The final episode of the final season of Samurai Jack airs tonight on Adult Swim. After a slog through depression and hallucination, a comeuppance and a love story, Jack's narrative arc is drawing to a close, creator and show runner Genndy Tartakovsky tells Creators. This means that so is the story of the Dark Lord Aku, arguably one of the most memorable animated villains of all time.
Aku was originally voiced by award-winning Japanese voice actor Mako Iwamatsu, who died in 2006, two years after the original Samurai Jack series on Cartoon Network ended. In Season 5, we see mostly the understated, creepy side of Aku, as voiced by Greg Baldwin. "50 years of Jack has left him—in some ways he's as damaged as Jack is, because he just can't make Jack go away," Baldwin tells Dot and Line. "It's literally driving him crazy." Both actors' flamboyant performances, coupled with the Samurai Jack team's gripping visual style and dry humor, has made Aku into an icon of evil for evil's sake—utterly heartless, but also relatable.
"Uniqueness," is how Tartakovsky expresses the most important characteristic of his villains to Creators, ranging from Aku to each episode's baddie du jour. Each starts as a jumble of sketches, plot ideas, and vintage pop culture influences from classic sci-fi or Japanese television. Demongo, a crowd favorite from Season 4, was born from the straightforward visual of a "head on fire." The idea for a demon who collects the souls of great heroes and uses them to fight others like Pokémon was built out from there.
The Moscow-born, New York-raised director/producer specifically cites Spectraman and Battle of the Planets—which originally aired in Japan as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman—as wellsprings of villainous inspiration. A recurring henchman from the new episodes, Scaramouche, is rooted in "characters with boots and raincoats and stuff like that," from Battle of the Planets, primarily the show's big bad, Zoltar.
Tartakovsky says the inspiration for Aku is rooted in another terrifying-yet-bewildering villain: Ming the Merciless from the 1970s Flash Gordon serials. "There are a lot of overlord type characters who aren't as interesting," the 47-year-old filmmaker says. "Ming is so creepy and weird and understated. I liked that more than an over-the-top kind of character."
Ming's indulgent wardrobe and red-tinged palace is a dead ringer for Aku's fiery lair, and his weakness for dramatics is also mirrored in Aku's many downfalls at the end of Jack's blade. In fact, Jack and Flash Gordon share a number of similarities as well, both honorable to a fault and plunged into strange lands far from home.
Japanese cinema's influence on all of Tartakovsky's work is apparent, from the giant monster battles of Powerpuff Girls to the giant robot fights of Dexter's Laboratory. These films and shows are cheesy by Western standards, but they're unique—Tartakovsky's prime value in a villain. John E. Petty articulates the common thread between Tartakovsky's influences in his 2011 dissertation for the University of North Texas, Stage and Scream. He traces the fantastical, wires-on visual style of Japanese film, also the bedrock of Flash Gordon, back to woodblock print paintings, and the stylized costumes and rigid structure of kabuki, noh, and bunraku theater.
"While much of Japanese art takes natural settings, places, and events as its starting point, the emphasis has never been on a slavish recreation of reality," he writes. "Instead, Japanese artists value such qualities as suggestion, perishability, irregularity, and simplicity."
Aku represents anything but reality. His name literally translates to "evil" in Japanese, the definition of a concept too pure for the complexities of real life. His speeches and gestures also recall the intentionally exaggerated performance and makeup of kabuki. Looked at from this perspective, Aku's true origin could be a Japan none too different from the pastoral kingdom Jack fights to resurrect in the show.
However, Tartakovsky's visual samples more rhyme with his influences than repeat them. Scaramouche's silhouette mimics Zoltar's, but his twists and turns—telekinetic scatting, an exploding knife, and the ability to walk around without a body—are purely the product of Tartakovsky's gut. Aku may have decorated his lair from the same catalogue as Ming, but he's still a sliver of cosmic darkness fallen to earth, not a mere mortal tyrant. Like the films of Quentin Tarantino, part of Samurai Jack's appeal is how its creator artfully alludes to the stories he loves, but makes them his own. "Everything that I've ever made in my life is from my instinct," Tartakovsky sums it up.
After the book shuts on Samurai Jack tonight, Tartakovsky says he has no interest in reviving his other popular franchises. Instead, he's looking forward to exploring the unfamiliar characters and worlds languishing in his sketchbook.
The series finale of Samurai Jack airs at 11 PM tonight on Adult Swim.