cartoons

'Samurai Jack' Is Probably the Most Beautiful, Inventive Cartoon Ever

Returning after a 13-year hiatus, the show remains incredible.

by Patrick Marlborough
26 May 2017, 4:21am

In August 2001, a strange animation called Samurai Jack premiered on the Cartoon Network. Created by cartoon auteur Genndy Tartakovsky, the show followed the adventures of a samurai flung into a dystopian future by a demon named Aku. A crossbreed of folk art, classic manga, cyber punk, and Sunday funnies, Samurai Jack was a cartoon like no other. Rich in genre, narrative, and—most noticeably—visual experimentation, the show was a critical wunderkind, winning four prime time Emmy Awards in its original four-season run.

The premise of the show was simple enough—Jack had to "get back" to the past; slay his nemesis Aku; and free the past, present, and the future. However, the show was cancelled before Jack's quest was completed and the show's fans, just like its main character, have been left in purgatory for the past 13 years. But now, finally, the wait to learn how it all ends is over.

On the same day as Twin Peaks new series premiered, Samurai Jack's fifth and final season wrapped up—marking the end of a show that was a masterclass in how to balance fan expectations, story, and imagery. Because Samurai Jack is a powerhouse of visual storytelling. Genndy Tartakovsky has one of the most innovative eyes in animation and film—he is a master of the form.

I remember the first time I watched Samurai Jack back in 2001. Being a 10-year-old kid from Western Australia, I'd never seen anything like it before. The show awoke some atavistic wanting in my brain for the sublime—considered images, story by way of aesthetic, unspoken meaning in mise en scène. It was riveting to have that same childlike intoxication flood over me in the opening moments of the final season.

The cinemascope framing of a pastoral skyline and a stream of fleeing refugees, oblique angles of killer robots, the visceral framing of a shogun road warrior reintroducing us to Samurai Jack through fire and violence. There's simply nothing this visually inventive on television at the moment. Noah Hawley eat your heart out.

Samurai Jack always walked a fine line between macabre meditation on grief and regret, social satire, and overt screwball comedy. In the new season, Tartakovsky dropped us in the deep end, exploring the growing madness of a man kept out of time, place, and self for more than 50 years—stuck in a nightmare of death and escape. Samurai Jack has PTSD, of course he does. And Tartakovsky bring this to us not through internal monologue, or the observations of smarmy sidekicks, but through hallucinatory hellscapes of corpses and slaughter, of a literal schizophrenic projection of Jack's hate and self-pity.

With the new season on Adult Swim as opposed to the kid friendly Cartoon Network, Tatakovsky is able to explore these dark subject matters in ways he couldn't in the original run. But in reality what makes Tartakovsky, and Samurai Jack, so masterful is the total rejection of gratuity. This season was the first time the show had blood, real death, swearing, and dick jokes—yet they are used sparingly, as punctuations, to draw our attention to the passage of time and the growing swell of internal strife within Jack.

Over the arc of this season, which begins with an earned grimness, Tartakovsky slowly reclaims the show's goofiness and the essential hopefulness that's at its core. The show's antagonist Aku (now voiced by Greg Baldwin) remains the show's funniest character, but has fallen into a deep affluenza. Jack's absence has made him idle and bored. He is in therapy, while of course being his own therapist. The first menacing assassin Jack comes across is a sassy jive-talking jazz robot who, in typical Samurai Jack, fashion is as comically appealing as he is terrifying.

Things are grim, but the light still shines through—Aku still used his rotary phone, even though he is halfway omnipotent. The nostalgia creeps in. It never feels exploitative. Call backs and old favourites appear with purpose, fleetingly, comically and tragically. Given all the opportunity to condescend and pander, Tartakovsky refuses, instead expanding on a universe whose vocabulary is spectacularly it's own—whose tone shifts seamlessly, allowing just about anything and anyone to occur without ever feeling forced.

You could come to the fifth season of Samurai Jack totally ignorant of the show's history, plot, and characters and still be left in awe at its unrelenting eye candy. Every frame is part Chinese wood block, Soviet illustration, American Western, French new wave, Japanese manga panel, and post-Anthropocene projection. The original pilot featured Jack being educated all over the world, shifting in art style to match the cultures, and the show made a point of being a kaleidoscopic convergence of pan-human art and storytelling. Whether it was remixing Spy vs Spy or Akira Kurosawa, Samurai Jack was a celebration of empathy by way of artistic expression, a bold call out for cross cultural appreciation, and, ultimately, understanding.

Jack's quest, as is explored in this final season, is ultimately a quest for acceptance. The fish out of water vibe that propelled the first seasons was a means to explore the limits of our willingness to change: Jack, flung into the future from feudal Japan, had to recalibrate his identity and his notions of the "other" to survive in Aku's future. Even his name, Jack, he takes from the slang of a gang of futuristic fuckbois. Ultimately, Samurai Jack is about our willingness to change, as Jack must decide to return to the past or commit to the life and relationships he's built in the future—a time he's ultimately spent more time in.

The repeatedly asks: are we the result of nature or nurture? We see this in Jack but also in this season's new fan favourite, Ashi. Tartakovsky offers no easy answers. It settles on the crux of the eastern philosophies that is so loves to explore: contradiction, uncertainty, emptiness.

I can't think of any reboot or return that has managed to meet, exceed, and expand on fan expectations like Samurai Jack. To travel with this show for 15 years is to travel through questions of grief, doubt, and identity. If you haven't already, you've got to get back to Samurai Jack.

Follow Patrick on Twitter