Now over a year and a half old, Afro Samurai is still finding its way to the home video format. While it saw both an edited and Director’s Cut version released a few months after its original television exhibition in January of 2007 on the Spike cable network, what was once a “mini-series” and released on DVD is now finding its way to the Blu-ray format with an all-new release that, while containing the same extras, contains a new subtitle to its name: “Season One.” Whether this is an indication of things to come remains to be seen, but word is that we’ll be seeing more of the Afro Samurai soon.
When Afro Samurai (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) witnesses his father, the number one warrior, die at the hands of the number two warrior, Justice (voiced by Ron Perlman), Afro vows to avenge his father’s death and take up the mantle of #1 for himself. Although just a child when witnessing the horrible act, Afro trains at a nearby dojo and fights his way to become the best there, before finally confronting the current holder of the number two headband so that he may take down Justice once and for all. With a score by The RZA, Afro Samurai mixes together Japanese culture, technology and hip hop to create what can only be described as a brutal feast for the eyes and ears.
I’d heard of Afro Samurai from the various promos that aired prior to its original January 2007 exhibition on the Spike network, but I never made any effort to check it out. To be completely frank, I do not enjoy anime all that much and nor do I enjoy hip hop music at all either. There was very little in this production that actually drew me towards it, but with the recent Blu-ray release impending, I decided to check it out. What I was presented with was not what I expected; on the outset it appears to be an ludicrously violent Samurai Jack, but once it gets underway the story obviously becomes much more adult in nature. Once the series progressed throughout the second and third chapters, however, whatever early impressions I had of Samurai Jack when initially watching this series were soon washed away, which both proved to be a good and a bad thing.
I feel I should explain the Samurai Jack thing a bit better before I continue on here. As previously mentioned, I’m not a fan of anime in most cases and I’m very picky about what I do end up watching. Samurai Jack was such a fantastic blend of both anime and western animation that I latched onto that and have often used that as a springboard for describing other styles of animation to people. So when I can see Samurai Jack in another series, it’s often a positive thing. This may seem a bit closed off when there are so many other shows out there to compare Afro Samurai to, but in my case that’s all I got.
So back to the show! From the start, Afro Samurai ropes you in with its lush visuals and incredible animation, making for some of the most beautifully animated and choreographed action sequences I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of violence from the start and the amount of blood spray will either immediately please or disgust whoever is watching this series. For me, I was so caught up in the action of it all that the streams of blood seemed only natural. After play the video game No More Heroes I became used to excessive blood loss, so this series was right at home with me. Purely on a violence level, the series ranked up there in the tens, with perfect marks across for each and every sword clang and blood drip.
Where the series fumbles a bit is how it progresses. Scenes slide together almost too fast and without much reason, leaving you slightly bewildered by what’s going on and the introduction of flash back sequences in the second episode of the series can be confusing at first, but it eventually becomes clearer as it goes on. It’s also hard to grasp each of the characters that come in and out of the series and it wasn’t until the final episode that I was absolutely sure that the busty woman in the second episode was the same one from Afro’s childhood. Confusing, but I eventually got the hang of it and isn’t something I can really dock the series for, I just needed to pay attention more.
The dialogue was sometimes overly “ultimate” in the way it was given. By that I mean that it was something that was fitting for an epic show of this nature, but it was so finite in its terms with phrases similar to “This is. Our final battle! YOU WILL DIE!” being thrown around. It teeters between roll-your-eyes bad or cheesily good, which is exactly where the series itself sits in retrospect. While it’s a drama in one hand, in the other it’s something entirely different and can be just as humorous as it can be serious. It’s an unsteady like the series walks, but I enjoyed it more simply because I didn’t know where it was going.
Few elements really bugged me about the series, although the gratuitous sex scene was pushing it a bit. Something about sex in cartoons just irks me and the tongue twisting sequence in the second episode of Afro Samurai was no different. If it was meant to be erotic in any way, it completely wasn’t and I instead laughed my way through it. Cartoon nudity is such a strange venue to me and the often abundance of it in anime is one reason why I often avoid the majority of it. Still, it’s a minor quibble for this series, as it only lasts a minute and the rest of the time is spent splitting skulls.
While I’m sure there are anime efforts that rival this in many ways, the inclusion of western culture into the samurai legends keep it feeling less distant than other anime efforts and will likely act as a nice greaser for some of those that would otherwise snub anime to look into more of it. In essence, Afro Samurai takes some of the best of both worlds and combines them into a nice big collaboration that shows off just how beautiful and crazy animation can make a sword fight. Recommended.
Funimation has essentially just cloned over the Director’s Cut release on Blu-ray and included all of the extras from it. Although fans will lose the elaborate packaging that the two-disc director’s cut received on DVD, they will gain a lower MSRP: as of this writing, the director’s cut Blu-ray is already lower in price than the two-disc DVD edition on Amazon by nearly seven dollars. Not too shabby for a Blu-ray re-release that just about destroys the original DVD transfer. The disc itself arrives in a standard Blu-ray case with an insert for upcoming Funimation Blu-ray releases and a simple and easy to use menu system.
While the original was nothing to scoff at in terms of video and audio presentation, the VC-1 encoded 1080p 1.78:1 video transfer is absolutely fantastic on this Blu-ray release. Without a hint of compression ever rearing its head, Afro Samurai is beautiful from start to finish and really shows off the series animation in brilliants ways. While the series itself has a subdued color pallete and even looks “washed out” at times, when the colors do pop up on screen, particularly during the fireworks festivals at various points in the series, they are vibrant and beautiful looking. Overall a solid video transfer that is only bolstered by a TrueHD 5.1 track that fills the surrounds with plenty of swooshing and sword sound effects and a copious amount of subwoofer output both from the violent battles but also the music provided by The RZA.
The first extra on the set is “In the Booth: The Voice Talent of Afro Samurai” (14:50), a nice extra that takes us through the various voice talent used for the film. That was something I hadn’t mentioned before, but honestly aside from Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman, who both did fantastic jobs, there isn’t much to mention here. I didn’t even recognize Kelly Hu as Okiku, but I’ve only seen her in a few films so I’m not certain I could even identify her voice regardless. The rest of the voice cast, a mix of animation veterans like John DiMaggio, Jason Marsden and Jeff Bennett all do their work flawlessly and add levels to the characters in the series. This extra helps us see how the process is done and also to talk about why individuals were chosen for certain roles. In an odd way this extra also focuses on how the series itself came to be, so it acts as a bit of a smorgasbord of a making-of and a voice talent featurettes.
“Music Production Tour” (5:04) takes us through the making of the music for the series and finally “Character Profiles” (23:41), which includes commentary by Afro Samurai co-producer Eric Calderon on all of the character profiles. This is a particularly lengthy extra in terms of content and the extra info given on the characters in the series is nice to hear about.
I’m a bit disappointed that there is no audio commentary. With a modern feature such as this and as enthusiastic as everyone appeared to be on the extras here, I would have thought for sure a commentary track would have been a perfect fit…but, alas, there is none. Oh well.
Overall this is just a repeat of the director’s cut DVD release, but if you’re willing to plunk down the cash for the Blu-ray version, the visual and audio upgrades are quite the sight to behold. At the current rate the DVD edition goes for used, you could easily sell your old set and upgrade to this one for just a couple bucks, so it’s up to the individual if they want to, based on how much they enjoyed the series. Recommended.
Afro Samurai: Season 1 (Director’s Cut) arrives on Blu-ray on August 26th.