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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
uch like a stack of Oreos sitting next to a cold glass of milk, there’s something simply irresistible about hyper-violent anime. Throw into the mix a voice cast led by one of the coolest motherfuckers in Hollywood (Samuel L. Jackson) and a killer soundtrack courtesy of the RZA, and you can begin to understand why a show like “Afro Samurai” has been criticized as being too American. It’s not surprising, then, that the five-part mini-series made its U.S. debut on the macho basic cable channel Spike TV. Still, it doesn’t change the simple fact that it’s the most entertaining revenge epic since the release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.”
Jackson lends his voice to the titular role, a black warrior in a futuristic feudal Japan on a mission to avenge his father’s death. When he witnesses said death as a young boy, at the hands of a power-hungry killer named Justice (Ron Perlman), Afro dedicates the rest of his life to becoming an expert swordsman. The reasons for killing Afro’s father are pure and simple: Justice wished to claim the title of the strongest fighter of the world. In order to do so, he had to first defeat the bearer of the sacred Number One headband, an honor given only to he who wears the Number Two headband. Now an adult, Afro has attained the cursed title necessary to challenge Justice, but it also means that he’s a target for every other warrior seeking glory.
Designed like a giant gauntlet of exaggerated battle after exaggerated battle, “Afro Samurai” isn’t exactly heavy on the storytelling side of things, but the writers do take the time to develop his character through a series of flashbacks. Joining Afro on his journey is his pot-smoking sidekick (and the show’s comic relief) Ninja Ninja (also voiced by Jackson), while he finds resistance from Kuma, an old childhood friend who has transformed into a Darth Vader-like villain confined to wear a teddy bear helmet that fuels his life support system. It’s the kind of cutesy, Hello Kitty-esque detail that you could only expect from the Japanese, but it actually comes off as looking quite cool. Never again will you see a duel sword-wielding samurai with a giant teddy bear head for a face, no matter how many animes you watch.
While many detractors have chalked up the ultra-violence of “Afro Samurai” to crazed American producers who care more about blood and guts than story, it isn’t any less Japanese than other entries in the genre. It was created in Japan by a Japanese artist, and though the fusing of classic samurai films with urban culture has never before been realized, it can only be attributed to the recent hip-hop movement in Japan. This led to an increased popularity of the musical genre and a more positive image of African-Americans. So what if the main character is black, or that it’s too graphic for teenagers? “Afro Samurai” is classic samurai fun ramped up to feel like a big-budget action film, and I loved every blood-gushing minute of it.
Special Features: The Blu-ray release of “Afro Samurai” (now curiously subtitled as “Season One”) is an exact replica of the two-disc director’s cut from last year – save for the beautiful hard case it came packaged in. Along with extended cuts of all five episodes (15 minutes of unseen footage in all), the disc also features a handful of extras including a making-of featurette with interviews from the cast and crew, a short interview with the RZA that reveals how he conceived his idea for the “musical history of Afro,” and character commentary by co-producer Eric Calderon.