Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 4th 2008
BLURAY - Uncut
As a boy, Afro Samurai saw his father killed at the hands of the villain Justice. This battle granted Justice the rank of "No. 1," leaving only a tattered "No. 2" headband as Afro's last memento of his father's death. Now fully grown, Afro walks a path of revenge, cutting down anyone who stands in his way. With only his talkative sidekick Ninja Ninja to accompany him, Afro meets a variety of strange characters on his quest: the beautiful medicine woman Okiku, a group of warrior monks known as The Empty Seven, a swordsman with a teddy bear's head, even a mechanical version of himself. Each encounter brings Afro closer to his final confrontation with Justice, and along the way, he must overcome the shadows of his childhood, avenge his father, and become No. 1.
Know this: the original Afro Samurai manga is pretty lousy. Takashi Okazaki may be a creator with vision, plus a love of cultures both Eastern and Western, but his execution leaves something to be desired, often getting lost in incomprehensible scribbles and style over substance. Throw enough money at something, though, and the end result comes out reasonably polished: Afro Samurai's animated incarnation boasts some of Gonzo's slickest work to date, Hollywood-grade voice talent, and a head-bobbingly appropriate hip-hop soundtrack. But the story is still a simple one at heart, a blow-by-blow tale of revenge that just happens to come with blood-splattering action and a Soul Train vibe. Don't come in expecting a deep, life-changing experience, but do expect epic grandeur and audiovisual audacity.
Like most typical action-adventures, the story starts out slow and only picks up toward the middle and end when the blades really start flying. And that's the biggest hurdle viewers will have to face during the first hour of footage—Episode 1 starts out with a strong hook, showing the seminal battle between Afro's father and Justice followed by present-day Afro in the heat of battle, but quickly dials down the pacing to this yawn-inducing I'm-a-silent-badass-strolling-through-the-wilderness act. A hillside confrontation with an enemy tries to segue explosively into Episode 2, but that one turns out to be 25 minutes of Afro recuperating, having childhood flashbacks, and romancing the obligatory hot girl. When's the dude going to start busting heads?
Fortunately, that question is answered in Episode 3, which basically marks the "it gets better" turnaround: battles against his mechanical clone and The Empty Seven finally show Afro's true combat prowess. But there is a difference between fights that simply look intense and fights that have deep significance for the hero, as illustrated in the flashback-heavy Episode 4. It is here that the story of Afro's tragic youth is finally fleshed out, showing his troubled relationships with his Sword Master and childhood friend Jinnosuke; these sequences add the necessary sense of importance to the last few fights. Ironically, Afro's battles against his past carry such a strong dramatic quality that by the time he gets to Justice, the finale feels somewhat anticlimactic. Like most escalator-opponent fight series, the last challenge ends up being something on the level of fighting God, becoming so ridiculously unreal that it lacks the human drama of previous battles.
Just because the last battle lacks dramatic depth, however, doesn't stop it from being visually epic. And the same might be said for the series in general: despite a storyline that sags at times, leans heavily on samurai-movie stereotypes, and pops in and out of flashbacks like a whack-a-mole game, every scene is as polished as they come. The backgrounds are vividly real (and sometimes surreal), from the dim gray of nighttime scenes to stark mountaintops to a final battleground straight out of hell. In addition, the characters populating these landscapes are rendered with the same amount of high detail. Thanks to Okazaki's striking character designs and concepts, we get a number of playful anachronisms like cellphone-wielding monks, 21st-century weaponry, and cyborg technology, but all this visual flash is meaningless if not for one critical factor: the fight scenes. As expected, these moments are the bread and butter of the series, with physics-defying swordsmanship and fountains of blood a la Ninja Scroll. There is not a single choppy frame to be found, not one cheap animation shortcut (well, there's the occasional awkward CGI scene, but everything else looks so good that it can be forgiven), and since the series was produced on cel, there is a clear visual advantage to picking the Blu-Ray edition over DVD.
The sonic dimension of the series can't be forgotten either, with RZA's hip-hop beats punctuating the major scenes in the story. Entering territory that was last explored by Samurai Champloo, the soundtrack demonstrates an intriguing blend of in-your-face attitude and musical sophistication, making use of unexpected instruments, pathos-laden chord progressions, and bringing in a vocalist only when absolutely necessary. (He still should have stayed out of that cheesy Afro/Okiku love scene, though.) Even if the music doesn't run to everyone's tastes, the culture-crossing flavor is so distinctive that it would be hard to imagine the series scored in any other style.
Unlike almost all other anime, this one was produced primarily for American audiences, and as such, viewers will find only an English language track on the disc. Regardless of whether one thinks this degrades the ethnic purity of the artform, one fact remains: Samuel L. Jackson's impassioned voice acting is what carries the series, especially with his comical (if occasionally hard to understand) patois as mysterious sidekick Ninja Ninja. Ron Perlman's Justice is just as much of a delight to listen to, which makes it a bit of a shame that he only appears at the very beginning and the very end. The rest of the cast also dives happily into the grit and drama of a samurai action piece, although Kelly Hu's stilted Okiku performance is the one major letdown (fortunately she only lasts one episode).
As a Blu-Ray disc, one would think there would be a wealth of extras ... but disappointingly, there are only three featurettes (in standard definition!) offered here. A 15-minute making-of segment is the go-to piece for Jackson fans, as well as those who simply want to know how the series came about, while a Character Profiles video offers a deeper analysis of the Afro Samurai universe (with spoilers of course). Music lovers, meanwhile, get a brief look into RZA's production methods.
Afro Samurai is hardly a complex story—with just a handful of characters and a straightforward beat-the-next-guy plotline, it's easy to dismiss this as yet another big-budget action-adventure mediocrity. But that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable; the blistering fights and richly rendered world are stunning enough to absolve most storytelling defects. Factor in the distinctive music and East-meets-West aesthetic, and this is definitely not to be confused with any other title out there. Like Okazaki's original creation, it's still style over substance ... but what fantastic style it is.
Overall (dub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : B
+ Top-notch animation, music and over-the-top fight scenes make this a fine example of the action genre.
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