Set in the Bakumatsu era, as the shoguns’ rule over Japan wanes in the mid-nineteenth century, the Tokugawa shogunate retains control with hypnotic Heaven’s Songs sung by top male idol group Shinsengumi. Deviating from these songs, whether writing or performing, is a capital offense, and in this climate of stifling injustice one would-be rocker won’t let the man get him down.
Nicknamed ‘Rooster’ for his shock-of-red mane, Sakamoto Ryoma is a gifted guitarist with impressive pipes to match. Biding his time serving slices in the local transvestite pizzeria, Ryoma soon puts his own band together after meeting bassist Shinsaku ‘Cindy’ Takasugi and bashful drummer Katsura Kogorō. Each learned under the tutelage of psychedelic shorty, Shoin Yoshida. Oh, and they all have a peace soul, and it only gets more muddled from there.
The arrival of wannabe idols, Dark Cherry, really kicks things into gear, proving that it needed the girls all along to drum up the fanservice. The gags are better, the sequences funnier, and it’s that much more disappointing when the Cherries bid adieu at the end of their episode.
Samurai Jam has a confused sense of its own antiquity, and that of rock music, which is more likely to irritate music fans than please them. Alternate as it is, the history can only be described as tenuous at best and left at that. Trying to figure out how they power their amps, electric guitars and light rigging in the 1800s isn’t worth the hassle.
The music sequences, which while certainly fun, suffer from the repetitive nature of the songs themselves – seriously guys, learn some new tunes – and the primitive CG used to animate the performances. In its more serious moments, the show does take a moment to explore the westernisation of Japan, and, perhaps more tenderly, how people are persecuted and picked-on for their music choices. It’s hard not to get won over by some of its charm, and setting aside cynicism for 12 episodes is probably a healthy pursuit anyway.
Director Itsuro Kawasaki, who has clocked up storyboard credits on Shaman King and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex among others, makes the best of what’s he’s got and the end result, wobbly CG aside, is an attractive enough package. Even writer Mitsutaka Hirota, who penned several episodes for Hunter x Hunter (2011), reels off some snappy one liners and crafty gags. The gaping hole at the centre is the higgledy-piggledy plot, due in no small part to the PSP/Vita source material.
If it’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll you’re after, you won’t really get any with Samurai Jam. Some sly fanservice and a catchy tune or two might be enough to satisfy the casual fan, but for ardent rockers, this is sure to aggravate.
Special Features: None
SAMURAI JAM: BAKUMATSU ROCK / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ITSUROU KAWASAKI / SCREENPLAY: MITSUTAKA HIROTA / STARRING: KISHOU TANIYAMA, TATSUHISA SUZUKI, KENSHO ONO, SHOWTARO MORIKUBO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW