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It's a hip-hopping sword-rattling success

The Japanese manga 'Afro Samurai,' picked up by Spike TV, is exactly what you think it is. After a rocky start, it's found an audience.

December 09, 2007|Hiroko Tabuchi | Associated Press

TOKYO — He wanders the wilderness to avenge his father's death. He is a man of few words, trained in the ancient ways of the Japanese samurai. He sports an unruly Afro.

"Afro Samurai," the star of an animation series of the same name featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, is headed for a second run on Spike TV and is finally winning a following in its native Japan, where it recently debuted on the big screen.

"I never expected Afro Samurai to get this huge. It started out as doodlings I made in college," creator Takashi Okazaki said in an interview in Tokyo.

"Now, I have Samuel doing Afro's voice, and lots of black kids thanking me for creating an awesome hero," he said. "I just can't believe it."

Afro Samurai's first season, aired as a five-part series on Spike TV early this year, follows the tale of a young samurai with a big 'fro who seeks to avenge the death of his father at the hands of a mysterious warrior called Justice.

In his quest, Afro -- accompanied by sidekick Ninja Ninja, who appears to act as an alter ego to the reticent protagonist -- fights foes bearing weapons such as machine guns and bazookas. Along the way, he courts a tempestuous kimono-clad beauty named Okiku, who rescues Afro after a particularly brutal battle.

Okazaki says Afro's character was inspired by musicians he saw on old episodes of the U.S. TV series "Soul Train," which aired in Japan in the 1990s.

"I also loved Japanese samurai flicks. So one day, I combined the two," he said.

The world Afro roams also fuses East and West, and ancient myths with modern technology. Robed warriors whip out cellphones, monks wear headphones and sway to hip-hop, and bloody battles are fought not over ancient treasures, but memory chips.

Okazaki's strange tale initially failed to attract attention in Japan, where mainstream cartoons feature wide-eyed heroines or fighting robots.

He sold just a trickle of his Afro Samurai comics in the 1990s, peddling his work to specialized bookstores in Tokyo.

"Okazaki's work was too weird for most mainstream manga fans, who love cutesy characters," said Atsushi Sugino of Japanese animation company GDH K.K., which is co-producing the TV series and movie.

It was only in 2001 -- after an American executive at anime studio Gonzo, Eric Calderon, learned of Okazaki's work -- that Afro Samurai finally headed to the screen.

That project got a boost when Jackson came aboard as Afro's voice -- "I think he just loved the idea of a black samurai," Okazaki said -- and after hip-hop producer RZA agreed to supply the music.

Now, Afro Samurai has returned in triumph to Japan, with a movie version of Spike TV's first season, which opened in Tokyo on Oct. 27 after airing on cable in May.

Afro Samurai also aired on Britain's Adult Swim channel in May, and on MTV Australia in August. A video game based on the animation is set for release on Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 in December.

Okazaki, meanwhile, is already busy supervising Afro Samurai's next series, which airs on Spike TV in late 2008 or 2009 -- and he's offering few clues.

Having finally slain Justice at the end of series one, Afro "loses his way, gets tired of all the killing," Okazaki said. The series, he said, follows Afro as he finally "wakes up to his destiny, which is to be the world's No. 1 warrior."

And Afro's new enemy is an alluring female warrior, according to Okazaki.

"Seduction and violence -- those are musts for American TV," he said.

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