Talk to anyone of school age in the nineties, and they’ll lay so much nostalgia on you, it might be nauseating. The millennials are invading your tumblrs and buzzfeeds with “OMG, xx is twenty years old now!” and “Random things you forgot about from the year 19XX”. Chances are, a lot of those things don’t hold up.
In 2001, Genndy Tartakovsky created Samurai Jack, a show based on a samurai warrior thrown into a dystopian future by the demon he is sworn to defeat. Unusual for a cartoon at the time, Samurai Jack relied on a more cinematic approach to storytelling, using scene changes, a dramatic score, and visual cues to tell the story in addition to dialogue. In fact, some episodes rely less on dialogue and more on visual, lending the show to easy translation for other markets.
Despite being intended for children, Samurai Jack appeals heavily to older teens and adults. The references to Japanese and Hong Kong cinema are evident (counting the nods to Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro character makes a good drinking game), but it has plenty of Western references as well. Jack is trained by a variety of cultures including the Greeks, Englishmen, and Vikings; and several episodes feature plotlines based on well known aspects of mythology. A favorite episode, “Jack and the Lava Monster”, features a ferocious volcanic warrior whose only wish is to rejoin his kin in Valhallah, and needs to die in battle to do so. It’s a spectacular fight, and Jack agrees to help out of honor as opposed to vanity. The scene at the end where the Valkyries carry the warrior home is very touching.
There’s no lacking in the humor department, either. “Jack is Naked” throws Jack into Alice in Wonderland as he tracks down his clothing, “Chicken Jack” turns him into a cock fighting rooster, and the season 1 finale, “Aku’s Fairy Tales” has Aku trying to convince children that Jack is evil through folk stories. I laughed until my eyes watered, especially when the voice actors exaggerated their characters.
Tartakovsky and his crew also found an excellent way to keep the violence of the samurai genre intact- the majority of Aku’s henchmen are robots and wisps, therefore Standards and Practices has no problem with Jack smashing the hell out of them. One of the best scenes from Jack’s first battle in “The First Fight” is when he takes on a hoard of robotic beetles; after slicing one in half, Jack ends up covered in blood, I mean oil.
Rewatching Samurai Jack now, ten years later, it still keeps me entertained. I forgot how wonderful the score was- it blends sweeping orchestral music with the synthesizer sounds that define the future, and gives wordless action sequences that extra punch. Aku, voiced by the late, great Mako, is the perfect antagonist. Blending ferocity with an over the top performance, Mako gave us one of the best villains of 00s cartoons. I really want the rumored movie finale to come out, but it’s going to be one tough challenge replacing him.
In all, Samurai Jack is a perfect addition to any animation fan’s library. It doesn’t show its age like many cartoons, and despite its lack of an ending, it can entertain for hours. I wholeheartedly recommend giving it another look. You can catch Samurai Jack on Adult Swim starting in February. Happy watching!