Afro Samurai began life as a manga by Takashi 'Bob' Okazaki. With a name so instantly memorable, it had to get noticed, and soon it was picked up by some American producers, with a very enthusiastic Samuel L. Jackson on board. I first saw it on its original Australian airing, and have been a fan ever since, and have long been looking forward to talking about it!...
In a world racked by violence, the cause is clear. The legend of the Headbands states that whoever possesses the Number 1 headband will become God. But the only way to challenge the Number 1 and take their place is is to have the Number 2 headband. With every would-be ruler after it, the headband is easy to acquire, but impossible to keep. Only Afro, a determined young warrior, has been able to keep it. Filled with vengeance after seeing his father's death in a duel with with the current Number 1, Afro cuts down any obstacle, no matter the number or the size, all to reach the place where Gods are made...
Afro Samurai is a great example of an American anime. Bearing a unique visual style, and having a simple but effective story to tell, with themes of revenge and cyclical violence.
It's a short series, at only 5 episodes, but no less impactful. As a movie, it's a great longform story (with a hardly obnoxious runtime of just 125 minutes, ish). As a TV series it could be disappointing due to its decompressed storytelling, with whole episodes sometimes being taken up by a single event. But the series never pretends to be anything else, so it's not big deal. If you want a more sprawling and episodic series, there are others out there, but if you want a concise 'done in 5 episodes' miniseries, Afro Samurai is perfect for you.
The tone is naturally dark. There is death around every corner, and heads rolling. There's not a lot of respite to be found in this world, but there is a little, and there's enough humour, dark or otherwise, to keep things from getting too grim. Maybe if the series was longer it would have run more of a risk of being depressing, but as it is, it strikes a good balance.
Each episode tells its own little story, as part of a bigger whole. After the opening duel, we are first introduced to Afro as he begins his ascent up the Number 1's mountain. Along the way he encounters basic crooks, stronger foes, a cult of deranged monks, and an old friend, now enemy.
The show is flashback heavy, as we see Afro's development from childhood to a battle-worn adult. These are effective, and don't usually halt the action in its tracks. I felt the final episode went a bit overboard with the flashbacks though, and should have had more time devoted to Justice.
The ending feels a bit abrupt though, nor does the epilogue make a whole lot of sense. It also implies that nothing has changed or will change, and everything will stay horrible, which is depressing! It's also meant to set up the sequel film, which I don't really have any plans to see. It seems contrived, and a bit pointless since the story ended here. I get the reasoning behind it, what with the whole 'never-ending battle' stuff, but feh, I wish that epilogue had just been cut out.
Afro is a cool protagonist. He's softly spoken, violent and brutal, fueled by single-minded determination. But he also has humanity, and a love for lemonade. His flaw is that he holds revenge too close to his heart, with grave consequences for his past, but he's also shown as strong for keeping to his convictions, no matter what. It's nice seeing a mix of admonishment and encouraging for a character like this. Yeah, revenge may not be the best option, but it's the path you chose, and you stuck to it the whole way through!
I do dislike how violent young Afro is in one scene during Episode 2. I can buy him acting like this at a certain point, like maybe before everything its the fan, but not while he's still in the cute ''Everything's going fine phase". It feels a bit jarring to see him joking with his friends, then chopping a dude's head off!
Ninja Ninja is great comic-relief, and gets the funniest dialogue in the series. He's also a fascinating character in his own right, and by the end you'll have plenty to think about regarding him. He acts as a foil to Afro, often like a Greek chorus, commenting on events as they play out, and speaking his mind in a humorously blunt way.
Justice is a great villain, but is hurt by only appearing at the beginning of the show, and halfway through the last episode. Appearing as an undead cowboy samurai, his whole demeanour is oily, and each word feels raspy and diseased. His motivations are interesting too. He is by no means good, and his personality is too homicidal to be considered virtuous, but his goal is multi-faceted. My biggest complaint is he doesn't put up much of a fight, and is defeated far too quickly.
Jinno is Afro's old friend, seen in flashbacks, while in the modern day he is a robotic teddy bear samurai...Yes, you read that correctly! He's a likeable kid in the past, but in the present day, my god does he whine! It's incessant! I get that he has a pretty understandable bone to pick with Afro, but I wanted him to shut up a lot of the time. Also, for all his blaming of Afro, it was really the Swordmaster's fault that everything went down the way it did, which makes Jinno a bit insufferable. The imagery of his design is great though, and delightfully out-there.
The other kids during the flashback are a nice bunch, and it's sad to see them go. The Swordmaster seems like a friendly and wise teacher, though I questioned his intelligence later on. Afro asks him if he has the Number 2 headband, and he just gives his student the time and place for a duel! Why not have a meaningful conversation with Afro, instead of just immediately accepting a duel the kid hadn't asked for yet
Otsuro is decent, providing a nice love interest, and conflicted character. Though I'm not so much a fan of what becomes of her. I feel that was a step too far into depressing territory. Enough horrible stuff happens in Afro's life with that needing to occur as well, especially given he already thought she died once. Still though, I guess it was inevitable in a story like this.
The Empty Seven are cybernetic hip-hop Buddhist monks, and I feel that is all I need to say. They're a street-wise and sinful bunch of preachers, determined to have godhood to themselves. Their trump card is the Afro Droid, which makes for one of our hero's toughest adversaries. They also have a resident mad scientist on hand, who is a weird presence.
The acting in Afro Samurai is mostly really good. Samuel L. Jackson is great in his double role, softly spoken and cold as the titular hero, and over-the-top and funny as Ninja Ninja. Kelly Hu is nice in her short but important role, and Ron Perlman is deliciously evil as Justice. Everyone else fares pretty well, barring a couple of lines here and there.
The design in Afro Samurai is very creative. The characters are memorable, and the East/West fusion of its world is realised very well, with an ambiguous setting and mix of technologies. The animation is really good, albeit a bit too overdone in places. The way blood acts in this show occasionally defies the laws of physics, but I guess that's expected in anime.
The direction here is very good, with well-choreographed action, and some really pretty shots. There are times where I'm not as much a fan though. Sometimes the camera gets in too close, other times it moves too swishily, and a couple of shots feel a little repetitive (like Brother One's ranting). The animation also becomes a little exaggerated in some fight scenes, almost to an Aeon Flux degree. These issues don't occur all the time, thankfully, and start phasing out as the series wears on.
And lastly, there's the music to discuss. Composed by hip-hop artist The RZA and the Wu Tang Clan, it gets across the mix of cultures and genres, and captures the tone perfectly. This is best encapsulated in the short but strong main theme. Another favourite track was the battle theme near the end. I also appreciated the use of silence, which makes it all the more impactful when the music does the talking.
Afro Samurai isn't perfect, but I still really enjoy it! It's a bleakly violent odyssey that I've watched many times before, and will no doubt watch again. I highly recommend it...