As I’m working on the final touches for the release of my book DARKEST HOUR, putting together artwork and marketing materials, I decided to rewatch episodes of a long-time favorite from Cartoon Network, Samurai Jack. Jack appeared during an animation renaissance of sorts between Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon Studios’ Avatar: The Last Airbender in the early 2000s. Both series broke with the goofball pattern of most kids’ shows (anyone remember Ed, Edd and Eddie??) and featured a long-running story arc, impressive animation styles, and multi-faceted characters not based on Western European/American influences.
There has been tons of attention paid to Avatar and its follow-up, Legends of Korra (especially the recent revelation of that series’ ground-breaking ending for two of its lead characters.) But I honestly believe Samurai Jack was the first to break new ground on many different levels. Rewatching this series, I’m stunned by Genndy Tartakovsky’s direction and purpose, his clear love of famous old shows such as Kung Fu, as well as Japanese anime and samurai films. Tartakovsky brought tremendous attention to himself with Dexter’s Laboratory and The PowerPuff Girls, both shows featuring his unique, “blocky” style of animation characterization and affection for older TV and movies. I remember an episode of Dexter that was an all-out tribute to Speed Racer, including the fast-talking, run-on sentences, the quirky character tics, and liberal use of familiar sound effects. My son had no idea that what he watching was less a parody than a tribute, he simply found the whole mess bizarre and entertaining.
It’s clear that Samurai Jack was a work of love (and extraordinary hard work) for Tartakovsky and his production company. A pastiche of the classic hero’s quest, Jack is the son of the Emperor of a feudal Japan who barely escapes the treachery and world-dominating evil of the demon shapeshifter Aku (voiced brilliantly by actor Mako Iwamatsu). He trains all over the world to become a brilliant warrior and is given a magic samurai sword to defeat Aku. They battle and Aku is nearly defeated, but the demon propels Jack into the future, forcing Jack to deal with a world (and beyond) completely controlled by Aku and his minions. The rest of the series follows Jack on his quest to get back to his time, destroying evil (usually in the form of robots) and freeing many people whom he encounters along the way.
The best way to put it is in the opening title sequence, voiced by Mako as Aku…
“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!”
The scale of the story speaks nothing to the animation, which is beyond comparison. Whole segments are devoted to gorgeous scenes of wind and trees, Jack’s lone shadow trudging across the terrain, an Aku’s gigantic black spiked totems–symbols of his dominance–lurking everywhere.
The sound is a close to mastery as the art. An episode features Jack blindfolding himself to become better acquainted with his other senses. The artwork and the sound produce imagery of a quiet winter forest that is not quiet at all. Even the snowflakes shatter and scatter like breaking glass.
Then there are the battle scenes. Ripped from Akira Kurosawa and other masters of cinema, Jack battles hordes of robots with insect and other animal characteristics–a common theme among Japanese anime shows like Battle of the Planets. The use of robots is clever, replacing violence against other human beings (a huge no-no for a children’s show) with violence against evil and terrifying machines that ooze metal parts and oil. The combat sequences focus on Jack’s warrior mastery, with slow-motion destruction equal to a Sam Peckinpah movie. Sound effects and speed lines, inherited from Japanese anime shows, focus on the brilliant artistry of dicing a mechanical robotic caterpillar with the precision of a sushi chef. There is considerable humor too, ranging from Aku’s bounty hunters who can’t even get close to touching Jack to the worried inhabitants of a sapient dog culture searching for their canine roots on Earth. Aku himself is a menace beyond reproach, always plotting and tricking Jack, but slowly realizing that no matter what he does, the final confrontation between himself and Jack looms large.
But this is not the point of Jack’s story. His quest reveals Jack’s nature and his spirit: his resolution to protect others while searching for peace and completion. He is naive, often tricked by Aku as the demon snatches away chances for Jack to get back home to his past, that he relishes the brief moments of solitude and friendship with those he encounters. We see moments from Jack’s childhood where he comes to understand patience, acceptance and the unforgiving nature of that which he cannot control.
This is a very different storytelling take than say Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, where questions of power and politics blend together into the storyline’s massive seasonal arcs. There are almost too many characters in Avatar and Korra, too many factions vying for the Avatar’s skills and time. Samurai Jack is a story of one noble spirit and how the decisions this one character makes affect the people and even the very landscape around him. I find myself eagerly queuing up the next episode, binging on Jack‘s funky music and landscapes. This is a remarkable show and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for something different.
More about Samurai Jack and its artwork: http://www.rabbleboy.com/the-sweet-sharp-stylistic-art-of-samurai-jack/
And on another note, you may see this website undergo an Aku-like transformation (hopefully, not evil). I am gearing up to showcase DARKEST HOUR, including new and amazing artwork from Daryl Toh and even me. Stay tuned!