Samurai Jack 5.1 Review
It took nearly 13 years, but Samurai Jack is finally back. Genndy Tartakovsky’s outstanding animated show was an amazing ride when it first premiered in 2001. There really wasn’t any animated program quite like it before when it first aired. The show was not just animation, but art in its purest form. The show was not only imbued with creator Tartakovsky’s own style, but it also did things for animation that were rarely, if ever, executed up to that point. Unfortunately, after 52 episodes, the show went away in 2004. It seems every few years or so, talks would pop up for some type of revival or maybe even a feature before eventually fizzling out. Not to mention, Tartakovsky had moved on to even bigger and better things for his career, becoming a feature director for Sony Pictures Animation for such hit films as Hotel Transylvania. I’m not exactly sure how fate transpired to allow this new season of Samurai Jack to ultimately materialize the way it has. Much credit is probably owed to the nostalgia era of media viewers currently find themselves in, where some older shows that were popular beforehand are able to come back in some way, shape or form. Regardless, Genndy Tartakovsky returning to Samurai Jack, along with much of the original creative team and Jack’s original voice-over actor Phil LaMarr, can be summed up simply as a pure gift.
The season premiere for what will be the final run for the show does not in fact pick up where the original run for the show ended almost 13 years ago. In fact, it picks up much, much later. It’s been over 50 years. It’s not exactly clear how, but the man known as Samurai Jack hasn’t aged at all. Jack remains stranded in the future, while his great adversary, the shapeshifting demon master known as Aku remains fully in power. Unfortunately for Jack, while his body may not bear the affects of aging, his mind clearly does. Jack’s failure to defeat Aku and return to his proper time weighs heavily on him. He’s starting to hallucinate and speak to phantoms of the dead and his parents.
Jack continues to fight against Aku’s forces, but he somehow lost his sword, the only weapon in existence that can defeat Aku. Instead, he uses what tools are available to him. When the audience first sees Jack again, it’s not like how we are used to seeing him. He now brandishes full armor, rides a high-tech motorcycle, and wields guns, explosives and grenades. It’s a bit off-putting. The intent by Tartakovsky isn’t to make Jack cooler by giving him guns and more high-tech weaponry. It’s just part of painting the picture of the current time and predicament Jack finds himself in. This is a Jack who is in deep conflict within his heart. He’s starting to lose his way. It seems that Jack is currently fighting just for the sake of fighting, but he knows no other way.
This episode also introduces a new group of adversaries for Jack in the form of the Daughters of Aku. This is a cult of Aku-worshipping women, and all their subjects are raised and bred for combat from the moment they are born. The scenes introducing the Daughters of Aku are quite brutal, and they are more disturbing and unsettling than anything seen in Samurai Jack before.
That’s another interesting aspect to new season. The show was produced for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block and aimed at an older-skewing demographic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Clearly, the younger viewers who made the original show the juggernaut that it was have grown up. From the outset, Samurai Jack was a very mature and sophisticated series. The main change here is that Tartakovsky and his staff no longer have to skate around Cartoon Network’s normal censorship issues, so they can have a little more fun with the content. In the original series, Jack was usually forced to fight robots. While he’s still fighting robots now, the show doesn’t have to hold back on the violence anymore. People are cut, and people are wounded. But more than that, there’s a clearer sense of terror and dread from the cruelty Aku and his minions have wrought over the world. The featured minion in this episode is Scaramouch. Scaramouch is a cyborg minion who is dressed like a samurai and has a voice that’s an obvious riff on Sammy Davis Jr. The Scaramouch character perfectly exemplifies while the content for this season so far is a little edgier, it hasn’t lost ye olde Cartoon Network OG spirit.
Phil LaMarr returns once again to voice Jack. Samurai Jack has always been a great show in that it tells its stories through its images more than its dialogue. The use of dialogue on the show is usually very minimal. Case in point, the original premiere movie, which had barely any dialogue at all in its first 20 minutes, lending to the show’s avant garde style. However, the show makes effective use out of all its minimal dialogue and characters, especially LaMarr’s Jack. LaMarr’s vocal performance adds another layer of gravitas to the tortured soul Jack has become. Interestingly enough, Genndy Tartakovsky handled the voice-over direction for this episode himself, which is not something you often see for animated shows.
The animators for the series have not lost a beat. The art style for Samurai Jack has thankfully not changed at all since 2004. Tartakovsky and the animators still pull off some amazing, dynamic action sequences and some visceral animation sequences, but it’s done with a type of artistry that’s rarely seen at all. This is a show where you can take any frame or still shot out of the show, and it looks like a piece of art. That was the feeling the original show gave off, and it has not lost that intent in the last 12 years.
If there is one critique, the original theme song is longer featured in the opening. The opening isn’t bad at all, but it’s more of a short opening sequence with narration by Jack. The OG opening and narration by Aku is gone in favor of a more somber, solemn style that’s jettisoned the classic Samurai Jack theme song. It’s a bit sad that the theme song is gone from the show’s opening, but it’s still there for the closing credit sequence. Not a tremendous loss, but it’s a bit of a nitpick because the original opening was another classic element from the series, so you almost don’t want to see it change.
Regardless, Genndy Tartakovsky has returned Samurai Jack to TV, and the show will finally get its ultimate ending that never came to fruition over 10 years ago. Samurai Jack is a blast that’s back from the past.