My Review of Afro Samurai!

Throughout time, many legends have been told about the mighty samurai… Warriors of honor, loyally serving their masters, as well as lone Ronin, serving only to uphold the values they hold true, whether they be religious or personal. Around these parts, you’ll hear tales of one such Ronin, a bad ass motherfucker who’s as silent as the grave and twice as terrifying. This man knows no love, no empathy, and no tears. He invites no trouble, and will offer no mercy to those stupid enough to give it to him. He knows few pleasures, save for the warmth of a woman’s body, the refreshing tang of a cool glass of lemonade, and the sweet, sweet flavor of revenge. Rumor has it he doesn’t even need to eat… That the blood of his enemies, which constantly bathes the blade of his sword, provides him all the nourishment he could ever need. I myself have no idea which rumors are true and which ones are just the product of fear, but I’ve got no intention of finding out, but there is a bounty on his head…  Care to collect?

You’ll know this young Samurai when you see him, as he sports an afro… A rare hair style indeed, and one that will surely become his sigul long after he’s departed our world, if he ever does. But don’t worry, traveler, there’s no need to fear this man… Well, unless you have what he wants. Otherwise, he’ll be perfectly willing to live and let live. See, you’ve probably heard tell about the headbands… Trophies only the mightiest of samurai are able to carry, and the only way to obtain one is to spill the blood of it’s previous owner. Well, this Afro Samurai is carrying the #2 headband, which… If you can’t guess… Is the second most prestigious headband in the known world, and the only one that grants it’s user the right to challenge the greatest samurai currently living, the holder of the #1 headband. And you didn’t hear this from me, dear traveler, but the Afro Samurai’s drive to challenge this man isn’t based on mere ambition, but something much more personal. He fights not for glory, or for honor… But for revenge.

Unlike most anime, Afro Samurai was the product of an international collaboration. Studio Gonzo was interested in adapting the deeply personal work of Takashi Okazaki, a manga artist who had been influenced by his love of both samurai classics and African American culture, particularly in regard to rap and R&B. He was shy at first, and probably wouldn’t have signed over the rights if not for the encouragement and participation of American actor Samuel L Jackson, who had gotten his hands on a rare action figure based on Okazaki’s illustrations, and had become obsessed with seeing the project through. Jackson and Okazaki apparently connected instantly, language barriers be damned, and the project went ahead, albeit with what I’m told was a 1 million dollar budget.

For an American cartoon, that sort of budget for a five episode series is abysmal, but it’s not that generous for an anime, either, despite the fact that anime is universally cheaper than it’s western counterparts. For Afro Samurai, this meant that each episode could only cost less than twenty thousand dollars, and that meant they had to cut a lot of corners… Which they did, brilliantly I might add, by turning the cheapness they’d been cursed with into a highly appealing visual style that incorporates the absolute best out of all the budget saving tactics you’ve seen before. It never quite falls back on the time old talking heads, at least not to the point that you’d ever notice it, but when movement is limited, the beautifully detailed artwork is more than sufficient to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an anime… Well, any animation, really… Get this much mileage out of such a limited color palette. There are occasional splashes of color throughout the series, especially when it comes to the buckets full of red blood and the golden glow of our hero’s precious lemonade, but for about 90 percent of the series, the colors on screen are almost monochromatic, playing with numerous shades of white, black and gray, as well as the occasional tan of the ground. At night, the cloudy, overcast sky is a captivating sight, and during the day, the lighting effects are beyond gorgeous. Other visual effects such as rain and fog filters are integrated smoothly with the cell-drawn animation.

The real triumph here are the action scenes, which are fast, fluid and dynamic, even when the animators have to break a character’s anatomical frame in order to keep the pace up. It only takes one real glance to see this kind of animation style in motion, as Afro’s namesake blows in the wind like the reflection of the moon in a puddle, and the animators are not shy about letting an occasional arm or leg move with exactly the same level of consistency. It winds up working out better than you’d think not only because of sharp, fast editing, but because the sound design of every single sword movement is completely on point. I love all of the action scenes in this series, but a few easy highlights are an early fight where Afro splits a bullet with his sword, a huge bloodbath of a brawl from when he was a teenager that almost feels like Saving Private Ryan in the way it’s brutality is show to effect him, and of course, there’s also a fight towards the end where he takes on a robot who’s been designed to look and fight like he does, but has no problem taking Afro to the sky with it when those tactics don’t pan out.

As you may have guessed from Okazaki and Jackson’s connection that I mentioned earlier, the music in Afro Samurai is made up mostly of hip-hop, full of vocal tracks whose head-banging beats fit the pace of the action in a way that’s easily similar to The Boondocks. The vocal work was performed by RZA, a former member of the Wu-Tang clan, a band that was, in it’s own right, influenced by Eastern culture. He also produced much of the music, as he did for his former band. The instrumental tracks feature slightly more traditional orchestration, but they fit more to the background, humbly doing their job without standing out too much. Besides, why bother making the instrumentals stand out when you have tracks featuring The Game, Too Short, Snoop Dogg and more, which are guaranteed to leave an impression all by themselves? The soundtrack, if you’re lucky enough to have it, features a small handful of tracks that weren’t from the show but inspired by it, and I don’t mean ‘inspired by’ like all the bullshit tracks on the Pokemon Movie soundtrack… These are songs that actually fit the series.

The English dub is a very unique entity, as it’s comprised almost entirely of actors who work in traditional animation. or “Pre-lay.” This is a term referring to the practice of recording a voice actor first and then animating a character around them afterwards, as opposed to ADR voice acting, which does the opposite. Thankfully, they translate very well over to the more prevalent Anime recording style, although there are minor lip-flapping hiccups from time to time. The only anime regular who appears in this dub is Yuri Lowenthal, who plays Afro’s childhood friend, Ginno, who was an idealistic young boy in Afro’s past, but is even more compelling in the present day scenes, due to certain spoiler reasons. He does an outstanding job, probably the best performance in the dub, but because of a certain other big name, he was never the one I was going to get excited over.

No matter how much hype went into the American airing of the series… And yes, the hype was palpable… The truth was, regardless of the show’s success, I was going to watch it either way because of one of the names attached to it. He’s one of the most underrated actors of our time, in my opinion, and as much as I enjoy his live action work, I practically chomp at the bit when I get a chance to hear him in a cartoon, or even in the rare video game, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear him in an anime. He’s not only my favorite black actor, or my favorite voice actor, no, he’s my favorite ACTOR, period. I’ve been following him since BEFORE what many would consider his most memorable role in Pulp Fiction, and his inclusion made this dub for me. That’s right, I’m talking about Phil Lamarr, the original voice actor for Samurai Jack, who once again returned to the genre as the young version of Afro, as well as one of the Brothers, a league of elderly assassins including such prolific actors as Jeff Bennet and John Dimaggio!

Oh, you thought I was talking about Samuel L Jackson? He did a fine job. I wish I could say more, but as a main character, he had relatively little to do or say throughout the series. The titular character Afro is a very soft-spoken character, choosing only to speak when necessary, letting his actions do the speaking for him unless he has no other choice. It’s not really Jackson’s fault, as it’s not really an acting-heavy role, but he still does an admirable job with it. Thankfully he has dual roles, as he gets a lot more lines as the mysterious Ninja Ninja, a loud-mouthed tag-a-long who appears to Afro the minute he earns the #2 headband properly. The true identity of Ninja Ninja is never openly revealed, nor is it stated until the final episode whether or not he exists at all. While his endless jabbering is welcome most of the time, breaking up long periods of silence and questioning Afro’s motives, he can become annoying with his knack for stating the obvious. Think of him like… D’s hand from Vampire Hunter D.

The other two high-billed names are Kelly Hu and Ron Perlman, though neither one really appears enough to justify having featured names. Outside of flashbacks, Kelly Hu only appears in one episode as a shrine maiden who takes Afro in when he’s near death, and nurses him back to health… Using both medical AND sexual healing to see him through. Kelly exaggerates her accent with this character, which I guess is fitting, because she’s one of the only definitely-asian characters in the cast. Ron Perlman is unrecognizable as the main villain, Justice, who only appears in the first and last episodes, but that’s mostly because he hisses his lines like a snake, playing up how misanthropic and morally bankrupt this #1 samurai has allowed his time in the top to make him, as well as highlighting his delusional, god-like ambitions. If there’s a problem with this dub, it’s probably in the fact that some of the Brothers, played by veteran voice actors though they may be, are performed as though they were southern evangelical priests, a bafflingly poor fit for the tone of the series.

You wouldn’t be unjustified in saying that Afro Samurai had a very weak story. Despite all that happens in it’s five episode run, little to none of it seems to matter in the long run. Afro gets into fights that are resolved as easily as possible, and then moves on afterward, as if nothing had happened at all. This is because, at it’s core, Afro Samurai is the very simple story about a surprisingly simple man. While we do get generous doses of flashbacks to explain who he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing, you really wouldn’t lose anything important to the plot if you just told his backstory, and then cut directly to Afro standing at the gates of his final enemy. Even at five episodes, this anime could have been reduced to one, or two at the most, with nothing you would need to know lost in the process. The story does not see actual progress very often, and neither does Afro’s journey, as he himself sees little to no development, at least if you don’t count his childhood and teenage years in the flashbacks. This has become a major criticism of the series, and it’s one I feel I should address.

One of my favorite movies of 2013 was 2 Guns, a more-or-less by the numbers action film that featured both Denzel Washington and Mark Walberg as undercover agents from two separate factions pretending to be friends to investigate each other, constantly fighting together and backstabbing each other as the story progresses. I say that, but the story for the most part was an incoherent mess. There were so many betrayals and plot twists that I’m not sure even the writers knew what was going on, so why did I love it so much? The answer lies in the execution, and what the movie brought to the table that worked. The insane story was made palatable by the sharp, clever dialogue and the chemistry between the two leads, and it ended in such a way that it was able to embrace it’s insanity… Where else am I ever going to see a shoot-out between the Navy, the CIA and a drug cartel that takes place in the middle of an honest to God cattle stampede?

And that’s exactly why I like Afro Samurai so much. There are plenty of samurai stories with depth and complexity to them… Samurai Jack, Seven Samurai, Rurouni Kenshin… But in how many of them do we get to see the main character ride a robot version of themselves into the stratosphere, and then fight it all the way down? The only theme that Afro Samurai really tackles is the cost of revenge, as you do get to feel the bodies of Afro’s friends and enemies pile up over time, which forces you to wonder whether or not vengeance for his father’s death is really worth it in the first place, and his past does come back to haunt him at numerous occasions, as will often happen with the hunt for vengeance. Aside from this, there are a lot of things that just kind of happen, but the saving grace… And what makes the execution here so good… Is that it’s all done with so much sincerity that none of it ever feels forced or pointless. Every single fight is memorable, no matter how easily they’re resolved, and even no matter how forgettable or how generic the attackers themselves may be.

Does this excuse the obvious problems with the series? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, while this series does make for good popcorn material, it doesn’t offer much in the way of a rewatch, and much like your typical Superman story, it’s kind of difficult to get invested in the story of an unstoppable man. There’s also quite a bit that doesn’t make any sense… The rules behind the headbands in particular are a head scratcher, and I’m not just talking about how easy it would be to fake a #2 headband, but… What happens when #2 kills #1? Do they choose who gets the #2? Apparently they do, because Justice just hands it over to little Afro so that some bandits can pick it up. And why can’t someone just break the rules and kill the #1 with a sniper rifle? Guns exist! And while I had no problem with most of Afro’s enemies, the writers never portended that they were supposed to be important… Except for the Empty Seven, who prove to be completely wasted by the end.

And yet, the series keeps a consistent tone that makes it really easy to get lost in. Shallow as the story may be, one dimensional as adult Afro may be, underdeveloped as several concepts may be, it’s a dark, gritty story that’s taken completely seriously and steeped in the love of two very adult genres. It’s definitely style over substance, but with both a style and substance that feel more like a collaboration between Kanye West and Quentin Tarrantino than a collaboration between Sam Jackson and a Mangaka, it’s worth at least a second look. That’s not to say the series is as much as the sum of it’s parts, but there’s something to be said for how much fun it is to watch a passion project that’s creatively unhinged, and held back only by budgetary limits. It’s not trying to be art, it’s trying to be grindhouse, and to that end, it does a pretty solid job.

Afro Samurai is available from Funimation in an impressive fold-out DVD case, as well as your standard thin blu-ray release. A follow-up movie, Afro Samurai Resurrection, is also available from the same company, and while you can buy them separately, you can also get them as a bundle in a set called The Complete Murder Sessions. The original manga consists of only two volumes, and it IS available stateside from Seven Seas Entertainment. A video game for the Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 is unfortunately out of print, but it’s not that difficult to find a copy online.

Afro Samurai isn’t for everyone. I personally enjoy it, but there’s a good reason I can only watch this series about once a year, tops. It has a definite cool factor, but so did the first seasons of RWBY and Hellsing, and I hated both of those. Granted, Afro Samurai has quite a bit more to offer than those two did(as much as it fails compared to their future incarnations), mostly in regard to it’s great production values, addictive music and engrossing adult tone, but I have to admit that if it were even one episode longer, I’d probably hate it. I love Afro Samurai, but like so many other guilty pleasures out there, I have to be brutally honest about it… This series works really well, but only in small doses spaced out over time. Hell, even as far as Samurai shows with heavy hip-hop influences go, Samurai Champloo did it first and better. I give Afro Samurai a 5/10  

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