If there’s one thing I’ve come to rely on anime for, it’s the medium’s propensity for the outlandish and entertainingly bizarre. From the whacked out dreamscapes of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika to the acid trip of FLCL, running the gamut of Penguindrums and Galaxy Railways in between, this is an art form that ought to be the first port of call on any quest for the unconventional and unusual. As a rule, anything in anime that sounds absurd usually gets my attention, and this was one of several reasons I jumped at the chance to review Samurai Jam – Bakumatsu Rock. It’s got a premise straight out of the box marked ‘this is the box we pull things out of that make you wonder what we pulled them out of’.
Set at the end of the 19th century, Samurai Jam depicts a world where the guitar is forbidden. But not just any kind of guitar – the ELECTRIC guitar, something like a century before such a thing actually existed. And if that little factoid makes you doubt this show’s credibility, then I’d urge you to stop reading now, because this anime’s excursion into the realm of alternate history plays so fast and loose with anachronisms, it’s ridiculous.
As the show begins, we meet Ryoma Sakamoto, a dim but amiable young man who makes ends meet working in a pizza parlour. But Ryoma aspires to be a famous rocker – a difficult undertaking, given the politics of his era. Rock music is outlawed, with the Shogunate sanctioning only its own propaganda songs, which are performed by state-funded groups. Under threat of imprisonment and death, Ryoma is undeterred and sets about forming a band with his pals Shinsaku on bass – don’t call him Cindy – and Katsura on the drums. Together, they set out to change the course of their era with nothing but the power of rock and roll.
So. That sounds like crazy, madcap fun, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t be captivated by a fictional universe filled with samurai, rock music, amplifier stacks and glowsticks?
Well… me, for a start. Because Samurai Jam is far and away the most disappointing, not to mention slapdash anime I’ve seen in 2015.
The problem with Samurai Jam is that it goes a step too far with its magical non-realism. The absurdity of the world it’s set in would be okay if it just employed some better logic where required. I’ve played music semi-professionally, and from that standpoint, the dumbness of the show‘s ‘young musicians set out to change the world’ schtick stands out like a sore thumb. Ryoma is able to somehow grab his Les Paul styled guitar and wring a perfectly EQ’d electric guitar tone from it at will – whether it’s plugged into anything or not. Katsura is somehow able to summon and set up a drum kit off screen just prior to any scene that calls for it. Yowsah! If the bands I played in could have pulled off that sort of thing, think of the great deeds we could have accomplished! The impromptu gigs we’d have put on! Then again, if we’d played our instruments the way Ryoma’s trio do… maybe not.
There are shows which excel at realistically depicting the kind of action that’s central to their story. Remember how Le Chevalier D’Eon impressed with its carefully choreographed fencing, right down to the footwork? Or how Redline shook you out of its crushing lack of plot with all those sci-fi supercars and their chassis-shuddering engines? Samurai Jam sits at the extreme opposite end of this scale, with rock-out sessions using awfully jarring CG and occasionally, when the show feels daring, a hand-drawn sequence. But these basically amount to Ryoma and Cindy’s hands moving a semitone or two up or down the fretboard of their instrument and back in a short, repetitive cycle. If you have the first clue how a stringed instrument works, it’s groan-worthy and completely unconvincing.
And there’s the nub of the issue – I don’t mind Samurai Jam’s fantastical setting and nonsensical tone. But the show doesn’t take any of its elements seriously enough to work. The plausibility isn’t there where it counts. And its message of ‘rock will set you free’ rings hollow when Ryoma and his pals are knocking out jams that sound every bit as manufactured as the Shogunate’s boy band pap. Call me picky, but if you’re going to make a show where the vitality and liveliness of rock music is one of its core themes, maybe it should, I dunno… have some decent music in it? If, like me, you can’t stand the line of over-produced pop-rock and tween-metal this show is saturated with, you’re not going to get on with it at all.
If you’re less exacting or persnickety in your musical tastes, I can see that Samurai Jam may prove more entertaining for you. But that said, the show just isn’t anywhere near as fun or arresting as its wild premise might suggest. Instead, it feels largely devoid of any real tension or excitement and never really knows whether it wants to be a comedy show about samurai rockers or an adventure show with moderately higher stakes.
Sure, it has some commendable aspects. Ryoma, for example, is an appealingly upbeat series lead, and there’s a consistent level of mildly amusing humour. The last third of the show does offer a glimmer of fun, especially when a struggling girl group, the Dark Cherries, shows up. But sadly, even with these better aspects to enjoy, there’s still a BIG obstacle standing in the way of any enjoyment on offer here. The show is presented in subtitles-only format, which REALLY hurts it. At times, the screen is absolutely awash with text. There are multiple lines of dialogue, translated song lyrics sitting alongside the original Japanese, signs AND additional explanatory notes all vying for your attention at once. The screen quickly starts to get cluttered, and there’s frequently just too much to read. Who approved this design mess? And… explanatory notes? Seriously? That’s a trend that can die overnight with my full blessing. Yes, there’s a place for that kind of thing. But that place is NOT the screen, and the final score loses a point for that. Studios and distributors – put that stuff in liner notes or DVD extras, please. If I have to pause the DVD just to get everything from the story, that’s a sign that your product is broken. All this might have been salvaged with, at the very least, an option to turn off subs for the signs. But there’s nothing like that on the DVD menu. What we’ve got here is very much provided on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, and the end result feels too much like hard work. If ever there was a show to demonstrate the value of dubs, this is it.
Sad to say, Samurai Jam is a below average quality show further spoiled by poor presentation – to the point that any charm it might have is diminished. For a disposable, silly anime experience, it might scratch a certain itch. But I can’t really make a qualified recommendation of it, because I just have no idea who it’s aimed at. The music is too tame and samey for rock fans, the story too haphazardly thrown together to be really enjoyable for anyone else, and the animation quality cheaps out too many times for it to be visually enthralling. Give it a miss.