Afro Samurai (2007)
22nd October 2007
Afro Samurai follows the story of a black samurai in a futuristic, yet feudal, Japan who is on a mission to avenge the wrongful death of his father. As a young boy, Afro sees his father killed in front of his eyes in a ritualistic fight to the death. Troubled by what he saw (Social Services would have had field day knowing that his strongest childhood memory was holding his fathers severed head in his hands - or worse - that he carried it around in a backpack) the young boy grew into a young man with just one thought on his mind - revenge.
Despite the advice from his friends and teacher, Afro can't rest until he has righted the wrong done to him. Although his training is hard, his grit and shear determination in every fight sees him become a master swordsman - and legend throughout the land. As his amazing fighting skills become near perfect, making him nearly invincible to any form of attack, he is constantly, and secretly, searching for the legendary Number 2 headband. And once captured, the holder of this headband is the only worldly being able to hurt the Number 1 - who also just so happens to be his father's killer.
After taking on the mantle of Number 2, Afro travels a true warrior's solitary path in his search for revenge, fighting off a myriad of enemies all intent owning the legendary Number 2 headband for their own chance to be able to challenge Number 1. However, as well as enemies, allies also cross his path, including Ninja Ninja - a chain smoking companion who continually complains and comments without actually doing anything to help Afro's quest. Needless to say, there's going to be one hell of a final confrontation in a ninja showdown to end them all. You'd best order in a few extra bandages.
Unlike most Manga animation - where the number of frames are kept to a bare minimum in order to save money - Afro Samurai takes the genre to another level with some superb animation and a series that was rumoured to have cost a staggering one million dollars per episode (a similar amount to current US smash hit series Heroes). As a result, the dark and gloomy futuristic land looks amazing - but somewhere to avoid going on holiday. The animation is smooth and detailed and - although the brush has given way to the ever increasing power of the computer - the picture transfer is near pixel perfect.
Sure, the encoding process does throw up a few problems (although I'm sure a High Definition version would be awesome) with the occasional bit of edge enhancement, but overall, the vast array of dark colours and solid black levels make for some awesome viewing - plus there's some bright colours too (when the animators can bring themselves to break out the colour palette). The only negative point I can come up with is that the colours were perhaps just a little too dark. But hey, Afro's land is not a place of sandy beaches and bikinis.
Each episode is provided with either a Dolby Digital 5.1 448 Kbps or Dolby Digital 2.0 224 Kbps soundtrack. I'm not sure whether the English redubbing caused any audio problems but, given the graphic nature of the film and its fountains of blood at every opportunity, the soundtrack is a little underwhelming. Never the less, the dialogue is crisp and clear in the front channels, offers some good stereo steerage whilst the rear and LFE channels are kept busy throughout. However, I couldn't help thinking that the many fight scenes sounded a little too flat and confused and they needed to offer something much more dynamic.
The main menu is animated and scored with some angry, put rather catchy, rap music whilst there's some nice transition effects between menus. Being series based the episodes can be watched in one go or individually selected. Each episode is also chaptered, although don't expect to find any subtitles. Unfortunately, extras wise, I can't really comment on their true content as I was only sent the main feature disc for review. However, judging by the quality of the main disc, and the vast array of extras detailed below, it's sure to be a winner with the fans.
Once you get over the childish giggling at the many references to "Number 1" and "Number 2", Afro Samurai can be summed up in two words - Blood and Gore - and making Kill Bill look like a teddy bear party in the park. It's also quite easy to see why the disc has a certificate 18 - with graphic mutilation and (extremely over the top) blood by the bucket load enough to make even the most hardy of viewer a little queasy. It's also hardly surprising to see why Samuel L. Jackson was keen to do the English soundtrack as, with every other word being an expletive, I guess it wasn't too hard to learn his lines - or make some up of his own.
Afro Samurai started life as a five episode series (co-produced by Jackson) and was broadcast to 1.2m viewers in the USA on Spike TV and in Japan on Fuji Television. Needless to say, those rather prude American broadcasters were rather jumpy at the contents so much cutting and editing was performed to get it more acceptable for broadcast. Fortunately, fans of the series will be happy in the knowledge that the extra fifteen minutes in this director's cut has all of the violence fully restored.
I like to review titles which are not mainstream releases - and I've discovered many brilliant titles that I'd never even heard of or even considered viewing. Along with Japanese cinema, I can go either way with anime titles, but with Afro Samurai I can't help feeling that it's simply an excuse for violence and gore, and a good indicator for this would be the fact that NAMCO is releasing a high budget PS3 video game in 2008 - and I'm sure it won't be a platform game collecting fruit and avoiding funny looking animals. Nope, that blood and gore is perfect for our blood and gore loving video generation.
Afro Samurai is one of those titles that fans of the series, or anime in general, will love, whilst everyone else will be thoroughly confused by the goings on. With extras galore, and a massive cult pedigree, the title is sure to fly off the shelves with a cracking DVD package that has truly rewarded their trusty band of fans. However, for the more mainstream viewer it will be a baffling title with such a confusing plot that it is probably best left untouched.
- 15 Minutes of never before seen footage (which present the director's vision of the story)
- Unedited dialogue (as it was meant to be heard)
- In the Booth (the voice talent of Afro Samurai)
- RZA Music Production (the story of composing the music)
- Character Profiles (with commentary)
- Afro's original launch (at Comicon US 2006)
- Production Art Gallery (showing characters and prop designs)
- 20 Page Booklet (pitch bible as used by GDH to pitch to TV Companies)
- Exclusive art cards (one representing each of the 5 episodes)
- Unique Reversible DVD Covers