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American, Japanese pop culture meld in 'Afro Samurai'

Rap and Bushido? Anyone who knows RZA's Wu-Tang Clan work can see why he jumped at the chance to score 'Afro Samurai.'

February 02, 2009|Charles Solomon

Assassins attempt to ambush a tall figure with a towering mop of black hair: They covet his ancient headband that identifies the wearer as the No. 1 warrior in the world. A long sword flashes as the dark-skinned samurai silently hacks through his enemies' limbs and skulls. Having reduced his assailants to human sashimi, he walks on, accompanied on the soundtrack by low-pitched rap lyrics.

"Afro Samurai: Resurrection," which comes out on DVD Tuesday, amps up the adventures of the black warrior who burst onto the animation scene in 2007. Taciturn and deadly, Afro (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) fights his way through a weird, post-apocalyptic world.

"Afro Samurai" exemplifies the increasing confluence of American and Japanese pop cultures. It's based on a manga by Takashi Okazaki and was animated at the Gonzo studio in Japan, where the anime hits "Samurai 7," "Full Metal Panic!" and "Gurren Lagann" were produced. Fuminori Kizaki directed the film, which was created for an American market, with Hollywood stars Jackson, Lucy Liu and Mark Hamill providing the voices. It aired on Spike TV last month.

"Afro Samurai" also embodies the trend among Japanese fans of comparing hip-hop artists to samurai warriors, an image some rappers claim for themselves. RZA, a founder of the seminal group Wu-Tang Clan and composer of the scores for "Resurrection" and the earlier "Afro Samurai" series, described himself as exemplifying both cultures.

"When the producers asked me if I wanted to be involved in continuing the 'Afro' saga, I said, 'Definitely,' " he said in a telephone interview. "I feel my saga is similar to his: For an artist in the hip-hop world, the idea of being the No. 1 producer, the No. 1 rapper, the No. 1 kid in the neighborhood is very important. I feel like I'm Afro Samurai -- as a producer and rapper.

"When I started Wu-Tang Clan, we used that name because it was the best sword style known: The idea was that we were a sword family," RZA continued. "So Afro Samurai's focus on being the No. 1 samurai swinging his sword is really in keeping with the philosophy the members of Wu-Tang talked about in our lyrics."

Ian Condry, an assistant professor of Japanese cultural studies at MIT and the author of "Hip-Hop Japan," said, "It's not surprising that rappers and samurai go together. They both believe in honor and loyalty. They both represent where they come from. They both battle for supremacy through the strength of their skills."

"Afro Samurai" is not the first Japanese animated series to fuse hip-hop and samurai culture. The most famous example of this cultural cross-pollination is Sinichiro Watanabe's "Samurai Champloo" (2004), an outrageous comedy-adventure that features Tokugawa-era rappers, ink-brush tagging, Hiroshima homeboys and swordfights using break-dance moves.

In an interview conducted via e-mail, Watanabe said, "I've been interested in hip-hop since it first appeared. I believe samurai in the Edo period and modern hip-hop artists have something in common: Rappers open the way to their future with the microphone; samurai decided their fate with the sword."

The rigors of Bushido, the "way of the warrior" practiced by historic samurai, may seem at odds with the spontaneous appeal of hip-hop. But RZA explained that achieving excellence as a hip-hop artist can be as demanding as traditional martial-arts disciplines.

"Most martial arts take about 10 years for the participant to grasp any real style. I've been a lyricist for over 20 years. I'm definitely a master of lyrics, but it took a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of practice and a lot of battles," he said. "I would say I live by the principles of martial arts, but I couldn't call myself a practitioner of any specific art. In 'The Book of the Five Rings,' Miyamoto Musashi describes a sword style that can be applied to mind and body: You can fight a guy sword on sword, but the same principles can be applied if the conflict is thought on thought, army on army or word on word. In that context, I consider myself a martial artist."

RZA also looked to the way Japanese composers approach samurai films when he scored "Afro Samurai: Resurrection." Blood and gore fly across the screen during the fast-paced fight scenes. But instead of blasting the audience with percussion and brass, RZA plays the action against low-key rapping.

"I feel that if you slow the tempo of the music while an actor is getting crazy, it gives a different cadence to the action -- it makes the actor appear to be moving faster and more powerfully," he explained. "In Chinese kung fu movies, they fight with a lot of sound effects and music, but in Japanese samurai films, there's often total silence -- you don't get music until after the fight. That made me realize, in some instances, silence can be a form of music."

Condry summed up the cross-cultural appeal of "Resurrection": " 'Afro Samurai' captures the vibrancy of an underground culture that flows internationally -- hip-hop and anime both travel through complicated vectors of cool. It shows that a fusion of styles can mean more than identity, and how the circulation of media and culture produces fascinating hybrids."


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