While I did see one or two episodes of Samurai Jack when it originally aired some 15 years ago on Cartoon Network, I could never really get into it. It was too much for my younger self – too weird, too artistic. Watching it now, it’s clear to me why it was cancelled – it was too good. Sure, it’s not a high-brow, avant-garde piece of art that only the initiated can appreciate, but its frequent reliance on visual storytelling, featuring little dialogue and a slow rhythm, are, I imagine, the main reasons why it wasn’t so popular with the kids. Dark humor and distinct edginess probably didn’t help either.
I think I wasn’t the only one who grew up on Cartoon Network and rediscovered Jack years later, because, according to its creator Genndy Tartakovsky, the show has been recently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. It seems that Adult Swim has also recognized this, because they recently announced that they would be airing the fifth and final season in 2016. This has brought great joy not only for me and my friends (we’ve been re-watching all four seasons these days), but also for the Internet, which is filled with hyped posts and comments.
Samurai Jack. Photo: Cartoon Network Studios
The story of a samurai in a grim steam-punk future, on a quest to rid the world of a shape shifting master of darkness that is the demon Aku, was a journey I wasn’t prepared to embark on. Nowadays, I am impressed with the show for the very same reasons I was put off earlier. I am now bored with art that speaks to us like we’re dumb, verbally explaining everything; telling us, not showing. Samurai Jack treats us with respect.
At the same time, it is extremely entertaining. Most episodes are standalone, portraying the various obstacles Jack encounters while he’s roaming the Earth. The many action scenes are usually imaginative and original, and always stylish. When Jack, a force of light, fights the Ninja, a creature of shadows, he is invisible while he stays in the lit areas of a house where the battle is taking place. The same goes for the Ninja, who cannot be seen under the cover of darkness. We do not view this scene in color, but in monochromatic black and white, until the Ninja is defeated and everything reverts to normal.
What is particularly impressive is the fact that, often, I was sure that, this time, Jack would surely not triumph. It seemed impossible that he would cleanse the haunted house of the evil that lurked there, or that he would manage to defeat the Mondo Bot. But he did.
While the show has a relatively sombre mood, it is often lightened up by the dark jokes. One entire five-minute segment shows the making of an ultimate sword crafted by a tribe of Norse warriors. They cool the sword in a block of ice, a chained dragon heats it up and a lighting finally strikes into it, making it complete. The warriors fight to death for it. The strongest among them claims the sword and waits for Jack. Upon his arrival, one blow from his katana smashes the sword into pieces. Leaving the warrior humiliated, Jack, without a word, continues his never-ending journey.
The characters are also colorful and interesting, both the good guys and the villains. The most popular of Jack’s allies, and rightfully so, is the Scotsman. He’s ferocious in battle and he loves his friends and hates his enemies with equal intensity. In one episode, he is the only member of a ship crew who is immune to the song of the sirens they encounter. Instead of succumbing to their charms, he insults them until they can’t take his insults anymore.
While there are a lot of pure evil minions of Aku, there is also a number of morally ambiguous villains. The Princess of the Andaluvians fights Jack for the freedom of her people; the fairy of the woods traps him because she wants him to stay there forever, and so on. These characters always end up defeated, but essentially unharmed.
Samurai Jack is pure eye candy. Though the animation is somewhat simplistic, I was constantly blown away by the impressive shots. The Blade Runner homage episode is hands down the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in animation. Moreover, the direction is rather cinematic and inspired. One episode has Jack facing the three blind archers. In order to unearth the secret they guard, he must fight on their level. He puts on a blindfold and thus begins his training. At first, the screen is completely black, but as his hearing gets better, more and more scenery fills up the scene. This goes on until we are presented, in slow motion, with closeups of snowflakes that break like glass upon touching the ground. Jack is ready.
Not everything is perfect. While the fights against the main villains of the episode are usually interesting and imaginative, the ‘non-boss’ battles can become repetitive after a while, and some of Jack’s allies from the first season are too silly and childish. Still, it is obvious that this is a labor of love, a series created by smart and talented people who made a show they themselves would want to watch.
I still haven’t mentioned the best thing about it, though. Samurai Jack abounds with profound and valuable life lessons. Jack is the mightiest warrior in the world not only because of his deadly fighting skills, but also because of his wisdom. He is kind and powerful. This power comes from within his mind, his heart, his soul. In one episode, he is infected with Aku’s disease, which slowly spreads throughout his body, making him evil. At one point, he even slays a group of cute squirrel-like creatures. For Jack, the greatest protector of all that is good, this is horrendous. A single tear drops from his eye, the only part of his body that is not corrupted by the infection. But he is not alone. He experiences a vision of his parents, who remind him of all the people he had helped before. His fortress is strong. Deep within his heart, Jack manages to defeat the inner Aku, and is cured.
These life lessons can be very inspiring. A few weeks ago, I had too much alcohol. After vomiting twice, I was lying in bed, completely drained of energy, when I thought it would be a good idea to have a glass of water. I then remembered how Jack managed to ascend the skyscraping Mountain of Fatoom, despite almost dying of hunger and tiredness beneath its snowy peaks. Using my last remaining atoms of energy, I got up and drank some water. Then I vomited that too. But that is not Jack’s fault.