Afro Samurai
© 2006 Takashi Okazaki, Gonzo/Samurai Project
Emru Townsend · January 4, 2007 | If there's one thing Jack Kirby knew, it was the concept of outsized. I don't just mean in terms of his cosmic stories and characters like Galactus, the New Gods or the Celestials; I mean his superhero and monster comics artwork, which often featured characters rendered in skewed perspective, limbs and blazing weapons leaping out from the page. Somehow, in these energetic panels, his characters looked simultaneously rounded and chiselled, whether they were the square-jawed Captain America or the curvy Big Barda.

You see, Kirby got it. He understood that sometimes brash ideas needed to be presented with brash exaggeration, a sort of visual melodrama that made everything seem more intense and more alive, and the unbelievable believable. Caught in grip of all this conceptual and visual energy, there was nothing the hapless reader could do but take it all in, occasionally muttering expressions of awe.

Similarly, Afro Samurai director Fuminori Kizaki gets it. During the show's battles, swords, guns, rocket launchers, faces and limbs are shown in a forced perspective that puts the viewer right up against them. Blood sprays farther. Screaming mouths, angry or agonized, gape wider. And at all times, the impossibly long ties on the title character's headband flutter and float as dramatically as the impossibly flowing coif he's named after.

Afro Samurai
Directed by Fuminori Kizaki
Animation production by Gonzo K.K.
Distributed by Funimation, 2007

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As you might have guessed, the pleasure of Afro Samurai is in its over-the-top execution. A show that further blurs the definition of anime (the production is part Japanese, part American), Afro Samurai is set in an indeterminate future where the tropes of every movie set in feudal Japan run up against cell phones, ancient mystical legends, science-fiction gadgetry, and 1970s funk, hairstyles and fashion. It's such a crazy mashup that the absurdity of a black samurai standing in front of a Buddhist shrine, facing off against someone who looks like a character from a Sergio Leone film seems mild in comparison. The basic premise (the boy who will become Afro Samurai sees his father killed before his eyes and swears vengeance; his quest ties into the reclaiming of the mystical headband that his father wore) is largely an excuse for insane fight scenes that justify the show's late-night time slot on Spike, a channel that caters to the testosterone set.

There's one more parallel to the work of Jack Kirby here. Like Kirby's work, Afro Samurai is rarely subtle, but while you can experience its thrills viscerally, there's an awful lot to admire in the show's construction as well. Most obvious is the colour scheme, which is nearly, but not quite, monochrome, which paradoxically makes the images pop with a nice crispness. The design can also be quite eye-catching, as in the scene late in the first episode involving a bizarre cult that features people wearing large numbers printed on their headgear and clothing, among other things. The sequence felt like a print design come to life; it made me wonder how much Takashi Okazaki, the illustrator and designer who created the original Afro Samurai manga, had to do with the development of that scene.

The bow that wraps all of this up is the music, composed by the rapper/producer/composer The RZA. With a vibe that combines old kung fu movies, soul music, and hip-hop belligerence, I expect this moody, evocative soundtrack will find its way into many CD players and iPods once it hits store shelves. I know it'll be in mine.

The last time I saw this kind of careful weaving of music, design and animation it was in a little series called Cowboy Bebop. It remains to be seen if Afro Samurai can get past its seeming ultraviolence-of-the-week structure and create something woven together as tightly as Bebop, but it's encouraging to note that all of the pieces are present right at the beginning. If you can take the gore, that's a good enough reason to keep watching.
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