Episode 9--"Beatbox Bandits"

[Important note: This is a complete summary of the episode containing major spoilers. Please be sure you want to know this info before you read; spoilers are not blocked or hidden in any way so this is your only warning. If you aren't 100% sure you want to know who lives, who dies, who gets hurt, who walks away and who's responsible, please pack your katana and walk right now. My feelings will not be hurt. Thank you.]

An elderly man is paging through a handwritten record book. So, says a young man idling by the door, Yamane the Ogre is retiring today. You’ve been at Hakone Checkpoint for 30 years and never let anyone sneak through, isn’t that right? Isn’t there some work you should be doing?, retorts Yamane, but once alone he begins to reminisce about the one special day that was not kept in the checkpoint log (and we see the torn-out page), the day when even thieves and criminals passed through freely, 30 years ago....

And we flash back to the past, where Mugen, Jin and Fuu are uneasily wondering how they’re going to pass through the checkpoint gate. Mugen doesn’t even know what a passport is, and Jin wonders how he made it into Edo without one. Don’t you have one, Jin?–asks Fuu. Of course he had one, but...(very long pause) he lost it. [Hmmm.] If they try to stop us we can just kill them, says Mugen. Anyone who tries to break through a checkpoint is immediately executed, replies Jin patiently, and Hakone is well known for being difficult to pass, especially for women leaving Edo. [--since women did not travel alone in these days, any woman leaving Edo on her own was presumably either a criminal or running away from her husband or family.] Fuu doesn’t like the sound of that; what are they gonna do?

Along comes a guy who says he has a passport for sale; they jump at the chance, but of course it’s a fake, and all three are arrested. Take them away, orders the boss, and Mugen lashes out furiously, taking a half-dozen guys to restrain him.

That was the first time I saw them--says Yamane-san, who is narrating the story. Just a junior official then, he was awestruck by Mugen’s rage and bravery. Those, he says, were the glaring eyes of a stray dog...

The top checkpoint official is Kinumasa, “your typical tamed dog that’s rotten from the very core of his being,” but as the son of a prominent Edo family he gets away with everything including murder. He’s a little too fond of killing prisoners, which has just landed him in a fix. Every so often (as Yamane narrates), someone who tries to break through the checkpoint is found to already have a criminal record. If it’s a serious crime, they can’t be executed at Hakone but must be extradited to the place where their arrest warrant was issued. Kinumasa has just received a letter asking for the return of one such prisoner, but they’ve already killed the guy, and he’s lying in the shed with other bundled bodies of recent executees. Big problem for Kinumasa. What to do? Yamane proposes a plan.

Kinumasa addresses our trio. So, you didn’t know this document was false, right? That’s really not a bad enough crime to be executed for; I’d like to help you out. He drops a sack containing the head of the wrongly executed man, and singles out Mugen. If you can deliver this head to the writer of this letter by sunset, he says, all three of you are free to go, but these two are your hostages; if you don’t get back in time they’ll both die. Easy, easy, no problem, leave it to me, says Mugen, putting himself through a set of brisk calisthenics to warm up. What are these “tengu” that are supposed to be in the mountains? A fierce and dangerous lot who are thought to be inescapable; no one has ever gotten past them, smirks Kinumasa. Mugen, unruffled, shoulders the sack and takes off at a fast trot. As soon as he’s out of sight, Kurumasa tells Yamane to follow him and make sure he doesn’t run away; it’ll look bad if this isn’t settled correctly...

[Folklore note: Tengu are mountain and forest goblin-creatures in both Shinto and Buddhist belief. They’re shapeshifters who can appear in both humanlike and animal forms, capable of moving instantaneously from place to place, appearing in humans’ dreams, and communicating without vocal speech.]

He wouldn’t leave us and run away, would he?–-worries Fuu. Jin makes a “hmm” sound...

Mugen is racing through the forest, stopping only to confront a running man (just a cheerful jogger, it turns out) and whack some fruit out of a tree for a fast snack. Yamane’s hard put to stay with him. He hasn’t gone far when the tengu pour out of the forest to pursue him, pale-faced creatures with long noses and shadowy robes; the biggest one's face is red. You tengu, grins Mugen, can you keep up with me? And he plunges off through the trees, diving off cliffs, leaping low branches, crossing streams; he gives them the slip but realizes he’s left the path far behind and is totally lost. Where am I? –he puzzles. He steps out onto the edge of a stream and sees he’s surrounded by a vast jungle of towering plants; takes another step and yeoww!–falls to the bottom of a disguised pitfall trap. Tengu gather, looking down at him.

Jin and Fuu sit in their cell, watched by a guard. Is he lost? Has he been caught by the tengu? –frets Fuu. Jin only hmms.

Yamane, who completely lost sight of Mugen during their wild gallop, comes out of the jungle at a different spot and sees a large building and a huge assembly of the supposed tengu–with their goblin masks off. They’re not tengu at all but souhei, renegade warrior-priests, who’ve fostered the idea that the mountain is haunted to keep people away from them and their secret base.

As he watches in hiding, a huge man [he was the red-masked tengu) addresses the assembly about the evils of the elite class: foolish, idle samurai interested only in controlling others and staying in power, and the tame dogs who blindly obey them. There are only two kinds of people, he says, stray dogs who go hungry in exchange for their freedom, and tamed dogs who accept slavery in exchange for safety. Which kind are you? The crowd roars; easy to guess which. We will take society back from those who have no intelligence for anything but killing; we are growing in great quantities the material which erases all hate, he says. [Ahem: the jungle that Mugen found himself in was quite plainly one of extremely impressive marijuana plants, miles of them.] Those who try to impede our revolution will pay with their lives, and look, here’s one we’ve just caught!

A badly battered Mugen, one eye swollen shut, is tossed onto the speaker’s platform. He doesn’t seem to be a dog of the bakufu (shogunate), says the souhei master (his name is never given in the episode, but it's Aohabu); you, are you too scared to talk without your sword? I don’t understand what you’ve been saying, replies Mugen, but one thing I do know: no matter how many people who don’t have the courage to bark alone gather together, it’s still useless.

He takes another beating and is scheduled for execution tomorrow. Yamane has to do something; he thinks about just running for home, but can’t bring himself to abandon Mugen (“that stray dog weighed on my mind”). Caught trying to talk to Mugen, he’s knocked out and locked in with him, both rolled up in mats. They converse briefly. Mugen’s never heard of souhei, and Yamane explains that there was a time when Buddhist priests were armed militants, defenders of the people. In these peaceful times those ideas aren’t supported, but plainly this lot feels needed still.

He wriggles free of his mat (impressing Mugen with this neat trick), and uses one of Mugen’s metal-clad sandals to strike a spark in the straw mat and set the shed on fire. They yell for help and a guard rushes in; Yamane clocks the guard with Mugen’s shoe, and they’re off and running.

The souhei panic; if the fire spreads their precious crop of “sacred grass” is in peril! Mugen, the tengu-masked priests and the huge Aohabu battle in the fields. Flames lick into the fields of herb; billows of purple smoke start to fill the air, and suddenly things get very strange, and then even stranger....

Jin and Fuu are solemnly watching the sun set. Time’s just about up; Kinumasa tells them to prepare themselves to die. A lone figure comes trotting out of the west, and Fuu lights up, feeling sure Mugen has arrived in the nick of time, but it’s just that happy jogger again. Fuu glares in deadly but helpless rage.

The two are crucified (tied onto the crosses, not nailed). If you’re going to become ghosts and haunt someone, make it that man [Mugen], taunts Kinumasa. Guards laugh and poke them with spears. But...streamers of purple smoke flow into the scene, and the guards start to giggle and cry, and fall down...

Yamane’s voiceover --back in his own time---says that for one night there really was a revolution: all were equal; everything was an illusion, the gates were thrown open and all passed through freely, officials, thieves, animals, strangers. Everyone danced. We see guards cavorting naked, kissing each other, even frogs and animals playing together. You proud stray dog, he muses reminiscently, do you still remember? That summer of love when you ran and danced and fought in the purple smoke...

One more visit to the flashback: we see Jin and Fuu the next morning: making their way through the forest. What was that?–-asks Fuu. We should just be glad we were able to get through the checkpoint in the confusion, replies Jin. [In what condition these two passed the night is left undiscussed, and that’s fine with me.] But where is that Mugen? He never did come back, and it’s morning, let alone sunset, adds Fuu.

They hear voices. Fuu looks down and stands transfixed, snagging Jin’s sleeve wordlessly to halt him. There on the forest floor below are Mugen, Yamane, Aohabu and another priest, utterly tripped out, arms around each other’s shoulders, giggling weakly, babbling about how much fun they had and how it doesn’t matter that all the stuff burned, while souhei are dancing in chorus lines and riding animals through the clearing.

Jin and Fuu stand completely stunned. Fuu lets out a shriek of fury.

[ I’d love to see what follows, but maybe it’s best this way...]

Samurai Champloo characters, visuals and materials (c) 2004 manglobe.
Original story synopsis written and (c) 2004 by Paula O'Keefe.

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