Anime Spotlight: Afro Samurai
Released by FUNimation
"Afro Samurai" sounds like it could be a name given to a completely goofy or a completely bad-ass concept. Turns out, it is decidedly the latter: a man with a billowing smoke cloud of hair, sinewy limbs, furrowed features, and rough samurai garb, only ornamented by hoops in the ears and around the wrists, voiced with lethal gravity by Samuel L. Jackson.
This character is probably the biggest marquee presence to come into anime for a while. Considered on a world wide stage, and for an older-audience targeted figure, there has probably never been anything comparable.
Gonzo's five episode Afro Samurai is not the first anime to blend elements of hip-hop and martial Japanese culture. On the video front, Samurai Champloo left the gate first, airing on Japanese and North American TV before the Afro Samurai anime was completed. Going back further, Takashi "Bob" Okazaki's original small-run manga (comic) did predate Champloo. Firsts aside, Afro has its sword to Champloo's throat for dominance thanks to the work's uncomplicated international cross-over appeal. For all of Afro Samurai's freakish sights like Kuma: a swordsman with the body of Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo and the head of a teddy bear, the work does not have Champloo's spirit of experimentation. There isn't the sense of creative process, or thumbing through options from history, culture and animation technique. Afro Samurai does not kid around. The confident series is a set multi-cultural polymer, aggressively violent and interested in getting as much impact out of every scene as possible. That is even more pronounced in its uncut DVD release thanks to a sex scene, plenty of MFing dialog, and buckets of blood.
The motivation behind the anime's journey is found in one of the oldest reasons for one man to want to kill another: Afro seeks to avenge his father's murder. This particular cycle of killing is facilitated by the myth of two headbands. The "Number One" headband grants its wearer the status of a god. The wearer of the "Number Two" headband has the right to challenge "Number One", but anyone may challenge "Two" to fight its wearer for possession. As the series opens, Afro's father Rokutaro is "Number One". This man appears like a subtle variant on the man the titular character would become. With the child looking on, his father, is challenged by "Number Two", also known as Justice. This Ron Perlman voiced gunslinger looks weathered by harsher substances than sun, wind and sand. With a pharaoh's exaggerated chin and diseased skin, he looks as Lovecraftian as he does Leone.
With a cracked gallows humor that sounds dangerously close to insight, Justice announces that he will be assuming the role of "Number One", and the anime launches into the first of its collision course confrontations. Soul music provides as solid background as the two men reach out with their weapons, forcing what should be impossible to happen. Rokutaro blocks bullets and barrels with blades Justice block blades with the barrels of his revolvers.
With that battle resolved, the anime skips forward. Afro is the new "Number Two", with a couple dozen heavily armed rogues surrounding him, hoping to take the headband for their employer. The first fight established what was essential to the anime: the drama of the killing, what Afro and his adversary are all about, why Afro is possessed by his singular determination. This second fight is slaughter. Both the dying foes and Afro's confidant say as much. The world comes after Afro, he sends them all to their graves. Its role is to establish the hardcore swords, exotic weapons and eruptions of blood spectacle of Afro Samurai. As in all aspects of animating the work, impressively few shortcuts are taken. Darkness and quick cuts set the mood and pace for the blood letting, but do not obscure the action. With the masses rushing Afro, or firing muskets and arrows from a distance, the crowd of foes do not engage him one-on-one. With Afro slicing through his adversaries, lashing out with kicks and redirecting their attacks, the battle is far from a simple one in which mass-attackers are magically mowed down.
Afro Samurai illustrates its protagonists development from a violent but clumsy inexperienced killer to a refined master, who thunderously sets his stance, and with precision begins death-dealing. Though he perfects his art, from beginning to end, the fights never lose their sense of chaotic ferocity. Regardless of whether the duels involve trained warriors or starving bandits, complex layered attacks mount up to improvised, frantic melees.
The series' further progression follows Afro as he meets with the other threats sprung on him as he ascends Mount Shumi for his confrontation with Justice. He has his sights set on Justice and the world has their eyes set on him. As with the choreography, the plotting is a chaotic rush, perceptually at the collision point between the directive to move forward and the directive to throw everything against the oncoming force. As Afro hits Shumi, the attacks become orchestrated by the Empty Seven, a brotherhood of monks/preachers/pimps who wish to take the Number One, without winning the honor through single combat. Through this fight driven fury, the emotional tensions are underscored by progressive flashbacks looking at Afro's training and relationships.
Even through the more placid or dialog heavy stages of the flashback, there is never the impression that Afro Samurai is stalling for something to happen. There is a clear destination in the final fight, but if it is building to something, the anime never feels slow now in preparation for something big later. There's little premium in anticipation put into the work. Always concerned with the moment, the characters on screen never hold back and the anime itself follows suit. There is never an impression that the animators are conserving something for a final fight that will be leaps ahead of the current battles. Even if around the middle some of it seems a bit arbitrary, something is always happening, and that something looks as dangerous and forceful as possible.
The unmistakable core of the work is its ties to the period action chambara works. Rather than marking time waiting for swords to be drawn and tension to be punctuated by a brief, brutal exchange of master-strokes, Afro Samurai follows the more blood drenched tradition of some of the live action genre's more exploitation pieces or ninja anime. With the rapidly accumulated body counts Ninja Scroll comes to mind, but also a host of other ninja stores from Yotoden in the OVA age to the recent Basilisk.
Beyond that framework of quick, raw action is what Japanamerica calls the Mobius Strip of influence: ideas from Eastern and Western pop media that have bounced back and forth, mutating each time in the transition One of the notable examples of this is a fight between Afro and a Terminator looking robot-skeleton that, almost to a Bugs Bunny degree, keeps on escalating, from chambara, through Hollywood explosiveness, into the wild stratosphere of anime action. The handling of sci-fi style arial combat is some of the best humanoid acrobatics committed to anime in years. Shockingly, Macross/Robotech style moves are pulled out as Afro twists his body mid-air while he dodges missile. That's then upstaged by an even more complex dance as Afro and the terminator bot fight in free-fall.
That first revolves versus katana fight between Afro's father and Justice establishes a precedent of unreality for the anime's world. It's people farm for food and they surely bleed and die, but the arrangement of what it is present only makes sense on an aesthetic level, and a very freewheeling one at that. The cellphones, the bear-headed swordsman, the priest who jives to headphones as he performs a tea ceremony or automatic fire crossbow with grenade launcher don't seem out of place or injected. Rather than making a trainspotting game of spotting anarchisms, the anime builds them into its composition, the same way in follows a scene of a moth flying into a candle with one is which dropped flower petals, thrown to cheer up a character, glide into a stem of funeral incense.
Rather than a mosaic of pieced together fragments of East and West, Afro Samurai is a living hybrid, and the blood circling through that creation is the series' score by the RZA. Eastern themes are unmistakable, such as the fusion traditional sounds that become a beat for the opening and closing themes, or as the background to snow falling as swordsmen square off for a duel. One of the more intriguing elements of the score is that many of the primary conflicts play to music that is a discourse between western traditions. Jackson might be the one driving Afro Samurai into prominence, but the RZA's contribution turns out to be one of the stand out highlights of the international project.
The flashbacks looking at the stages in Afro's journey from shattered child to single-minded killer seem to be part of the blend of influences. Sentimental attachment to the past is employed compellingly through the anime and hints to its significant hit early. After the first brawl, Afro walks into a sleazy dive, orders a lemonade, ritualistically takes out an ornate straw and quickly sucks up the drink. The self-significant triviality is not exactly in keeping with his stoicism. This becomes an increasingly less subtle dialog as Afro nears his objective. The concern is not just that he has become a demon, who has set out to kill god without any interest in bettering the world or the progress has perpetuated the cycle of vengeance. And, the concern is not just that he has sacrificed his soul and his past to achieve his objective. It is whether he can reconcile what he has done. That suggested uncertainty adds depth to the violence at work, but it is also something that is largely coming in from outside chambara, which is more intently unidirectional. In Kazuo Koike revenge epics like Lone Wolf and Cub or Lady Snowblood for example, the protagonist has adopted that purpose to their core. Afro is accused of being a demon, but unlike the Lone Wolf Ogami Itto, he's not proclaiming he's an instrument of hell, quick to cut down anyone in his way. Afro Samurai might be hard-ass, but ultimately, despite its stoic lead, the narrative itself has its heart on its sleeve. In the wider scheme of pop media, none of this is astonishingly new and when it is explained, some of the revelational rhetoric ties logic into tangled knots. At the same time, Afro Samurai is notable in staging these concerns in a terms of Afro's appeal, questioning whether he had to cast away manhood along with his emotions.
The image of an African-looking man in traditional samurai garb has proven to be quite a powerful draw. That image inspired an enthusiasm to turn Okazaki's micro-circulation manga into one of the more ambitious international anime efforts. With the release of the unedited version of Afro's bloody work, the samurai is bound, or at least hoped to, assume his role as the Hello-Kitty of bad-ass. And the look and sound of the character certainly lives up to that potential. Filling in a back story should enhance rather than detract from a figure who looks ready to become an emblem of few words and plenty of action. The DVD is packaged with an insert promoting t-shirts, posters, keychains, action figures and the like, so it would certainly seem that this is an appeal being commercially banked upon. The apocryphal stories suggest that the anime was launched after seeing a figure based on the cult manga. Then, and the making-of bonus DVD alludes to both versions of the story, either Samuel L. Jackson saw some demo/early production material and began proclaiming that he was Afro Samurai, or the producers hit upon the idea for employing Jackson as the characters voice/living alter ego, and the actor was game.
As Afro, Jackson rarely speaks, but when he does it is in a grave, piercing tone. Which is not to say that Jackson has a slim vocal presence in Afro Samurai. One of the few things that the character can be relied upon to say is to insist that his prattling traveling companion Ninja Ninja "shut up." Jackson has a second role voicing this impish character, endowed with hair like Afro's, text book ninja garb and cheesy 80's thin shades. Serving as an inverse of Afro's voice and personality, the distinctive secondary, or in terms of volume, maybe primary role takes the wise cracking guide to a new level. Jackson packs this performance with energy, which might be too much of a good thing/good time. At his best Ninja Ninja's freeform half nonsense is gratingly funny. At his worst, he seems only there to aggravate the lead and by extension the audience. The screeching and cajoling, can be more that a bit one note ("turn back!"), but the series does make use of the character. In part, he is a Shakespearean fool, and his perspective is ultimately well explained.
Anime fans should note that English is the primary language of this anime. There is no Japanese audio on the DVD, and the anime plays in Japan in English. With the likes of John Di Maggio and Phil LaMarr voicing secondary characters, there is plenty of personality granted to every voice on screen.
Throughout the voice work, the focus appears to be expressiveness rather than precision. By no-means is the anime badly voiced, but there are a number of cases where the voice and the animation are mis-synched by half a beat. It sound great, but it doesn't look great. The crescendo, start or stop seems to miss the animation by just a noticeable increment. There is already an incongruity between the role the voice, with thugs speaking like Peter Lorre or Pentecostal meets the Warriors' Cyrus pronouncements from the Empty Seven. There are enough slight mismatches of timing that the gap between the voice and the image is widened.
Afro Samurai proves to be anime to own on DVD. Not only does the impact of the action never dull, there are enough interesting facets to the narrative, and production that it warrants multiple viewings. There might not be anything truly profound to be discovered that isn't readily apparent. There is enough complexity to the duels and to the composition that a fan of the violence or the medium has plenty to work with.
Honestly, they should take this review and plaster it on the front cover of the DVD. Most of the message boards I go to complain that this series is "all style and no substance" (which to me is the single most boring criticism in the world), and never go beyond that.
...It's better than CHAMPLOO because it's dumber, less creative, more gratuitously violent, and more profane. In my opinion it seems more like CHAMPLOO is the show that doesn't kid around, and AFRO SAMURAI is the show that takes one set of anime cliches and mixes them with another set of hip-hop cliches and asks me to be impressed with it. I am not. Nor am I impressed with what I've heard of RZA's musical contributions to it - the CHAMPLOO soundtracks are better than anything RZA's done since at least BOBBY DIGITAL IN STEREO - indeed they're among the most solid hip-hop albums released this decade. Perhaps the original AFRO SAMURAI manga is better - but the animated version just felt like SAMURAI CHAMPLOO for really stupid people. Shinichiro Watanabe fucking loves hip hop, it's instantly clear watching his series that he really understands it on a core level, based on how he uses it. AFRO SAMURAI is all marketing. It's the BULWORTH of anime.