Samurai Jack and Nostalgia’s Double-Edged Sword

1-header image

After twelve years off the air, Samurai Jack returned earlier this year to finally conclude its long-unresolved storyline. Airing in 2017, a year dominated by reboots and revivals of favorite properties – Twin Peaks: The Return, Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant, and Logan, just to name a few – Tartakovsky’s show, like its hero, was entering a different cultural landscape than the one it originated in. True to form, Samurai Jack’s fifth season is a sprawling, impressively multi-faceted affair that approaches this brave new world head-on, with a thorough sense of self-awareness, ruminating with new fervor and complexity on what it means to return to the past.

2-gotta get back to the past

“Fifty years have passed, but I do not age. Time has lost its effect on me. Yet the suffering continues. Aku’s grasp chokes the past, present, and future. Hope is lost. Gotta get back. Back to the past…”

From the beginning, as discussed in my previous essay, Samurai Jack has been fascinated by the conflict between tradition and modernity, the past and the future, and by the loneliness of an anachronistic hero in a world that seems to have no place for him. While these themes were always there in the show’s original four-season run, this final season is remarkable for the way it doubles down on them in a way that’s meta-textually striking and emotionally profound, adding nuance to what was already present, and making explicit what was implicit. Although its earlier episodes often carried an undercurrent of melancholy and darkness behind their artful, colorful surfaces, these final episodes – aired on Adult Swim rather than Cartoon Network, allowing Tartakovsky and his creative team more leeway in terms of the content they could get away with showing – take on a more openly foreboding tone, even bordering on despair, in their determination to make subtext text. By saddling its stoic straight-arrow hero with existential angst, Samurai Jack plays into familiar tropes from similar stories – consider Han Solo’s role in The Force Awakens, or Hugh Jackman’s turn as an aged, world-weary Wolverine in Logan. Yet Tartakovsky is smart about the way he uses this device, tying Jack’s despair into the central themes of the show, rendering the samurai’s existential crisis a meaningful exploration, rather than mere posturing at being “serious” or “gritty.” And while the new Samurai Jack has more freedom in terms of what it can depict, it does not make the mistake of gratuitously amping up blood, gore, and nudity for shock value or the appearance of being “adult.” Instead, it uses this freedom sparingly and wisely; there’s one particular moment, early on, where an unexpected spray of bright red blood is genuinely, viscerally shocking.

Indeed, the fifth season of Samurai Jack carries a very distinct identity from the preceding four. For one thing, its aesthetics are more polished and ambitious than ever, taking advantage of improvements in technology over the last twelve years without losing the hand-crafted charm and care that made the original series so special. The colors are more vivid and the camera movements more ambitious, but the way the new episodes are stylized feels entirely of a piece with their forebears. Moreover, the story here is serialized – not a series of independent vignettes, but a continuous plot spread out over ten episodes. This transition is handled well, and for the most part, the end result flows quite smoothly, without sacrificing the excellent pacing of the original show’s individual episodes. Each episode here, while undoubtedly a piece of the larger whole, has a distinct identity and functions as its own contained story. In a time when the art of the discrete episode is often lost (Netflix’s abysmally structured streaming shows being the most obvious offender), this comes as a breath of fresh air.

3-opening battle

Samurai Jack’s fifth season opens, not altogether surprisingly, with an extended, wordless battle sequence, once again proudly displaying Tartakovsky’s prowess as a visual storyteller. One particular highlight: in a humanizing, silent film-inspired touch, the innocents Jack saves do not speak, instead communicating via literal thought bubbles above their heads. Moreover, the opening uses a variety of techniques to wisely clue us in to the nature of this continuation. First, it recalls the panache and splendor of the original series with explicit aural and visual callbacks – the sound of Aku’s drones, the visual of them circling a still point. Secondly, it obfuscates our associations with those symbols: Jack appears wearing a tall, horned helmet that more readily recalls Aku than his past self, and, his iconic sword conspicuously absent, uses modern technology and weapons: his motorcycle even has a spiked tire tread, recalling one of the first machines he encountered upon entering the future. Throughout, the fifth season seamlessly and purposefully weaves interactions between the past and present incarnations of Samurai Jack into its text, often with a complicating or deepening effect. (Another point of kinship between Tartakovsky and George Lucas, whose return to the Star Wars series played with very similar devices.)

Fittingly, the arc of Samurai Jack’s fifth season does indeed constitute a return to the past. This revival is designed for those who grew up with the original series, and it plays both to their nostalgia for their childhoods and their more adult sensibilities. The first three episodes are grim, bloody, and intense, full of psychological torment and moral quandaries. This, the show seems to announce, is Samurai Jack for grown-ups. Yet as the season progresses, it begins to lean more heavily into nostalgia, becoming more and more like its old self in tone and content. This movement is reinforced by significant design choices. When we are first reintroduced to Jack, he is sporting a lengthy beard and mane, decked out in a full suit of armor. As the series goes on, he is stripped of these new trappings, and finally returned to his familiar traditional garb and hairstyle.

4-many jacks

When the season opens, Jack is tortured by guilt over his inability to complete his quest and defeat Aku. He is weary and reluctant, running away from the sight of smoke on the horizon, but haunted by the ghosts of those he was unable to save. In one brilliant flourish, autumn leaves falling from the trees become the ghosts of the dead, accusing Jack of abandoning his purpose. Yet Jack’s preoccupation with the past only worsens his situation in the present. The old and new incarnations of Samurai Jack are quite literally placed in dialogue with one another, through the presence of a ghostly, distorted self with whom Jack converses. This past version of Jack is angry, disapproving, and hopeless, lambasting Jack for his failures: “Who cares anymore? There’s no way home, there’s nothing to fight for. There is no more honor.” The loneliness that coursed through the background of the original run, with its hero out of time, is foregrounded here, as Jack’s Sisyphean quest takes its toll. The ghostly Jack argues that suicide is preferable to living in a world under Aku’s rule: “I won’t spend eternity in this forsaken time! I want it to end. Aren’t you tired? Our ancestors are waiting for us… They want you to join them.” Samurai Jack‘s forte has always been visual rather than verbal in nature, and Tartakovsky uses a variety of techniques to externalize his hero’s internal torment. Perhaps most strikingly, Jack’s suicidal impulses are manifested in the form of a hulking, silhouetted samurai, who he sees from afar in his lowest moments. This unnamed samurai represents a disapproving, accusatory tradition, calling Jack towards the honorable suicide that would end his suffering.

At the end of my previous essay on the series, I noted that the original run, while unresolved, offered the hopeful resolution that Aku’s reign over the world did not extend to the hearts and minds of its denizens, especially children. The fifth season returns to this emphasis on how Jack and Aku shape the world around them, and investigates the theme in a way that is gratifyingly complex. Because Jack despairs of his ability to physically save the innocents of the world, he has withdrawn, leaving them to be victimized in much worse ways. Early on, we are introduced to the Daughters of Aku, a cult of assassins trained from birth to kill Jack. We see the Daughters of Aku’s natural innocence give way to misguided murderousness as they are essentially brainwashed, raised in seclusion and taught that the evil Jack opposes the beneficent creator, Aku. They are dark mirrors of Jack, as single-minded in their devotion to killing him as he is in his determination to destroy Aku. Jack, who has only ever fought and killed machines or demons, is horrified to realize that he is battling against flesh and blood. In one brutal fight sequence, Jack kills all the Daughters but one, Ashi, whose life he repeatedly saves, and who he eventually frees from the error of her misshapen beliefs.

The Daughters of Aku represent the innocents Jack has failed to help, as do a horde of mind-controlled children who Jack faces in an abandoned factory. When Jack mistakenly believes his actions have resulted in the deaths of these children, he finally gives in to despair and follows the unnamed, ghostly samurai, leaving Ashi to try and find him. The modern world in Samurai Jack, as contrasted against the idealized past to which he seeks to return, is defined by a pervasive nihilism, a hopelessness stemming from the loss of tradition, the corruption of childhood, and the subjugation of nature by technology. Modernity is even dissatisfying for Aku, who, despite his totalitarian rule over the world, is gripped by malaise, tormented by the persistence of an enemy he thought would die quietly. In a series of humorous scenes, Aku undergoes Freudian psychoanalysis, courtesy of his own psychiatric self, but this self-help is not sufficient. Just like his nemesis, Aku remains depressed and alone.

5-aku psychiatry

In response to this despair, Ashi searches for hope by embarking on a journey into the past. Like Jack, this is symbolized by a visual change: she sheds her false skin, returns to nature, and dons a new, leafy outfit. Ashi’s journey into the past is one of Tartakovsky’s most brilliant storytelling moves, taking her through a kind of “greatest hits” compilation of Jack’s old adventures, bringing Samurai Jack’s fixation on nostalgia to the meta-textual forefront, and encapsulating the series’ ethos of valuing the past over modernity. Ashi comes across a veritable gallery of characters who have been helped by Jack, finding hope in the present world to rebuke his despair over his inability to return to the past. These characters are a counterpoint to the Daughters of Aku: the ones Jack’s life has touched become his allies in the fight against Aku, and in the end, the lonely hero is no longer alone. While Aku is isolated, holed up in his lair, Jack is helped by the outside influence of the other. Ashi, having witnessed the evidence of the good that Jack has wrought, tracks him down just in time to stop him from killing himself at the behest of the ghostly samurai: “Hope lives. It is everywhere. I’ve seen it. Everyone you have touched, the people you have helped… You saved them!” Jack’s redemption of Ashi redeems him in turn, liberating him from his despondent loneliness and invigorating him with new purpose.

6-hope and despair

After this, Jack and Ashi continue to progress backwards to recover a sense of purpose. Ashi confronts and defies her “Mother,” killing her to save Jack’s life. Jack, who lost his sword after using it in a fit of rage and becoming unworthy of it, meditates and enters a spiritual realm where he faces his ghostly past self and regains a sense of balance. While Ashi must sever her ties with the tradition in which she was raised, Jack must reconnect with his: he comes into contact with the three deities who granted his father the sword that can destroy Aku. Jack has lost his heroism by becoming more “modern” – acting less like the old-fashioned hero he was, and more like the world-weary anti-hero we expect from our entertainment these days. It is only fitting that he reclaims that heroism by reengaging with the past, represented by his family legacy and the traditions of his culture.

The romance between Jack and Ashi is the emotional fulcrum on which the show’s final passages turn, and it is realized astonishingly well, with sweetness and real pathos, derived from the tragic irony that Jack is only able to complete his quest to return to the past by coming to love the modern world he must erase, complicating and deepening the show’s core themes in ways that are challenging and haunting. The denizens of Aku’s kingdom are the ones who storm the demon’s fortress to bring Jack aid, and Ashi is the one who, having inherited her father’s powers, returns Jack to the past, where he defeats Aku once and for all, undoing his reign of evil. Samurai Jack’s finale opens with characters from the show’s run huddled around television screens, watching its now-iconic opening sequence, complete with Aku rehearsing his old introductory narration. Everything comes full circle, but when the circle is closed, it ceases to exist, and here we get the sense that Tartakovsky is definitively closing the book on his own creation. Do the characters who help Jack return to the past realize that they are bringing about their own erasure? Jack and Ashi return to the past, where they are to be married in the presence of his parents, but paradoxically, it is the very completion of Jack’s quest that precludes his happiness. “Without Aku,” Ashi realizes, “I would never have existed,” and she fades out of existence in Jack’s arms. Samurai Jack concludes not with a blessedly happy synthesis between past and future, but with their irrevocable split. This poetic reversal that makes for a deeply wistful ending, but a fitting one, speaking to two of mankind’s most primal, contradictory impulses. A series that has spent much of its time mourning the loss of the old, upon returning to the past it longed for, now mourns the loss of the new that it has come to love.

7-ending

Timothy Lawrence

Timothy Lawrence attended the Torrey Honors Institute and studied screenwriting at BIOLA University. He writes essays and fiction, and enjoys reading books, watching films, and discussing both. He is especially fond of the works of the Coen Brothers and George Lucas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *