Samurai Jack Review – by Mark Rempel
As any millennial on the Internet will tell you, the late 1990s and early 2000s was a great time to be watching cartoons. An era when Western animation finally stepped out of the conventions of yesteryear, and created new stories unlike those that came before. Yet among this line-up, only one cartoon would push this experimentation to the limits. That cartoon was Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack, the story of a lone samurai flung into the future by the demon Aku. Now the Samurai must find a way to get back to the past, and undo the horror and suffering that is Aku.
As a show, Samurai Jack was an oddball to say the least. When nearly all of its contemporaries were trying some variant of a sitcom, Samurai Jack was a fairly serious action show, pairing brilliantly executed combat with some of the most silent and immersive moments in cartoon history. The art direction of the show boasted a meticulous choice of color to establish clarity, and remains one of the best examples of color theory in television to this day. All of the backgrounds in the original Samurai Jack were hand painted, and each episode featured entirely new environments that were wholly unique. As Tartakovsky says, “We have a rule. No green grass, no blue sky. Everything’s gotta be special, everything’s gotta have a point of view… If you saw a background or a frame, it could only be Samurai Jack”. (Tartakovsky, at a Cartoon Network Press event in February). This was a show that capitalized on the medium of animation, choosing to tell stories in as visual a manner as possible. Episodes of Samurai Jack began with storyboards instead of scripts, which allowed the writers to experiment with telling visual stories accented by dialogue, instead of the other way around. Samurai Jack lasted for four seasons, from August 10th 2001 to September 25th, 2004. However, since the show never had an official ending, a cult following has been begging for a final season for over a decade, and in 2017, they got their wish.
Season 5 of Samurai Jack premiered March 11th, 2017, and as of this writing, 9 of the 10 episodes have been released. Unlike the previous series, which told short contained narratives and reset at the end of each episode, the new season tells a much longer story over the course of ten episodes. Gone is the unshakable badass Jack of the original series. Now Jack begins season 5 broken and lost, and must struggle throughout the season to find himself and meet his destiny head-on. Jack’s story has amped up the brutality in this season, far more so than the previous series ever could. This is because season 5 is being produced by Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s more mature late-night counterpart. Adult Swim handed Tartakovsky and the other creators much more freedom to explore the darker contexts of this dystopian future landscape, to great effect. Jack now has to contend with killing real people, as well as dealing with the trauma of those he could not save.
By now you’re probably wondering if the new season is any good, and to answer that, yes. It’s really good. Honestly, it’s the Samurai Jack story I think I’ve always wanted. The show begins 50 years after the end of the previous series, and due to some side effect of time travel, Jack has ceased to age. He has lost his magical sword, the only tool that can defeat Aku, and all hope of returning to the past is gone. Jack begins the season in a state of panicked delirium, seeing the faces of those who have suffered at Aku’s hand everywhere around him as he fights for survival. The action in the new season is breathtaking, but follows the same guidelines as the old series. Each fight has its own unique twist, and no two are the same. Sometimes Jack is outnumbered and has to fight defensively, while other times Jack is forced to use the environment to his advantage. Each moment of action requires a unique approach for Jack, and watching him assess and adapt to each enemy creates a beautiful interplay of tension and intrigue.
Visually, the show has changed a lot, and few aspects have changed as much as Jack himself. Jack’s white gi representing his pure and noble heart has been replaced by black steel armor, and a full beard. This is a big deal. In the old series, Jack’s gi and Aku’s black body formed a sort of visual yin-yang, representing their balance of opposites ( it also made their fight scenes very easy to follow). Their eternal struggle always formed a harmony that was the height of the old show’s writing. Jack’s noble prose was always matched by Aku’s pompous humor, and though Jack was always stronger than Aku, Aku’s minions, dirty tricks, and shapeshifting powers always tilt the odds to his favor. Taking away Jack’s noble motives and reducing him to a survival instinct reflects an imbalance in the relationship between these two, a fact that is frequently referenced over the course of the narrative. Even Aku isn’t quite himself in the new series, slipping into a deep depression as he realizes that Jack won’t just die of old age. He must pretend that Jack’s presence does not bother him, when in reality fear is destroying him from the inside out.
The art style has also shifted slightly, mostly because of the change to digital media. It’s clear that there has been a great effort to maintain the look of the old show, but the range of tools available with digital software has let this team show off how much they have grown and developed over the last decade or so. The environments are all just as beautiful and inspired as they were before, (perhaps even more?) even taking some classic cartoon trope environments and exploring them in brilliant new ways. The characters are also updated a bit too. Jack has become a bit taller and more elegant, and many of the show’s new side-villains are unique and memorable. The animation and sound design for the show are also top-notch, and it’s clear that all of the voice actors really poured themselves into delivering the best performance they could for this last hurrah. And that’s probably the saddest part of this new season, the fact that it will finally end the series.
On Saturday, May 21st, at 11 pm, Samurai Jack will end. A series that has redefined what a cartoon could be, and helped inspire an entire generation of artists and animators will finally reach a conclusion. Whether or not Jack defeats Aku, or finds his way back to the past, I’m sure it will be well worth the wait.