I finally finished Afro Samurai, and it was good fun—but it should’ve been great fun. The series is at once a throwback to ridiculously violent 80s and 90s OVAs/old samurai flicks, and a shout-out to the black community who dubbed such films “wu-tang.” (Notably, the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan did the music for Afro Samurai.) I’m all for blacksploitation and turbo-violence, especially if it involves high-budget animation and Samuel L. Jackson, but the trouble with Afro Samurai is just that it’s not very well thought-out.
The plot isn’t supposed to be deep, the acting isn’t supposed to be good, and the action is only supposed to be violent, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go further. The best stylistic throwbacks are the kind by the likes of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, which have so much love and thought put into them to make them something special. It’s not just about being a samurai blacksploitation film, but about being a damn fucking good one.
A lot of my readers probably haven’t seen the American cartoon The Boondocks, which is a show that covers every aspect of black culture at one point or another in a hilarious and always entertaining light. Being as series creator Aaron McGruder is an anime fan, it’s hardly a surprise that anime styles frequently find their way into the series, both in character design (a lot of the women look like Street Fighter characters) and in the awesome fight scenes. It’s also worth mentioning that Madhouse worked on the show, though supposedly they didn’t handle most of the fight scenes.
The Boondocks is always well thought-out and thorough, and it shows especially in the action scenes, which are brilliantly choreographed and directed, as well as chock full of references (see above video). For all of its quality of art, Afro Samurai usually falls flat in its action scenes, which pretty much lack choreography and direction altogether, only held up by some cool moments of turbo-violence.
Compare this blatant send-out to chanbara flicks in The Boondocks to a fight from Afro Samurai:
This is one of the best action scenes in the OVA, and while no doubt it looks better than the scene from The Boondocks, I found it less entertaining as a fight because it’s nothing but a showcase of gore (and don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against gore at all). I even like the music more in the scenes from The Boondocks. It’s just a shame that Afro Samurai didn’t combine those good looks with the care that a great send-up should have.
Now check out this crazy ass fuckin’ John Woo shit.
(BTW fun fact: Teenage Afro and several other characters in the show were played by Phil LaMarr, one of those voice actors who’s in half the shows on Cartoon Network. He was also Marvin in Pulp Fiction, a friend of Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) who Vincent (John Travolta) accidentally shoots in the face. I wonder if this is the first time LaMarr and Jackson have been in something together since?)