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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Hold on to your Hatori Hanzo. That's the samurai sword, by the way. There's a new superhero in town, “Afro Samurai.” The animated TV show premieres tonight on Spike TV, with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson and the music of the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA.

Our animation critic, Charles Solomon, takes a look.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Afro Samurai”)

Unidentified Man: Look at these boys. Tough guy is going to take us out with only one hand on his sword.

CHARLES SOLOMON: A tall wiry figure with a billowing mane of hair stands on the moonlit cliff. Alone, he fights off 20 would-be assassins, blocking bullets and hacking off limbs with lightning blows of his sword.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Afro Samurai”)

SOLOMON: Sprays of scarlet blood splashed across this gray and silver landscape. His enemies dispatched, he lights a cigarette.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Afro Samurai”)

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON (Actor): (As Afro Samurai) Nothing personal. It's just revenge.

SOLOMON: That's Samuel L. Jackson, the star of the new animated series “Afro Samurai.” The show follows Afro's attempt to avenge the murder of his father by a monomaniacal assassin.

Like a traditional taciturn samurai hero, Afro rarely speaks, so Jackson also provides the voice of Ninja Ninja, Afro's motor-mouthed sidekick.

(Soundbite of “Afro Samurai”)

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON (As Actor): (As Ninja Ninja) Excuse me for probing, but what you just did back there - was it absolutely necessary? I'm beginning to wonder if you got any feelings for human life left in you at all.

SOLOMON: “Afro Samurai” is based on the graphic novels of Takashi Okazaki. The adventures take place in an alternate reality that juxtaposes samurai sword fights with cell phones and cigarette lighters, a cultural mix reflected in the eclectic score by the RZA from the legendary hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RZA (Musician): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SOLOMON: The RZA says he drew on his love of martial arts traditions to create music for “Afro-Samurai.”

Mr. RZA: The Wu-Tang's war style was one of the best war styles, you know, they say ever invented or displayed. And then a lyricist, like your tongue is like a double-edged sword, like I'm a samurai, I'm swordsman in my lyrics, you know what I mean? How good I do my lyrics is how good I swing my sword.

SOLOMON: The samurai duels are more violent than anything in American animated film or TV. Actor Ron Perlman voices the character of Justice. He's an icy murderer who leaves the child Afro over his father's severed head.

(Soundbite of “Afro-Samurai”)

Mr. RON PERLMAN (Actor): (As Justice) It's unfortunate that you had to see this, boy. This moment will always haunt you. You will be consumed by hatred for me. Challenge me when you're ready to duel a god.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PERLMAN: He lusts after power and the idea of being number one and wiping out all semblance of competition.

SOLOMON: Perlman says he enjoyed finding Justice's voice.

Mr. PERLMAN: He has a little bit of Miles Davis, with slightly more ghetto than Miles had. But that's the way his voice is, and you know, that's Justice.

SOLOMON: The wild culture mix of “Afro-Samurai” represents the latest cross-pollination between Japanese and American pop cultures. Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.”

Mr. ROLAND KELTS (Author, “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.”): Among the chief inspirations for “Afro-Samurai” was Batman. So in some respects, this project represents the more-fluid, boundary-less nature of Japanese anime as it rocks into the 21st century.

SOLOMON: Five episodes of “Afro-Samurai” have been produced with an impressive budget of $1 million per episode. Whether it succeeds or fails, “Afro-Samurai” represents a new take on the classic samurai hero. The RZA.

Mr. RZA: You know, he don't want to be what he is, but he is what is. He's going to be what he is to achieve his goal. And doesn't matter who gets stepped on on the way, you know. He has a goal to achieve, a destiny to fulfill, and he's not turning back from it.

(Soundbite of music)

SOLOMON: “Afro-Samurai” premiers tonight on Spike TV. For NPR News, I'm Charles Solomon.

(Soundbite of music)

BURBANK: Check out a scene from “Afro-Samurai” plus artwork from the show at our Web site, npr.org.

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