Anime fans familiar with the meticulously plotted ‘Samurai 7,’ the surreal confrontations of ‘Basilisk,’ or the amoral oddity that is ‘Speed Grapher,’ should be more than familiar with the animation studio responsible for their creation: Gonzo Digimation. After gaining some mid-90s attention for their animated contributions to the ‘Lunar’ video games, Gonzo went on to produce OVAs like ‘Blue Submarine No. 6’ and a variety of Japanese anime series. More recently, the studio has developed a following in the US as channels like the Cartoon Network and SpikeTV have begun to broadcast their productions. Gonzo quickly decided to take their US involvement even further with the 2007 anime series, ’Afro Samurai.’ Developed and originally broadcast in the US, the series’ five-episode opening arc built a cult following in the States and met with great acclaim in the UK, Australia and, of course, Japan.
The story is deceptively simple -- a young boy must hone his skills to defeat the evil warrior who killed his father -- but its plotting is far more complex. In a futuristic, yet feudal Japan, a stoic swordsman named Afro (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) possesses an ancient headband that gives him the sole right to fight Justice (Ron Perlman), the same gun-toting menace that made Afro an orphan. If he can defeat Justice and claim the man’s ceremonial headband, he’ll avenge his father’s murder and gain the power of a god. However, an organization of greedy monks called “The Empty Seven” want to collect both headbands to achieve immortality. They employ an android, a bitter swordsman looking for revenge (Yuri Lowenthal), and a slew of international assassins to stop Afro before he can challenge Justice himself. Afro’s only allies along his quest are a strange companion named Ninja Ninja (also voiced by Jackson), a healer (Kelly Hu) with questionable motives, and the samurai’s trusty sword.
For a quick-fire series that runs a little over two hours, ‘Afro Samurai’ packs in a lot of characters, subplots, and fight scenes. Whereas lengthier anime series drag midway and take their sweet time advancing a plot, director Fuminori Kizaki’s five episodes feature genuine character development, a fleshed out origin story, a cohesive mythos, a compelling quest, a dangerous rogues gallery, and a collection of breathtaking battles. Visually, Gonzo does what they do best -- hurl the most insane imagery imaginable onto a singular canvas and allow a tight script to make sense of it all. A swordsman sporting a giant teddy-bear head is creepy rather than comical, a mirror-image droid isn’t a copout but instead forces Afro to face himself, and scenes of vicious warriors attacking a young boy protecting his father’s headband make Afro’s struggle more human rather than ridiculous. Make no mistake about it, despite a hip-hop infused soundtrack and other seemingly disjointed elements, Gonzo pulls it all together and keeps it all clipping along.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the animation is so fluid and intense. A freefall swordfight had me grinning ear to ear, a showdown between old friends sent me scrambling to my remote to rewatch the scene, and several clashes between bullets and a blade left me wanting more. Gonzo clearly understands how to use movement and color to effectively establish tone, mood, and atmosphere, all of which help enhance the story itself and create a more compelling narrative. Better still, the studio knows how to use expressions and gestures to capture an emotion, regardless of how still or silent the on-screen characters actually are. I do wish the show’s budget was high enough to allow the animators the time to produce more frames of animation per second (the imagery can be a bit choppy at times), but it’s a fairly common complaint I have with anime series and isn’t limited to this particular production.
’Afro Samurai’ is an engaging fusion of modern music, kinetic action, and eccentric characters. Its story is powerful, its themes run deep, and I was especially taken with its writers’ ability to tame so many elements and contain them in one, cohesive whole. If you haven’t had an opportunity to check out the series, this is the perfect opportunity. Personally, I can barely contain my enthusiasm for future episodes -- the show’s second season (scheduled to air on SpikeTV in 2009) can’t come soon enough.
Last week’s positive buzz for ‘Afro Samurai: Season 1’s BD transfer (from eagle-eyed Best Buy customers who nabbed the release before its official street date) left me incredibly excited to get my hands on a copy. As such, you can imagine my disappointment when I was underwhelmed by the results. To be blunt, FUNimation’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is haunted by an annoying haze that flattens the image and softens the line art. Black levels are never entirely resolved, contrast seems dull compared to other traditionally animated high-def releases, and primaries fail to pop with any convincing dimensionality. Director’s intention? Perhaps. A few scenes do look better than the rest (most notably the climactic showdown between Afro and Justice), but until I read an interview in which the series creators declare they intended the presentation to be drab, muddled and, at times, downright soft, I refuse to believe this is the best ‘Afro Samurai’ can look.
Compared to other traditional animation available on Blu-ray -- ‘Tekkonkinkreet,’ ‘Paprika,’ ‘Persepolis,’ the Marvel animated films from Lionsgate, and even the low-budget ‘Justice League’ series, to name a few -- ‘Afro Samurai’ simply doesn’t measure up. Pop in any one of these other releases and you’ll be greeted with bolder colors, sharper lines, and crisper imagery. More than anything else, this lackluster presentation reminded me a lot of ‘Batman: Gotham Knight’ and ‘Appleseed Ex Machina.’ I’m certainly not suggesting that ‘Afro Samurai’ is supposed to be a candy-cane trip through rainbow fields, but I do expect a level of excellence that FUNimation has, in my opinion, failed to deliver. Although considering the studio doesn't have the best track record when it comes to high-def transfers (as evidenced by their lazy treatment of the ‘Dragon Ball Z’ BD releases), I probably shouldn’t have expected much more.
Don’t get me wrong, the series looks better than it does on DVD and even manages to outclass the fairly problematic BD and HD Japanese imports. Noise and artifacting have all but been eliminated (a bit of banding remains, but it's negligible), colors are more stable, contrast is unwavering, and detail has received a decent boost due to the disc’s increased resolution. Admittedly, the picture as a whole is more consistent and prone to praise simply based on the level of improvement the disc exhibits over the god-awful DVD. However, ‘Afro Samurai: Season 1’ offers little more than an average high-def presentation that comes up too short to satisfy this fan. With such gorgeous design work and animation, it’s a genuine shame this transfer is anything less than a five-star effort.
Underwhelming video aside, ’Afro Samurai: Season 1’ features an involving Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that offers more bang for your buck than other anime or animated television series available on BD. Dialogue is crisp and clear, balanced across the front channels, and well prioritized in the mix (even when the soundtrack is blasting at full volume). LFE support adds weight to on-screen impacts and character exchanges, while the rear speakers populate an immersive soundfield with subtle ambience and believable interior acoustics. On the technical front, pans seamlessly hurl quick hits and flying bullets across your home theater, directionality is surprisingly precise for an animated series, and high-end shings and sheens of Afro’s blade are stable and sturdy. In fact, other than a few problematic bits of muffled dialogue (which may or may not be intentional), I was thoroughly impressed with FUNimation’s lossless effort.
Skipping back and forth between the BD and the DVD, it's quite clear that there’s a significant audible difference between the two. The action scenes don’t overwhelm the track, compression issues and muddy effects aren’t a problem, and dialogue clarity is much improved. Ultimately, fans of the series and current DVD owners should be more than pleased with the results.
In addition to uncut episodes and reinserted footage, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Afro Samurai: Season 1’ includes all of the special features that appeared on the Director’s Cut DVD. Unfortunately, it doesn’t amount to a lot of content. While I enjoyed what the disc had to offer, it wasn’t very extensive, didn’t feature any truly engaging material, and was merely presented in standard definition.
’Afro Samurai: Season 1’ offers everything an anime series should, yet doesn’t waste a single second delivering the goods. Its appealing heroes and villains, thrilling action sequences, and subtle character arcs were enough to leave me chomping at the bit for a second season. Alas, this Blu-ray edition is a bit of a mixed bag. While it includes an excellent lossless audio track, its underwhelming video transfer and anemic supplemental package leaves a lot to be desired. Still, considering the strength of the series, the audio presentation, and the disc’s generous price point, this one is definitely worth a look.