Connect
To Top

The Inventiveness and Grace of Samurai Jack, Part 4

[This is the fourth and final part in a series leading up to the release of the new season of Samurai Jack on March 11. You can find Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.]

Sometime around April of 2004, the news started to spread around the internet: Samurai Jack had been cancelled. Forty-eight episodes had aired, and four still remained, produced by Cartoon Network but shelved (at least temporarily). It was sad to see a beloved series go, but at the very least, the network could share the finale with everyone, as a fitting farewell, right?

The shock of the cancellation didn’t fully take hold until those final four episodes did air in September of that year. The epic, cross-history, world-encompassing struggle between Jack and Aku was always meant to end in equally epic fashion, but episode fifty-two came and went, with no battle, no time travel and no resolution whatsoever.

Before we get into the post-Jack world, allow me to finish what I set out to do. As I said in the first edition of this column: there may have been no nine year-old kid in the world who was more custom-built to love Samurai Jack, and yet, due to an inexplicable swirling of circumstances, I didn’t watch it.

But just yesterday, I finally finished the series. It almost seems unfair, honestly. Many fans have been waiting almost thirteen years for the premiere of season five; I’ll have waited for two days. I’ll never reach the frenzy of an original Jack fan, for whom this Saturday will forever be a religious holiday. But even for me, the hype is unbelievably real.

To get to tomorrow’s premiere, though, we first need to finish our look back. The final season of Samurai Jack’s original run is an interesting hodgepodge of the show’s strengths and weaknesses. While it is a little less consistent than previous seasons, it still features some of the best work the show has ever done.

It begins with one of the series’ most visually enchanting episodes, “Samurai vs. Ninja.” Jack is hunted by a skilled shinobi hired by Aku. The two face off in an abandoned tower full of wooden support beams. The criss-crossing beams cast dramatic shadows, with the sun streaming in through windows above.

The ninja, dressed completely in black, deftly uses the shadows to conceal himself. Cue Jack: “Shinobi. Warrior of the night. Trained to use the darkness of the shadow. I know your arts as well. But I have been trained to use the light.”

Jack changes his classic gi into a tight-fitting, full-covering ninja outfit, only white. We then witness one of Samurai Jack’s best fights: when Jack is in sunlight, he’s invisible, and when the ninja is in the shadow, he is invisible. The two trade blows and chase each other in and out of the sunbeams, with only one of them visible at a time. It’s truly stunning to watch, and is a perfect example of the creative powers of animation.

The next episode may be the series’ most disappointing, based on the promise of its premise. Jack fights a giant, city-destroying kaiju robot and loses, before being recruited to pilot a giant samurai-shaped mecha of his own.

The concept of giant robots piloted by humans is one of anime’s best and most-used formats, and the thought of Samurai Jack entering that realm sounded incredible. But the battle itself was actually very boring. One robot stood and shot guns and missiles at the other, who just stood there as well. For the clearly-talented action animators working on Jack, it just felt like a wasted premise.

The next two episodes were relatively minor as well. Jack first has to teach a lesson to a weird, annoying wannabe samurai, and then Jack is infected by Aku’s essence, slowly turning into a strange Aku-Jack hybrid. This episode has some fun aspects, and the initial Jack-with-an-Aku-arm is very Princess Mononoke, but it resolves itself in pretty standard fashion.

“The Princess and the Bounty Hunters,” the season’s fifth episode, begins a trend for the fourth season of focusing the narrative on characters other than Jack, who simply enters their story. It’s not something new to the series, but the fourth season uses it more than any other, and to better effect.

It’s the story of a group of notorious bounty hunters, each of whom wants to claim Jack for themselves. When one of them reveals herself to be the princess of a land terrorized by Aku, who plans to use Jack as leverage to help her people, the episode is given its emotional core. The bounty hunters eventually agree that Jack is too strong to fight individually anyway, and that working together is their best shot. They spend the entire episode preparing an intricate plan to take him down.

bh

Samurai Jack is often a study in patience. It’s one of the most distinctive stylistic aspects of the series. Sequences take much longer than you expect them to, whether it’s repeated shots of Jack chopping up robots, or a single, lingering take of a character’s face that won’t ever seem to cut away.

In this episode, the bounty hunters have to lie in wait for Jack to arrive. The sheer length of this scene puts us, as viewers, right into the bunkers with them. You even eventually start to wonder: will Jack actually show up? Isn’t this episode almost over?

But Jack shows up. Oh, does he ever show up. A drip of water falls free from an icicle, Jack dispatches all of the bounty hunters with brutal grace, and the water droplet lands on the ground. It’s a perfect visual for the immense effort that’s been wasted on trying to take down Jack, and one of the show’s coolest moments.

We then get a two-parter, featuring the final return of the Scotsman. The Scotsman sees a man who looks exactly like Jack (apart from his outfit and his nonchalant, surfer-dude accent) on a ship. The man, who claims to be named Brent Masterson, says he has no idea who this “Jack” is. But the Scotsman is determined that it is in fact Jack, who has lost his memory.

The Scotsman basically kidnaps this man, who at first I genuinely thought was not Jack, and takes him on a journey to discover what happened. We find that three sirens, in an area of the ocean known only as “The Great Unknown,” have been luring sailors (and Jack) there and hypnotizing them, wiping their memories.

The Scotsman is immune to their lilting, beautiful song, though, citing his love of his wife’s voice, and playing the bagpipes to awaken Jack and the sailors from their stupor. Once the sirens are defeated, the sailors abandon Jack and the Scotsman on the island with only a rowboat.

Then we get the final version of the classic Jack/Scotsman dynamic: insistence on doing something for the other (in this case, rowing the boat). They take part in a series of competitions (racing, rock throwing, jumping, and eventually thumb-wrestling), all of which Jack wins, and the episode ends with Jack happily rowing the boat home.

Season four of Samurai Jack also inexplicably leans more heavily on Star Wars references than ever before. They’re prevalent throughout, but the next episode, “Jack and the Flying Prince and Princess (The Winged Children),” is a full-on, direct homage to the films, from the escape through an asteroid field to quotes like “aren’t you a little short for a demonic minion?”

It’s a fun episode though, with Jack posing as one of Aku’s henchman in order to rescue some crash-landed alien royalty. You can do much worse than emulating Star Wars if you’re looking for an exciting plot.

In the absence of a true series finale, the next episode, “Jack vs. Aku,” is the closest thing we have to a final showdown (which may have been on Cartoon Network’s mind when they initially cancelled the show at this episode, before airing the final four episodes almost a year later). It’s also the first baldly meta episode, with Aku lamenting the circular nature of their encounters, wishing there’d be an actual resolution.

humanaku

Jack and Aku decide to duke it out, without any help from either magical swords or superhuman powers. Aku’s odd-looking human form is fun, and the fight has some good moments. But, you guessed it: Aku starts to cheat, and tries to steal Jack’s sword. But nowadays, Jack is too clever for that sort of scheme: he’s hidden countless fake swords around the place, before revealing the real one.

But, in a completion of the circle and a fulfillment of the episode’s own premise, it ends with a mostly defeated Aku flying away and declaring, “I’ll be back, samurai!” Dare I say, Jack’s gotten a little too complacent about this sort of thing? Shouldn’t he try and chase Aku or something? Oh well. I guess the fact that he doesn’t is sort of the point of the episode in the first place. The cyclical fight between good and evil never truly ends.

The next episode is the best example of the several mini-stories format that the show has tried before. It’s called “Seasons of Death,” and features four different tales of perils Jack encounters throughout the year. In true Samurai Jack fashion, each of the stories is creative and distinct enough to be fleshed out into its own full episode, but the short format is a bit of a refreshing change.

Then we get to the best episode of season four, “The Tale of X-9.” As I’ve said before, one of the best types of Samurai Jack episode is the full-commitment genre parody. We’ve seen western, 1930’s gangster flick, and haunted house horror, among others. “The Tale of X-9” tackles science-fiction noir.

It’s the series’ only episode with only one voice acting part, and it’s not Phil Lamarr’s Jack. It’s the brooding, suit-wearing killer android X-9. Born to enact Aku’s evil on Earth, but installed with an experimental emotion chip, X-9 sits solemnly in a car in the pounding rain and tells his sad story.

He refers often to his one true love, “Lulu, sweet thing,” before we realize that it’s a small, grinning pug. X-9 left the life of professional crime, which he more than excelled at, after meeting the little dog. One of the absolute funniest shots in the entire series shows a relaxing X-9, wearing a white undershirt, playing the blues on a trumpet at home while Lulu sits happily nearby.

x9

Aku kidnaps Lulu to compel X-9 to kill Jack, and X-9 feels he has no choice. “I hate the rain,” he says, while preparing to return for one last job. It’s a pitch-perfect parody of the super-serious, depressing noir genre.

X-9 and Jack have their showdown in an old, abandoned robot factory (“kind of ironic, eh?” X-9 muses sadly). This is also where the show’s policy of replacing real villains with robot villains in order to avoid gory violence has a real emotional payoff: X-9 is eventually killed, and as Jack walks away, he says his last words: “Lulu. Take care of Lulu. Sweet thing.”

The best part about “The Tale of X-9” is this: while it is very funny as a parody of noir, it also genuinely uses the noir conventions for an emotionally compelling, stylish story. It evokes Cowboy Bebop in its future-city, rain-pounding, science-fiction noir animation, and that’s always a good thing. Even though it features almost no Jack, it’s the best episode of the season, and one of the best in the whole series.

“Young Jack in Africa” goes back in time to tell one story of Jack’s childhood training. He’s taken in by an African tribe, and eventually uses their training to save them from another group who sought to kidnap Jack on behalf of Aku.

There’s something that ought to be said here: Samurai Jack is not the best show when it comes to cultural sensitivity. It could be a lot worse, but every once in a while, there’s a blatantly Apu-like Indian accent, an exoticized portrayal of indigenous peoples, or an over-the-top, stereotypically loud black character that doesn’t sit right at all. Hopefully, the new series, this many years later, will do better on this front.

Now, we’ve arrived at the final episode of the show’s original run. Unfortunately, it’s a forgettable one: Jack happens upon a baby, who he tries to return to its parents. A lot of crying ensues. Jack tells the baby the story of Momotaro, which takes the episode in an interesting stylistic direction, but it doesn’t last long, and Jack eventually finds the parents and returns the baby.

How could it end like that? Well, thankfully, it doesn’t. For years after the show’s cancellation, there were discussions and even promises by creator Genndy Tartakovsky that a Samurai Jack movie would be made to finish the story. It never materialized, until finally, during a gap in Tartakovsky’s busy career (directing the animated features Hotel Transylvania and Hotel Transylvania 2), he decided to try and make a miniseries.

The new series will be on Adult Swim, which is Cartoon Network’s adult-and-teen aimed programming block, which means: Jack will feature some actual blood this time around. I’m undecided as to whether or not that’s a good thing; restrictions often breed creativity, but I also want the creators to be able to tell whatever story they really want to tell.

Samurai Jack is one of the quintessential episodic cartoons, and that means it’s full of variety. The best way for me to consider what I’m hoping for from the new season is to try and think of which episodes from the original series I like the best. And so, here you have it, in chronological order, my ten favorite episodes of Samurai Jack:

  • Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie (I, II, II). This is sort of a cheat, since it’s three episodes in one, but the first two episodes in particular set the tone and scale of the series in a beautiful way.
  • Jack and the Three Blind Archers (VII). This is a real fan favorite, and for good reason. It’s one of the show’s best action episodes, with some high stakes and amazing visual flair.
  • Jack and the Gangsters (XII). The show’s first big foray into genre parody features Jack in a sharp pinstripe suit and fedora, pulling off a jewel heist while battling the literal elements of Earth, Wind and Fire. It’s totally unexpected and great.
  • Jack and the Ultra Robots (XVIII). An example of the more serious, pure-action vein of Samurai Jack, and Jack wears an augmented robotic arm. The finale is one of the show’s best action sequences.
  • Jack in Egypt (XXXI). An inspired combination of religious mythical imagery and flashbacks, the episode has intense action and a visually gorgeous finish.
  • Jack and the Traveling Creatures (XXXII). The episode with the most to say about how Samurai Jack may eventually end. A prophesied future-Jack will someday be able to beat the Guardian, who Jack loses to in this episode. Will we see it in the new season?
  • Jack and the Haunted House (XXXV). It’s the show’s most visually surprising and distinct episode, with a number of genuinely unsettling moments.
  • The Birth of Evil (XXXVII, XXXVIII). A two-parter that feels key to the story, revealing how Jack’s father played a part in the birth of Aku. Ancient gods, magic swords, and Jack himself is born.
  • Samurai vs. Ninja (XL). It builds to a truly stunning battle between black and white that is basically unmatched in the whole series.
  • The Tale of X-9 (L). A near-perfect genre episode that plays its references for laughs, but also for heartfelt moments and a sad ending befitting a noir.

 

So, we finally made it. I loved Samurai Jack, and couldn’t be more excited to watch the new season. The improved, modern graphics make the animation even crispier, and the darker tone should fit my preferences just right. The trailer is below, in case you’ve not yet checked it out. Thanks for tagging along with me on this journey, everyone, and tune in this Saturday at 11:00 PM for the premiere of Samurai Jack season five.

 

WATCH: SAMURAI JACK SEASON FIVE TRAILER

More in Comics/Animation