The first episode of Afro Samurai, the Japanese-animated and Samuel L. Jackson-voiced Gonzo production, is now available for viewing for free on the Spike TV website. It’s a fairly safe bet that the project rides almost entirely on Jackson’s name recognition (Ron Perlman also has a voice too). But how does it stack up, as an anime? If this were any other anime with standard Japanese voice seiyuu, would this stand out?
The answer is, unfortunately, no. Jackson, for one thing, hardly has any lines in this episode, so those watching who are mainly hoping for him to redo his Pulp Fiction routine in animated form will have to rent The Boondocks instead. And while it’s hard to judge too much from just the first episode, the story feels cliched and unsurprising, a rehash of animes like Ninja Scroll and (you’ll see in the story summary) Jubei-chan and the Secret of the Lovely Eyepatch. (It should be noted that the screenplay was scripted by Japanese then translated into English, so it’s their cliches we’re working with. It’s actually based on a doujinshi by Takashi Okazaki.) We learn very little about the title character other than the facts that 1.) he watched his daddy die; 2.) he’s a BADASS MOTHER (shut yo mouth), but this time I’m talking WITH A SWORD (we can dig it).* In other words, exactly what he appears to be, so far. (And right off the bat, he gains an annoying Eddie Murphy-like sidekick, the Ron Perlman character.) There’s also a Fuu-like girl who works at a restaurant, but she only appears in one scene.
The animation quality is, as one expects from Gonzo, predictably high, with a overreliance on flapping clothes in the wind and a rather limited color palette. RZA’s music is actually decent, or at least fits the scenes.
On the whole, it’s not really anything beyond what one would expect from the title, Afro Samurai. Time will tell whether it will match the greatness of its most immediate competitor, Samurai Champloo, or past greats like Ninja Scroll and the Rurouni Kenshin OAV, but so far…yawn.
* Note: Jackson does not actually swear in the show, yet. I’m sure he will eventually…if they were willing to reshoot “Snakes on a Plane” to add profanity, they certainly can do it to an anime where people’s heads get sliced open.
Note: I feel too lazy to go back and check on the names of the characters. They were rather forgettable thus far anyway.
EDIT: imdb says that Jackson not only plays the title character but also Ninja Ninja. Perlman’s character is called “Justice” and the Fuu-like character is named Okiku, played by Kelly Hu who, as far as I know, is not a relation to the other co-host of this site. :) Thanks to PyRaMaZe below for taking the time to look things up.
The opening scene is a flashback to Afro Samurai’s past, in which as a little boy, he watches as his father takes on–and is defeated–by another warrior, who takes the sacred headband from his father (marked “#1”). Afro Samurai is thus the inheritor of headband #2, and will fight for the rest of his life to regain headband #1 again.
In the present day, Afro Samurai is confronted by a host of bounty hunters looking for his head, but he dispatches all of them swiftly and bloodily. Someone is spying on him, though, through high tech binoculars. (It is also at this time when his Eddie Murphy-like sidekick comes along, cajoling him and marveling at his mad skillz.)
Meanwhile, at a local restaurant, the Fuu-like proprietor has to deal with a bullying customer–who, when he gets in the way of Afro Samurai’s lemonade order is also dispatched efficiently. This raises the attention of a syndicate, however, with numbers on their uniforms, who vow to stop Afro Samurai from regaining the #1 headband and “ruling this world like a god.” Later one of these syndicate members tries to stop Afro Samurai with a rain of crossbow arrows, which–except for one–he dodges. After killing the crossbow man, he thinks he’s done–only to discover, almost too late, that he was hit by one arrow and it was poisoned. He still manages to destroy an incoming RPG anyway, even in his weakened state. But then he collapses as the cliffside explodes around him.