Putting the FU...Pardon, FUN in FUNimation

Fort Worth-based FUNimation is handling Afro Samurai, which, oddly, was my nickname in Hebrew school.

The 2006 Asian Film Festival of Dallas kicks off at noon today with screenings at the Magnolia Theater in the West Village; the fest runs through next Thursday and, like I said in the paper version of Unfair Park this week, of the seemingly endless parade of film fests that take place in this town, it's easily among the best. (This is where Cavite, which is out on DVD this week, made its Dallas premiere in 2005, before garnering critical acclaim and a wide national release.) And while there are plenty of notable films in the festival, there's one that has an interesting local connection: Shinobi, a sort of epic, high-wire Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 17th-century Japan full of ninja superheroes, which sounds about right.

The thing kinda plays like a cartoon, which makes sense: It's based on a best-selling novel in Japan called The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, which inspired an anime series called Basilisk, which in turn led to the live-action feature that was released in Japan last year, where it was a huge hit, which sounds about right. But what's the local tie? Well, Shinobi is being distributed theatrically and on DVD by FUNimation Productions, the Fort Worth anime company that made a name for itself by handling the U.S. distribution for DragonBall Z, which was Cartoon Network's highest-rated show when we ran this cover story in 2000 and remains FUNimation's signature title.

"The film's producer had approached us, and we had determined we were a good fit because have the same demographic and already had Basilisk and could cross-promote the two," says Jackie Smith at FUNimation. "And we were blown away when we saw it and wanted to show it to [our] audience." As for whether this means FUNimation is getting into the live-action movie business, Smith says, "It's not our focus, but we're ceretainly open to the right title--something that fits our demographic."

But that ain't FUNimation's big news. That's after the jump, along with some cold-blooded, off-da-chain video.


The company's highest-profile project, at least as far as the non-Sailor Moon-viewing public is concerned, is still three months away, when a cartoon called Afro Samurai debuts in November on the Spike network. It's another Japanese creation (from Studio Gonzo), but it's the first one FUNimation's been involved with that was made specifically for the U.S. market. FUNimation helped get the show, which appears to be about a guy who sees his family killed and goes on a vengeance spree with his very shiny and sharp blade, on Spike and will handle not only its March 2007 DVD release but also any other products (dolls, T-shirts...uh, swords, maybe?) that come out of the show. "We're doing brand managing," Smith says.


The big deal about Afro Samurai is that the title character's being voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, like that's a surprise. (He's also executive producing.) It also features music from The RZA, like that's a surprise. The only thing surprising is that Quentin Tarantino had nothing to do with it.


"Gonzo had seen the manga [comic-book] series done by the creator [Takashi Okazaki], and they really wanted to do an animated series based on that character," Smith says. "They had a rough idea and rough animation, and it accidentally got to Sam Jackson. The vice president of creative affairs knew a guy who happened to office with someone Sam Jackson did business with, and he showed it to him, and Sam said, 'Give it to me. I am Afro Samurai.' It's a crazy, crazy world we live in."


The trailer for Afro Samurai debuted at Comic-Con in San Diego last month--like that's a surprise. We've included it below, and that is no surprise at all. --Robert Wilonsky




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