Afro Samurai: A Beautiful Tale on the Cost of Revenge

“Afro Samurai” is a glorious revenge drama that shows why revenge dramas are empty. Samuel L. Jackson is wonderful as Afro and Ninja Ninja and this is the kind of show that you need to give yourself time with. For what would be a mini-series, this feels long, which is a con. It also is great for what it is. This is the kind of series that does the deep dive into revenge and Afro is explored fully as a character. For the flaws I’ll explore, this is a film that is truly great but the flaws stuck out.

The anime was born out a collaboration between Samuel L. Jackson, Takashi Okazaki and Gonzo, with a music score by hip hop artist The RZA from the rap group the Wu-Tang Clan.

The story follows Afro, seeking the Number 1 headband after Justice kills his father and challenges him to come and get it as anyone who holds the Headband is like a God. We see the consequences of this quest as we flashback to his life as a child coming into his own as Afro with the Number 2 headband and his reuniting with old friends on his path to get revenge against Justice.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – The animation is the style I enjoy. We are talking about long and detailed expressions of the weapons and the wielder. This series caught all of that for me. This is also gory, if I were to make a comparison it feels very Tarantino. This is a revenge film and we see the cost of revenge in blood. For me this worked as this is something that hurts the hero, this should cost their soul, and we see that with Afro. The animation captures that as well as the intelligence and survival of Afro as he fights to be Number 1 and the body count he leaves to get there.

The World – The Headband Wars are fascinating especially as we see a mixture of powerful guns, swords and robots all in the same world. I wanted to spend more time in this world as it looks Apocalyptic but Afro’s quest gives us a limited view of it beyond those defending Justice and those tied to Afro. All of these are overall fascinating characters, which I will get into later. This is one reason I really enjoyed this anime. This is a rich world where I wanted more time with the everyday people living in it. Not just the heroes and villains.

The Characters – The characters aren’t perfect, but the ones I mention get explored to the point that I wanted to see more of where they were and this series delivers on this. The order is going to be a little strange but I did it based on who I found most compelling in the end one of the one characters is directly tied to who another character is. Sadly the women in this series aren’t explored well at all, which for me did hurt the overall experience.

Justice – This is a classic anime villain in that he is seeking Godhood at any price. He is also not traditionally human as he has a third arm that is revealed in the finale battle. I liked him as an antagonist as he reminded me of “The Man in Black” from the Dark Tower series. We have this insidious being who is only seeking domination over others and destroys so many good people Afro knew to get there. The final fight is powerful and the Number 1 headband is something I did not expect Afro to get, given the tone of the anime. I was ready for tragedy, and it still is but not in the world ending “Neon Genesis Evangelion” kind of way. It is tragic in that the price of revenge is you lose yourself and all those you knew and this series does that extremely well.

Kuma – Kuma is Afro’s former friend who joins the organization that is trying to kill Afro. Kuma only has his rage at the loss of the Dojo, his Master (when Afro killed him) and his body as he is now nearly more machine than man. He is compelling character and his pain drives him. He is defeated by Kubo but returns once more, somehow surviving his near death to challenge Afro once more. His story is tragic and he has become who Afro was before, a character who can only find peace in death.

Afro – Afro is the stoic warrior. He only exists to bring justice to Justice and his story in this film is him facing the past and losing what connection he has to his emotions and self as he creates a imaginary friend Ninja Ninja who exists as his true feelings and fears. The character he became after his father’s death doesn’t have room for those emotions so keeps them away. Everything is about revenge and revenge is business. Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t speak much in this role but he plays off the expressiveness of Ninja Ninja (also voiced by Samuel L. Jackson).

Ninja Ninja – Ninja Ninja is all of Afro’s passion and fear and he gives so much to what makes Afro interesting. He is the way that Afro is still child-like as Ninja is all about survival and escape but he still sticks around because he cares about Afro and finds the fights interesting. Their dynamic is fascinating and when Ninja Ninja sacrifices himself to save Afro from Kuma it hurts because you know at that point all Afro has now is the fight and revenge.

The Cons:

At Times Overlong Action – The action is beautifully animated but at times it goes on way too long. This was fine but when nearly every fight starts going on a bit longer than it has to be it becomes a con. This was what happened here. I wanted more character moments versus fights. The dialogue that the series has, and they usually comes with flashbacks enriches the narrative. I wanted more of that because there wasn’t enough exploration of some characters. The series was later adapted into a videogame and given Afro fighting mini-bosses on his way to the final fight with Justice it works, and might work better that way.

The Role of Women – Women in this anime exist as victims and it is more the sexism you tend to see in anime. Afro’s old friend and at this point maybe lover who betrays him when she meets him (Okiku / Otsuru) later just to be killed by the ones using her in the first place is the one woman with a name. The most complex woman in the entire film is the bartender since she isn’t being victimized. I wanted to see more with her and Afro as she clearly knows his game and has seen some fights go down.

This is definitely an amazing anime. I wish that the action had been shorter and more time had been spent to develop Afro’s past friend Kokiku because we never get enough development in contrast to Kuma where we get his hatred and why he wants to end Afro. I would have cut all of the fights in half to have develop Okiku further as well as Afro’s past between his time at the Dojo and becoming an adult. It would have fleshed out the world more and developed Afro and his former friends more as characters. Either way, still a favorite anime if you are down for a classic revenge anime. Definitively a favorite.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

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Blood Blockade Battlefront – A Powerful Anime About Letting Go and Finding Strength


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you like animes with a mystery and an emotional payoff, chances are you will enjoy “Blood Blockade Battlefront.” This is an anime that keeps the stakes up the entire time will still keeping the anime tropes of craziness and super team. I would have watched this anime just for the team, and I’m glad it got a continuation in “Blood Blockade Battlefront and Beyond” which I plan on also reviewing at some point. This is an anime with consequences where there are no easy outs and I loved that the ending had consequences. I’ll get into more of what I mean later on but for non-spoiler thoughts, I definitely recommend this series.

The series was directed by  Rie Matsumoto and written by Kazunao Furuya. 

The story involves Leonardo Watch and his interactions with the secret crime fighting organization “Libra,” who work in Hellsalem’s Lot, the place that was once New York City but after a supernatural event, the city and people are changed forever as beings from other worlds now call the city home.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Hellsalem’s Lot – The incident that lead to Hellsalem’s Lot nearly destroyed NYC and it was the children of two Enchanters making a deal with higher beings that stopped the fall. This tone never leaves this world. Everything is dangerous and many people have magic now or are facing beings that alien to them. Humans are in fear mode as are many of the other humanoid beings. This gives the reason for Libra’s existence and Leonardo Watch’s ability to see the true name or nature of things with the “Eyes of God” (which he got from the incident) which complicate things further. This is a world of danger, but it never stops being fun.

The Members of Libra – I like all the members who have been explored, outside of Zapp (who continues to remain annoying even after his character arc) and Steven who is the second-in-command but whose motivations we never really get. He’s powerful but through this series is largely an enigma.

K.K. – K.K. is a minor character but she has more personality than a lot of the characters and never stops being fun. She is introduced as a gifted civilian with no special gifts (think Hawkeye in “The Avengers,” but is a lot more fun as she is much more cynical and it adds a lot.

Chain – Chain likes trolling her teammates and it is great as the one she trolls is always Zapp, who is the garbage horny character on the show (who has a very buried good side). I wanted more screentime with her and more of her fighting. She rocks.

Deldro Brody and Dog Hummer – I like this character out of the situation of their creation. A man connected to another being who is mad is wonderful. They have to work together and I love their dichotomy. It isn’t something you tend to see everyday, even in anime and fantasy as a whole.

Zed – The Blood Battle God drops Zed off after he and Zapp are forced to work together. Zed is great he is Spocklike but also more savvy and I like how he generally cares. This is a character who is noble and doesn’t put up with Zapp’s crap while also being super gifted in what he does. I would watch an episode just about him and his life as a merman.

Klaus – Klaus is the best part of Libre, he is distant but caring and he also shows that he sees the bigger picture. He is the one holding off Black until Leonardo can bring back White and help Black find the humanity he had before…and no longer be The King of Despair who inhabits him. Klaus is another character who I would watch a mini-series on. He is the most compelling member of Libra and the ideal Paladin character type. Also his Wolf-life character design adds a haunting tone to all he does.

The Kind of Despair and Finding a Reason to Live a Story of Black and White -The main arc is balance and finding a a reason to live and not destroy. Leonardo makes friends with White who is only held alive by Black (another friend) making a deal with the devil. It is only his letting go and becoming part of the protective barrier that saves Hellsalem’s Lot.

Complex Chaos, Femt Not Being All Bad – Femt is the first baddy we meet as he loves chaos, but even when he meets the Lord of Despair…he helps Leonardo whose whole point is to save the world. This was brilliant and I enjoyed the complexity. I wonder what he’ll do in “Beyond” but he is still a baddy and I have a feeling he wants existence and that is what brings fun. Regardless, it is great not to see that mindset in someone who isn’t like the Joker fully.

Okay: The Arc of the Show – The Black and White Arc and Black learning to let go and care could have been done better. The characters mentioned above could have helped with that whether I felt they were explored well or not having more people connected to Black or White could have helped the story. It was still enjoyable and worked but I’m not going to discount what took me out of the story, which was the arc.

This is a show that excels because of relationship and character. I can’t recommend overall arc simply because it needed more setup, but the characters make it worth it. This is a show I highly recommend and I can’t wait to watch the sequel series. These are characters I want to learn more about. I appreciate a series that can make the point without becoming overly long…and this one did it. If you are okay putting up with a main character who isn’t the best…stick around for his character payoff by the end of the season. Worth it for how it explores the characters and world.

Final Score: 9.3 / 10

 

“Death Note” Season 1 – An Amazing Deconstruction of “The Ends Justify the Means”

   “Death Note” is one of those animes that comes along, like the first “Gundam” that takes the premise it exists within seriously. This show knows that it is arguing a premise, “Do the ends justify the means?” and does it in such a compelling way that one can’t be helped to be drawn in due to the compelling complex characters and the cat and mouse game that drives the plot as each of them argues the core main premise “Do the ends justify the means in regards to the killing of another?” The ends of course are justice in both cases and it is L (and his proteges) against Light. Light argues on the side of it being justified (he is given a Death Note which can literally bring about just that) and L who argues it is not justice and the one who becomes a vigilante is nothing more than a killer who must be held accountable to the law, to catch someone like that, you can go up to the line (like Batman and make your subject uncomfortable, but do not kill).

My goal is to argue a different premise than what has been argued before and what I got from the series. If you want to see another approach to some of the many themes of “Death Note,” checkout Wisecrack’s The Philosophy of Death Note. It is amazing.:

The premise and story of “Death Note” (Manga created by Tsugumi Ohba, and anime by Madhouse and Tetsuro Araki) is Light Yagami finds a Death Note that the Shingami Ryuk drops into the realm of humanity. When he discovers it’s power to kill anyone whose name is written upon it, after he knows their face he decides to become “Kira,” a God of justice to punish all those who commit crimes. This sets authorities on him lead by L who seek to end his reign and stop the killings.

SPOILERS are ahead. It is hard to argue a premise if I can’t get into the details of the premise given so much of how the line being crossed of killing to achieve justice, whether to end a vigilante or punish criminals is shown by what happens in character deaths.

In what I mean in, “Do the ends justify the means?” Or to narrow it down for the sake of argument within the series, is killing ever justified bring about a just society, or bring another to justice? The existence of the Death Note and Light’s argument is that it is justified. L stands on the other side of this, even though he pushes this premise as much as he can and it is only when he and Watari are about to pass the line of denying another’ consent that they meet the ends of all those who take life for granted in the series. In the end the show doesn’t care about the reasons the characters want to kill, killing will always lead to death and it is the closest thing the show has to an answer on morality beyond it simply being bad. To end another is to eventually end yourself, and I’ll explore this through the different characters in the show.

The first type of exploration of this premise is in our Kiras. For the sake of definition Kiras are those who want to punish criminals and corrupt people in order to bring about a just society. Mikami as the Hand of Kira and Kiyomi as Kira’s voice are good examples of this. Misa also adopts this role too, though her primary motivation is love for Kira, not justice so she falls into the next category we’ll be exploring. The followers of Kira and Light who are driven by their drive to punish bullies and criminals (Mikami is a prosecutor before Light chooses him) want a world that has no crime and wars and by the time we get to the end of the series Light has largely succeeded as wars have stopped and crime has been reduced 75%. His Task Force is even questioning whether bringing down Kira is now the right thing to do. In the end we get a clear answer though, Kiyomi is made to kill herself by Light when he puts her name in the Death Note and Mikami kills himself too when Light is revealed in the finale to be Kira, before he also meets his end. In the end their deaths show that in this instance the ends do not justify the means. The motives to bring about a just society cannot be built on murder is what we are lead to be believed and even if the ideal is peace, murder for ideals and a greater world will only lead to your own end.

One of the primary motives to kill that the show doesn’t forgive, is killing out of love or to protect another. We first see this in Misa Misa, who is the second Kira and follows all of Light’s wishes out of love for him. She never truly ends up with him though and with his end it is implied that she follows behind, killing herself because of his death. Killing for love is the primary motive of Rem as well who is protecting Misa from L, Watari and the police force. Even though she is a God of Death even she can’t survive this as by killing Watari and L she dies as it is the consequence of a Shinigami killing a human. The other person who kills for love is Light’s father who is in charge of the Police Task Force to take down Kira. When he goes to rescue his daughter from the mafia and is killing the members who are protecting Mello, he dies as a consequence (also a consequence of making a deal with Ryuk for the Shinigami eyes so that he can better kill). Love as a motive to kill could argueable be seen as moral, but that isn’t how the show views it. These characters end up dead even though they only kill to protect others and care nothing for themselves.


The other way we see killing used is in a similar way as Light, a means to an end in order to draw Light out. The people we see do this are Watari and L when they use a criminal to test out how Light can kill and again when they are testing out the fake 13 Day Rule that Ryuk wrote in the Death Note to trick L and the Task Force and bring suspicion off of Light and Misa. They die for doing this, as does Mello who teams up with the Mafia, who kill so that he can bring Light out of the shadows. It is only when he is willing to sacrifice himself that we see justice begin to happen in this world and in turn show us that the way you go about stopping a criminal is even more important than the criminal and his or your own motives. Mello pays the price as he loses himself and his friend for the deal he made with the Mafia and his willingness to kill to lure Kira out.

Near’s motives are to be better than Kira and to “win” the battle of wits against him. He at first sees L as a loser for losing to Kira but we see a difference between him and L right off the bat. Near doesn’t use killing in order to lure Kira out. He lets those around him be responsible for their actions while he himself never crosses the line. He never murders and even orders the Task Force not to kill Kira if they are given the chance. This is the closest thing we get to a clear moral answer. Killing is wrong even if it is to stop a wrong. Near manipulates people but everything he does is to protect others and keep life from being lost. This is the moral statement I found within “Death Note” and how the story executes it is why it is one of my favorite animes of all time.

I was discussing this premise with a friend who introduced me to Wisecrack’s deconstruction which inspired me to go into as much depth as I could with my premise. I love how great stories can do that as this is a series that covers so many themes that I had to narrow myself down to one to explore.

For my score of this anime series: 9.6 / 10. I don’t consider it perfect as Misa and Kiyomi lose their agency on multiple occasions and they are the only women in this series who get any exploration outside of Light’s sister and mother who are more of a presence rather than fully fleshed out characters.  If these issues had been solved I’d have given this series a 10 / 10. Regardless I highly recommend it. This was one of the shows that got me into the storytelling medium of anime in the first place, along with the “Ghost in the Shell” series.