Review: Samurai Jack

After a 13 year hiatus, the story of a samurai lost in the distant future comes to a stunning conclusion.

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The Lowdown:

Show: Samurai Jack

Network/years aired: Cartoon Network, 2001-2004 (initial run), 2017 (season 5)

AniB’s thoughts: I had originally planned to write a encompassing Jack review as early as late 2015, nearly 2 years before I started this blog (at the time of this writing), but with the announcement and subsequent return of the Cartoon Network- turned Adult Swim classic, I put it on hold. Mind you, it was going to be a favorable look back on the original 4 seasons in which Jack faces “the Shogun of Sorrow,” Aku, and is flung into the far future, where the events of the show unfold, just like it is now, but with a great deal of fresh thoughts and material in the wake of 10 frentic, beautifully animated, well-written episodes that finally put to rest the very last of the Cartoon Cartoon series. (Previously, this distinction was held by Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, which concluded with Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy’s Big Picture Show, the finale movie, but with Jack’s revival, it claimed the belt- in all likelihood for good.)

(SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP TO THE GRADED SECTION IF YOU WISH TO AVOID.)

The finale of this show, for better or worse, will be talked about for a long time, and while my initial reaction was that the show could have used 20 more minutes, it was satisfying on the whole, bittersweet and fitting in the end. Jack made it back to the past, Aku was finally defeated, and as for Ashi…we’ll get to that in a second. The episode was crammed with cameos, callbacks, and perhaps the greatest troll job Aku’s ever pulled in playing the original Samurai Jack intro to the world in announcing he’d captured the samurai. We also got at least one last meeting between the Scotsman and Jack, and that was wonderful- but another question worth wondering, “was it all a dream?” Because as Jack looks out up the beautiful valley at the end, it might as well have been- for nobody in the past truly knew the suffering, pain and struggle it took for Jack to save them all and change the course of history.

As for Ashi, she was Season 5’s most notable addition. She had an entire character arc crammed into the course of 10 episodes, and despite the horde of Jack’s past allies, Ashi stands out and does so well.  Slowly, she becomes Jack’s romantic interest in a total 180 from her intial role- an assassin of the “Daughters of Aku,” a cult that worshiped Jack’s mortal enemy. As it turns out, her “Daughter of Aku” title was no mere nickname, but literal- as in quite the twist, she was quite literally Aku’s daughter…which made for a very interesting endgame. Being part-Aku, it was she who was able to create the portal to the past…but in the process of “undoing the future that is Aku,” she undid herself from existence. (It was quickly pointed out the similarities of Ashi’s end to Nia from Gurren Lagann, and so Jack is our Simon here- he saved the world, but couldn’t quite save the one he loved, and that enough qualifies the bittersweet ending as exactly that.

Not to be forgotten in any analysis of Samurai Jack are the four seasons that defined the show from its original run (and what would have comprised a complete review prior to the revival season.) As the show was in Cartoon Network hands at the time, it was designed to be far more episodic with some recurring elements and characters, and it was during this period in which several staples of the series were established, as well as the bulk of the show, from the mask-free animation style that remains striking (and slightly updated, though still the same 13 years later) to many memorable characters, most notably the Scotsman, a trash-talking firebrand of a man with a machine gun for a peg leg and Jack’s equal in combat.

The original seasons also served the purpose of building the world in which Genndy Tartakovsky was able to build a convincing dystopian future- one that had plenty of Aku’s evil influence, but also parts yet not ravaged by the evil overlord. In saying that, the idea of “hope”- or lack thereof, as the 5th season appeared and Jack came to fight his inner demons- is pivotal to the thematic aspect of Samurai Jack, and without it, it couldn’t possibly be the show that it is, nor would we have received the ending we got.

On one other specific note for season 5, Scaramouche, the self-proclaimed “Aku’s #1 assassin, babe!” became a fan favorite, starring as the main episode villain in the first new episode after 13 years (XCII), and after his defeat against Jack, went on a quest to inform Aku of the samurai’s missing sword. (Unfortunately for him, his info was outdated in short order).  Noted for his scatman inspiration and fast-talking mouth, he was a likable villain worth mentioning, considering his dark humor and attitude brought some levity and action together into the grimmer interpretation of Samurai Jack. And as his catchphrase goes, “That’s all, babe.”


Animation Quality: A unique 2-D animation, mask free (so no outlines). Season 5 featured a refreshed, upgraded version of the original style, which took the show to another level aesthetically. Samurai Jack is a dazzling array of environments, characters, and circumstances. It features fluid action sequences, and most importantly, is able to successfully convey the story with its settings and animation. They did a marvelous job- both during the original run, and through the final season.  4.75/5 points.
Characterization: Jack himself is a wonderfully simple but complex protagonist, who is continually developed as a character in every episode during the original seasons as the stoic samurai. In the 5th season, he is forced to confront despair and fading hope head on, and so the darkness he fights is not only Aku’s, but that of his own heart. Unparalleled in combat and trained to the peak of human perfection, his goal is to return to his home in the past and defeat Aku.

 

Aku, the self proclaimed “shape-shifting master of darkness,” is masterfully voiced by the late Mako, who brought the character to life in the first 4 seasons, and is carried on by Greg Baldwin in the final chapter. Unspeakably evil, but also outlandish and humorous, Aku is the incarnation of “chaotic evil” in a character and seeks to only bring darkness and despair to all. Interestingly enough, Aku has somewhat of a human side in his remarks and jokes, but it’s limited to that- he’s unafraid to smite anyone who annoys him or he deems a threat. The mortal enemy of Samurai Jack and his father, the Emperor, he vows to destroy the samurai to break all hope and cement an eternal reign.

 

(I already commented on Ashi from season 5 in the spoiler section.)

 

The rest of the show features a quirky, interesting group of characters, with the occasionally recurring one (the Scotsman comes to mind). As the show is primarily focused on Jack’s development, it does this very well, often letting the animation action convey Jack’s personality with an economy of spoken words.  The writers also are successful at making side characters episodically interesting. 4.5/5 points.
Story quality: Beautifully scripted, epically varied in its narration, and ever focused on Jack’s character development and the situations he’s put in, it’s perfect in the first 4 seasons. With the shift in tone and format the 5th season brought, a tightly scripted narrative arc told hold over 10 episodes and while the pacing feels arguably rushed to an extent at the end, the ending is still mostly fitting and remarkable.  4.5/5 points.
Themes: A classic story of good and evil, but done with the sort of complexity developed through Jack (and Aku) that really grabs one’s attention. There’s a focus on the test of one’s limits, and the belief in overcoming the odds for a good end. Everything the show explores, it tends to do well at thematically. “Hope” especially is focused on as a theme…and the struggle to keep that flame alive really becomes prevalent as time goes on in the narrative.  4.5/5 points.
Don’t insult the viewer: A gorgeous show, Samurai Jack is a stellar achievement in animation and writing. It was wonderful to see it come back and receive a proper conclusion after many years, and it was well-worth the long wait. 5/5 points.
Total Score: 23.25/25 (93%). Genndy Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Samurai Jack is a triumph of Western animation and perhaps the finest of the old Cartoon Cartoons lineup on Cartoon Network. Masterfully inspired by many different animated styles and themes before it, the story of a lone samurai in his quest to defeat the ultimate evil continued to age gracefully up into its revival season, and then finished the tale with a satisfying conclusion.


Like what you see? Still in awe over the Samurai Jack finale? Leave a comment!

The Return of the Critic: AniB’s End of Semester Blowout!

Hey everyone,

It’s been a while since I’ve regularly posted, and while I’ve slipped in a few articles here and there (see the Easter special, or the revised top 10 list), I haven’t had a new review or “thought piece” for a while. So, with my final semester of undergraduate work finishing up, I have a big week of reviews and material I’m looking forward to sharing with everyone! Here’s the schedule:

5/21: Review: Samurai Jack (the final season will end the night before!)

5/23: Review: Assassination Classroom (Ansatsu Kyoushitsu)

5/25: Random Episode Ramblings #1: “Not What He Seems” (Gravity Falls)

5/26: Review: Steins;Gate

5/27: Review: The Huckleberry Hound Show

There’ll be plenty of other material again going forward, but after finishing school and taking a self-imposed hiatus, I’m very excited to get writing again! (And don’t worry- part 3 of the Hunter x Hunter comparison series is coming still!) I’ll also look to potentially slip something else in before the schedule officially kicks off.


Excited to read some new material? Like any of these shows? Curious about any you haven’t seen? Leave a comment!

The Return of Samurai Jack

After 13 years, the samurai wielding a magical sword is back.

He’s backSamurai Jack. Wa-cha!

13 years since Cartoon Network aired what everyone believed was the end of Samurai Jack, a 5th and final season of the beloved series will finally start airing on Saturday night (3/9/17, for posterity’s sake.) Much has been made of this triumphant return by plenty of people across the internet, and the trailers and teasers dropped by Adult Swim (where the series has shifted to for this relaunch) suggest not only the potential for a very fulfilling conclusion, but a far gritter, darker Jack than we’re used to. For once, darker might actually be better. Let me explain…

The original seasons of Samurai Jack were lauded for a variety of reasons, including its unique animation style, narrative and pacing, and that by Cartoon Network standards (even now), it was a rather dark show. However, the network still had certain restraints that handcuffed the show in certain ways: blood could not be visibly shed, language was toned down a bit, and so on. With the new season comes new ideas, and with the shift to Adult Swim, there’s new rules. Chiefly, a 50 year time skip has happened, and narratively speaking, I’d be miffed if this wasn’t the case. Considering the real-world wait for this final season was in fact over a decade, it seems like a nod to the fans of the original production that Jack has grown with us in age- but what exactly went down in the dystopia that is Aku’s world creates a whole new set of questions and intriguing possibilities. As a result, the conscious shift to an older audience really has the potential to unleash the old samurai in ways we’ve never seen before.

For the record, this isn’t just speculation. The sneak peak already showed off some of what we can expect, including the return of the beetle drones as a callback to Jack’s first major battle in the future all those years ago:

While the video alone draws most of the conclusions you’ll need to see, it’s evident that the traditional samurai, immaculately robed in white, has embraced a fusion of his past and present realities. (How he arrived there will probably be far more telling.) It’s nearly unfathomable to imagine Jack on a motorcycle back in the day, when he traveled everywhere on foot, or using modern high-tech weaponry. I suspect he took a page from his old pal the Scotsman on fusion of old and new combat styles…and who coincidentally will be showing up at some point.

There’s plenty more that can be said about Samurai Jack coming back into the lives of many with its first new episode in such a long time, but it also could serve to introduce Jack to a whole new generation that never really knew the original series. Such an idea is very exciting as a way of extolling the potential and unique medium animation offers to tell a story. As for me, I anxiously I await Greg Baldwin’s voice work as Aku, “the shapeshifting master of darkness,” as Mako’s work was iconic. Inevitably he and “the foolish samurai” will have their fated final showdown. Whether that is in the past where Jack is from, or the future where he has had most of his shared history with Aku, remains to be seen…

No matter what you think, the return of Samurai Jack is one of the decade’s more surprising stories in animation; an unexpected twist to a series long thought to be finished, and an ode to quality shows that attracted solid fanbases of many different kinds of people. It’s a ride I’m ready to take…gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack! Wa-cha!


Like what you see? Eager to see Samurai Jack in action once more? Leave a comment!