Aniblaxplotation?: Afro Samurai Hits DVD
With a name like "Afro Samurai" and a near-camp star like Samuel L. Jackson giving voice to the lead character, it's not a big leap to envision a kung-fu spoof in the vein of Undercover Brother. Then the first spurt of arterial spray crosses the screen in the middle of a sword vs. arsenal showdown, and you realize, this show is deadly serious.
"When I discovered Afro Samurai in Japan, I had the same reaction," said associate producer Eric Calderon. "It was kind of a comedic looking character design, but after meeting creator Takashi Okazaki, I found out it was quite serious."
Despite the title, and the involvement of one bad mother f'er, the origin of Sword Brother No. 1, who makes his DVD debut on May 22, is far east of any of the Afro hairstyle's traditional haunts. Originally created by amateur artist Takashi "Bob" Okazaki for a self-published short-run Japanese manga magazine in 1998, the concept, in the form of a toy sitting on a shelf, caught Calderon's eye. Formerly the development head at MTV Animation, Calderon brought the idea to Studio Gonzo, an animation studio that's part of an effort to make anime that will appeal to a worldwide audience.
"In order to prove to people that Afro Samurai is a very sincere action show, we had to produce a pilot," said Calderon. "So rather than just saying the words 'Afro Samurai' and having people have misconceptions, we actually show them a bit of animation and have them say 'Oh my God, this is really a revenge story.' So basically we had to prove it before we talked about it."
That pilot, distributed around Hollywood by Calderon, ended up in the hands of one Sam Jackson, who all but demanded to play the title role and took on the roles of executive and co-producer as well. Though having an animation style that shares more in common with "Aeon Flux" than your average anime series gave the show a leg-up in impressing the mainstream American viewers Studio Gonzo aims for, adding Jackson to the mix was certain to bring in fans of his previous genre flicks, like "Pulp Fiction" or "Die Hard with a Vengence." Add in big stars like Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Kelly Hu (X2), and a host of animation veterans, including Grey DeLisle, John Di Maggio, Phil LaMarr, John Kassir and Fred Tatasciore, and the show was certain to draw in plenty of curious viewers to Spike TV's airwaves. It just needed something interesting to show them.
Despite Jackson's on-screen reputation as a loudmouth tough guy, and the ideas conjured by the name, his Afro Samurai is more Caine from "Kung Fu" than Jules Winnfield, preferring actions over words. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of M-Fing in store, though, as Jackson also plays Ninja Ninja, a blabbering sidekick who sounds like the Sam Jackson we know and love. In fact, the show was always planned to be more violent and profane than anything seen when the five episodes were shown on TV.
"Before the title was even scheduled to broadcast, there was a minimum of three minutes per episodes that was known to never make broadcast," said Scott McCarthy, Funimation's Senior Brand Manager for the series. "The DVDs started and were conceptualized with an extra 15 minutes that would only be seen on DVD. Through the editing process, we decided what was going to be for the DVD and what was going to be for broadcast. Spike had a big play in that because there's a lot of things in 'Afro Samurai' that just couldn't be seen or heard on TV. And we all know that Sam unedited is better than Sam edited."
"We definitely planned it all in advance," said Calderon. "A typical half-hour for a broadcaster like Spike TV is 22 minutes, but we, on purpose, produced 25 minutes, so the fans could get an extra three minutes of footage they couldn't see on TV."
Thus, two versions of the show were born, both of which will make their way to DVD in May.
"There will be a broadcast version, which included all five episodes, the show as high-quality as possible, as it was seen on broadcast," explained McCarthy. "Then there will be a Director's Cut edition, which will feature the same show, with the additional minutes and the unedited dialogue. That packaging has original artwork from Okazaki. He created a piece of artwork for each of the main characters that appear in the show, so as each panel opens to unveil the two discs, you get that exclusive artwork."
"Additionally, we created about a 15-minute making-of piece that we're calling "In the Booth." That is interviews and booth time with Jackson, Perlman and Hu, in addition to some interview footage of Okazaki and Calderon. It basically tells the story of how Afro was conceptualized, to how it came over to the United States, to how the actor perceived it as they were doing their voice-overs. Additionally, we have a six-minute piece that features the music production by The Rza. That shows Rza doing his thing in the studio, and tells the audience the musical story of Afro Samurai. That's an extremely interesting piece of the DVD that I think fans of the show will immediately go back to listen to Rza's musical interpretation of Afro. You gain an entirely new respect for the level of thought that he put into the mix of Afro."
"We also have character commentaries by Calderon, where we show the characters as they were being developed. Basically some of the creator's early work in just sketching these characters out as they came out of his head, to how they were finalized for manga and anime, and some interesting tidbits about each of the characters. That's about 22 minutes."
In this age of double-dipping, it's easy to be cynical about the dual releases, but McCarthy views it very practically.
"[We did] two editions because there are people who just want to see the broadcast edition," he said. "The director's cut is extremely unedited, so we wanted to make sure we gave people the option. We wanted to give people who haven't bought into anime yet, a chance to do so. From a business perspective, it's much easier to buy into $19.99, than it is at $39.99, though we definitely wanted to provide the premium product to the superfans of Afro, which we know there are going to be a lot of."
The director's cut version isn't the only different vision we might get though, as there's a chance the legend might get trimmed down a bit as well.
"We always knew we wanted to do a tent-pole, marketable event, thus a mini-series felt right to us," said Calderon about the show. "But when we started adding up all the time, it did start to feel like a movie. So we are actively considering cutting the whole thing down to a 'movie' cut."
The DVDs are just the second phase in the Afro invasion, as envisioned by Calderon and company.
"We're in discussions for more Afro Samurai, because the only complaint from the fans is, 'Why did you make so little?'" he said. "So we're very happy about that complaint. So we're obviously trying to produce more. There's a comic book coming out, action figures, there's a live-action film in development with the producer of Batman Begins and there's a video game in production with Namco that will release in the fall of 2008. If all things go well, we're hoping to see a lot more Afro for a lot more years."
"Everyone wants to see more Afro," agreed McCarthy. "The demand is there. And DVDs buy anime. The more DVDs we sell, the more Funimation is going to be able to reinvest in Afro. There's a possibility for everything. Everything is in the mix."
If Calderon got his way though, the Afro Samurai people will get to know better on DVD will be the one that lives on.
"I think a direct-to-DVD movie or limited-run series is better for 'Afro Samurai,'" he said. "In general, it's hard to keep quality high on long productions, and Afro is one of those gems that you find where you either do it well or don't do it at all."
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