I don't know if any of you have ever seen the first one or know of its existence. It was one of Gonzo's works that went to Spike TV. What's most notable about this miniseries was that Samuel L. Jackson was to be the lead Voice Actor for Afro Samurai playing both Afro and his sidekick Ninja Ninja. In the second one, Lucy Liu plays Sio, sister of Jinno, a childhood friend of Afro.
I'm going to have to backtrack a small bit here because the second assumes you remember everything from the first and so cuts corners in explaining. The entire premise of Afro Samurai is that in feudal Japan, headbands indicate your skill. So it's every warrior's dream to defeat the "Number one." There's one rule however. To be able to challenge the "Number One," the challenger must be in possession of the "Number Two" headband.
Afro's father used to be the Number One until he lost to a man named Justice. Having killed Afro's father right before his eyes, Afro, with the "Number Two" headband, goes to avenge his father's death. He kills Justice and reclaims the "Number One" headband.
Now for the plot of the second installment. Time passes and Afro begins to grow tired of the bloodshed for the "Number One." He gives up and becomes a hermit, but a female warrior, Sio, won't allow that. She steals the "Number One" headband the corpse of Afro's father to reanimate him and forces Afro to walk the path of the "Number Two."
In general, story-wise, it's pitifully weak. There's some interesting parts to it where modern day mixes with feudal Japan, but it almost gives me a sense of "oh no, not again." That isn't to say Gonzo's animation is bad. Afro Samurai in terms of quality is really high budget. My only wish is that it was for a stronger story.
Here's what you have. Samurai with a goal combined with "tiered" battles that get harder and harder to the point where you're facing God at the end. It's a very simple and effective premise. Many shounen (not to be confused with shoujo) anime are like that (Yu Yu Hakusho, Rave Master, Bleach, Shaman King....Pokemon...). Because a broad plot like that is weak on its own, what makes these kinds of premises strong is a good set of characters. It's structures like these that make way for good lovable characters. Add swearing, graphic dismemberment, complex love relationships, and sex and it's now for more mature people.
There's nothing necessary wrong with this kind of story, but there's only so many you can do before it's a matter of "do the unique aspects of your tiered battle story present themselves better than this other tiered battle story?"
The characters as well are pretty stock. There isn't anything really unique about them, and so there's not much to say. There's even that "you're eventually going to have to fight your clone" which then brings up the tired question of "you can beat everyone else, but can you beat yourself?"
Voice acting is pretty superb, although the little inserts of Japanese weren't needed. Americans speaking Japanese is like Japanese speaking English. Unless they've studied extensively and figured out how to say something rather than what to say, it comes out awkward and cringe worthy (see Revy from Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage). There was another time when I have NO idea what one of them was trying to say in Japanese because the accent placed on his character affected how the Japanese was presented. The result was some gibberish that I became absolutely lost on.
So what sets Afro Samurai apart from the rest of these other tiered battle story archetypes?
For one thing, music. Handled by RZA, you get these really nice hip-hop tracks that fit really well into the animation. It's like the double upgrade of the action in Samurai Champloo. It's not just done right, it's done beautifully. I could make do with fewer explosions but oh well. The soundtrack is definitely worth a good listen without all the sword clashing and blood splatter.
Next would be the superb animation. One way to counter a bad story or bad characters, is with really good animation. It's a long stretch for some, but when you get super nice quality (resurrection now being in 720p), battles are simply that much cooler. The story itself is a bit weak, but really good direction combined with animation that can complement that helps very much.
Ninja Ninja would be a very interesting character to note. In general he seems to play the sidekick loudmouth commentator to the generic silent type, but there are aspects to him that lighten the mood or help with the immersion (there's actually something else I'd like to say but it would be giving away a key plot point).
So the main question is. Afro Samurai, if one were to look at it objectively is actually a typical anime. Would the quality of the music, direction and animation offset the poor characters, weak plot, and my personal exhaustion of Yuri Lowenthal? To the jaded, seasoned watcher, not really. It's worth a rental maybe, but nothing too over the top that is worth buying.
However, Afro Samurai is one of those great "starter" anime. If you're trying to introduce someone to anime (or starting yourself) Afro Samurai would actually be a better start than any of Miyazaki movies (though Princess Mononoke is still my favorite), Ghost in the Shell, Full Metal Alchemist, Read or Die, or any other main stream anime. Reason being that it's simple. Your favorite show might actually be one of the worst choice because of your bias, your hype, prior knowledge to parts of the culture (I realized I had issues trying to introduce my favorite anime because of all the context required to understand the cultural references) or whatever you did to try and make another watch it.
Let's put it this way. Afro Samurai debuted on Spike TV. The same Spike TV with a demographic specifically aimed towards "young adult males." The same Spike TV with reruns of Star Trek, Cops, other cop shows, Blade (movies and the show), MXC, and who knows how many marathons of the James Bond movies. If it worked for them, it should definitely work as a good start for you or your friend.
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