The series centers the journey of two traveling samurai, Mugen and Jin, as they escort a young woman named Fuu across Edo-era Japan, searching of a "samurai who smells of sunflowers" that Fuu wishes to find.
With the name Watanabe attached to it, right away, this anime is given big shoes to fill - the renown director's first effort still stands as arguably the most acclaimed anime of all time. That said, though, while it does fall short of its massive expectations, Samurai Champloo is in no way a losing series. But rather than explain why in a long, boring paragraph, I'll go ahead and break down the anime's different elements.
As much a shame as it is to admit, Samurai Champloo's storyline is probably its biggest flaw. Like its "older brother" Cowboy Bebop, the series is mostly episodic - the protagonists eventually get to where they're going, but the subplots in between have almost nothing to do with one another. It's a common plot element that most people aren't very fond of, but still, it works out pretty well here for the most part. The individual genres found within each episode range from supernatural to romance, so there's something for just about everyone. Overall, though, many of their plots are rather generic, and it's only through the teamwork of the series' individual elements that they work as well as they do.
Just as the show itself is episodic, so too are most of its characters. At the most, any character aside from the main three will be seen up to two more times following their debut before disappearing, and shamefully, not too many of them make a lasting impression (aside from a few of the more prominent villains). That said, the three leads have a knack for keeping all the attention focused on them, so it's not like they ever had a chance to.
The centerpiece of the anime's cast is Mugen, a roughed up samurai with a dark past and no regard for morals or intelligence. When he's not eating or womanizing, he's trying to find and kill any swordsman whose up to the challenge, and like his behavior, the key to his winning fighting style is unpredictability - it's possible that not even he can predict his next move, either in battle or in life. Next is ronin Jin, who is, for all intent and purposes, Mugen's complete opposite. He's composed, soft-spoken, and he follows his traditional sword style down to the letter, but that's not to say he doesn't have his fair share of past regrets. And lastly, there's Fuu, a clumsy young girl with a big appetite who asked the two to escort her across Japan in exchange for saving their lives. As far as characterization and development goes, they're hardly the best leads in the business, but they do the best with what they've got - and come off as highly entertaining in the process.
Technological advancement in the ten years since its debut have put a damper on its quality, but Champloo's visuals are still pretty impressive. Its action scenes are its biggest highlight, and its fluid and fast-paced swordfights are some of the best in anime (Mugen's bizarre style takes most of the credit for this). The character designs appear rather malnourished, but that only adds to their realism, and the backgrounds look great, as well (the color schemes are a tad dark, though).
The standout element of the entire series, like Bebop, Watanabe made extensive use of a particular genre of music when constructing this anime. And this time, rather than revisit jazz, he chose to go with hip-hop - a wise choice if ever there was one. Setting aside the (to me) dreadful closer, the soundtrack consists almost completely of hip-hop beats, which go perfectly with the fast-paced action and even some of the slower scenes, as well. Then, of course, there's the iconic opener, which must be listened to in order to comprehend its brilliance.
Aside from its action and focus on hip-hop, the thing that makes this series stand out so much is its comedy. I've seen a great deal of anime over the past few years, but I've only watched one that really competes with Samurai Champloo in this department. Once again, Mugen shines in this department, his utter stupidity and vulgarity raking in most of the laughs. Fuu's unrelenting appetite is another staple, and even the monotone Jin ends up being hilarious (probably intentionally on his part). And it's a little biased, but I have to give Episode 15 a special mention here - it's probably the funniest episode of anime I've ever watched in my life.
Going off all of this, Samurai Champloo clearly isn't the anime for those craving a well-constructed plot and well-developed characters. On the other hand, for those who want pure entertainment, there are few out there that are better, and for that, I'd give it a 8.5/10. As for the dub-sub debate, both are passable in my opinion. The English dub is led by anime veterans who fit their characters pretty well, but there's nothing about their performances that warrants preference over the original, either.