One reason I hadn't heard of Samurai Champloo is that it only came out in 2004. But I have a feeling it will eventually reach Cowboy Bebop levels of layman saturation; the two shows have the same creator, Shinchiro Watanabe. But this one also employs the guy responsible for the anime sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1!
The gimmick for Samurai Champloo is that it's a samurai drama...with hip-hop music and anachronisms a-plenty (the show had me from the first title card, which states, "This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal. Like we care. Now shut up and enjoy the show."). I would say I'm not really a hip-hop fan, but what I'd mean is that I'm not a fan of most incarnations of rap; I do enjoy the beats and record scratches when used properly. And Samurai Champloo uses them to good effect, putting a modern sensibility on a traditional story. Well, mostly traditional (see: anachronisms).
As is true of most anime, you can get a feel for the show by watching the opening credits. They also give you a sense of the characters. Mugen is the breakdancing wild man. Jin is the cool, collected samurai. Fuu is the adorable girl who can't throw a punch.
What are these three people doing together? In the first episode, Mugen and Jin have a little run-in with the law, and Fuu saves their lives. To repay their debt, she asks them to accompany her on her quest to find the samurai who smells of sunflowers. And then they have lots of wacky adventures. The setup is indeed similar to that of Cowboy Bebop, but it has a stronger sense of continuity; I never got the sense that the previous episode had simply never happened. Also, each Cowboy Bebop episode tried to set up a whole new world or environment for the purposes of that one episode only, which, although an impressive endeavor, resulted in a somewhat disjointed narrative. Samurai Champloo remains firmly in Edo-era Japan, with the villages looking more or less the same. I think it's this familiarity that made the poetic moments more effective for me as well. Another problem I had with Bebop—finances—also works out better here: we're kept pretty aware of how much money they have and how they spend it (mostly on food), and they often make do by trading their services for room and board. Also, they never nobly refuse payment or whatever because these dudes are hungry.
I was told by people who preferred Champloo to Bebop that they were more invested in the characters, and I found that to be the case. In Bebop, the only character I was truly invested in was Spike (and to a lesser extent, Ed), and even he was such a cipher, so detached from everything, that it was hard to feel for him. But I cared about all three main characters in Champloo, to my surprise.
Mugen is like a wild animal (his fighting style is a mixture of breakdancing and capoeira), and he seems to get off on fighting, period. Possibly because he's a total badass and he feels the need to prove it whenever possible. Not for glory, but for his own sake. He snarls every sentence, and he's pretty much a big jerk to everyone, so he took the longest to love, but I did. Because there's more to Mugen than what's on the surface. Or what's on his feet, which are these awesome metal-soled sandals.
Jin, in stark contrast, is a wandering samurai. Who wears glasses. He's very soft-spoken and polite, even though he can also be a jerk since he's rather self-centered. He is also a total badass, and the problem is that both he and Mugen are the kind of people who are preternaturally compelled to kill anyone they think is better than they are. So this results in hilarious scenarios where one has to save the other solely because they want to be the one who kills him.
Fuu is utterly adorable (and she has an adorable pet flying squirrel named Momo!). She looked distractingly like Jin from Avatar (and shared several character traits), but I got over it in a few episodes when she became her own character. At first, she reminded me unfavorably of Faye Valentine based on her voice/speaking style and the fact that she was usually complaining, but she was complaining with good reason; Mugen and Jin were supposed to be in her debt (as opposed to the freeloading Faye). I can't quite describe what makes Fuu more than Just Another Girl, but there's something hopelessly naive about her, the way she always keeps a positive outlook on things. It makes you want to give her a hug. Especially because she gets kidnapped in every other episode.
Toward the end of the series, I realized that Fuu was supposed to be the audience surrogate: she was the normal character, the one we could relate to. So it was Fuu's story? Except Jin's backstory plays an important role throughout the series, so maybe it was Jin's story? Except Mugen is the unlikeliest character to show any sort of growth over the journey, and yet he does, so perhaps it was Mugen's story? The truth is, of course, is that it's all their stories: it's not only about how they individually develop but how three strangers form a bond and learn from each other.
It's also about changing cultures. Although the show admits it's not a historically accurate portrayal, most of the actual historical events are straight out of Japanese history, and Jin, Fuu, and Mugen take us through a transitional period. The occasional narrator comments on the developing cultural trends and societal shifts, which turns the anachronisms into more than a gimmick. By incorporating elements out of time (and incorporating them so cohesively, just as Watanabe was able to mash together genres in Bebop), you can see how the more things change, the more they stay the same. As they say. Honestly, I just didn't know how to end that sentence, but I had to make my observation about evolving cultures because it makes me sound smart without doing the work of being intelligent.
Because this is a Watanabe samurai drama, you expect the fighting to be awesome. AND IT IS. The swordfights are so amazingly fast I sometimes rewound to watch them again to see what the hell happened. Mugen is such a badass he sometimes takes out his opponents without even drawing his sword. The fights are brutal, too; the body count is high, and I found myself wincing at times. Nearly every cliffhanger in the middle of a two-parter (of which there are several) ends in the middle of an attack. Like, mid-sword swing. Literally.
The overall plot moves fairly slowly, but it's always in play since the characters are on a journey with a defined endpoint. And as they move closer to their destination, the stakes become higher. The three-part finale is awesome and exciting and intense and sad and beautiful. And there is LOTS AND LOTS OF FIGHTING AND BLOODSHED AND DEATH. Like a good finale should have. Plus, emotional moments that tug at your heartstrings, but come on: FIGHTING.
Samurai Champloo will probably always be in Cowboy Bebop's shadow. And while I did really like Cowboy Bebop, I loved Samurai Champloo. I got the impression I could only take so many adventures with the Bebop crew, but I wanted more and more and more adventures with Mugen, Jin, and Fuu. Whenever they threatened to break up, I yelled at my television screen. Whenever an episode ended with one of them in peril, I yelled, "Fuck!!" And this is what I want from my stories: I want them to engage me. (I've also neglected to mention that Samurai Champloo is more deliberately comedic than Cowboy Bebop, and that certainly increases its enjoyment value.)
This post of pimping may not have been an accurate critical portrayal. Like I care. Now shut up and enjoy the show.