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The Inventiveness and Grace of Samurai Jack, Part 3

[This is the third 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, and Part Two here.]

 

Samurai Jack is a show that takes its premise seriously. On one hand, it can be a light, often silly adventure filled with magical creatures and goofy side characters; after all, it’s only a show about a man who traveled in time and the over-the-top villain who’s always hatching elaborate and doomed schemes to defeat him.

On the other hand: it’s a tragic tale of a samurai warrior whose entire life was torn away from him, who constantly ends up on the verge of death while on his never-ending quest to vanquish the source of pure evil.

Samurai Jack is both. It’s the rare show that takes its premise seriously, no matter what that means: epic battles, farting dragons, wistful memories of a family torn apart, bouncy tennis shoes, an unflinching commitment to justice. The show leaps back and forth between wildly different tones, but it always feels genuine and truthful.

Season three of the Cartoon Network classic continues this trend. In fact, it almost seems to double down on the dramatic tone shifts, which makes the silly episodes sillier and the dramatic episodes more brutal and intense than ever.

Case in point: the first episode of season three, which premiered on October 18, 2002, tells the story of Jack being turned into a chicken by an irritable wizard. It’s about as goofy a premise as the show has ever put forth.

The second episode is just as ridiculous: Jack discovers a town whose young people have all been hypnotized by Aku at the local rave they’ve been attending. The episode heavily parodies rave culture, with the pumping beats, charismatic DJ and absurd outfits. Jack himself dons a crop top, an orange vest, baggy jeans, a cat-in-the-hat hat, and a baby pacifier.

While the rave episode parodies a subculture, the next episode, “The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful” is a play on the conventions of classic westerns. Western influences have already been seen on the show many times before, particularly in the showdown in “Jack and the Ultra Robots,” but this episode is the first to fully commit to the genre.

Jack boards a train while being pursued by two divorced bounty hunters with the best names thus far in the entire series: Josephine and Ezekiel Clench. And ultimately, who can resist a good face-off on the top of a moving train?

The next episode turns the season in a much darker direction, one that it stays with almost exclusively until the season’s end. The darkness of tone is also visually reflected, as many of the next episodes occur mostly at night, and several use the horror genre as a jumping-off point.

It’s called “Jack and the Zombies,” and as ever, it’s very aptly titled. The first half or so of the episode sees Jack wander into a cemetery before he’s beset upon by countless zombies resurrected by Aku.

“Jack and the Zombies,” while it isn’t the season’s best episode, is still crucial for a number of different reasons. For one, it features the first direct battle between Jack and Aku since the season two premiere. And secondly, it’s the first time Aku realizes that the smartest play would be to separate Jack from the magic sword he wields.

jackaku

Aku steals the sword, and after a long battle, the demon wins, and prepares to kill Jack once and for all. But when he tries to plunge the sword through Jack’s chest, it simply bounces off, ineffectual. Jack then remembers that the sword was forged through righteousness, and can never be used to harm an innocent.

One thing I admire about Samurai Jack is that it allows for Jack to not be an unbeatable fighter. This isn’t the first time he has out-and-out lost, before being saved by some other person or circumstance. Jack is as strong as he can be, and sometimes, it’s just not enough.

This is true again in the next episode, “Jack in Egypt.” Aku frees the imprisoned minions of the evil Egyptian god Set and sends them to kill Jack. The minions are too strong for Jack, who can barely escape alive. We see another glimpse into Jack’s memory, during his visit to Egypt as a young prince. He remembers how to defeat the minions, and sets off on a series of tasks to summon a giant, glowing god, perhaps Ra himself, who vanquishes the evil spirits.

In the following episode, “Jack and the Traveling Creatures,” Jack finds himself being led by a series of ancient creatures toward a portal in time that would allow him to return to his home. When he finally arrives at the portal, it is guarded by a blue, sunglasses-wearing warrior, who tells him that only the prophesied hero can enter.

The two do battle (I’m not talking much about the fighting in this season, but it’s just as nuanced and terrific as ever), and eventually, we can see that yet again, Jack is outmatched. But before he’s dispatched, the glowing portal communicates something to the Guardian, who then spares Jack. He tells the unconscious samurai, “You can’t use it yet, Samurai Jack. Not yet. Not yet.” The portal then shows an image of a future Jack: world-weary, with long hair and graying beard, a flowing red cape, and a crown on his head:

kingjack

Wait one single goddamn second. Did we just see how this show will end? There’s really no other way to read that final scene other than this: someday, in the relatively distant future, Jack will finally be strong enough to defeat the Guardian, and will successfully travel back in time to complete his quest.

It’s probably the most shocking moment of the series so far. Here’s one reason: as long as Jack is the young man that he currently is (presumably for the rest of the original four seasons), we know that he won’t yet have completed his task. Are we to watch the rest of the show, even while knowing that his foretold success is not yet coming?

As I’ve discussed in the previous posts, Samurai Jack is a show so episodic that it actually has a Dory-like memory. The next episode begins and Jack’s journey continues, with us viewers wondering, as ever, if this week will be the time he finally gets it right. It’s a show with no real forward progress. Which isn’t a bad thing, as long as you know what you’re in for.

I have to wonder: will the upcoming new season of Samurai Jack eventually bring us back to this episode? The fifth season is being billed as the final season, which means we’ll get a resolution, one way or another. And if this prophecy is to be believed, we’ve already seen how it ends. Jack does have a beard in the season five trailer, after all.

To offset the unprecedented seriousness of the previous episode’s ending, we then get a lighter episode, one in which Jack befriends a Totoro-like creature who ruins his chance to travel in time, but later saves his life from a gang of robotic greasers. Although this episode certainly counts as skippable, it’s clearly full of creative characters and concepts.

Jack then encounters a disguised Aku, who takes him on a quest to recover the gems of Cronus, the ancient Greek god and father of Zeus. Once assembled, Aku reveals himself, but Jack isn’t as foolish as he seems. Jack knew it had been Aku, and sabotaged the gems in order to ambush Aku. Jack then very nearly kills Aku, who narrowly escapes as a frog.

The next episode is another real standout, “Jack and the Haunted House.” Jack follows a little girl in an attempt to return her doll, and enters an abandoned old house. Once inside, things begin to get strange, as the house rearranges itself and Jack keeps getting violent flashes of death imagery. Jack eventually realizes that the house is haunted by a demon who stole away the little girl’s family. In an incredible sequence, Jack allows himself to be taken by the demon in order to defeat it from the inside.

Apart from the classically scary setting (big abandoned house, creepy little girl), this episode is noteworthy for its stunning animation. When the demon is on screen, the episode reverts to a Japanese ink-based black and white style with heavy, dramatic lines and violently churning animation. The demon itself is a great, horrifying dog-like creature, whose evil, wide-open eyes reminded me of last year’s Shin Godzilla.

demon

During Jack’s initial flashes in and out of the demon-style animation, we also get rainbow-strobing colors and intentionally over-saturated images, stuffed with digital artifacts. It’s absolutely jarring, and it works extremely well as a visual language for the demon. It may be the most interesting thing I’ve seen so far in the show, visually speaking.

In the next episode, we continue the trend of Jack’s past affecting his future, as he discovers a hidden group of Shaolin monks, the order with which he trained as a young man. Two of them help him to the top of a treacherous tower filled with rock warriors, and Jack nearly leaps into a time portal, before deciding that he can’t leave them to die. He returns to save them, and the portal is destroyed by the collapse of the chamber.

At this point in the season, the creators set out on Samurai Jack’s most ambitious task yet: a two-part prequel episode called “The Birth of Evil.” So far, the show’s only other multi-part episode was its three-part series premiere. In truth, you could do much worse with a free evening than to watch “The Birth of Evil,” followed by “Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie.”

It begins at the beginning. A mass of black ooze is seen in space, before a trio of glowing figures emerges to battle it. Try and think of the most mythically epic team you can imagine: Samurai Jack has it beat. It’s Odin, Vishnu, and Ra, three of humanity’s oldest and most powerful gods.

The gods destroy nearly the entire black mass, but a tiny piece escapes. It lands on Earth (as the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, no less) and takes root, terrorizing humanity from its very beginnings. We see cavemen, then the birth of agriculture, and eventually we reach the towering pagodas of Jack’s time.

The land’s Emperor leaves his pregnant wife to do battle with the black ooze. He brings a potion meant to kill the evil, which ends up backfiring. On the surface of the black pool, two small, orange flames ignite: Aku’s infamous eyebrows. Somehow or other, the potion gave birth to Aku himself.

Aku traps the emperor and forces him to watch as he destroys his homeland. An eight-legged horse appears before the emperor, though, and frees him, before escorting him high into the heavens. He then meets Vishnu, Ra and Odin, who tell him that he has been chosen to vanquish the reborn evil, and together the gods forge a magical sword for him to use.

gods

The emperor flies on a cloud (very reminiscent of the Dragonball nimbus cloud) to the site of the devastation, and battles Aku. He defeats the demon, but doesn’t quite kill him, and then returns to find that his wife has given birth: Jack has finally entered the tale.

As far as I’m concerned, Samurai Jack’s best episodes are the ones that really up the scale. The scale of the world, the fights, the consequences, the history; everything seems so much bigger and more important in episodes like “The Birth of Evil,” and it adds a depth and seriousness to Jack’s quest that makes it that much more compelling.

You may have notice that this season is much more preoccupied with the idea of gods and religion than the show had been before. I have always loved the drama and variety of the ancient pantheon of gods, but the way Samurai Jack crosses cultures and religions is completely irresistible. Where else can you see Vishnu’s six arms rapid-firing arrows right next to Ra blasting magic hieroglyphics out of his staff? I love this show.

The final episode of season three is “Jack and the Labyrinth,” and it’s an appropriate close to the season. It combines the lighter, comedic tone of the early season with the deadly stakes and religious imagery of the later season to make a really great standalone episode.

Jack infiltrates a pyramid in order to find a powerful diamond that would allow him to travel in time. He runs into another thief, though: a Lupin III-inspired briefcase-wielding fast-talker, who competes with Jack for the diamond. They have to work together to escape, and the diamond is destroyed in the process.

Season three is the most fun I’ve had watching Samurai Jack so far. I’d already have been very impressed if it even stayed at the same high level of quality as the first two seasons, but in truth, it surpassed them. Obviously, I find it hard to imagine that season four could be even better, but that’s what I thought last time, too, so I’m not ruling it out.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final edition of this column, when I finish watching the original run of Samurai Jack. I’ll list my favorite episodes, and look forward to the new season, which premieres on Adult Swim on March 11.

 

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