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Samurai Jack: Appreciating Epic Tartakovsky

The Longbox Theory

jackndarainThe fifth and final season of Samurai Jack went on sale on Blu-ray October 17th, a day after the digitally remastered series premiere from 2001 had its nationwide theatrical debut. The first four seasons of Samurai Jack aired to critical acclaim from 2001 to 2004, but fans waited thirteen years for the last chapter in the titular character’s odyssey, which ran on Cartoon Network this past summer. Though some complained that the series finale felt rushed and were left unsatisfied by the story’s tragic conclusion, creator Genndy Tartakovsky explained it was the ending he’d always envisioned. While it’s understandable why these fans felt cheated (many had hoped for a one hour, two-part conclusion), when viewed as a whole, the entire fifth season is a precise and satisfying ten episode farewell. The pacing and episodic quality of the last season marked a subtle change from those that preceded it. Though there was an underlying story thread and dynamic plot driving the protagonist forward throughout the show’s original run, the individual episodes were generally stand-alone stories. In contrast, the final season featured stories that led directly into one another, developing and building as one cohesive story arc. It wasn’t the two-parter some had wanted, it was a ten chapter story unlike anything we’d seen on television before.

Samurai Jack always featured unique character and set design, visuals stripped down to their essential components, but the final season took the show’s strict aesthetic guidelines to another level. Tartakovsky has always used purely two-dimensional shapes in his designs. There was never an effort to create depth or dimensionality through shading in his work. Shadows exists as highly defined black areas set directly against a pure flat color; he creates a chiaroscuro effect, no shades of gray or halftones. Everything in his frame has a strong silhouette and is rarely outlined; the figures may as well be paper cutouts in that they don’t look drawn at all. He meticulously employs color, precisely set up to portray and elicit particular reactions.

Tartakovsky’s work doesn’t evoke that of other animators or animation styles at all, but instead reflects the historical evolution of fine art. He took a modern painter’s understanding of shape and color, combined with an animator’s talent for creating the illusion of movement, and a cinematographer’s eye for what can be achieved within a frame, and created something distinctive. Not only were the visuals raw and unadorned, but his use of sound followed similar guidelines: What we hear, whether music or effects, he minimizes to basic tonal features that never distract, only enhance what we see. Dialogue is sparse, and never carries the story. Nothing is ever explained with expository writing in Samurai Jack—Tartakovsky is a master of “show don’t tell” and it’s one of the reasons he’s more often compared to Stanley Kubrick than his peers in animation. Kubrick often used a one-point perspective in his frames and used long tracking shots that maintained a single reference point. While it’s true that several of his shots are similar to Kubrick’s cinematic paintings (elements solely moving within the frame as the camera holds a steady gaze), Tartakovsky is a master at moving his camera in myriad other ways to convey action and the scale of a setting. His fight scenes involve sweeping camera moves with few cuts, making them seem more realistic despite their fantastical quality. As a great action-film director must, he respects the geography of his sets and pays careful attention to the flow of the action so that it makes logical sense.

Kid-friendly? That's blood... as well as modern art

Kid-friendly? That’s blood… as well as modern art

Despite being simply a (more or less) kid-friendly animated show, Samurai Jack expanded the language of cinema merging multiple genre film tropes with the technical theories of fine art and the playfulness of animation. Alfred Hitchcock had Salvador Dalí design the dream sequences in Spellbound, but they didn’t filter them through the lens of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Like a master chef, Tartakovsky boiled down and reduced the sauce that is the Samurai Jack aesthetic in the thirteen years between seasons four and five, so that all those particular “spices” and grace notes became sharper, more defined and refined. Whether or not fans enjoyed the conclusion, Tartakovsky showed them things they hadn’t seen before. There may have been a subconscious element to the dissatisfaction with the finale; rather than it being that the end was too hurried, it may have been that fans just didn’t want it to end because they were enjoying it so much. Samurai Jack has a straightforward story that is simple but engaging. There isn’t much room for nuance when you simplify every production element; the main themes are written in bold. However, despite the simplicity (or accessibility) of the story, the show stands out is for its artistic merit.

Animation is a collaborative art form, but Samurai Jack is a personal creation that reflects one man’s specific vision and journey as an artist. To create this particular show, Tartakovsky incorporated details from diverse myths, stories and folktales. He played with the visual styles and designs of various film directors as well as storytellers from other genres, notably comic’s luminaries. He used multiple painter’s techniques and borrowed from movements in the history of fine arts. He blended these ingredients to make something that was unique and only itself—no more, no less and in the end, like nothing else. The show is an homage to things Genndy Tartakovsky loves, things that inspired him and made his art what it is.

Every image in the final season is a painting

Every image a painting

In the end, Jack finally made it back to his past life and true era, and in doing so, unraveled everything his enemy Aku had done. In some ways, he erased all he had achieved as the hero, as well. To become the hero capable of that, Jack had travelled the world, studying with masters in every corner of the globe and incorporating their lessons. Jack’s story metaphorically connects to Tartakovsky himself, his journey as an artist as well as that of the show’s creation. However, having finished his mission and completed the story, everything Tartakovsky achieved through it won’t unravel, as it did for Jack. A singular creator, his creation is unique, so it will live on, inspiring generations to come.
Gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack (watch out!)

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