Earlier this year, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Cartoon Network animated series Samurai Jack concluded with a fifth and final season after a twelve-year hiatus. I never saw the series during its original run, although I was dimly aware of it by reputation, and experienced flickers of vague recognition whenever I saw the titular samurai or his demonic nemesis, Aku. Recently, in the throes of a sickness and desiring some light entertainment, I decided to try watching Samurai Jack – at which point I was promptly hooked, and devoured the entire series in a matter of days.
Although I did not watch much television as a child, I get the impression – perhaps unjustly – that animated children’s programming tends to be cheap and simplistic, prone to cutting corners, aimed at the lowest common denominator. If this is a rule, surely it has exceptions, and surely Samurai Jack is chief among them. What Tartakovsky has crafted here is an expansive visual marvel enlivened by an imagination that seems nearly boundless.
The plot is a minimalistic affair, its drama hinging on only two major players. A young prince (Phil LaMarr) is the sole escapee from a slaughter of innocents perpetrated by the shapeshifting Aku (the late Mako). After training for years among different civilizations across the globe, the samurai returns home to defeat the demon and set his people free. In the ensuing confrontation, he nearly proves victorious, but the wily Aku hurls him through a time portal into a disorienting future dystopia. The setup has all the simplicity of a fable. Indeed, it is uncomplicated enough to be rehearsed in half a minute at the beginning of every episode:
“Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shapeshifting master of darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword, stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past and undo the future that is Aku!”
It is a straightforward story, but not a thin one, deriving a great deal of elemental potency from the stark contrasts at its core. The samurai – arbitrarily named “Jack” by a trio of bystanders upon arriving in this brave new world – is essentially good, and his nemesis essentially evil, yet it is the nemesis who always has the upper hand, while the hero must always struggle to survive. The world of Samurai Jack is fundamentally good and beautiful, yet so thoroughly corrupted that the hero’s only hope of redeeming it is to reverse the passage of time. Aku has an unlimited supply of minions at his command, yet Jack is a profoundly lonely hero, entirely bereft of allies in his Sisyphean quest to undo Cronos’ devouring work.
The strength of this central dilemma carries Samurai Jack through about fifty episodes that have no semblance of a continuing plot. After an initial trio of episodes loosely strung together into a “Premiere Movie” (about as much a film as three kids in a trenchcoat are an adult) and before a more conventionally serialized revival season, the bulk of the show is comprised of completely independent twenty-minute vignettes that vary wildly in tone and content. They can be watched in any order, or in isolation. There are certain elements that tend to recur – Jack trying to best such and such adversary in combat, or navigate a series of obstacles to reach something or other – but for the entirety of its sixty-two episode run, Tartakovsky’s series stubbornly refuses to settle into a formula. Instead, it constantly reinvents itself with new tones, forays into new genres, innovations in form, and distinctive structural choices. Every time I thought I had a handle on what Samurai Jack was doing, it would wriggle out of my grasp and surprise me, all the way up to its very last minutes.
A contemplative journey in one episode (“Episode XXXII: Jack and the Traveling Creatures”) gives way to a showcase of surrealist cartoon humor (“Episode XXIV: Jack is Naked”) in another. The show ranges freely from epic battles (“Episode XXV: Jack and the Spartans”) to genuinely terrifying horror (“Episode XXXV: Jack and the Haunted House”) to daring structural experimentation, such as “Episode XLIX: Four Seasons of Death,” a brilliant set of vignettes themed to the four seasons.
I mentioned earlier that kids cartoons tend to cut corners, and this is often done by reusing and recycling animation. Nothing of the sort occurs in Samurai Jack. By nature, nothing of the sort can; virtually every single episode deploys entirely new characters and new settings, always vividly designed and rendered, and often lingers on them with a patience quite unlike the frenetic pace that characterizes so much animated storytelling. The show is remarkable – perhaps primarily so – as an exhibition of aesthetics. In a piece for Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz argues that narrative is incidental to Samurai Jack’s appeal. Instead, he writes, “I re-watch [episodes] for the same reason that I visit art museums, attend live concerts, and pause during journeys from point A to point B in New York to watch dancers, acrobats, or street musicians: because I appreciate virtuosity for its own sake.”
Samurai Jack is remarkable for its excellent sound design – for the way it knows the value of silence, and the way it will go for lengthy stretches of time without music or dialogue, telling its story with the sound of a breeze or the chatter of insects. It’s remarkable for its stunning animation, its use of vivid colors and clean compositions, and the designs that evoke familiar memories while feeling wholly new. Perhaps it’s most remarkable for its action sequences, which are kinetic and lucidly choreographed with a keen sense of geography. It is easy to imagine these kinds of swordfights becoming stale and repetitive, but one of Samurai Jack’s most striking virtues is its ability to consistently paint itself out of that corner, keeping its set pieces fresh, distinct, and memorable.
Tartakovsky sometimes does this by imposing limitations on himself. In “Episode VII: Jack and the Three Blind Archers,” the samurai blindfolds himself to adopt the perspective of his enemies, and the ensuing wordless battle hinges on heightened, isolated sounds and the images that accompany them. Elsewhere, Tartakovsky introduces surprising emotional dimensions. In “Episode X: Jack and the Lava Monster,” the samurai’s defeat of the titular monster frees him from a curse, revealing a decrepit, aged warrior who is promptly swept up to Valhalla by Valkyries descending from the heavens.
As the show goes on, it finds increasingly inventive ways to stage its battles. Consider the formal daring of “Episode XL: Jack vs. the Ninja,” in which the samurai and his opponent are dressed, respectively, in all white and all black. The color drains from the frame entirely as the two fight their climactic duel through a landscape of sunlight and shadows rendered solely in black and white.
Moreover, while Samurai Jack is a show that hinges on combat, it is remarkable for the way it eschews excess in favor of restraint. The patience with which it builds to its fight scenes recalls the classic cinema of westerns (Sergio Leone) and samurai films (Akira Kurosawa). Two especially notable examples occur near the end of the show’s run. The first, “Episode XLIV: The Princess and the Bounty Hunters,” follows six warriors who join forces to lay a trap for Jack. For almost its entire runtime, the episode follows their preparations, building anticipation for the inevitable confrontation – which lasts for just over thirty seconds, as the samurai dispatches all six opponents in the time it takes a droplet of water to gather at the end of an icicle.
The daring “Episode L: Tale of X49” also breaks the show’s mold by sidelining Jack for almost the entirety of the episode, instead following the gruff, film noir-inspired narration of a doomed robot hitman who has been blackmailed out of a happy retirement to hunt Jack. Much of the episode is told in grainy, sepia-toned flashback, detailing the robot’s growing dissatisfaction with life as a killing machine and burgeoning ability to feel human emotions. Jack only appears in the episode’s final minutes to supply a conclusion as abrupt and tragic as those of the films the episode pays homage to.
Television shows, by their nature, tend to be geared towards the small screen. (Consider, as a cautionary tale, the disastrous IMAX premiere of Marvel’s new Inhumans show.) Samurai Jack is different. Tartakovsky paints in big, bold, cinematic strokes, lingering on vistas and creating images that are epic in scope. I would love to screen every one of these episodes in the biggest theater imaginable.
“Gotta get back… back to the past… Samurai Jack!”
As sparse as its story is, Samurai Jack is not a shallow show. Its themes are rarely verbalized in dialogue – the place most of us are inclined to first look for them – but they run deep. After the fourth season concluded, Tartakovsky was hired by George Lucas to direct the series of animated Clone Wars shorts (also excellent), and it’s easy to see why. The opening phrase of Samurai Jack‘s introductory narration, “Long ago in a distant land,” even recalls the beloved blue text that opens every Star Wars film: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Lucas, perhaps, recognized a kindred spirit in Tartakovsky; both artists work in the language of lovingly crafted pastiche, drawing from both the modern popular culture of their childhoods and the more ancient sources of myths and legends. Both are preoccupied with exploring the relationships between tradition and modernity, bringing the old into conversation (and often conflict) with the new. It is easy to imagine the significance these strained connections hold for Tartakovsky, the son of Jewish parents who left Russia to immigrate to the United States. In light of this, it comes as little surprise that the show is so attuned to its hero’s sense of dispossession and displacement, its nostalgia coming from a place of aching yearning that is both similar to and quite different from Luke staring at the binary sunset. (Jack frequently quotes Star Wars, sometimes more blatantly than others, and often to humorous effect.) The theme song’s refrain, “Gotta get back, back to the past,” begins to feel less like a mere catchy jingle and more like a thesis statement. The repeated image of the samurai framed as a stoic still point among the swirling concentric circles of modernity is also a good indication of where the artist’s enduring interests lie.
It is no accident that the first innocents Jack aids in his quest are archaeologists, whose very profession is to seek answers in the past. (It may be less significant that said archaeologists are anthropomorphic, British-accented dogs.) Nor is it accidental that Aku’s futuristic dystopia recalls Blade Runner as much as 1984, or that the vast majority of the enemies Jack faces are machines who gush oil instead of blood when dismembered. In “Episode XXVIII: Jack and the Rave,” one of the show’s less nuanced swipes at modernity, the thumping sounds of electronic music brainwash children and sever their relationships with their parents.
In “Episode XXVI: Jack’s Shoes,” the finale of the second season, the samurai’s traditional sandals are destroyed by a comically repugnant biker gang. Modern footwear proves to be a comically insufficient replacement, but the scenario comes to an unexpectedly sweet conclusion when Jack finds a traditional Japanese family secreted away in a quiet corner of Aku’s hellish cityscape. They share a peaceful meal with him and make him new sandals. Elsewhere, the show leans more explicitly on nostalgia in the tender and wistful “Episode XIX: Jack Remembers the Past.” Samurai Jack is an uncommonly patient show in general, but this is an especially quiet episode, as the samurai finds the ruins of his home and reminisces, in flashback, about a series of vignettes from his past. This episode narrows in on the emotional center of the series: the loneliness of an anachronistic hero trying to find his way in the chaos of a future he doesn’t understand.
Samurai Jack concluded its original run in 2004 without offering any closure to its plot. At the end of the last episode aired, Jack was still trapped in a future under Aku’s rule. The closest the first four seasons came to a resolution was in the season one finale, “Episode XIII: Aku’s Fairy Tales,” which opens with children reenacting Jack and Aku’s battles on a city street. Aku, realizing that he is losing the hearts and minds of his denizens, sets out to recapture them by an act of storytelling, gathering them together and telling a series of fairy tales, skewed to paint Jack in a villainous light. In the end, however, the children are unconvinced. They wrest control of the narrative from Aku and supply it with a more traditional conclusion wherein Jack defeats his nemesis – who, perfectly, takes the form of a dragon, that most iconic of fairy tale villains. This is not a textual resolution to the overarching story of the show, but it is a thematic resolution of sorts.
The battle between Jack and Aku is symbolic of the conflict between good and evil, between tradition and modernity, but it is also framed as a conflict between narratives that shape their audiences. Samurai Jack is largely unironic in tone, but it is self-aware and self-reflexive, commenting on its own place as a work of art aimed at the formation of young people. It is telling that Aku’s time portal issues from his mouth, as if it is verbal in nature – and it is also significant that Aku is the one who supplies the opening narration to every episode. The amorphous demon is less formidable as a physical opponent than as a force of ideas, shaping the world around him. It is almost as if Jack and Aku spend the series fighting for the microphone, so to speak. Here, Tartakovsky addresses that conflict, offering the hopeful conclusion that children can see through Aku’s lies, accurately perceive what is good, and look forward to its ultimate triumph over evil.