Afro Samurai - Mania.com



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Mania Grade: C+

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Info:

  • Audio Rating: A
  • Video Rating: A+
  • Packaging Rating: B+
  • Menus Rating: B
  • Extras Rating: B
  • Age Rating: All
  • Region: A - N. America, S. America, East Asia
  • Released By: GDH K.K.
  • MSRP: 6090
  • Running time: 112
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
  • Disc Resolution: 1080i
  • Disc Encoding: H.264/AVC
  • Series: Afro Samurai

Afro Samurai

By Chris Beveridge     July 09, 2008
Release Date: February 20, 2008


Afro Samurai
© GDH K.K.


What They Say
Afro Samurai (Samuel L. Jackson) is the tale of a black samurai's hunt for Justice (Ron Pearlman), who murdered his father. Afro Samurai blends traditional Japanese culture, funky technology and hip hop to create a brutally fresh entertainment experience.

The Review!
Mixing a number of genres together to produce something highly commercial, Afro Samurai succeeds in being just that, a commercial success.

Audio:
Though I had the release for a few months before watching it, I'm glad I did because I ended up gaining access to a far better audio mix. This release has a pair of English language track to it with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. Up until the recent PlayStation 3 update, I would have just heard the TrueHD mix and been quite happy. But with the new capability to hear the DTS-HD MA mix, I found that it was a far richer and more engaging track overall and one that has me wondering if dialnorm was applied to the TrueHD mix. Louder doesn't equal better, but there is a much greater dynamic and rich feeling to the DTS-HD MA mix that gives the film a wonderful feeling and far more impact. The action scenes alone make out wonderfully from it but the music is even better as it reverberates and resonates even stronger. This is the kind of release where you wish they included a basic Dolby Digital 5.1 mix just so you could do a comparison of it. Both soundtracks for this do a wonderful job of showing off exactly what lossless audio is all about.

Video:
Originally airing in the US in early 2007, the transfer for this film version of the series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Encoded using the AVC coded with a resolution of 1080i, Afro Samurai looks gorgeous. The series has a lot of high production values to it and it shows them off all over the place here. The colors are generally quite dark, but they maintain a beautiful sense of solidity to them with no noticeable break-up at all. The series runs with an average in the mid thirties for its bitrate. Whether it's pitch dark scenes or the sepia toned ones with a lot of grain and dust floating through, it doesn't waver in the slightest and simply captures you visually. If there's a fault to the show at all, it's that it suffers from a number of highly visible gradients. These are quite common throughout many anime series including very high budget ones so it wasn't a surprise to see it. The plus side is that the gradients don't lead to blocking or other noise related issues. While it would be even more beautiful without the gradients, if you're used to anime, you're used to seeing them, and it doesn't detract all that much.

Packaging:
Afro Samurai has some really solid artwork here, artwork that has me much more interested in it than the US one ever did. With a white background, the character artwork of Afro and Justice stand out all the more because of the black and white nature of the character designs. It has a strong theatrical look as well because of the layout with the cast and production listings. The red from the logo is what draws you into it and overall it's just a really solid piece overall. The back cover is much darker and mood filled with a moonlight night as its main backdrop. Overlaid on that re the usual blurbs and brief story summary materials along with a number of shots from the show itself. The technical grid runs through the basics with a clean breakdown of what's available on the disc. No insert is included but we get a pair of Dolby TrueHD cards that look great as well as a DTS-HD MA sticker.

Menu:
The menu design for the film utilizes similar elements to the front cover where it's a white background with a close-up of Afro in an action pose. There is a good silver metallic look to the navigation bar along the bottom, which is used with the pop-up menu as well, which provides for quick access to the submenus and setup. The menus are somewhat spartan in a way but they're functional and very easy to use. Most of the menu items are in English though there are Japanese bits here and there as well when it comes to the extras and language setup. Nothing was a dealbreaker in functionality or being able to set the show up as you want for playback.

Extras:
The extras for this release are all presented in their original 4:3 480i format outside of one new piece that's done in 1080i. The original materials are pretty good as there's a ten minute piece that interviews the English language producer and Jackson along with the original creator and others about the production and how it came about. There's also a good five minute interview with Rza and the producer that delves into the music and how it helped to draw the entire production together in terms of the thematic elements. Jackson's new interview that's in high def is quite fun since it's always fascinating to see such a well known star talk so enthusiastically about the anime/manga genre but that of the samurai as well. He's not one that comes across as just talking it up and being insincere about it all. Also included are a pair of teaser/commercials for the series. The one extra I couldn't really check out is the commentary track which is in Japanese with no subtitle option. It sounds like it could be interesting though as the opening sounds to it came across like a group of people opening up some beer cans...

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on a doujinshi by Takashi Okazaki, Afro Samurai is a five episode series that's been adapted into a "theatrical" cut with this release. Having avoided the show during its Spike TV run as well as the FUNimation releases, the allure of seeing the Gonzo animation in high definition finally swayed me to seeing it. And the one conclusion I can really reach about it is that it is this decade's Ninja Scroll

Like Ninja Scroll, Afro Samurai is a very simple show when it comes to its plot and storyline. The film is focused on going through the motions of displaying violence, cool characters and combining it all up with some great music and set designs. Like any number of shows, it's very superficial while trying to bring in some kind of depth and meaning to all of it. In fact, the main meaning of it tends to come more through the music, something which Rza talks about in one of the extras as he sees it as the culmination of generational shifts. The death of soul as killed by rock n' roll and then seeing rock n' roll being absorbed and changed into hip hop. Whether this is something that is noticeable to the casual viewer - especially its original target audience of Spike TV, is another thing.

The film revolves around the character of Afro, a man who is in search of his father's killer. When he was a boy, he witnessed his father, Rokutaro, being killed in a sword fight against another man named Justice. The two had fought because Rokutaro wore the headband of the Number One warrior. Justice, intent on finding a way to a new world as a god of some sort because of his fighting prowess, left Afro alive in the hopes that one day the young boy would grow up and provide him with the challenge he needed. For Afro, he ended up falling into despair after running away with his father's head and running into bandits. The salvation for him came in being taken in by a group of orphans who were training under a master. These friends helped him grow and learn about the potential paths he could take other than revenge.

That wouldn't make for much of a story however and Afro ended up down the path of violence in search of Justice. Eventually acquiring the Number Two headband himself, he became the target of anyone and everyone who wanted to rise to that level. The continual battles work in his favor though as they toughen him up, provide him with the challenges he needs, and stretch his abilities so that he can truly face Justice someday. And along the way, Afro as a young man will find love, sex and old friends who harbor issues with him because of his past. Afro Samurai is pretty superficial in this manner as it turns into a series of fights as Afro closes in on finding Justice and meeting his final challenge in attempting to kill him out of revenge. There are some nice character moments along the way, but it's all done in that very light manner that doesn't feel genuine.

But honestly, I wasn't expecting great characterization of depth to it to begin with. This is a series that's all about the atmosphere, the violence, the sexuality and the bloodshed. It succeeds in all of these aspects because it's done with solid production work that it really oozes off of the screen. The character animation is gorgeous and highly fluid while the backgrounds are richly detailed in their darkness. When it shifts to the rare daytime scene, it's even more striking as to how lush the visuals are in their own way. The character designs are equally detailed and there is a certain rawness to them that helps to push the kind of rough nature of the series. It owes plenty to predecessors of the same style, such as the aforementioned Ninja Scroll and Fist of the North Star.

A lot of what sold this show and continues to sell it so well to a mainstream audience however is Samuel L. Jackson. A project like this comes across as something of a real love of his and that helps to raise it a bit more than it just being "another job" to work on. I've enjoyed Jackson's work in so many movies over the years and am continually amused by where he pops up, so it wasn't a surprise to see him do something like this after learning of his interest in such things. It's unfortunate that overall that the dub work for this felt really lacking in certain areas and that Jackson's portrayal of the "Ninja Ninja" character left me the coldest. It's certainly not for the swearing or anything, but the character felt out of place even in the context of all the other characters. Even worse was how poorly the lip flap work appears throughout which took me out of the show far more times than I would have preferred, especially in the first "episode" section. It was far too reminiscent of early dubs and how they were done, and not what I was expecting from such a high profile new show.

In Summary:
Afro Samurai is a very glossy high production show that does exactly what it sets out to do. It has lots of gorgeous set pieces to it, beautiful action sequences and love of choreographed bloodshed. It's light on the story but it has a number of good thematic elements to it that helps to carry it through the total runtime. If anything, it feels just a bit too long and it has a couple of badly done comedic ideas when it comes to certain characters, like Ninja Ninja and Kuma. But in the end, the one thought that comes to mind about it is really all that matters to a huge chunk of the audience, and that's that Afro Samurai is this decade's Ninja Scroll. No wonder it sells so well.

Features
English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language,English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Language,Commentary,Production Staff Interview, RZA Interview,Samuel L. Jackson Interview,Teaser/Commercials

Review Equipment
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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