Back in the 90’s when Cartoon Network was just a small channel surviving on endless Hanna-Barbera repeats, they took their first steps into original content with a shorts program designed to find talent. And talent they found — Genndy Tartakovsky, fresh out of college, who over the next few years blessed us with some of the best cartoons of the time period: Dexter’s Laboratory, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Sym-Bionic Titan and Samurai Jack.
Tartakovsky toons are some of the most well-directed in existence. He knows how to effectively use pacing, wide shots, pans and other tricks to pull you into a scene. He can punctuate a gag with perfection or make an action scene take your breath away. And it was a sad day when CN declined to renew Sym-Bionic Titan and allowed Tartakovsky to get away. He’s survived directing Hotel Transylvania films ever since, but it’s not the same. What’s most smarted about this was the fact that Samurai Jack was never fully completed.
So what about Jack needed resolving? Well, I’ll let a certain raspy-voiced demon emperor explain it…
Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an UNspeakable evil! But a FOOLISH Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is AKU!
If you’ve never seen Jack before, this is all you need to know. Because the show was made long before serialized storytelling was allowed, most episodes of Samurai Jack (besides the first three) can be watched in any order. A typical adventure involved Jack hearing about a way home, only for Aku to destroy it by the time he got there. Jack saved a lot of people in the future, but he never truly “won” in the bigger scope of things, and it’s that missing victory that has made the series feel incomplete.
Thankfully Mike Lazzo, who oversaw Cartoon Network back in the early 2000’s, still oversees it today. And when Tartakovsky completed Hotel Transylvania 2 and had some time to kill before movie #3, his phone call to CN was answered. According to Genndy, production on the log-overdue Season 5 of Samurai Jack began a mere two weeks after he and Lazzo first chatted.
So, as the promos on Adult Swim have stated over the past month, Jack’s Back. His story will be concluded in a ten-episode season, the first of which aired last weekend. Did the waiting pay off?
I’ll say. Though thirteen years have passed, you’d hardly know it (aside from the high definition and the widescreen). Tartakovsky’s old style was instantly recognizable and hasn’t aged a day. All the Jack-isms were present in this episode: the lavish painted art style, the artful use of blank space and shifting aspect ratios, the killer action scenes, and most importantly, a sense of humor.
Jack is one of the few shows that can pull off a moment of sheer craziness followed by a somber dead-serious tragedy — and then something crazy again, and have it all flow seamlessly. The big fight of the episode is Jack vs. Scaramouche, a robot patterned after Sammy Davis Jr. that fights not just with weapons, but with musical instruments and his own scatting voice. He uses both at the same time when he pulls out a double-bladed dagger that doubles as a lethal tuning fork, flattening metal with the sheer waves of audio. Did I mention he’s voiced by Tom Kenny?
This is the kind of bad guy Jack often had to face, but it never distracted from the action at all. Scaramouche is ridiculous, but he’s still a serious threat and he puts Jack in a bind for much of the battle. Jack’s difficulty fending the bot off is partly due to losing his sword, as we learn from a brief flashback. Presumably we’ll get a lengthier explanation later, but for now, all we know is it fell down a hole.
More than just the loss of his blade is affecting Jack. He frequently has nightmarish visions of the villagers he hasn’t been able to come home to. The time period of this new season is fifty years after the previous one. Aku has largely succeeded in keeping Jack in the future, and due to the nature of his curse, Jack cannot age, so he’s faced with the daily torment of letting the people of his time down. It’s dark stuff, and treated as such, but the crazy robots are there to balance out the tone.
It’s the beginning of something we haven’t seen in Samurai Jack since the pilot: an arc. These ten episodes will be connected, and we’ve already seen something that will become a bigger problem in a future episode: the Daughters of Aku, seven warrior women raised and trained from birth to destroy Jack. People were worried about the Adult Swim timeslot leading to a mature content whiplash, but Tartakovsky (why is a master director, remember) only pushes the boundaries when necessary. The only indicator of the TV-14 rating is the brief blood spray that comes out of one of the Daughters’ attacks (there will be more, however….AS pretty much used every bloody scene they could find in the promos and trailers).
As for the Big Bad, we only hear Aku briefly and don’t actually see him. His voice comes out of a smartphone (which they always had in Jack’s future, we just never saw one). His role may be reduced due to the passing of the voice-actor legend known as Mako, who gave voice to Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender as well (and Splinter in an underrated CG Ninja Turtle movie). Mako died in 2006; Greg Baldwin took on the roles he left danging and voices Aku here as well.
We should all feel very grateful circumstances allowed Tartakovsky to return and finish up the Samurai Jack series this late. We should be grateful the return episode holds up and shows promise for the unseen nine. We should also be grateful its home channel is giving it the promotion it deserves….witness how CN is handling Justice League Action. If you haven’t even heard of that show….well, that proves my point.
The next new episode of Samurai Jack will air at 11 PM this Saturday on Adult Swim.