Afro Samurai 1

October 6, 2008

Takashi Okazaki – Seven Seas Entertainment – 2008 – 2 volumes

Another of the things you don’t often see on this site are samurai manga.  My roommate has been trying to convince me to start buying Lone Wolf and Cub, and while I’m sure it’s good, I don’t think that’s the best thing for me to start with.  I did pick up volume one of Vagabond, and I’m thinking of starting Blade of the Immortal now that I hear its coming to an end, but Afro Samurai is much shorter than those, and I imagine that it’s much more accessible than the others.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about starting this since the hype surrounding the ultra-hip animated version had put me off a bit.  A coworker convinced me that it was more cool than over-the-top, so I decided to try it.  He was definitely right.  I was very worried about the mixing of technology into a past setting, and I was also worried about elements of humor seeming out-of-place.  All these worries were groundless, and this is actually a pretty stylish story.  There is absolutely zero humor to jar you out of the setting, and the use of technology seems limited mostly to cellphones, which actually don’t seem that out of place.

The story and series itself is pretty simple.  The main character, the #2 assassin, is on a quest to find the #1 assassin for reasons of revenge.  Along the way, people try to kill him so they can be #2.  The main character is mostly mute, and a lot of the chapters consist of fluid, stylized battle sequences.  During every fight, color is used and the blood is rendered red against the black and white, which makes the art stand out even more.  It’s pretty fantastic to look at, and about the only thing I can think of to say against the volume at all is that the fights can get a bit confusing sometimes.  I’ve seen much, much worse though (alas, my poor Trigun), and it’s always pretty clear what’s happening in the fights, so it wasn’t too much a problem.

The plot is really not so deep or involved at this point, but I have to admit I kind of like the idea of ranked assassins, even if we only ever see two.  It’s a shame more numbers didn’t come into play, but maybe we’ll get to meet more as the series goes on.  There was a numbered series of monks at one point who basically antagonized #2 throughout the volume and then fought him in the end, but they’re taken care of by the end of the volume, and what appears to be a bearman takes their place.  The main character himself is stoic, nameless, and doesn’t say much through the entire book.  He does a pretty good job playing the mute tough guy though, and I don’t know that it would work if he was, say, talking trash or angsting or doing anything else.

The book itself is very nice.  In addition to the red color used throughout for the blood, there’s also translation notes included in the back that not only supply you with cultural notes, but also give you the original Japanese for any slang that is used and the reason for the translation, and this is the only book I’ve ever seen that romanized and translated the entire Buddhist heart sutra.  I was pretty impressed by that.

I’m glad I started my journey into samurai manga with this series.  I think I’ll get a little lost once I start in on Vagabond and Blade of the Immortal, so reading a pure and nice-looking action series like this is a good transition, I think.  Plus, like I said, I like the system of ranked assassins, so I’m definitely sticking around to see what happens with #1 in volume 2.

This was a review copy provided by Seven Seas.