In a futuristic, yet feudal, Japan, the one who wears the Number One headband is the strongest warrior in the world — a god among men. The only one who can confront him is the man who wears the Number Two headband; an enigmatic warrior who saw his father slaughtered at the hands of Number One. Only problem, anyone can challenge Number Two. But this isn’t an ordinary swordsman, he is a master killer, he is a demon on a mission, he is…the Afro Samurai.
summary by Ender
Highs: Over-the-top action, art, and animation; a good exercise in multiple genres
Lows: Undercooked plot and characters
Never in my years of anime reviewing did I ever dream of seeing an anime with Samuel L. Jackson’s name plastered across it. Yet here I sit, wondering just how to put this series into words. All that comes to mind is that Afro Samurai is an entertaining, unapologetic exploitation extravaganza.
A myriad of styles and spices intertwine well with gorgeously detailed fight sequences. Ancient swords, spears, and the like square off against handguns, grenade launchers, and death rays in flighty succession — what would be odd in a live-action film, finds a natural place in animation. This works well in the smaller details too; the sight of seeing a cybernetic monk talking on a cell phone is as genuine as it is imaginative. Afro himself is a walking pastiche of Eastern and Western influence of the highest order; his sword-slicing moves, quiet demeanor, and exaggerated hair makes him a combination of Toshiro Mifune and Jim Kelly by ways of Sergio Leone. Coupled with a score that echoes modern hip-hop and ancient Saturday-afternoon flicks, the series comments its cultural influences rather than demeans.
In spite of the imaginative treatment, there really isn’t much beyond the typical “revenge-road” plot. Usually, in kung-fu movies, as the number of opponents decrease the emotions increase, and this pattern is emulated in Afro’s journey — the first melee with a group of unnamed fodder is nowhere near as complicated as a later duel against a face from Afro’s past. Though the series is meant to be a riff on genres older than most anime viewers, very few people will find the product engaging on those terms alone.
The same can be said about the characters. I enjoyed this world — it takes quite an imagination to create a chanbara battle with a zombie gunslinger — but it took me a while to really get into the characters. They were pleasing to look at, and very interesting in concept (a headphone-wearing monk, a gangsta ninja, and a teddy bear assassin, to name a few), but they were not used beyond initial setups. It’s a mixed blessing though; the lack of focus on most of the secondary characters detaches viewer empathy, but it manages to keep the story from stalling on action. This doesn’t kill the viewing per se, but it reduces the strength. Afro Samurai’s mangaka Okazaki Takashi created this work probably with little hope of it reaching an audience larger than a doujinshi circle. I wonder how surprised he must have looked when he learned his one-volume story was going to be made into a global-pop, animated epic. If it was anything like this final product, then it must have been quite a sight.
Afro Samurai is licensed in the U.S. by Funimation, and episodes may be viewed legally in the United States HERE.