Afro Samurai (of 1) (Mania.com)

By:John Eriani
Review Date: Monday, October 08, 2007
Release Date: Wednesday, August 15, 2007



What They Say
Afro Samurai (voiced by Academy Award nominated Samuel L. Jackson) is an epic tale of a black samurai's hunt for Justice (voiced by Ron Perlman: Hellboy, Alien Resurrection), the worlds greatest fighter and his fathers murderer. With music score by the RZA (Kill Bill, Wu Tang Clan) Afro Samurai blends traditional Japanese culture, funky technology and hip hop to create a brutally fresh entertainment experience.

The Review!
Welcome to Afro Samurai an anime based on a doujinshi manga in which plausibility takes a vacation.

Audio:
I watched the show in the only language available which is English, I chose the 5.1 soundtrack and everything sounded great. With lots of fighting there was bound to be some great directionality throughout all channels and it is put to good use here. The music is composed by RZA and has a very heavy hip hop feel with lots of thumping bass as well as some more traditional Japanese influences. The actors all do a great job with Samuel L. Jackson of course being a highlight as both Ninja Ninja and Afro.

Video:
The video transfer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and enhanced for anamorphic widescreen and it is very disappointing. Being a sub license from FUNimation this has the hallmarks of a one of their transfers not Madman. Heavy compression artefacts and edge enhancement are everywhere and on more action heavy scenes it’s a serious pixel orgy. It is also an NTSC to PAL transfer from the looks of things so add in the above issues and interlacing and you have some really ugly scenes. It is still very watchable but I would have expected better from Madman for such a potential mainstream hit.

Packaging:
The artwork for this release is great. They capture the style of the creator and show superbly with the front cover having a monochrome Afro off to one side in profile smoking on a dark red background. The OFLC rating while red it doesn’t match the background colour and is still out of place. The back cover has another image of Afro with sword drawn in the top left hand corner. A very brief synopsis is next to him and talks about the various voice cast involved. There are a number of images from the show as well as all the DVD features listed clearly in the middle of the page. The standard Madman technical grid is located at the bottom. My copy also came with the latest anime update inside. The cover is also reversible with an image of Afro ready to fight on the front against a white background and Justice on the back with a white background, it’s a nice clean simple cover and it is the way I will be displaying my copy.

Menu:
The main menu opens up with a rather stoic looking Afro, headband blowing in the wind in front of a large bridge that leads to the temple as seen in the show. It is all done in black and white except for the Afro Samurai logo and the currently selected menu item which is a nice stylistic touch. The Afro Samurai theme song plays in the background and the menu transition to the other menus is usually an animated piece of the show with either a sword cutting into the next or Afro coming from above and cutting the screen. The other menus have static artwork and play one of the instrumental themes from the show. All the menu options are displayed clearly and there were no issues accessing any of them.

Extras:
The extras on this release consist of a few making of type features. There is the voice talent of Afro Samurai which is a bunch of interviews with the cast and creators of the show that goes into some of the processes behind making the film. There is also an interview with the executive producer about each of the characters in the show that even reveals some plot points that are never touched upon in the actual show. The last making of featurette is a music production tour with RZA and it’s interesting to see how he talks about his process towards the music for the show. The production artwork gallery is exactly what you would expect and the standard Madman trailers are also available.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)

Afro Samurai was originally a doujinshi manga by Takashi Okazaki and released in 1999 and since then it has been picked up and made into a big budget OVA. With Samuel L. Jackson attached to play the character this title has been one of the most anticipated releases in and outside of anime fandom. Set in the a future yet old Japan Afro Samurai is a contradiction in many ways, you have ancient Japanese warriors with mobile phones and robotic arms, Monks who act more like pimps and use RPG’s as well as crazy hair styles on stoic warriors. It is very reminiscent of another hip hop samurai style show Samurai Champloo but the difference here is that Afro Samurai doesn’t try to skate the line of believability, it goes all out and lives in its own unique world.

The plot follows the tale of shows name sake Afro, When he was younger he watched his father fight a man named Justice who wanted the headband that his father wore. His father loses the battle and this sets him off on a path of revenge. The reason for his father’s death was that he possessed the number one headband. This headband supposedly makes the wearer the most powerful person on the planet but there are a few rules that go along with it. Only someone wearing the number two headband can challenge the number one, however anyone can challenge someone with the number two headband and so most of the violence associated with these headbands result from the allure of the number two headband.

After the battle Justice rejoices that he is the number one now and gives the number two headband to Afro and tells him to come seek revenge when he is ready. Afro’s Journey does not get off to a good start but soon he is taken in by a sword master and while he says very little he forms friendships with most of his peers, he soon learns how to fight and becomes a skilful sword master but his thirst for revenge still drives him. The problem with his revenge is that it touches the lives of his new friends in ways he can’t imagine.

As an adult Afro travels the land looking for Justice while being accompanied by Ninja Ninja, a wise cracking ninja who is his complete opposite, Afro doesn’t say much of anything but Ninja Ninja talks constantly. Besides the standard fighters and swordsmen trying to get the number two headband from Afro a cult of monks known as The Empty Seven is after the headband. They believe that when they have both the number one and number two headbands that they will become gods and rule the world. They dispatch various agents to do their bidding such as a seemingly innocent Geisha, an Android version of Afro himself and a dual sword wielding samurai named Kuma whose most significant trait is that he has what seems to be the head of a large teddy bear on his shoulders.

The overall story is rather simple, it’s all about revenge so it isn’t a heavy plot type piece nor does it pretend to be, it’s more about style and thumping beats. It is very reminiscent of old samurai revenge films and it even emulates this in its animation, while the show is in colour a lot of the time it does tend to be very monochrome almost black and white except for the gushing of red blood and fire from explosions. It is an interesting artistic style choice that I enjoyed a lot being a fan of those types of films. There are also various other homage’s to popular culture as well from Mazinger Z to Star Wars, It was really neat to try and spot as many references as I could.

Each episode cost about 1 million to make according to the various press releases etc and it does show, the animation is frenetic and action packed with lots of detail in every scene, the characters themselves can look rather ugly at times but that’s probably more due to the style of art then the actual animation. It is also one of the few anime that is still using cell animation which is quiet a feat for such a detailed production. The music by RZA is a nice fusion of hip hop and more traditional Japanese instruments which compliments the visual style well; the opening theme being my favourite piece.

Afro Samurai does have its flaws, it is rather predictable and some plot elements are not very well fleshed out. The show talks about two powerful headbands but at the end more show up with little to no explanation. The acting while solid for most of the cast does fall a little flat sometimes, wether it was intentional or not Kelly Hu sounds rather bored by the whole thing at times. Afro himself is rather unlikeable as well as he doesn’t seem to care who gets caught up in his quest for revenge. Some of it is just out and out silly but with a title like Afro Samurai I wasn’t expecting anything deep when I sat down to watch it.

In Summary:
Afro Samurai is an interesting OVA, with the addition of Samuel L. Jackson it is a lot of fun and doesn’t try too hard to be something its not. Sometimes it is style over substance but for the most part it works as mindless entertainment. The animation and musical score while a contradiction combine into a solid package. It’s a shame the video transfer has issues that keep this release from being a truly great 125 minutes of entertainment. Fans of Samurai Champloo and Chambara films will love this and everyone else should get a kick out of it as well.

Features
English 5.1 Language ,English 2.0 Language,Interview & Character Profiles with commentary by Eric Calderon ,RZA Music Production Tour ,In The Booth: The Voice Talent of Afro Samurai

Review Equipment
LG 32LX2D 32” HD LCD TV, Sony DVP-NS50P Progressive scan region free DVD player, Monster component cable, Yamaha TSS-15 Home Theatre Sound System



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: A
Video Rating: C-
Packaging Rating: A
Menus Rating: A
Extras Rating: A
Age Rating: TV MA
Region: 4 - Australia / South America
Released By: Madman Entertainment
MSRP: 29.95
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Afro Samurai