Mixing a number of genres together to produce something highly commercial, Afro Samurai succeeds in being just that, a commercial success.
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.
FUNimation’s release of Afro Samurai is one that is pretty solid and will please most folks, unless you partook in the Japanese release of the theatrical cut. FUNimation’s release gives us a pair of mixes in that we get the English 5.1 TrueHD mix as well as the English 2.0 stereo mix. The stereo mix is certainly weak in comparison to the TrueHD mix as it’s the DVD encode done at 448kbps. The TrueHD mix is much more vibrant and contains a lot more placement and depth by comparison and it comes across as a much richer experience to be certain. It does however fall short of the Japanese release which had the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix to it. The TrueHD mix here feels the same as the TrueHD mix included on that release which in comparison to the Master Audio mix felt like it lacked some vibrancy and punch. The TrueHD mix here is certainly no slouch and more hardware supports it to be certain, but it’s unfortunate that FUNimation wasn’t able to offer both.
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 1080p, 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.
One thing worth noting here in comparison to the Japanese release of the first season is that FUNimation’s release contains the original episodes whereas the Japanese release is the theatrical cut. This release has all the opening and endings intact, which means additional music and illustration artwork. It also means a better flow to the story as the theatrical cut feels a bit more wobbly during the various episode changes.
With a dark blood red background, the cover art for this release is certainly moody and striking in its own way as it features the lead character standing there against the wind with blood all over him. It’s dark and certainly violent looking yet has a bit of that calm before the storm feel to it. The logo isn’t terribly large which is a plus but it is amusing that they’ve added the “Season 1” nod to it now that there’s a sequel coming out. And naturally, Samuel L. Jackson is given his nod on the front cover as well. The back cover is murkier than the front one however as it has an action sequence done in the same style which is combined with more shadows that blend into the shots from the show and the summary of the premise. Like the front cover, it certainly fits and it’s a strong divergence form the Japanese bright white covers. The shots from the show are good choices with the various enemies that he fights while the remainder of the cover is given over to a listing of the basics such as the technical specs and extras as well as the production credits. No insert is included but the reverse side of the cover features a two panel shot of some of the kids from the series.
The top level menu has a petty decent design to it as it utilizes animation from the show through a red filter in the background. On top of that there are two things going on; the first is that along the lower left there are a few character shots done in black and red which has the navigation elements tied to it. The right half of the screen brings up black and red character shots for the various villains throughout the series with their names in large gold text underneath it. The looping runs for about thirty seconds or so before it goes back to bringing up the logo again and starting off with Afro himself. With good bit of music that sets the tone nicely and gets you in the mood, it’s all appropriate and certainly better than the Japanese release which isn’t a surprise. The pop-up menu utilizes the same piece in the lower left corner from the main menu with some basic blood splatter done in black for the various submenus.
The extras for this release are all presented in their original 4:3 480i format. The “In the Booth” feature is a fun piece that brings in Samuel Jackson and others from the team to talk about the franchise and how well it connected for everyone as the right project. You get to see various moments of them working in the booth as is obvious from the title as well and Jackson is simply fun to watch which isn’t unexpected. 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. The last extra is the character profiles section with commentary by the co-producer, Eric Calderon. Running through the designs and what they viewed it all as adds a nice level of understanding to the kind of project they wanted to bring out.
Overall, there are some pretty good extras here that talk up the series nicely while giving Jackson and others a chance to share their enjoyment of it all. Sadly, not all of the extras that we saw from the Japanese release made it here, including a more recent full HD extra that had a sit-down chat with Jackson. Maybe for the Afro Samurai SE BD release?
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.
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.
English 5.1 TrueHD Language, English 2.0 Language, In The Booth, Rza Interview, Samuel L. Jackson Interview
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