On paper, the making of “Afro Samurai” reads like a recipe for an identity crisis. An animation about an African-American swordsman in a futuristic feudal Japan, it sprang from the mind of a Tokyo illustrator and was brought to fruition in English by a Japanese-U.S. production team, A-list Hollywood voice actors and a hip-hop star.
But what its makers admit was a potential cross-cultural train wreck is on track and barreling ahead at full speed. Based on characters created by Takashi Okazaki, “Afro Samurai” was made in Japan for a North American audience for a whopping $1 million per 25-minute episode. The five-episode action-adventure series debuted Jan. 7 on the U.S.-based Spike TV cable network and then made its way as a reverse import to Japan in May, when subtitled, high-definition versions of the programs aired on the satellite channel Wowow. Now the series has been re-edited with additional scenes into a 110-minute film for theatrical release in Japan this weekend.
“It could have been a disaster — and there were so many times when it almost was,” coproducer Eric Calderon says of the project he bet his career on. “What’s great about ‘Afro’ is that it ignited the passions of a lot of people — and the scariest thing about ‘Afro’ is that it ignited the passions of a lot of people. There were producers, directors, writers who all wanted to jump on board once they saw what we were making. We had a scary time navigating which partners we chose and who not to go with.”
One person not to be denied was Samuel L. Jackson, who voices the character of Afro and his foul-mouthed sidekick, Ninja Ninja. A copy of a demo DVD that Calderon had been circulating around Hollywood found its way into the actor’s hands. Jackson was soon on the phone to tell Calderon and his colleagues that he was taking the role of Afro. Equally enthusiastic was RZA, the martial arts-loving member of hip-hop group The Wu-Tang Clan, who Calderon says went above and beyond the call of duty while scoring the series.
Already a cult phenomenon in the United States, “Afro” is poised to become an even bigger international cash cow. GDH, the Japanese media company that oversaw the project, says new stories are being scripted for a second season and perhaps a third. Meanwhile, the first script for a live-action film starring Jackson has been completed. Charles Roven, producer of 2005’s “Batman Begins,” has also signed on for the film, Hollywood’s first adaptation of a Japanese animation.
An often gory tale of revenge, “Afro Samurai” follows the adventures of a black warrior who as a child witnessed the killing of his father by a friend- turned-foe named Justice (voiced by Ron Perlman). As Number One, the land’s top swordsman, Afro’s headband- wearing father enjoyed a godlike status. That exalted position, however, was only his for as long as he could fend off challengers, who if victorious must take on all comers.
Having elevated himself from Number Two to Number One by relieving Afro’s father of his head, Justice must reckon on a showdown with the vengeance- minded son, who rapidly rises through the ranks to the Number Two position. When we first meet him, Afro has grown into a man of few words who is content to let his loquacious companion Ninja Ninja do the talking. Okiku (voiced by Kelly Hu) provides the love interest.
The story unfolds in dark hues, mainly shades of gray, and with a high degree of detail that’s often missing from Japanese television animation. Though the series was created for a U.S. audience, the American side of the production team took a largely hands-off approach.
“People just loved it the way it was,” Calderon says of Okazaki’s brainchild, which he first encountered in the form of a “crazy toy” while discussing children’s programming in the Tokyo office of a Japanese colleague. “It wasn’t like Sam Jackson, Spike TV or myself saw this idea and said, ‘This will be great once we change it.’ We worked within the world that Okazaki-san had already created.”
That world moves to the beat of hip-hop and R&B. Okazaki, who goes by the nickname Bob, is a devotee of African-American pop culture and modeled the Afro character in part on Jimi Hendrix and a dancer who strutted his stuff in karate gear on “Soul Train,” an old U.S. television program. The character, which Okazaki created while a student at Tama Art University, so intrigued Calderon that he insisted on meeting the artist, whose work has also been featured in hit films like “Bayside Shakedown 2.”
Okazaki’s drawing style stands out from that found in much of modern Japanese manga and anime.
“You don’t have a lot of the typical reduction of details,” Calderon explains, adding that some Japanese illustrators employ a minimalist approach that favors faces that have been reduced to an oval with no nostrils, a slight line for a mouth and large, window-like eyes. “In the case of ‘Afro Samurai,’ you have a much more highly rendered style, an almost hyper-realistic character designs and really forced perspectives.”
Okazaki is currently working on a 300-page “Afro Samurai” manga. In keeping with the unorthodox tactics that have made the character so marketable, the manga will not be published in a Japanese format but in the conventional left-to-right Western style.
After bonding during an alcohol-fueled karaoke session, Calderon won over Okazaki and set things in motion. Calderon says hybrid projects like “Afro” work best when input from one culture clearly dominates. Though an international collaboration, the show is in his eyes Japanese, albeit with a veneer of Western influence.
The director of the series, Fuminori Kizaki, calls “Afro” a “fusion of classic samurai tale and American culture” and says the Western influences — apart from the English dialogue — are most notable in some of the settings, background art and prop designs. One bar scene, for example, was originally going to be in an izakaya-type setting but was changed to a Wild West-looking American bar with swinging doors.
The pacing also reflects Western input. Calderon says marketing requirements necessitated a “quick-moving” plot.
“We wanted a kick-ass fighting story. It could have been four episodes with Afro looking into the stars and saying, ‘I wonder who I am?’ ” he says, laughing.
Though much has been made of its unusual pedigree, “Afro Samurai” is not unique. Coproducer Taito Okiura notes that Japanese-made animated series like “Transformers: Galaxy Force” aired primarily in the U.S., but he adds that these programs were targeted at children. What makes “Afro” ground-breaking, he says, is its intended audience: adults.
What also makes “Afro” notable is its price tag. Produced for $1 million per episode at a time when many Japanese animated series cost just $20,000 per episode, the series was a huge gamble.
“It went against all business instincts at first because there’s a trend in American and Japanese animation to go cheaper, cheaper, cheaper (in light of) diminishing returns on things like TV and DVD sales,” he says.
Okiura, who has always viewed the project more like a film, says he knew from the outset that a typical anime budget would not cover the cost of making a series that was to be produced in two countries and involved big-name stars.
“As North American theatrical features usually cost more than $30 million, I don’t feel the budget for ‘Afro Samurai’ was shockingly expensive,” he says.
Given the undeniable appeal of Japanese animation in overseas markets, it’s conceivable that “Afro” could serve as a model for future collaborations. The creative team have mixed views.
“The people who enjoyed ‘Pokemon’ in their childhood are now adults, and they are looking for anime and manga more suitable for their age,” Okiura says. “The market potential of this demographic when they come to possess purchasing power is enormous.”
For Calderon, teaming up Japanese and American creative types creates the potential to strike gold.
“Japan right now is the best idea-creation country in the world as far as story goes. They have some of the most amazing concepts, he says. “On top of that, for animation, they’re just the most visually sophisticated production entity in the world.”
Calderon isn’t one to sell his homeland short, saying, “We’re one of the best countries for execution. Once Hollywood or American broadcasters and writers get their head around an idea, they execute really well.”
That said, he indicates both sides have drawbacks.
“The bad thing working with an American team is that a lot of the ideas are so tired. The sense of invention is not really there,” he says. “Now, cut to the Japanese side and you get these really amazing concepts, these really great designs. But when it comes to story, they’re just a lot less willing to follow a straight path.”
Though “Afro Samurai” successfully bridges the cultural gap, Calderon remains skeptical about future collaborations, citing variables that may have been unique to the “Afro” project and the difficulty of finding mainstream audiences for some Japanese exports.
“Any kind of international collaboration always means bridging a vast cultural gap,” he says. “There’s a massive difference in the way that Americans think and tell stories, and the business behind it. And there’s a massive difference to how the Japanese animation experts tell stories, reveal characters and run their businesses. It’s still incompatible. It really takes a rare team of open-minded individuals to make it happen.
“There will be a lot of misses,” Calderon says. “And, hopefully, a couple of big hits.”
“Afro Samurai” opens Oct. 27 at Cinema Rise in Shibuya, Tokyo, and will play in selected theaters nationwide.
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