As anyone who reviews anything will know, it's easy to review something you love and even easier to review something you hate. It's an entirely different ball game when the material in question is something mediocre, or makes you feel completely undecided or ambivalent, and that's where Afro Samurai falls. I've watched it multiple times and at the end of my time with the show I'm not entirely certain if I actually like it or not. To me, it's like Food City brand Pineapple Soda. It's unique, bizarre, yet somehow works in a way that you don't fully understand and even after drinking the entire 12 pack, you don't know if you ever want to drink it again yet you buy it on a whim after a few months.
So what makes this mini series so on the fence? Let's take a look!
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think a teddy bear is supposed to be walking around in a kimono strapped with blades. I got a baaaaad feeling bout this. You don't want to be messin with this guy, Afro! I'm tellin you man, that **** ain't natural."
Afro Samurai was originally a Japanese manga created by Takashi Okazaki which stemmed from his love of soul and hip-hop music as well as American media. This manga was adapted into a five episode mini-series in 2007 by Gonzo studios and stars Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman and... wait a minute. Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman??? These are two amazing actors! Even if they are only lending their voices this ought to be good!
On top of a mountain, a young Afro (yes that's his name), and his father are confronted by a shadowy figure with pistols. The man identifies himself as Justice and is here to take the "Number One Headband" that Afro's father is wearing. Justice is wearing the Number Two headband. After a brief battle, Justice is victorious and takes the Number One Headband for himself claiming that he now has the power of a god and leaves behind the Number Two Headband for Afro to find him later and avenge his father.
Cut to several years later, and Afro is being confronted by a multitude of assassins who are wanting his Number Two Headband. Needless to say he makes easy work of them.
It is after this fight that we see a man watching Afro from a tree but also meet another character, Ninja Ninja. HOLY CRAP is he annoying. Imagine every incorrect or offensive black stereotype you can imagine all being personified into one individual with all the grace and charm of Jar Jar Binks. Ninja Ninja is something of an oddity aside from his extreme exuberance of annoyance. He is the personification of all the thoughts, emotions, cowardice, and stereotypes of his race that Afro no longer wishes to associate with on his quest for revenge, and thus we have this annoying butt munch who never shuts his face. Don't get me wrong he has a couple of funny lines but most of the time I'm just cringing.
We later learn of the legend of the headbands. That the one holding the Number One Headband is the strongest warrior in the world and cannot be touched or challenged by anyone other than the one who holds the Number Two Headband. However the curse of having the Number Two is that anyone can challenge you to it. Eventually Afro begins heading to the mountain where Justice waits for him and we meet The Empty Seven.
*sigh* why am I even surprised
Afro encounters Brother 6 and gets knocked unconcsious by an explosion. He later awakens being cared for by a woman, Otsuru, who it turns out grew up with Afro in an orphanage/dojo under the Sword Master. She now however is working for the Empty Seven and is extracting his memories for them. However, after spending time with Afro, and a night of love making, she turns from her ways only to get killed by Brother 2 for her betrayal. After using the data collected from his dreams by Otsuru, Brother 1 creates "Afro Droid"
Afro Droid is an exact replica of Afro and knows all his moves that he has trained for, so by simply being unpredictable he was able to defeat his robotic double, or so he thought. After a few more minutes Afro Droid reappears with most of his disguise removed and fights Afro for several more minutes using all of his technical advances to win but is ultimately defeated and the chip containing his memory and fighting style is destroyed. Now in between the fights, and immediately after the fight, Afro is confronted by the Brothers of the Empty Seven all except Brother 3 who is left alive even at the end of the series. During this time he first battles Brothers 6, 4, and 5. All three of which are defeated in a matter of ONE MINUTE OF SCREEN TIME WITH NONE OF THEM LAYING A FINGER ON HIM. Brother 2 is killed without even being able to lift a finger to attack Afro in under ten seconds, and Brother 1 is defeated off screen after only twenty seconds of screen time seen attacking. THAT'S AN ENTIRE EVIL ORGANIZATION OUT TO KILL THE HERO DEAD IN LITERALLY 2 MINUTES OF ACTUAL SCREENTIME!!
Making his way up higher the mountain, Afro runs into a ninja with a cybernetic teddy bear head who plans to kill Afro. It turns out to be Jinno, a young man who also grew up with Afro at the Sword Master's side. In several flashback sequences, we see how Jinno and Afro were good friends and they both became full samurai at the same time. However, it turns out that their master, the Sword Master, had the Number Two Headband after it was stolen from Afro years before. Afro confronts him and they decide to meet at a tree. With the Sword Master placing on the Number Two Headband, he and his students are attacked by a large group of people wanting the headband and in the end all except for Jinno, Afro, the Sword Master, and Otsuru die. The Sword Master says that Afro has chosen his path (despite Afro not even having attacked the Sword Master) and challenges Afro, simply closing his eyes and allowing Afro to kill him and take the Number Two Headband for Himself. Jinno blames Afro for the death of their family because of this.... even though Afro didn't instigate the mob attacking the master nor the rest of the kids, and the only one Afro killed was their master who allowed his death to happen so.... Jinno
What's Good About It?
The style of artwork this mini series has is very unique. It's very different to look at and although it's uglier than sin it's something fresh and new. Despite how ugly the world is in this series I still found myself caught up in it's design. It's kind of what I would imagine a collaboration between a graffiti artist, a traditional Japanese artist, and Tim Burton would be.
Despite all it's bad points that I'm about to get into, I still can't bring myself to say that it is a bad series. I know this seems silly to bring up as part of what's good about it, but it's something I feel necessary to bring up. The faults are many with this thing yet there's something hidden deep within that makes it still work and doesn't allow me to say that it is a "bad" series. I'm not even certain why.
What's Bad About It.
There is one big and outstanding problem with this series that is seen throughout it in many forms. Hold on to your butts cause we're about to experience...
And I'm not talking one plot hole, I'm talking a laundry list of confusion littered throughout the entirety of the series. I'm going to break them into subsections for ease of complaining
1. Headband Shenanigans - Nothing is explicitly explained about these headbands. Why are they powerful? What do they do to make you a better warrior after having worn them? While I may simply accept them as the all powerful MacGuffin there's even more confusion buried beneath it. At the end of the series Justice is surrounded by the skulls of other warriors having different numbered bands and that all he needed was the Number Two Headband to have them all and become a god. First off he had the Number Two Band when he killed Afro's Father. Why didn't he just keep it and the Number One Band so he could move ahead with his plan? For the sake of argument let's say he didn't realize he needed all of them till after he gave Afro the Number Two Headband. That's not the only bit of confusion. There are several numbered headbands. They say that only the number 2 can challenge the number 1. Given that logic shouldn't the number 3 be the only one to be able to challenge the number 2 and so on? Shouldn't all these people who are attacking Afro have been looking for the Number 10 Headband instead and move their way up?
2. What's Up with this Setting?? - Each story needs to create a believable world with it's own rules, I understand that. However sometimes you get thrust into a world that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially when they combine very old things with new or even futuristic things. It's a very dangerous line to tread but if you integrate it properly it can work in your favor.
3.Wait... He's Imaginary??? - Ninja Ninja as I've said before is an annoying character almost on the level of Jar Jar Binks. He shouts things constantly, won't shut up, runs from fights, and helps Afro in absolutely no way. That is until Jinno goes to kill Afro. As Jinno runs and slashes his swords, Ninja Ninja jumps in front of Afro and takes the blow dying in the process. He takes a few moments to talk to Afro before bursting into a green light and disappearing. When Afro reaches Justice however, Justice says "I see you've gotten rid of your imaginary friend." THAT MAKES NO SENSE. It was shown earlier that Brother 2 could actually physically see him. He stopped Jinno's attack but yet he never actually existed? What was it that Brother 2 saw then? If Ninja Ninja was just an Imaginary friend then what actually stopped Jinno's attack? Did he just slam his swords into the snow and stand there for a moment doing nothing?
5. THREE ARMS?? - This world, with the exception of Jar Jar Ninja... i mean Ninja Ninja, is filled with your average everyday human beings. Nothing particularly special about any of them other than their skills and motivations. Every random minion he encounters is a human. Despite some cybernetic additions, the Empty Seven are all human (granted some of them look like they have a brain tumor that's gone wild but still not that big of a stretch.) Afro Droid is something that despite my earlier complaints about technology can easily be made by humans with advanced knowledge of technology. So WHY DOES JUSTICE HAVE THREE ARMS??? Nobody in this world has shown any sort of mutant abilities. There are no aliens, no super humans, nothing of the sort yet this guy just randomly has a third arm and skin that looks like it's an attempted camouflage. Everything else is either human or could be created by a human with the technological advances present in this world (as messed up as they are.) YET this exists? Why? Why does he need to have a third arm? Why can he regenerate limbs? Why is he the sole mutant in a world of regular people and cyborgs??
Afro Samurai still sits in a weird spot for me. I can talk all day about how there is a lack of logic in the writing process because both writing and logic are big in my book for me to like something however for some reason I still can't say it's bad. It has a unique art style, lots of mindless violence, a good old fashioned revenge tale, and even some likable characters even if most of them are poorly used. I like the ideas presented and perhaps if this were a longer full-length series that was given time to breathe, mature, and fully utilize it's cast then I could truly say that I liked it.
If plot holes are a big problem in your book, or you dislike a lot of bloody violence then you might want to skip this one, but if you like to see some samurai action that you can sit back and enjoy without really putting any thought into it then you just may enjoy this mini-series.
Afro Samurai is rated TV-MA and is available on DVD from Funimation.
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