For the most part, Americans are learning to fall in love with Japanese influence and archetypes. Anime is steadily making its way into American mainstream culture.
Today there are a ton of memes and fan art depicting hip-hop superstars like XXXTentacion as Anime favorites such as Majin Buu or Naruto. Dragonball Z references are popping up everywhere from workout gear to an upcoming Adidas collaboration.
However, as popular as Anime gets in the United States it’s rarely ever influenced by Western Culture. Your standard Anime show features a hopeless main protagonist who goes from zero to hero, traditional Japanese garb (martial arts wear, wooden sandals, and oh so many headbands), and scenes that would make even the pickiest of eaters want to scarf down some ramen.
Afro Samurai is unique in this sense, as it is an Anime that took influence from hip-hop and African American Culture. From Afro Samurai’s Afro to the RZA (Wu-Tang Clan) 5-star production, Afro Samurai was a delicate yet ballsy hybridization of east and west. In case you haven’t watched Afro Samurai, do yourself a favor and buy a copy now.
And oh yeah, spoilers ahead.
Afro Samurai’s creator Takashi Okazaki often stated how cool he felt the Afro hairstyle was. When coming up with a concept for his own Anime, he liked the idea of an African American samurai with an Afro as his protagonist. Afro Samurai himself adorns not just any Afro, but a very stylized, over the top Afro. This, of course, leads to his Afro being pierced by swords and other weapons on more than one occasion. It constantly moves and dances about even when he’s standing still.
Ninja Ninja, Afro’s companion, has his own Afro, albeit a greyish white one. The look and feel of our main protagonists stand out drastically from the rest of the cast. Most of Afro’s assailants have long Japanese style hair dressed in a ponytail or some combination of cyber modification. The point is that every character other than Afro and Ninja Ninja look like they would fit right into your standard Japanese Anime or Manga.
RZA of the legendary musical group Wu Tang Clan produced the backdrop and themes for the Afro Samurai series and all of its characters. Afro’s father, who is one of the older characters in the anime, is represented by a more old school soul and funk sound. Justice, the series’ main antagonist, has more of a rock and roll centered theme.
RZA has stated in behind the scenes interviews that Afro’s father being killed by Justice was like soul/funk being replaced by Rock N Roll. Afro’s eventual coming to grace and the fulfillment of his quest to avenge his father’s death represents Rock N Roll being replaced by Hip Hop. This order of events parallels the evolution of music in the West. As the main protagonist, Afro’s theme is heavily hip hop influenced.
Japanese Writer influenced further by American Storytelling
Ninja Ninja was inspired by Alice and Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat. You can see the influence in Ninja Ninja’s devious smile and way of speaking in riddles. Ninja Ninja gawks at Afro’s short comings and jokes about his misfortune. Every step of the way, Ninja Ninja offers cryptic advice and often appears high in trees or upside down, fluttering about.
Justice, Afro’s arch nemesis, was also inspired by American storytelling. Justice dons a cowboy hat and two signature six shooter pistols, which clearly portrays the influence of the classic American Western Cowboy. In a way, the lawlessness associated with the quest for the number 1 headband (one of the Anime’s underlying stories) parallels that of the unpredictable and dangerous nature of the Wild Wild West.
A rogue cowboy with a sheriff complex would fit right into this Japanese land riddled with warriors competing to be number 1. In the Afro Samurai context of a modern yet feudal style Japan, he who wears the number 2 headband can challenge he who wears the number 1. He who wears the number 1, is a god amongst men.
Cast and Crew
The most notable of the cast would be none other than Samuel L. Jackson. He plays Afro Samurai AND Ninja Ninja. Talk about talent. Jackson’s role as Afro might not delve too far from a traditional Anime anti-hero with little to say and no care outside of revenge, but Afro Afro is the quintessential embodiment of African American Popular Culture.
“Add one more body to the body toll
May God rest this poor bastard’s soul”
As you can see, Ninja Ninja has bars as he playfully rhymes a prayer of sorts over one of Afro’s many casualties. His quips and exaggerations of words like “daaaaaaaaaamn” as well as his overuse of swear words carry a swagger you would typically never find in a Japanese Anime. Ninja Ninja even describes the busty figure and bosom of a Japanese girl who helps Afro recover from a more serious battle when he says, “Admit it, you wanna tap that booty”.
Never forget that some Japanese nerd who loved hip-hop, soul train, and afros made one of the most bad ass Anime series of all time. Just imagine the gumption Takashi must have had to approach American producers, hip hop artists, and actors with his crazy idea.
Thank goodness we embraced him with open arms and worked hard to bring his fantasy to life. As more and more Anime shows flood the market I would personally love to see more innovative pairing of Eastern and Western cultures when it comes to these hyper stylized cartoons.
You hear that Japan? Instead of making the 135th episode of Dragonball Super and giving Goku yet another new form, take some inspiration from the West!