Set in a world where everyone’s desire is to beat up the bigger, tougher guy in order to become the biggest, toughest guy in the ’hood, Afro Samurai serves a plate of standardised plotting. Much of the development comprises a lot of macho standoffs followed by gruesome resolutions; furthermore, the protagonist has no other motive for his deplorable actions except revenge against the nasty guy who killed his beloved father when he was barely old enough to remember it.
So what? Well, there are three notable points which, despite Afro Samurai’s simplistic premise, make it worth following. The first thing is style. The second thing is style. And the third thing is… style. As Afro predictably hacks his way through one unfortunate challenger after another, the creative design continues to retain its fascination – consider a kind of irreverent world setting where rocket launchers are used in close-combat as easily as daggers; sex and violence are equally gratuitous; and the main character wears a pair of 18th century oriental bell bottoms. Heck, even the chief antagonists are a kind of menacing Pentecostal sect with fervent sermons drawn directly from the gospel preacher stereotype.
Generally, Afro Samurai consists of smooth, groovy, funky stuff and borrows its hard edge from African American culture in a way that brings to mind a bloodier, brawnier, but less original Samurai Champloo.
Alongside visual feasts like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Afro Samurai is at heart a long sequence of set pieces intentionally arranged to wow viewers who like pretty shiny fast things. Afro dodges crossbow bolts, parries double swords, and carves flying bullets with the unnerving precision of a murderous master chef, all to an eerie backdrop of deep shadows, sinister greys, and hot splashing reds.
More than that, the show offers some excellent stylistic ‘comic book’ touches, from the majestic way hair floats to the ethereal fluttering of bandannas and other loose material. Afro Samurai also makes the best use of smoke I’ve seen anywhere, including claustrophobic shots of steaming gun nozzles and cigarette fumes pumping out of nostrils, which adds to the intense hellish atmosphere.
Unfortunately, stylistic excellence doesn’t extend to the soundtrack. Comparisons with the hip-hop themed Samurai Champloo are unavoidable once more: unlike Samurai Champloo’s memorable OP and catchy ED, Afro Samurai’s equivalents are respectively generic and bland. Many of the scenes avoid music altogether, opting for natural sounds, but when there is music, it consists of nondescript instrumentals or vague hip-hop-ish beats.
As a pleasant surprise, the English dub consists of street lingo to match the show’s urban flair. It’s novel but it’s also rather corny. At worst, there’ll be Samuel L. Jackson’s monosyllabic deadpan performance as Afro, which adds nothing to the feel of the show except to render his scenes flat and uninteresting.
The men are ‘badass’, the women purely decorative, and the ham-fisted villains fall to Afro’s sword at the drop of a dismembered head. As for Afro himself, viewers need only know one thing: he’s hard. He’s so hard he could break rocks by just sitting on them. He’ll fuck a brother up quicker than he can utter ‘Yo momma’. Etcetera. In short, Afro is vacuous and only entertaining while he’s killing people; in fact, his blinkered, unrepentant lust for revenge even at the cost of allies is wholly unattractive without the necessary background substance to make it understandable.
Afro is not the worst of them, though. No, that award belongs to his invisible sidekick, who presumably is some crude external representation of Afro’s inner self and whose incessant blabbering is meant to fill Afro’s stifling silences. His rapid-fire statements of the bloody obvious (‘We’ve got a stalker and I think he wants to fight you!’) are annoying as hell; moreover, he’s redundant as a foil since Afro’s glacial personality never wavers or develops in response to him. I’d much rather those precious minutes wasted on the sidekick had instead been used to flesh out Afro.
Compact but viscerally impressive, Afro Samurai is also one for the adults. It provides excellent visual entertainment and a gritty atmosphere that countless will find transiently enjoyable. Come for the style, watch for the stunts, and stay because it’s short and won’t waste too much of your time.
In a futuristic and wild west-inspired Japan, there are only two rules: the Number 1 rules the world and only the Number 2 can challenge him; these ranks are worn with pride in the manner of headbands. In these harsh times, Afro is a samurai who is on a mission for revenge – an evil gunman killed his father to become the Number 1, and it’s up to Afro to take him down in a shower of blood and entrails. He has mastered the art of the sword and become Number 2, but many others want to hold his title and the title of Number 1 for themselves. With competition and sword fights at every turn, can Afro finally exact his revenge?
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