We’ve explored the unlikely influence of anime on hip hop before, but what about the other way around? Mangaka Takashi Okazaki took his love of hip hop and western media and wound up creating Afro Samurai at the turn of the century.
Initially obscure, the series was given a new lease of life after studio Gonzo took an interest and created a trailer, which caught the eye of actor extraordinaire, Samuel L. Jackson. As well as providing his vocal talents, Jackson stepped on board as an executive producer. The end result was a five-part hyper-stylised tale of revenge with a peerless score from Wu Tang Clan member RZA. The amalgam of sampled beats, traditional Asian instrumentation and RZA’s rhymes gave the series a credible cool few others could claim.
Set in a Japan that is simultaneously technologically advanced yet feudalistic, the political system is based on a hierarchy of blood and ancient headbands. The warrior who wears the number one band is a veritable god who can only be challenged by the number two. As a kid, the eponymous Afro watches his father – the current number one – fall victim to number two, a power-hungry gunslinger by the name of Justice. Victorious, Justice declares himself a god, set to rule over the land and leaving Afro orphaned. But he lays down the gauntlet, inviting the child to challenge him when he’s ready. And so Afro takes up the number two band and sets out on his long journey, the bodies piling up behind him as he forsakes everything for revenge.
Though the character models still have that millennial aesthetic of Okazaki’s manga, the adaption, helmed by Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou director Fuminori Kizaki, has all the careful atmosphere and panoramic shots of a Kurosawa epic. It’s this stillness, in the moments before the blade falls, juxtaposed with the scattershot cuts, that give the fight scenes such flair. While some of the shots are rough around the edges, the animation is fluid and looks as stylish now as it did in 2007. The sword fights refine the chaotic beauty and ultra-violence of Ninja Scroll into a fine art, with a lashings of blood spray straight out of Kurosawa’s finest.
Though Sam L. Jackson brings a gruff devil-may-care attitude to Afro, it’s his other role which gives the series its humour. And boy does he relish the role of Ninja-Ninja, Afro’s imagined sidekick, dropping F-bombs like it’s no big thing. The rest of the cast is filled out with veteran voice actors including Phil LaMarr, Steve Blum, John DiMaggio and Tara Strong, with fan-favourite Ron Perlman giving his gravel tones to Justice and helping to save the character from being a total two-bit villain.
Simple in story, but offering some of anime’s most thrilling and blood-drenched battles, Afro Samurai retains its potent mix of swordplay, hip hop and redemption, enough to spawn a sequel, a video game and a forthcoming live action remake.