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AFRO SAMURAI (Season 1)
2007
Created by Takashi Okazaki
125 Minutes Total
Rated TV-MA

I've been spending a few days trying to properly articulate how I feel about Takashi Okazaki's Afro Samurai. While I refuse to believe the lips were supposed to by synched to the English voice actors as IMDb seems to suggest, I also can't really imagine this series with anything other than the English voice cast. And it's from that voice cast, and the American crew at large, that most preconceptions are going to be derived from.

Most people are going to see Samuel L. Jackson's voice credit as the titular character as a means of both affirming and reducing expectations. The central conceit of the series - a blaxploitation kung fu movie, essentially - coupled with Samuel L. Jackson as a voice actor sort of undermines what Afro Samurai really is. Make no mistake, his work here is excellent, and evocative of some of the higher-concept acting he's proven himself capable of in the past before he became the World Champion of Saying "Motherfucker." If I had to compare Afro Samurai to anything, I'd actually compare it to the series Dexter, and I'll tell you why.

The high concept of this series is enough to carry it and entertain. A black samurai with an afro that fights like a demon, crazy robots, a vulgar sidekick, big-titted Asian babes, animation...no one's going to expect great soul-searching depth from that concoction, just like one would expect a different take on a police procedural from Dexter. Instead, as is unfortunately so rare, the creators elected to craft something fairly complex.

The crux of the story is beautifully simplistic but allows for staggering amounts of depth and exploration. If one should question the role of women in this series, they're missing the point, because the series isn't about women. Afro Samurai is fundamentally about masculinity and the devastatingly circular natures of violence of vengeance. All of the well-worn tropes Afro Samurai employs are incredibly well-fleshed out and used to great effect.

For example, the inhumanly powerful, silent hero is nothing new to this genre (or any action genre for that matter), but here we're given the reason and understanding of why he's so cold, and it's profound and unsettling. Likewise, his goofy and potentially irritating sidekick Ninja-Ninja's origins are hinted at through most of the series until finally revealed, and they add remarkable depth again to the main character and the story at large. Continuing the spiral out, hoary concepts of fate and destiny are mined deeply, and the price Afro's destiny exacts on him from the moment he sees his father killed at the beginning of the first episode becomes tragically clear as the series wears on. And finally, while a samurai with a giant teddy bear helmet should be fundamentally amusing and hilarious, there's a tragic undercurrent to him that makes the goofy bear face suddenly seem far sadder.

But it's not 100% awesome. Anyone with half a brain is going to figure out who Okiku is long before the series bothers to reveal it. The animation style also isn't going to be for everyone, and it always felt a hair too stylized for my tastes. The subsequent film, Afro Samurai: Resurrection uses a much smarter color palette and in many ways is an easier watch. And while The RZA's made a great name for himself as a soundtrack artist and his work here is certainly solid, it does have hiccups where it never seems to quite totally mesh with the material. The hip-hop leanings are definitely appropriate to the series, but I get the sense he was unsure exactly how to mesh his score with some of the scenes.

Finally, the inclusion of sexuality seems appropriate at first as a callback to blaxploitation and the idea of a black man as a master lover who knows how to please his woman, but in retrospect it feels like it undermines the whole series. It's as though Afro Samurai starts to slum it a bit and can't quite escape the trappings of the superficial concept that works as its hook.

That said, the series keeps the tension running high, and anything that manages to actually make a robot clone of the hero not only work, but not be very funny and feel like an authentic threat...that's the kind of art that merits a viewing.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.