Technology, intense fight scenes and a stylish 'fro bring a unique flavour to the tale of a Ronin.
Writer/Artist: Takashi Okazaki
Translation: Greg Moore
Adaptation: Joshua Fialkov
What They Say:
"Nothing personal... It's just revenge."
In the bleak world of the swordsman, it is said that he who becomes the No. 1 samurai shall rule the world. And only No. 2 is allowed to challenge No. 1. Afro Samurai has assumed the mantle of No. 2, seeking vengeance against No. 1, a gunman who killed his father years ago. But assassins lurk at every corner, seeking to rob Afro Samurai of the title of No. 2. Can Afro survive long enough to exact his revenge?
What We Say:
Seven Seas has put together a cover that's uncomplicated but stark, much like Afro Samurai itself. The protagonist, No. 2, stands poised to strike, in smouldering shades of black, grey and white. The only splash of colour is, unsurprisingly, red, which covers our samurai hero(?) and serves as an appropriate backdrop for the title and Okazaki-san's name. Though Afro Samurai isn't exactly historically accurate, there are still elements of Japanese culture involved. Translation notes are included for terms that might be confusing for newcomers.
Afro Samurai's slick artwork has drawn audiences into the anime and will likewise draw readers into the manga. The manga's enormous stable of bad guys snarl and sneer and feature an impressive variety of grotesque features, but No. 2 remains stoic and nearly expressionless through the whole volume. He is, to put it bluntly, a man on a mission, and revenge is admittedly serious business. Needless to say, the blood flows freely and the fights are the main story focus. Sometimes the pages feel crowded with panels full of slashing and swoop lines, but the rare use of full-page panels makes an impact.
Most of Afro Samurai's sound effects are left in their native Japanese and are subtitled next to or even within the onomatopoeia itself. It's a clever bit of editing that works in harmony with the original calligraphy but doesn't jar you the same way an asterisk-marked footnote would.
The adaptation is generally done well. Thugs talk with a gritty dialect and No. 2 makes sure that every word counts, when he chooses to speak. Ultimately, the writing is a bit sparse and dry, but Afro Samurai is all about the open road and the endless fight, so the stoic writing is no surprise.
The Afro Samurai, who cast away his name to become No. 2, has been driven to find and challenge the stranger who killed his father for the coveted title of No. 1. His journey takes him through a hybrid of an era that combines the feudal Japan lifestyle with modern technology like guns and cellphones. The road to No. 1 is fraught with danger, primarily the flood of assassins who are in the employ of No. 1 or simply seek to take his No. 2 headband. The Empty Brothers, a band of assassins driven by loyalty to No. 1—and loyalty to their own motivations—are a particularly persistent enemy.
No. 2 does form occasional, uneasy alliances and relies to some degree on a visored sidekick who provides direction, advice and insults like a twisted Jiminy Cricket. Anyone No. 2 meets in his travels is a slight distraction and anyone who tries to stop him is just a small annoyance in his relentless quest to find and take down the mysterious No. 1.
I'm usually wary of manga, comics, television shows or any creative work that combines modern technology and ancient history without an explanation beyond, “Yeah, we're just doing it 'cause it's cool.” I'm generally not impressed by swordsmen who split bullets with katanas because it's been done before.
But it's hard to fault Afro Samurai for its seeming uncreativity because...well,there's really nothing else quite like it. There's nothing here that hasn't been used in any story about a wandering Ronin burning with revenge, but No. 1 has certain physical attributes (hint: hair) that make him stand out from the pack. Besides, it's impossible not to smile at the manga's tribute to Lone Wolf and Cub. That sums up Afro Samurai in general: a love letter to the mind-bending swordplay of the samurai. There's a reason the genre has kept its power for so long.
If you're not looking for historical accuracy in your beloved tales of lone samurai (I don't think feudal Japan employed too many Djs), Afro Samurai will certainly offer a slashing good time.