Now that I've seen the entire series, I feel the need to say something about it that doesn't have to be hidden behind spoiler cuts. So:
Samurai Champloo is a 26-episode anime by Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of Cowboy Bebop, set in a deliberately anachronistic Edo-era Japan. It shares some similarities with Bebop, but I like it much better, for reasons I will get to shortly.
This is basically a trio road trip. Fuu is a teenaged girl, bubbly but not brainless, who has been marking time since her mother died. Jin is a cool controlled ronin; Mugen is a quick-tempered smartass from a prison colony. One day Jin and Mugen crash into Fuu's life, wreck the tearoom where she works, and get sentenced to execution; Fuu rescues them and makes them come with her on a quest to find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. They travel, they snark at each other, they fight a whole lot of people in both silly and serious circumstances, they deal with backstory, and they quietly, in small ways, grow up.
(My cold-addled brain has just tossed up a comparison between Mugen and Jayne from Firefly; which would make Jin = Zoe, I think, and Fuu = Kaylee, more or less. Probably less. Bad brain, no biscuit.)
Its similarities with Bebop are in the mixing of backstory exploration with lighter episodes, the riffing on genres, and the uneasy partnerships among the main characters as they travel together. Here's why I like Champloo better than Bebop:
- Lower expectations. I'd heard a lot about Bebop before I watched it, and ended up not finding those expectations fulfilled, which made me cranky.
- Just as importantly: No Faye or Ed. It's hard to really love a series when you can't stand half of the main characters. In contrast, I like all three of Champloo's main characters.
- The quest format. The series benefits by the characters having a goal, as it provides more coherence and direction; a very loose direction at times, but I was always aware of it.
- A somewhat less uneven tone. I ended up being annoyed by the disjunct between Bebop's silly filler episodes and angsty backstory episodes. There are certainly some very silly Champloo episodes, but the episodes on the first DVD have enough seriousness mixed in (particularly the deaths of some people who I rather sympathized with) that they established a sort of middle baseline, from which I found it easier to go silly or harsh.
This is a series that rather grew on me; I started out with very low expectations, and found myself liking it more and more as I watched. It doesn't have the depth of Fullmetal Alchemist—or, if it does, it's in cultural commentary (particularly though not exclusively via its hip-hop anachronisms), which I don't have enough context to really recognize. But the characters and the inventive energy of it kept me watching.
[ETA: that is, I suspect it of cultural commentary on present-day Japan. The series explicitly considers cultural changes of the late Edo period: the decline of the samurai, the rise of the shogunate, and the influence of the West, particularly Christianity.]
The major episodes, after the first few, are: 13 and 14, "Misguided Miscreants"; 16 and 17, "Lullabies of the Lost"; 20 and 21, "Elegy of Entrapment"; and 24-26, "Evanescent Encounter." Exceedingly skippable episodes are: 12, "The Disorder Diaries," which is just a recap of the series to date in the form of Fuu's diary; and 22 and 23, "Cosmic Collisions" and "Baseball Blues," which apparently take place in an alternate universe where the writers were smoking the really, really good crack. Otherwise there's ongoing plot and character development scattered throughout, so that I'd have to re-watch all of them to further refine which you could safely skip.
This is airing on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block; all of the DVDs are available from NetFlix. A very thorough fan site is Amalgam.