Anime Theater: Afro Samurai

Why do black guys always have such big swords?

In a world torn apart by violence, greed and death, one man wanders the desolate wastes on a mission of vengeance. His swordsmanship is unmatched by any of the hundreds who have challenged him, and his name is whispered fearfully in many a den of scum and villainy. Stopping nowhere, and proceeding ever onward toward his destination, his only companions are his sword and his fast talking counterpart. He is recognized by his dark skin, his cold, piercing eyes, and by his…gigantic black afro hairstyle, with a smidgen of green, of course.

Yup, that last part sure throws a wrench into things. Welcome to the world of Afro Samurai, where the baddies are brutal, the bitches are bangin’, and blood bathes the battlefield like a lackadasical hotel waitress spraying too much bleach on your end-table. The title alone seems too ludicrous to be accepted, and for a long time I myself had turned away from the show, expecting it to pander to the lowest common denominator. But if you look past the exploitative title, and are able to stomach a veritable cavalcade of sex and violence, then you will find an orgy of cool fights, cooler characters, great production values, and yes, even the occassional bit of depth.

                                                       Blackbelt Theater

How this show came about is actually quite interesting, and a little inspiring. Takeshi Okazaki created a seinin doujinshi (in laymans terms, an adult oriented fan comic) called “Afro Samurai”, featuring the titular character. A friend of his liked the character so much that he created statues of him, and was selling them in small amounts when a producer from the well known animations studio Gonzo found one. Interested, he decided to push for an anime based on the doujinshi, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As for the story itself, we find ourselves in a world that somewhat resembles the old west, yet is also implied to be feudal Japan. It’s a distinctly Samurai Champloo-esque place, where the olden days feel is juxtaposed against distinctly un-olden days technology. And it is here that we find our hero, the imaginatively named Afro Samurai. No, seriously, that’s his name, and it might be the most descriptive one I’ve seen since “Big the cat”.

Presumably, "Big Fuzzy Retarded Barney" was taken.

Afro is a lanky black guy, wears simple clothes and is most commonly distinguished by his comically huge afro. He is also distinguished by his ability to kill things in extremely quick and efficient ways. And he will kill things. A lot. Because every thug, villain, and vile miscreant in the world seems to want a piece of him.

Why is this? Well, to explain that, we need to step back and look at the wider world Afro inhabits. One of the more unique aspects of this universe involves a pair of headbands, the Number 2 and the Number 1. You see, it is said that whoever has the Number 1 headband will be granted the powers of a God. This, naturally, tempts entire legions of bloodthirsty vagabonds to pursue it. But “random cuthroat #49” can’t just challenge the Number 1 all willy-nilly; it would be way too chaotic and the bodies would pile up like mad. That’s where the Number 2 headband comes in. Whoever has the Number 2 headband has the exclusive right to challenge the Number 1, however, there is a small problem. The Number 2 headband is up for grabs to anyone who challenges and kills the current holder, meaning that the holder is essentially a walking target for anyone who wants the divine privilege of  challenging a God.

                                                             Samurai Swag

So how does this relate to Afro? Well, many years ago, Afro’s father was the holder of the Number 1 headband, a title he held until his fateful battle with Justice, a slithery, sickly looking gunslinger type who was the Number 2 at the time. Justice wins by decapitating Afro’s father right in front of him, and as Afro holds his Father’s head, Justice tells Afro to seek him out when the time comes if he wants his vengeance so bad. How Afro eventually got the Number 2 headband is all tied in to his life’s story, which involves his being raised and tutored, along with many other children, by a man known only as Swordmaster, and his subsequent struggles alongside his friends. This origin story, all in all, takes up about half of the OVA’s five episode running time.

The other half involves Afro’s journey toward the mountaintop keep where Justice awaits him. His only companion is Ninja-Ninja, yet another in the long line of obviously named characters in this story. Ninja-Ninja, despite his name, doesn’t really look much like one, what with his giant white afro and sunglasses. A good amount of the talking in the show is done by him, but more on that later.

Although Justice is his final goal, the path will not be easy for Afro, for along the way, Afro will meet many an enemy, most notably the agents of “The Empty Seven”, a clan of monks (six in all, five of whom are identical) who desire the Number 2 headband so as to gain the powers of the Number 1. And further still, there is a mysterious man in a bear mask named Kuma, who has an old grudge against Afro that needs settling…

The gritty reboot of "Little Bear" got really fucking weird...

                                                                    Blood Opera

Production values-wise, Afro Samurai is a truly top-notch show. Overall the visuals have a satisfyingly gritty feel to them, and although the colors occassionally stray too far into the land of grays and browns, the whole thing is very pleasant to look at, with smooth animation that serves the show well during its many fight scenes, though sometimes that old Gonzo wonkiness works its way in. As for the general “look” of the show, the unique artistry of the universe goes a long way toward making it feel less like other similarly anachronistic shows and more like its own animal. The hip-hop aesthetic is particularly well realized, and the whole thing just oozes style.

And of course, there is the blood. Oh boy, is there the blood. At least once an episode, you are bound to see a bloodbath of epic proportions, and they are always glorious. From the first scene in which upwards of twenty thugs are slaughtered, to Afro’s assault on the Empty Seven’s compound, all the way up to his duel with Kuma in the mountains, the action set pieces here are amazing, and always cool to watch. Arms, legs, eyes and heads will all be destroyed as you watch, and as long as you have a stomach for it, the action is definitely one of the highlights of the show.

God, it's like someone with a bloody nose sneezed on the picture...then his head exploded. Incidentally, this is MILD by the show's standards.

The amount of sexual content in this show is also more than a little mentionable. Although it’s not as present as it is in other, more exploitative shows, there is a fair amount of nudity here, as well as one full on sex scene in episode 2. Again, if you are a mature young person, then you should have no problem with this, and to be honest, given the kind of universe we are looking at, it doesn’t feel to gratuitous for the setting.

This is Ass..Fanservice...I mean, Okiku.

                                                    Rhythm and Bloods

Story wise, besides the headbands, the show is pretty much a straight-forward revenge story, which gets by on the strength of its characters. Afro himself is an interesting case, as although he himself speaks too little to be a really dynamic character, his backstory really is an interesting tale that raises a few good moral dilemmas about the nature of vengeance. Ninja-Ninja, meanwhile, is a constantly talking sidekick who stradles both sides of the Jar-Jar line, being tolerable and insufferable in about equal doses. Not that he is devoid of charm; he has a few good lines (his reaction to meeting Kuma is just about the funniest thing in the series) and the realization of his origins is pretty interesting, but there will be times where you will wish the fucker would just shut the hell up.

Our supporting cast is equal parts generic and interesting. Most of the characters in Afro’s flashback are servicable if a bit generic. The other kids are your typical mottley collection of quirky youngsters, while Swordmaster is your typical “Gruff Sensei” type. And Jinnosuke (called “Jino” by his friends) serves as an effective “Lawful Good” type counterpoint to Afro’s decidedly more chaotic personality. As for more mature companions, Okiku, his erstwhile “love interest”, serves her purpose for what little she is allowed to do, but she too suffers from having a backstory more interesting than her frontstory, as it were.

Luckily, our villains are a pretty memorable cast. The Empty Seven are a group of amoral monks, but they are dosed with the unique quirks of the setting. Brother 1, the leader of the group, speaks like a black evangelist preacher despite looking like a pretty typical “old man with long beard” type, and is also a pimp of some kind with a woman hanging on him at all times. The other brothers range from the sadistic Brother 5 and his constant plotting, to the incongruously huge Brother 6 and his backpack full of weapons, to the utterly indifferent Brother 3, who spends his whole time listening to headphones and bobbing to the music. Although they themselves don’t do much fighting, letting their agents and weapons do the combat mostly, they are an entertaining bunch.

Faring both better and worse is main villain Justice. Resembling some emaciated, mutant gunslinger, Justice definitely stands out from the rest of the more traditionally Japanese or hip-hop inspired cast. Unfortunately, despite being the main villain, he only appears in the beginning and end of the story. And his final battle with Afro is a little bit of a letdown. Luckily, the character himself is awesome, with a strange slithering charisma and honestly complex motivations for his actions, and he steals pretty much any (of the two) scenes he is in. Kuma, relating to Okiku and Afro above, has an interesting backstory but not a terribly huge amount of screentime in the present to work with. Still, a samurai with a giant bear mask is not something you see everyday, so he certainly leaves an impression.

                                                   Sharp Sounds

The music also deserves a mention. Wu Tang clan member The Rza, despite suffering from a tragic lack of letters in his name, really does create a fantastic sound for the show, managing to some how be evocative of it’s feudal setting, while giving it the hip hop dose it needs. The standout track is the credits theme, which could also double as the theme to the whole show. It is a steady, well formulated rhythm that evolves slightly with each episode, becoming a little more complex as the show progresses. Although I could not find that particular one, here is a taste of the soundtrack’s overall fantastic-ness.

While on the subject of sound, the voice cast is certainly a unique one, featuring a mix of celebrity and traditional voice actors. The titular Afro is voiced by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson, who is an admitted anime fan and was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition, on which he serves as a producer. Afro is a very soft-spoken soul, and has very few real lines in the show. When he does talk, it’s usually in short, gruff bursts, which Jackson does as well as he can, given everything has to be said in a low growl. More interesting is Ninja-Ninja, who Jackson also plays. Since the main character is mostly silent, Ninja-Ninja does most of the talking in scenes involving Afro, and Jackson certainly puts a huge amount of life into the character, although he sometimes steps a little too close to “Jive Turkey” territory, if you catch my drift.

The other two celebrity talents stand on opposite ends of the spectrum. Kelly Hu, the voice of Okiku, really does try her best with what she is given but doesn’t really get the chance to shine. Meanwhile, Ron Perlman gives an absolutely spectacular performance as Justice, utterly submerging every word in serpentine menace.  Pretty much all the rest of the cast give equally fine performances, with Yuri Lowenthal as Jino and Phil Lamarr as Brother 1 being particular standouts. Listen also for Terrence C. Carson, Kratos from God of War, playing Swordmaster as well as Brother 4.

                                                      Samurai Swag

Afro Samurai feels like something that should not be, or if it is, then it should not be good. Some immediately thinks of all the old “blaxsploitation” kung fu films, and the wonderful production values they had. Others would just think of a lame excuse for an anime tailored to appeal to the hip-hop crowd (because, you know, there are so many of those in the anime fandom). And others still would just wonder how something like this can be taken seriously when it sounds like a Newgrounds video someone made in their free time.

But just take the plunge, and you will find an incredibly satisfying show. The characters are memorable (although someone should really talk to Okezaki about his naming choices), the fights outrageously well done, and if you can handle it, more blood and sex than you can shake a live cow at. The story is kind of flimsy, and actually has more strength in its flashbacks than in its current resolutions, but some good moral play comes out of the actions of the characters and does a little to make up for the overall story’s weaknesses. It’s certainly aimed at older audiences, and there will be some who will write it off as mere vulgarity. But those souls will be missing out on one of the more creative and unique anime to come out in recent years.

Not Your Daddy’s Samurai: 9/10

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