Afro Samurai: Director's Cut Review
When he was a boy, Afro’s father, the no.1 Samurai in the world, was killed in front of his very eyes by the evil gunman Justice (Ron Perlman). After replacing his No.2 headband and donning the No.1, he tells Afro to come looking for him when he’s one day ready to fill the shoes of his father. That day eventually comes and Afro (Samuel L. Jackson) wanders the plains of Japan searching for Justice. Along the way he meets lots of baddies and old acquaintances. The wheels of destiny are slowly turning and Afro’s past will pave the way for many a violent confrontation. By his side is Ninja Ninja (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-created polar image of Afro, who tries to reassure Afro along his path of revenge, but more often than not pisses him off.
There’s no doubting that GONZO is one of the best production houses in the field of anime; their series are usually highly polished looking affairs, which has enabled them to stand out next to the likes of Studio IG and Madhouse. However, they’re only as good as their storylines allow them to be, and with Afro Samurai, their largest budget production to date, we see a case in point. When they’re good they churn out great pieces of entertainment, from the brooding Hellsing and flights of fantasy tale Last Exile, to the comedy sci-fi actioner Full Metal Panic: the latter being two fully formed 26 episode productions. When they’re bad, and that’s when they usually rely on in-house writers, rather than established manga authors, we see clichéd tripe such as Zaion and Gravion. Being in hot demand means that over the years their output has rapidly grown, and with their popularity hitting hard overseas it would be mad of them not to take on such a prominent title starring cool-man Sam L. Jackson.
Generally speaking Afro Samurai, then, looks as good as to be expected. It has all the great hallmarks of a GONZO production: highly stylised action, fluid animation and nice attention to detail, with their subtle use of cleverly inserted CG shots to heighten the dynamics of the often supercharged fight sequences, which are mostly filled with blood for all those eager gore-hounds. And of course GONZO play around with their crazy bloom applications once more, giving most of the production a rather hazy appearance, which works well enough.
Beyond this however, it’s all quite shamelessly produced really. For the record it’s based upon Takashi Okazaki’s manga of the same name, and while I’ve never read the publication I can’t say that this outing ever goes beyond a standardised formula. A pastiche of a dozen Jidai-geki features using a revenge theme as its main motif, coupled with anachronistic flourishes that Shinichiro Watanabe employed to far greater effect in his more astute Samurai Champloo, it doesn’t have an identity of its own. In fact the way it riffs off the aforementioned samurai tale is astounding, even going so far as employ a similar Hip-Hop based soundtrack, courtesy of The RZA, for that added “cool” factor; RZA of course getting a large credit for having worked on Tarantino’s Kill Bill which just ads that extra enticing angle to its marketing campaign. We have it all: a period setting with wandering samurai, bad guys wearing bling; characters owning mobile phones and major villains carrying rocket launchers and machine guns. Even in the background maniacal scientists create cyborgs, with one such episode featuring a robot Afro that ends up channelling the spirit of The Terminator, with a suspiciously familiar sounding score residing in the background. It references with little humour, and no matter how hard it might try to cover up its influences with surreal teddy bear helmets it even blatantly borrows from George Lucas’s Star Wars series. OK, so Lucas was inspired himself by classic Japanese samurai movies and science fiction serials, but the fact of the matter is, is that one of our major leading villains is basically an angered Anakin Skywalker in a wheezing teddy bear mask, who we even witness being transformed a la Revenge of the Sith.
The problem is that Afro Samurai is too self consciously hip, seemingly designed to appeal to a young and with it generation, not even going so far as to truly establish any perfect ideals or philosophies of its own: even the “revenge is bad” message is largely overlooked by its glorified violence. It does nothing but fuel the fire of attitudes belonging to those who lap up this kind of streetwise vernacular. Afro Samurai is being aimed squarely toward a specific cultural type it seems, and it surely needs to represent a wider audience to fully succeed, instead of lacking any kind of subtlety whatsoever. While it struts its heavy Hip-Hop attitude with a mixture of seventies “Blaxploitation” and traditional stylings of Japanese Samurai tales, it lacks the charm that many of those movies ultimately had. It doesn’t capture an entire social attitude particularly well and neither does it makes it intentions clear enough, which can often alienate the viewer who isn’t clued up on its significance. It appears as if GONZO has taken what they feel is the appropriate route in relfecting a more hip U.S. society thanks to U.S. funding, along with what they feel are suitable contemporary references in tandem with classic Japanese tradition, but failed somehow in meeting a positive middle ground. It’s certainly much too serious and straight-laced to be mocking these conventions.
I usually love these kinds of simplistic revenge flicks; the exploitation genre was a magnificent thing and it’ll never be replicated in quite the same way again. Afro Samurai’s highly touted sex and violence is not nearly as daring or defiant in comparison to the string of classic exploitation/blaxploitation genre films of the seventies, which were consumed and regurgitated in a fresh, contemporary way by Quentin Tarantino - whose style the chaps at Gonzo seem so desperate to replicate. Yes we have tits, well one brief shot actually and a sex scene belonging to Kelly Hu’s short-lived character (closest you’ll ever get to those lads), and there is lashings of blood, the likes of which we’ve seen a dozen times over in cult OAV’s such as Ninja Scroll, but it’s easy to quickly become desensitised to the entire process, which lacks all tension and merely drags on, leaving little else by the way of interest, thanks to director Fuminori Kizaki not knowing when to quit.
In terms of narrative Afro Samurai tries to offer quiet contemplation and poignancy, but it has to keep moving along as it gets closer to realising that there’s a point to Afro’s endeavour of wanting to take the No. 1 headband. It relays a lot of Afro’s history through a series of flashbacks which take course across all five episodes, generally varying in length depending on the importance of such exposition relation to a specific screen action. We totally understand why Afro is doing what he’s doing, how important his relationship was with his friends and subsequent master, but in the end there’s very little to care about. It’s just so predictable. We know who each character is the second we see them; most scenes are heavily signposted as they lead up to showdowns, with varying plot twists being so clichéd you feel like you’re being just that little bit more insulted. In addition we have a dull subplot involving some kind of southern-American accented evangelical preachers who half the time we can’t understand and do nothing but hinder the tale. Having them removed would have easily resulted in just four episodes, and that’s a good thing by my book.
But not even Jackson himself can save this from being a total bore. While he plays Afro relatively calm, cool and collected his take on Ninja Ninja is a polar opposite. The general feeling here is that Ninja Ninja is supposed to be a continual annoyance, a thorn in the side who constantly tries to deviate Afro from his perilous mission. He’s an imaginary friend, a secondary voice of concern who speaks odd pearls of wisdom. While all of this has a point Ninja Ninja and Jackson’s portrayal truly is head-bangingly frustrating. At the end of the day we have a character that is a loud and obnoxious raging African American stereotype whose vocabulary often consists of the words “mother fucker” and “shit”. That soon gets tiring, believe it or not, and only a couple of quick-witted lines from Jackson make him tolerable on occasion. Kelly Hu’s appearance is brief, but neither does she particularly lend herself well to voicing an animated character, while Ron Perlman, who plays our no.1 baddie, only shows up at the beginning and end of the entire series. He acquits himself a little better, putting on a voice that sounds far removed from his own in adding a raspy lisp and making do with what little material he has. But on the whole Afro Samurai isn’t entirely complimented by a U.S. dub, predominantly made up of varying accents, with the presumption that they’re trying to suitably capture its localities. A few other familiar names pop up, such as Dwight Schultz, Phil LaMarr and John DiMaggio, but top names don’t make a great deal of difference when it comes to Afro Samurai and its sloppy storytelling.
Well, whatever I might think about Afro Samurai there’s no denying how great this DVD release is. The director’s cut features the five episode series in its entirety on disc one, while the second disc is home to all of the bonus material. In terms of packaging it’s quite a lovely looking set. Both discs come housed in a sturdy gatefold packaging, complete with original artwork, which opens from all sides and is magnetically sealed, with a transparent slip cover featuring the main title.
The series is presented in what appears to be anamorphic 1.78:1 - the standard anime ratio these days for widescreen productions. It carries all the hallmarks of most digitally coloured anime on DVD: digital banding for the most part and a little edge enhancement. With GONZO using their favourite haze filters that makes things all the more difficult to carry over, but the transfer seems to cope well enough, particularly with later scenes involving smoke and blown out hues. The palette is faithfully reproduced; Afro Samurai isn’t an immensely colourful show unless it chooses to be at key intervals. Mainly it has a saturated look throughout and it handles the tone very well. Darker scenes exhibit decent contrast and black levels, while compression is well handled in light of how quickly paced a lot of the action is. There is however an odd layer change half way through an episode, when really it shouldn’t have been necessary.
The audio options are English stereo and English 5.1 Surround. Having listened to the 5.1 surround track I find it a tad underwhelming. It’s certainly good, but it lacks the kind of aggressiveness that the series seems to be aiming for. Focus seems generally misplaced, with RZA’s score enjoying more separation in capturing various nuances than any other part of the series, so if you’re a fan on that front that you should be happy enough. The action is often decent, with front and rear speakers sharing the burden, though the rear channels offer slightly subdued ambience, with sword battles not nearly carrying enough weight. Dialogue presents no problems, however, and most of it takes place across the front channels.
The bad news for those who are hard of hearing is that there are no optional subtitles for the series. A big strike against Funimation on that front.
In the booth - Voice talent of Afro Samurai runs for fifteen minutes and is more of a making of piece, which looks into how the series was developed. Co-producer Eric Calderon describes developing a pilot episode, having met creator Takashi Okazaki, who in fact had worked on Afro for ten years. Okazaki also contributes by telling us that Afro Samurai contains everything he loves about Japanese and western culture. Producer Taito Okiura explains how GONZO went about translating the manga to the screen, with its added soul culture. Samuel L. Jackson, Kelly Hu and Ron Perlman talk about what drew them to the project and how they approached their roles, with Jackson being more vocal in terms of how he sees the cultural significance and these tales of revenge.
Running for just five minutes, RZA music production tour takes us to RZA’s studio, where he talks about bringing together different cultures and music styles and developing a unique fusion. He goes into why he was attracted to the project, citing his influence of martial arts and samurai features and further stating that no other anime has done anything of this magnitude, which I can’t quite agree with. Producer Taito Okiura also pitches in about working with RZA.
Finally we have Character profiles with commentary by Eric Calderon. This is the lengthiest feature, running for twenty three minutes and has Calderon talk about each of the major characters and how they were developed from Okazaki’s original work. He also gets into their specific ideals and philosophies, telling us more than we actually learn in the animated series itself.
Afro Samurai is as attractive as any other GONZO animated series. There is no doubting what style it has, but sadly its all foresaken by a weak plot and an unclear handle of who exactly it is meant to be aimed at. With such lack of focus and mixed sentiments it may not appeal to everyone, but for those who may have seen it and wonder whether or not to take the plunge on DVD, I can say that we have a very solid presentation here, with a few worthy extras.