After watching his father die at the hands of a demonic three-armed gunman named Justice (voiced by Ron Pearlman), Afro (Samuel L. Jackson) goes on a quest for revenge in a bleak, "futuristic" Feudal Japan. To get to the top of the mountain where Justice is, Afro must fight his way through RPG-wielding assassins, a cutthroat cult, a droid that is a direct copy of himself (it's called- get this- Afro Droid), and friends who he betrayed in the past in order to exact revenge upon Justice.
Originally, I had queued up Afro Samurai for review thinking that my old reader review, edited and revised, would suffice. I would only need to rewatch it, and then edit select passages here and there. It's not that I wanted to be lazy, but that at the time, that seemed to be the most efficient way to review an anime that I thought was worth some attention. Reading the old review, though, I realized that my first scribblings on Afro Samurai were...wrong. Wrong in the sense that I was too harsh, too cynical, and a wee bit too snide. I was going through a phase, I guess, where I mistook "writing criticism" for "being critical"-swinging after anything I perceived in an anime as a mistake with self-righteous wrath. The tone was too negative, and Afro Samurai didn't deserve it. It's a solid show, and a treat to watch for any fan of bloody action, otaku or otherwise. It is my responsibility when writing a review to make that clear to the reader.
So, let's take two on this one. Ready?
Clocking in at 125 minutes uncut, Afro Samurai isn't so much a television series as it is a long movie chopped up and serialized into five parts. At its heart, it's a simple and very old story-the hero was wronged by the antagonist, who destroys both something precious to the hero and the hero's innocence. The hero, in turn, seeks righteous revenge against the antagonist. It's a time tested tale, and has been recycled over and over again in countless martial arts films, novels old and new, and a few notable 80's anime. The series' creator Takashi Okazaki uses this trustworthy archetype as the bones that he fleshes the rest of the series around. The world of Afro Samurai is actually a collision of worlds and cultures-the core of it is hip-hop and samurai, and there's a dash of the post-apocalyptic here, a lot of mad and fantastic machinery is running loose, and only a blind man would miss the Akira homage planted square on the noggin of one character-but it is the revenge story that acts as the simple, accessible crux that keeps the whole potpourri together.
Afro Samurai has a lot going for it: Samuel L. Jackson, samurai, Samuel L. Jackson, slickly animated fights, Samuel L. Jackson, a seamless blend of post-apocalyptic sci-fi with hip-hop aesthetics, and a kickin' soundtrack by the RZA. Oh, and did I mention it has Samuel L. Jackson? I'll admit it: I was stoked at the idea of one of my favorite live-action actors being a voice actor in an anime. The first time I wrote this review, though, I was sorely disappointed because Jackson, as the voice behind the title character, didn't get any more than twenty words in the whole series. It seemed cheap and gimmicky, since Jackson was the Big Name that attracted a lot of attention to this series, hyping Afro Samurai above every other action release this year before it even premiered on Spike.
Jackson does earn his paycheck here though, as the voice behind Ninja Ninja, who is Afro's companion throughout the series and the comedic foil. And while Ninja Ninja may at a casual glance seem like just another funny, fast-talking sidekick, viewers who pay careful attention to detail in the anime will find out something disturbing about him that's never explicitly spelled out. That kind of subtlety isn't something you'd normally expect from a hack-n-slash action flick, but it is very rewarding to viewers like me who appreciate being able to dig further into their entertainment.
The entire vocal cast of Afro Samurai is superb, even without Mr. Jackson. The DVDs only come in dub, but I think that even with the option for sub, I would have stuck to the dub. The music is good and generally unobtrusive, which I honestly didn't expect from a genre known for being loud, crass, and arrogant about how good it is at doing both. The animation by Studio Gonzo is lush in every detail, from the shining, sleek nudity of a temple maiden (and she will not stay that way for long once Afro comes to town) to the scarlet showers of blood. And in this anime, there is a fair amount of the former, and a generous amount of the latter.
My only complaint about Afro Samurai is that violence is not only used as entertainment in the anime, it's also a message. The final five minutes are very clear that violence only begets more violence, creating a cycle of grief. The "Violence is not the answer" theme feels very out of place in an escapist action flick like this one.
Overall though, I enjoyed the show, and recommend it for any fans of action flicks. A new season of the series is slated to release in 2008, and what I've seen so far has been good enough that Spike TV can count me in among the viewers who will be tuning in to see what happens next to our afro-and-katana wielding lone wolf.
Technically three-and-a-half stars. Bloody great fun. — Bradley Meek
Recommended Audience: Recommended to college-aged and up for violence, language, mature themes, nudity, and some sex. The edited version tones down the language and eliminates the sex if I remember correctly, but it doesn't make enough of a difference for me to say it's any more wholesome for those not in the 17+ crowd.
Version(s) Viewed: Director's cut DVD
Review Status: Full (5/5)
Afro Samurai © 2007 Gonzo, WOWOW, Fuji TV
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