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R2 DVD Reviews
Wednesday, 30 April 2008 16:00
Afro SamuraiHere's something you don't see every day - an anime, released in the UK directly by the Japanese producer (GONZO), that by intention doesn't include a Japanese language track. Normally, that would be the cue for howls of protest - except Afro Samurai has Samuel L Jackson as the voice of the 2 main leads, leading to an English dub that absolutely nails the characters...

1 - Revenge
Afro witnessed his father's death at the hands of Justice, a man looking to claim the title of Number One, and seeks to avenge his father. Now a grown man, he has fought his way to the title of Number Two and sets out on his journey of revenge, accompanied by his unwelcome sidekick Ninja Ninja. In his path lie plenty of challenges - not least from those looking to gain the title of Number One themselves, and who must defeat him on the way. The resulting battles are bloody and short - Afro Samurai is no push-over, and no-one is going to stand in his way - not even the Empty Seven, a group dedicated to preventing Afro from reaching his goal...

SwordplayOn the road

2 - The Dream Reader
As a child, Afro learned the value of respect - and that while he was weak, he didn't get any. After a group of fighters took the Number Two headband from him and desecrated his father's remains, young Afro was left for dead, and it was only the help of a stranger that saved him. That same stranger taught him most of what he now knows about fighting. Back to the present day, and history is repeating itself - after his trip over a cliff, Afro is found by young woman Okiku, bloodied and poisoned, yet still clutching his sword. But while Okiku may seem like she's trying to help, she has other plans in mind...

Young killerSword fodder

3 - The Clan of the Empty Seven
Afro continues his journey to face Number One, with his path taking him through Terror Pass. Watching him from a distance are the Empty Seven Clan, themselves eyeing the Number One headband as their path to godhood, and waiting for their opportunity to take down Afro on their way to that goal. Using the data gathered by Okiku, the Clan's leader has devised a weapon he believes will be powerful enough to defeat Number One - and as its first field test, he's going to unleash it on Afro. Enter Afrodroid - but will the mechanical Afro have the skills to defeat the real thing..?

Ninja NinjaAnother battle

4 - Duel
Just how threatening can a man in a teddy bear suit be? In this case, very - and the suit's wearer has had dealings with Afro before. Not that there's any time for reunions, as Bear draws his swords and attacks. Unusually, Afro doesn't respond with his usual violence - he doesn't even draw his sword, instead opting just to evade his opponents attacks. Even when Bear gets the upper hand and has a sword at Afro's throat, he refuses to fight back. What can have happened in their past to produce this behaviour from Afro..?

Kuma?Former Number Two

5 - Justice
Afro finally turns on Gino, and kills his former friend - although not before Ninja Ninja loses his life trying to save him, and not without taking some damage along the way. With that, he finally gets his chance to take on the Number One - the goal he's been fighting for for so long. Will the end of his journey bring Afro the satisfaction he desires..?

ObserverNumber One

Quite what persuaded GONZO to make this an English-language production I'll never know - it's based on a Japanese doujinshi (whose author was kind enough to sign my box when I met him last year), it's a Japanese animation staff... and yet the dubbing was done in English first. There is now a Japanese track, but it can rightly be said that that's not the "original" language. Unusual, but not unheard of.

The five episodes on this release represent the full OVA, and follow Afro from the killing of his father through to his ultimate revenge on the killer, and a little bit past that. Don't be expecting too much in the way of story - it's all based around the Number One Headband and the power that comes with gaining it, which doesn't really allow for much in the way of depth. Afro himself is mono-syllabic, and even then only speaks rarely - it up to his "sidekick" Ninja Ninja to do most of the talking, and he's 100% the sort of characterisation you'd expect from Jackson - you'd need to hear it to see what I mean, but it's a performance that is almost the highlight of the show.

The main obstacle on Afro's road to revenge are the Empty Seven Clan, who are also after the Godlike abilities that apparently come with the Number One Headband. As well has having a number of members who think they can pose Afro a challenge (but can't), they've been working on some of his friends from his younger days, and exploring that aspect is the closes Afro gets to character development. There are a number of flashback scenes to when he was training to become the killer his is now, but all it really tells you is that he was always a bloodthirsty melonfarmer. He's not really a character you could ever build much sympathy for, and becuase of that the story never really grabs you or gets you overly involved.

But then, getting too into the characters is really missing the point - Afro Samurai isn't a story, it's an experience, where you sit back and watch the blood fly, the bodies be dismembered in a variety of gruesome ways, and listen the the voice of Jackson as Ninja Ninja provides a running commentary on the action. Taken that way, the series becomes far more enjoyable - it's turn-off-and-enjoy entertainment, where the visuals and audio are far more important than the plot, and on that level it works really well. It's also worth noting that this show has thoroughly earned its 18 certificate, both on the gore and language fronts - this is anime that's definitely not for kids. If you're old enough to appreciate its "charms", though, it's well worth picking up.

Rating - ****

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