Background: Anime was once a niche market in the USA, relying heavily on Americanized versions to sell to networks as Saturday morning cartoon fodder or in syndication for youth markets, typically heavily edited to meet incredibly lame standards enforced over here. As the fan base grew for such material, more venues opened and it became more recognized as an entertainment medium for older fans too. To interest teenagers and college age types, the medium started focusing on bringing over more explicit material, as much an effort to employ the shock value for word of mouth advertising as anything. One such title that originated in Japan but was made with an American audience in mind was Afro Samurai Season 1 Director's Cut (blu-ray) as a show that advertised on the cable television station Spike TV, now available for high definition fans everywhere.
Show: Afro Samurai Season 1 Director's Cut (blu-ray) is yet another season release of an anime that started as a manga in Japan, the product of artist Takashi Okazaki in Nou Nou Hau magazine some years back. The animated version is the result of Gonzo, one of my favorite anime companies in Japan, deciding to make a high profile release for international airing at a reported cost of $5+ million bucks, to be distributed by my favorite Texas based anime importer, FUNimation. The story of Afro Samurai is relatively simple, even by anime standards, as a man on a quest for vengeance. Portrayed vocally by Samuel L. Jackson, Afro is initially seen as a small child ( where he was voiced by Crystal Scales) accompanying his father, a great samurai warrior in a desolate future dystopia where the world has gone to shit. Mankind has pretty much wasted the planet and people roam about trying to make a living by any means possible, Afro's dad (Rokutaro as played by Greg Eagles) the leading warrior of the day. He wears a headband symbolizing his status which means only the #2 ranked warrior can approach him to fight (to take away the #1 spot), fighting with a cyborg villain named Justice (Ron Perlman) to start the story flowing.
Rokutaro loses and Afro (as a boy) is cast into an uncertain future, saved by another warrior known as Sword Master (Terrence Carson) after the boy encounters some of his students, Jinnosuke (Yuri Lowenthal), Okiku (Kelly Hu, later by Tara Strong) and Sasuke (Jason Marsden) when attacked by those wanting the #2 banner the boy had picked up. Throughout the series, Afro's past is revealed via these flashbacks as though they explain his lack of emotion and drive to retake the #1 banner, various confrontations providing what little depth the series provides. The majority of the series shows Afro as a man on a path of revenge, based largely on the stereotypes of 1970's blaxploitation movies (and more than a passing resemblance to Jim Kelly of Black Samurai, Enter the Dragon, and Black Belt Jones though the creators attribute the look to Jim Hendrix in the extras section of the DVD) and kung fun movies so prevalent at the time.
Wearing an impossibly large afro, the character encounters a variety of villains that all want his #2 headband, including a robotic version of himself, old allies, and even his teacher, eventually having the ultimate confrontation with Justice as the two use every weapon at their disposal to win, Justice now on a quest to reunite the numbered headbands in order to become a "god". The reasoning behind the characters motivations are left to the extras section for the most part but accompanying Afro is a bothersome loudmouth called Ninja Ninja (Samuel L. Jackson) that provides significant exposition too, much like Spawn's Clown character, the darkness of the series similar in other respects too. I'm not going to spoil the show for those that have yet to see it but the story arc shows the fights in bloody detail, the world at large attempting to finish off Afro Samurai as he seeks out Justice (plenty of wordplay was used in the series) and leaves an extensive body count in his wake.
One of the issues I had with the series was how someone decided that the primary method of communicating would be by swearing, coming across as a way to weaken the overall statement. I see this in a lot of attempts to be "edgy", "urban", or somehow special but a little goes a long way and the presumed idea that it makes a show more relevant to the times falls on deaf ears as it were. The story always seemed half finished to me as well, serving much like a manga or comic book where the audience has to fill in so much detail that the sloppy story writing is rarely taken to task. I will give some credit to the fusion of comic book level writing with the Kung Fu craze of the mid 1970's (even more than the blaxploitation elements so many seem to focus on in message boards), and some hip hop music elements tossed in as well but as much as this might be a step in the direction of mainstreaming anime, it fell far short of providing half as much substance as it did style. If you prefer style over substance though, by all means get this version as the definitive one at this writing, my rating of Rent It suited for action lovers in general rather than devoted followers of this type of product.
Picture: Afro Samurai Season 1 Director's Cut (blu-ray) was presented in a decent 1080p resolution, 1.78:1 aspect ratio color image as shot by director Fuminori Kizaki for Gonzo in Japan. The series was commercially licensed to Spike TV initially, but this unedited version is more gritty thanks to the abundance of swearing and ultra violence left out during broadcast. The show was presented in the AVC codec and the video bitrate ranged all over the place but seemed to disappoint with a low end average in the mid to upper teens, typically hovering around the 17 Mbps mark. There was some softness to many shots, scores of effects weakening the overall effort, and static shots minimally animated to provide the "look" of motion even when little existed. Sweeping a camera across the path of a camera doesn't really impress me as "top flight anime" these days and the final product reminded me a lot of Spawn from ten years ago than anything as advanced as has been suggested by fans. In favor of the look of the show though, it was heavy on style and while this was generally at the expense of the story elements, some people might like it enough to search out other titles by FUNimation that put the money in the production unrelated to using "name" talent like Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman so you can see it on the screen. There were soft focus moments, moiré, and edge enhancement to be seen but as dark as the visuals tended to be, they provided the backdrop needed for this type of stylish presentation to work as eye candy for the blood starved out there to enjoy.
Sound: The audio was offered up in a choice of a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD in English with a 48 kHz sampling rate and a variable audio bitrate that tended to hover around the 2.1 Mbps range with a lot of variation dropping the rate down to the 1.5 or so mark at times. The vocals were easy to hear and while they largely lacked separation (despite character positioning on opposite sides of the screen at times), they were given a higher priority than the original score by RZA Music, or the multitude of audio special effects added in. The battle sequences were where the headspace and aural soundscape were at their best however, not up to Hollywood standards but better than the majority of anime from Japan all the same. Samuel L. Jackson's voice acting as Afro was even more limited then Clint Eastwood in most of his spaghetti westerns though, his role as Ninja Ninja annoying as fuck with Ron Perlman's role too limited as well. In overall terms then, the audio portion of the series was less stylish than the visual portions but still worthy of the stylish appeal of the show all the same.
Extras: There were four extras worth noting outside of the double sided cover, first of which was a 14:50 minute long feature called In the Booth that focused on the voice acting talents of Samuel Jackson and others as supported by the creator and the producer in the AVC codec using a 480i resolution with 2.0 Dolby Digital English. The video bitrate was clearly in SD and hovered in the 5 Mbps range but there were a lot of the original illustrations for the show on hand and it wasn't bad. There was also a short tour of the music production company used by the production, some trailers, and a series of extended character profiles that I found better than expected. The box cover also advertised 15 minutes of never before seen footage and unedited dialogue but this is by comparison to the original Spike TV version since several versions of the show have made use of this footage to date (in other words, it isn't "new', "unused", or "never before seen").
Final Thoughts: Afro Samurai Season 1 Director's Cut (blu-ray) is available for purchase quite cheaply on Amazon at this writing so I could see it becoming a gateway anime for expanding the genre but make no mistake about it that style at the expense of substance is an expensive lesson to learn when it comes to recruiting new members to the rest of us that like anime for the kinds of ideas it provides and entertainment offered up. If you look closely at the series, it offers nothing new to those of us old enough to remember the REAL blaxploitation and kung fu movies of the 70's other than some decent, but not ground shaking music, and better anime outings are quite common at this writing. Still, those that equate copious quantities of blood on screen, high body counts, and the amount of times someone swears as being "cool" should rush right out to get this high definition release to offend the rest of their circle of family and friends while those looking for a story might be disappointed.