Samurai Jack – Retrospective & Review

In order to properly review Samurai Jack’s fifth and final season, we need to go back.

 

Back to the past.

 

13 years ago, from a distant land, director Genndy Tartakovsky unleashed quality children’s entertainment! But a foolish network executive with a magic calculator stepped forth to oppose him. Though the final blow was struck, Tartakovsky moved onto other beloved projects, such as The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Now he seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is lacklustre animated television!

 

Spoilers follow.

 

I can’t profess to have been a ‘huge’ fan of Samurai Jack as a kid. Occasionally I caught an episode, and enjoyed it for the over-the-top action and clever humour – features that hold up to this day – but how could I have savoured its minimalist, expressive animation, references to Kurosawa, and excellent sound design? I didn’t know what those things were. But the show aged like fine wine, and when, early this year, Adult Swim announced a fifth and final season of Samurai Jack – after 13 years! – I was as hyped as everyone else.

 

…Not having watched every episode, it turned out, was no detriment. The plot is simple, and the main character’s goals never change: long ago, a primordial evil named Aku escaped from his prison. A young Japanese boy was sent to travel the world, learning various martial arts, so he could one day kill the demon. As a man, he acquired a magic sword – the only thing capable of killing Aku – and hunted down his sworn enemy; but before he could strike the final blow, Aku hurled him far into the future, where Aku has already conquered the world. Taking the name ‘Jack’, the samurai must find a way back to the past, kill Aku, and prevent this doomed future from ever occurring.

The episodes didn’t really follow a continuous plot. Each week, Jack would face a fresh challenge: one of Aku’s minions, or a two-headed serpent that speaks in riddles, or a figure out of myth. Sometimes Jack would come this close to his goal – returning to the past – only to have it snatched from him at the last second.

 

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To grasp what the show was, and what it accomplished, we can focus on the mostly-wordless Episode VII: Three Blind Archers. Here, Jack has heard rumours: a wishing well atop an impregnable tower. If he reaches the well, he can return to the past.

The episode begins by defining, very clearly, the threat. A machine army attacks the tower, hoping to steal the well for its own use. Three mouse-like archers emerge between the battlements and return fire, destroying machines with such speed and efficiency that, before long, the entire army lays defeated.

The opening establishes two things: first, Jack’s task will endanger his life; and second, brute force is not the answer. This underlines a key theme in Samurai Jack: brains before brawn. Though Jack is a powerful warrior, he is a mere human in a world of magicians, monsters, and robots. He must overcome adversity through wit and improvisation, as much as sheer skill. This kind of positive message is valuable in children’s TV, especially when competing with shows as morally dubious as Ren and Stimpy or Billy and Mandy (I just realized that makes me sound like a Christian Moms Against [Blank] group). Though those shows made it obvious their main characters are awful, their behaviour pathetic and reprehensible, it was nice to have a righteous hero solving problems via righteous methods.

Jack finally encounters the archers, and nearly dies trying to reach the tower. He retreats, considers his options, and recalls a lesson from his training – how to fight blind, based on sound alone. He has not tried this for a long time, and needs to work of the rust; so we are treated to a beautiful piece of animation, from Jack’s point of view, as he dons a blindfold and just…listens.

 

The forest sounds flood in: the scuffing of a deer’s hoof, the drip of snowmelt from the branches, the rustle of birds’ wings. With each new sound, Jack ‘sees’ a little more. At last, he is ready to take on the archers. Approaching the tower once more, he charges, dodging incoming arrows by the sound of their flight. He climbs the tower, battles the archers, and tricks them into shooting each-other; thus undoing their curse.

As it turns out, the wishing well is a living, evil being that will grant the wisher’s every desire…for a grave price. Jack is torn, visibly in despair: he has come so far, and after everything, he is faced with a hideously unfair choice. He could be selfish, and wish to return to the past – he would certainly be willing to give his own life, and become bound by the well, if it meant saving his future; but he can’t be sure the well would even grant his wish, instead of sending him to, say, the Palaeolithic era. With only the slightest hesitation, he makes the righteous decision – destroying the well, and saving the three archers. Though Jack’s adventures are often humorous, and constructed to entertain children, its themes are mature, and remarkably striking to an adult audience. Jack wanders the ‘future that is Aku’ alone, constantly reminded of what was, reaching for a goal that always seems just beyond his reach. He makes things better for individuals, but there is always more suffering.

 

Samurai Jack asks the question, “How can goodness exist in a twisted world?” And the world is twisted, practically a character in itself. Utilizing simple shapes and evocative colours, the landscapes Jack passes through give a chilling sense of space and history: ancient, broken robots become mountains; evil towers rise above blackened craters; giant ships rust in red harbours. Without saying a word, the art direction is able to convey what the show is better than any dialogue or action ever could. The world’s decay represents Aku, and its dignified beauty represents Jack. In Samurai Jack, every image draws us deeper into the story-world, makes us more invested in the outcome – an outcome that would never arrive.

 

Until now.

 

Samurai Jack Season 5: the final ten episodes, bringing closure to Jack’s story. With a higher budget, more seasoned staff, and an 18 rating, Tartakovsky had the freedom to do whatever he wished. From the first episode, however, the impression given is restraint, or at least channelling artistic freedom into all the right places. The environments are more densely detailed, but retain their simplistic shapes and dreamlike beauty. The animation feels weightier, and though Samurai Jack has never been realistic, we get a better sense of Jack as a human being: fifty years have passed, and though he has not aged, the years have taken their toll. He now sports a beard, wears his hair loose, and rarely smiles. Indeed, the first half of this episode is almost worrying – is Tartakovsky taking the ‘darker and edgier’ route to his storytelling? Where’s the Jack we know and love? After losing his magic sword, turning away from a town under attack, and enduring screaming visions of his ancestors, we get a definite sense that Jack has changed. After fifty years of meaningless wandering, having seen – and prevented – countless atrocities, he no longer sees the value in saving everyone. Even if he does, there are millions of people elsewhere who will not be saved, and his actions will be nothing more than a blip on a grand scale of suffering.

When he goes to help the town, it is from guilt instead of righteousness. He arrives to find the townsfolk massacred by a robotic, high-heels-wearing assassin named Scaramouche, who speaks in song and…controls swords by…scatting.

Ironically, here, at Jack’s lowest point, we see the show return to form. Though Season 5 deals with heavier subject matter, the light-hearted humour and creativity have not gone away. Our re-introduction to Aku, Master of Evil and destroyer of the world, is when he groggily answers Scaramouche’s phone call. This tonal shift is so in-keeping with ‘old Jack’ that it is impossible not to laugh. Tartakovsky knows what he’s doing, and the show’s revival is in safe hands.

 

I won’t go into more detail. If you haven’t watched Season 5 yet, but want to, this is where the review ends. I heavily recommend it. From here on, I will go into HEAVY SPOILERS.

 

 

If you’ve watched Season 5, you know what the good parts are. I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss some things I, personally, disliked about the revival.

 

A lot of people dislike Ashi’s character, or even the fact that Jack gets a romantic subplot. I have no issue with this – I quite like Ashi, as a counterweight to Jack’s character. Jack already recognises the beauty in the world, and its importance amidst the ruin and decay, but through Ashi we rediscover this beautyIn her travels, she meets many of the people Jack has helped, the cultures that have risen up or become free thanks to his actions. Through this, we know that Jack’s heroics did have meaning – a realization that is rewarded in the final battle, when these allies unite in an assault on Aku.

Ashi gives context to Jack’s redemption, and creates a situation wherein Aku is undone by his own pride and arrogance – a running theme throughout the show.

However, I felt that Ashi’s plot was geared toward tragedy from the beginning – she was designed to die – which leads to my main problem with Season 5…

 

Timelines.

 

In the final episode, Ashi gains the powers of her father, Aku, and uses them to give Jack what he always wanted – a one-way ticket to the past. Jack destroys Aku before he can become all-powerful, returns to his homeland, and asks Ashi to marry him. During the ceremony, Ashi dies because, if Aku never conquered the world, then Ashi could never have existed; reflecting on a previous episode, when Jack said he didn’t want Ashi to become “Just a memory.” Jack is distraught, but eventually realizes that, despite everything, he has saved billions of lives, as well as nature itself, so he does not regret his actions.

 

I’m…conflicted about this ending. Concluding with Aku defeated, the world saved, and Jack content, realizing the dream he has harboured for so long, is a lovely idea; but Tartakovsky seems to ignore the implication.

 

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If Jack returns to the past, and annihilates the ‘future that is Aku’, then what happened to all those allies, all those people he saved in the future? To me, it seems Jack stole away their right to self-determination, by making it so they never existed in the first place. The old archers and their children; the Woolie tribe Jack rescued from enslavement; even the Scotsman, Jack’s greatest friend – all gone. I get that Tartakovsky is trying to make a point about memory being important, but couldn’t that work both ways? Instead of denying the suffering, joy, and general life experiences of all who came after Aku, couldn’t he focus on healing that world?

 

Even at a moment’s thought, I can come up with a better ending: the timelines are split. Jack defeats Aku in the past, while Ashi defeats him in the future. Both worlds are saved, and Jack and Ashi act as guardians of each. With this, you get the same bittersweet feeling – Jack and Ashi can’t be together anymore – while saving everyone, and validating all the struggles that came before.

You may argue this makes no sense, in terms of time. If Aku is defeated in the past, how can Ashi defeat him in the future? Well, Tartakovsky evidently cares little for the principles of time-travel in the first place: why didn’t Ashi vanish instantly when Jack killed Aku? So they could have a tragic ‘goodbye’ scene. Instead, why not fulfil Jack and Ashi’s character arcs – Jack can achieve the goal he aimed for since the very first episode, and Ashi can truly throw off the shackles of her father. And they lived happily ever after, in the memory of each-other; sad that they may never meet again, but happy for the worlds they have improved.

 

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