the weapon of the day, the sword is an affected anachronism, and stands mainly for Vicious' refusal to let go of the age when gangs were ruled by vendetta and blood feud.

--There's lots of excellent Web history on the Takeda and the Battle of Nagashino: the best of all is Samurai Archives.
(Support the Samurai Archives! Buy something every Jin fan needs: --a Takeda ka-mon coffee mug!)
Wikipedia entry on the Takeda Clan.
For technical battlefield detail and wargaming notes: "Nagashino 1575" by Stephen Turnbull. (In general a useful source for any beginner in samurai history.)
For a gorgeous dramatic retelling of Shingen's death and the events leading up to Nagashino, watch Kurosawa's classic film Kagemusha.

Parallels: There are so many nifty ways in which these two have been set up as diametric opposites: water and fire, past and future, tradition and innovation, economy and extravagance, controlled purpose and chaotic energy. Even the simple visual device of a blue decorative band on each one's wrist has been stretched as far apart as it can go, with Jin's being a string of Buddhist temple beads and Mugen's his prison tattoo.

I credit Rhea at SUN UP, SUN DOWN, (my now-disappeared second favorite SC fan site) with the interesting insight that restless, disrespectful Mugen represents the future of Japan, while Jin represents the past (thanks, Rhea --shame about mayaku.org...). The future knows about the mass of heritage and tradition in its surroundings, but simply doesn't care for or respect it, finding it no longer relevant. So when Mugen, for example, carelessly yanks Jin's katana away from him to barter his way into a contest, it's not that he doesn't realize he's playing fast and loose with bushido boy's very soul; he just doesn't give a damn....

In fact, that may be the signature moment of their conflict and indeed of the series so far.


Fuu

And then there’s little Fuu, the mystery girl. We know just as little about her. Mother dead, father long missing, she’s drifted and worked a variety of jobs (we're told) despite her young age, only 15. (My hunch is that this would only have been in the past year, since that's when her mom died.) The earth element of the triad, [--though her name means "wind", so maybe she's air instead?] she wears mauve-shaded pink, right down to her plum-blossom-patterned tanto knife. A teashop waitress when we meet her, she takes the arson destruction of the teahouse as a sign that it’s time for her to hit the road and go on her great quest: the search for a mysterious samurai who smells like sunflowers. Who is he? What is he to Fuu? Why does she want to find him? Do sunflowers even have any smell? These become the background questions of the series. Though anime-girl cute with her big brown eyes and petite figure, Fuu is no pushover and will not be bullied. She’s brave and determined, willing - like the guys - to go hungry, improvise, and live by her wits to reach her goal. She hates to see anyone or anything bullied or mistreated and will stand up to anyone in defense of the abused; her compassionate heart has already earned her the love of several unlikely characters in the series. Nor is she afraid to call names and knock heads when her newly-adopted older brothers misbehave. She’s got a bit of a gambling bug and has awe-inspiring skills as a dice dealer, acquired we have no idea how or when. Hidden somewhere on her person at the unlikeliest times is her pet flying squirrel, Momosan, which has helped her out of several jams. And, of course, she’s the driver of the trio’s adventure: she helped rescue Mugen and Jin for the express purpose of recruiting them, and though they run into many things on the road, their end goal is always hers.


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