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The Inventiveness and Grace of Samurai Jack, Part 2

[This is the second part in an ongoing series leading up to the release of the new season of Samurai Jack on March 11. You can find Part One here.]

 

Jack, the quiet, wandering samurai, can’t seem to catch a break. He continues his desperate odyssey, searching for a path to the past, in the second season of Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack. Season two originally aired between March and October of 2002.

Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack doesn’t have a long-form, unfolding narrative across seasons. It also doesn’t use the popular format of self-contained episodes framed by plot-heavy season premieres and finales; here, the episode order could be completely jumbled up and still make sense.

And much like the first season, this means that while some episodes verge on skippable, others are truly emblematic of the thrills that Samurai Jack can provide at its best.

The first episode of season two is the aptly titled “Jack Learns to Jump Good.” Samurai Jack episodes typically follow one of a few different archetypes, and this one falls under the simple template: Jack meets a friendly group of people who need his help, and he helps them.

Formulaic does not equal stale, though, as this episode proves. It’s a fun time, and as Jack teaches his new friends all manner of Return of the Jedi-like war tactics, he also learns something new himself: how to “jump good.” By the end, he’s flying high in the trees.

This episode is actually very representative of the show as a whole, for a few different reasons. One, it feels like the whole plot of a film compressed and condensed into 20 minutes, with only the key elements remaining. Prologue, meeting of the characters, training sequence, the big fight, epilogue- it’s all there.

The other way that “Jack Learns to Jump Good” represents the show as a whole is with its ending. For context: the episode begins with Jack battling an army of robotic beetles toward what appears to be a portal in time. But before he reaches it, Aku himself pulls it up into the air, and Jack finds himself unable to jump high enough to enter it.

After the events of the episode, once Jack has learned how to jump high, we see Jack again battling Aku, who holds in his hand the time portal. But this time, Jack’s jumping ability shocks Aku, who exclaims, “You can fly?” Jack replies, in the parlance of his teacher, “No. Jump good.” Cut to: the famous “Watch out,” and Jack’s eyes, signaling the episode’s ending.

It’s a fun, full-circle thematic end to the episode, but not a satisfying story ending: what on Earth happens after Jack succeeds in jumping high enough to reach the portal? Why wouldn’t this be the end of the series, with Jack going back in time to defeat Aku? We’re to assume that for some other reason, Jack failed yet again?

As frustrating as it is, it just goes to show how the world of Samurai Jack works. Jack is not only trapped in the future, but he’s narratively trapped in a Groundhog Day sort of loop, where any progress that was made is reset in the next episode. This is how a true, purely episodic series operates, and it can be a benefit as well as a hindrance.

But, we don’t have forever, so on to the other episodes of the season. “Jack Tales” is another edition of the several mini-stories format, which is fun but fluff. Jack then gets the Gladiator treatment, having to fight his way out in an episode with some impressive action. Jack again meets the Scotsman, who enlists him to help rescue his kidnapped wife.

Then we reach another highlight of season two, “Jack and the Ultra-Robots.” For my money, there’s nothing better in Samurai Jack than an action-packed melding of genres. Jack is up against eight killer robots that have been designed with every method of assassination in mind and brought to life with Aku’s own smoky, black aura.

Science fiction, as a genre, often conjures up narrow images of spaceships and phasers, but one of the genre’s strengths is its ability to incorporate other generic elements. In this episode, Jack is given a robotically enhanced arm by the killer robots’ regretful inventor, in order to cut through their hard shells.

ultrabot

Jack faces them in an Old West style standoff, before dispatching each of them in turn. Until the arm stops working with one robot to go, that is. Jack, facing death, calls upon his ancestors to give him strength, and from the clouds above, they imbue his magic sword with a glow that allows him to finish the job.

The action animation is terrific here, as it often is (I’ve included a clip below). We’ve already seen Jack in a number of different outfits, including spacesuit and pinstripe suit, but the robot arm and samurai sword combination is one of the coolest looks yet.

One more point about this great episode: I haven’t yet mentioned the clever way that this kid’s show gets away with a hero who slices and dices his enemies with a katana. Every bad guy Jack does away with via his sword is actually a robot, so we hear metallic crunches instead of bones breaking.

This episode in particular loves to play with the concept. The robotic assassins leave a trail of destruction behind in order to lure Jack to them. We see them decimating cities, including gruesome head-explosions and body cleavings. Only, the heads are robot heads, and the blood is black oil.

In several episodes, by the end of the dramatic battle, Jack is fully covered in this black “oil.” It’s a super dramatic visual that is clearly meant to communicate the level of bloodbath Jack is causing.

In the next episode, Jack happens upon his homeland. It’s a beautiful and poignant episode in which he has a series of flashbacks to his childhood: learning to stand up to bullies, playing in the golden fields with a girl, and being inspired by the actions of an adult samurai.

“Jack and the Monks” is the story of Jack scaling an impossible mountain, while egged on by a strange group of monks. The treacherous peak is full of monsters and blizzards, and we get a relatively rare glimpse at rock bottom Jack. He nearly gives up, before a lightning-flash montage of his life reminds him of the importance of his journey.

All that really needs saying about the next episode is in its title: “Jack and the Farting Dragon.” Although, to be fair, even this absurdly light premise becomes a fun journey when Jack enters the dragon’s body to search for the cause (of the farting).

The last really great episode of season two is its ninth episode, “Jack and the Hunters.” While most episodes build up to and culminate in a big battle sequence, this one is pure chase scene. Aku hires the galaxy’s best hunters, lion-headed creatures called the Imakandi, to capture Jack. They spend the entire episode chasing him, and eventually succeed, but find they have too much respect for him to hand him over to Aku.

hunters

Samurai Jack, the series as a whole, takes place in just about every setting imaginable. I tend to prefer the foresty, rural, natural episodes typically. But this one, which takes place in the dark, industrial, modern cityscape, uses its environment better than perhaps any other episode. From sewage pipes to elevators to the peaks of skyscrapers, it’s a creative and compelling chase.

This episode also takes the opposite approach of many previous. Normally, Jack fights hard and gets extremely close to achieving his goal, only to fail. But this time, Jack’s efforts are in vain, he fails, almost losing his life, before his hard work pays off in the form of respect from the very hunters who captured him.

As a kid, I was a huge Godzilla fan. Bear with me for a moment here. I loved and watched every Godzilla VHS I could get my hands on, and it still wasn’t enough. So I started to write and draw my own Godzilla stories. The bad guys I invented had cheesy names and the fights had cheesy resolutions, but I had fun.

The next episode felt to me like the fan-fiction of a nine year old. I’m not exactly sure why this episode rubbed me the wrong way so much, but for whatever reason, it did. Jack faces off against Aku’s “most powerful minion” (why did he wait so long to use him?), whose name is Demongo.

Demongo has a pretty disappointingly basic design: guy in cloak with sinister smile. But his voice performance (done by legendary voice actor and Samurai Jack mainstay Kevin Michael Richardson) is so completely and utterly over-the-top that I truly could not handle it. It’s screeching evil henchman in the vein of Starscream, but somehow more annoying.

My own issues aside, Demongo’s tactic is using the “essence” of warriors he has imprisoned within him, who Jack fights and eventually frees from Demongo. Demongo returns, having failed, to Aku, who squashes him in his hand, which felt just about right.

The next episode, “Jack is Naked,” leans fully into the creators’ frequent penchant for the fantastic. It finds Jack, whose clothes have been stolen, in a super-colorful city, wearing first a stereotypical robber costume (complete with eye-mask and big burlap sack) and then a dress and blonde wig while searching for his own clothes. If you’re a fan of the psychedelic Alice In Wonderland realm that Samurai Jack occasionally ventures into, this is the episode for you.

Samurai Jack then returns to its basic strengths in “Jack and the Spartans,” an episode based on the Battle of Thermopylae, as told in Frank Miller’s 1998 comic series 300. The episode aired four years before the popular Zack Snyder film adaptation. Jack helps the 300 Spartans defend their land against a seemingly endless army of robots. Where are all these robots coming from, by the way? Will there be an episode where Jack goes to a giant factory for robotic beetles? I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Season two closes much in the same way that season one did: with a light, comedic episode. “Jack’s Sandals” is the story of, you guessed it, Jack losing his sandals, and then trying on a number of different, modern shoes in their place. The bad guys in this one are motorcycles that can transform into humanoid shapes to fight (heavy emphasis on Transform). Jack eventually finds a Japanese family who can recreate his original sandals, with which he easily does away with the off-brand Transformers.

My take-away from season two is this: when Samurai Jack keeps it simple (“Jack and the Ultra-Robots”) while still being creative, nothing can touch this show. When it goes for slightly more complicated, less conventional stories, there’s no telling how the episode will turn out. It could be as weird and frustrating as “Jack versus Demongo, the Soul Collector,” or it could be as fascinating and compelling as “Jack and the Hunters.”

As ever, I’m excited to keep watching, for any number of reasons. I want to see if it the story remains as episodic as it is (I’m assuming it will), and if so, which episodes will really be standouts. I felt like we saw a little less of Aku himself in this second season, although that could just be because we saw much more of him than I expected in the first season. What new, increasingly contrived tricks will Aku have up his sleeve? And what dramatic splitscreens will Tartakovsky and company use when Jack inevitably slashes them to smithereens? Samurai Jack is a great time, so tune in again soon for Part Three.

WATCH: CLIP FROM “JACK AND THE ULTRA ROBOTS”

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