I did not peel open Volume #01’s glossy, crimson stained cover expecting to greet profound thoughts or a gripping drama, nor was I surprised by what I found inside. Number Two’s coarsely inked fighting stance both entreats eyes hungry for katana swinging action, and preempts the possibility of much else, in one crushing blow.
But despite being shamelessly banal, such a tidy unification of style and story into a single, iconic character is without waste and effective in roping in its target audience. Think about it. You ought to have a pretty good sense of what Afro Samurai without having to flip a single page: nonstop combat, buckets of blood, and at the center of it all, an Afro ronin ready to kick some serious ass. If hardcore action is not your cup of tea, save yourself the trouble of thumbing through the pages—you probably know by now that this manga is definitely not for you.
Though lacking in its ability to sustain anything beyond a momentary interest (for such is the ephemeral satisfaction conferred by guilty pleasures like chocolate and action comics), I was surprised at the intensity, quantity and quality of the fight scenes packed between the covers. If any praises are in order, Afro Samurai ought to be lauded for trimming the fat from the secondary dimensions of storyline, character development, and drama—dimensions too often abused in an action story to buttress the artist’s poor command of physical perspective—and focusing singularly on the swordplay.
Okazaki gets right down to business in the very first scene, immediately hammering out the backstory for “No. 2”’s revenge quest with his characteristic grit and shading. Two opponents face each other, ready for a battle to the death that will last only seconds. A moment—a glance—and suddenly, a katana whistles through the air while a gunblast punctures the silence. ‘Afro’ (the child version of the present “No. 2”) watches his father’s death in pained and furious silence, while the mysterious gunman named “Justice” wrests the “No. 1” headband” from its previous owner and gloats at his victory.
The opening scenes threaten to usher in another ridiculous parade of worn out ‘samurai revenge story’ tropes; this would most certainly be the case if Okazaki did not attempt to compensate for the story’s unsettling similarity to innumerable others by forcing it into the background and thrusting his style into the spotlight.
Undoubtedly his most distinguishing artistic trait, Okazaki’s graphic style is a peculiar syncretism of cultural and stylistic elements from the East and West that favors funky portmanteaus like a hip hoppish samurai, cybernetic villains decked out in Japanese accoutrement, a seasonal matsuri float carrying a DJ atop a massive PA. Everything is drawn in a rough, almost messy excess of lines more reminiscent of United States comics than traditionally minimalist manga. The result is a dark remix of the good ol’ revenge story, situated ambiguously between feudal Japan and a vaguely postapocalyptic future, which manages to excuse an out and out lack of historical import with its own fashionable, intoxicating brand of ultraviolence.
The story and characters have been pared down to a barest minimum, allowing the plot to speed forward without needing to pause for cumbersome dialogue. Even No. 2, who being the protagonist necessitates a lion’s share of personality, is impossibly one dimensional. He possesses every single quality one would expect of an epically proportioned lone warrior… perhaps a bit more than can be plausibly arranged in a single human being.
“No. 2” never laughs, never smiles, never speaks more than a few words at a time, is constantly engaged in battle, and never, ever stops. Following five or six short battles, he rows himself to Mount Sumeru, takes a bow shaft in the arm, dives into the river to regroup, and after hacking through the hundreds of greedy vigilantes hurling arrows at him from atop a nearby cliff, somehow musters the strength to halt one of the Empty Seven’s spearheads from splitting his cranium using his bare hands. Intense. He is the very picture of blind adamancy, so determined to exact his revenge on Justice that he will not hesitate to sacrifice innocent lives to postpone his own inevitable demise. At one point he even grabs a handicapped girl (now keep in mind he murdered her little brother not long before), hoists her in the air to shield himself from a shower of bullets, then tosses her body aside without the faintest display of compunction.
All in a day’s work, I suppose, if you are constantly fighting off hordes of assassins vying for your head. Still, though a touch of humanity would have been a welcome chink in his superhuman armor and though I am quite sick of the hackneyed ‘unstoppable action hero’, his unscrupulous personality does serve to reinforce the dark ambiance established by the story. Afro is a bit more edgy than your average samurai action hero and Okazaki’s roughshod drawing style reports his movements eloquently and vividly, making for a smooth read that ought to please people like myself who rarely find themselves traversing the frames of an action manga without some degree of difficulty.
When all is said and done, the first volume of Afro Samurai is nothing to jump out of your seat for, but it can definitely be an enjoyable experience for anime fans that appreciate the occasional indulgence. I had a few gripes with the Tor/Seven Seas release. Aside from the fact that I prefer manga’s native layout (arranged from right to left, otherwise it confuses me), I was aghast to find the tops of a few speech bubbles cut off. On the bright side, the crimson inking used for the bloodstains worked perfectly with Okazaki’s dense congregations of lines, pointing out the damage without hindering the artist’s muddy style. Afro Samurai is nowhere near the top of my list, but I would not be opposed to checking out Volume #02 during breaks between the more intricately crafted titles that typically occupy my time.