Samurai Jack: The Case for Mature Western Animation
When critics talk about the must-see television events happening so far this year, shows like Better Call Saul, American Gods, and The Handmaiden’s Tale are often brought up. This is, of course, for good reason: each of those shows are well-crafted, hard-hitting, and intelligent stories told by visionary showrunners in wholly unique ways.
We need to start including Samurai Jack on that list.
Genndy Tartakovsky has always been a cinematic animator. His original run on Samurai Jack nearly two decades ago nearly revolutionized how children’s action cartoons could be portrayed, with his careful and brilliant use of silence and color. He would continue this artistry with his tragically-underrated science-fiction epic, Sym-Bionic Titan (hey, Toonami, how about asking for a second season of that show next, huh?).
When Samurai Jack returned this year, Tartakovsky knew that his audience was going to have grown with the character. He knew that [adult swim] would’ve allowed him to use as much profanity, gore, and sexual innuendos as your average Family Guy episode, and a lesser showrunner would’ve run with that opportunity. Instead, Tartakovsky opted to tell a more mature story in the literal sense of the word. This meant more reflection, more spiritual and emotional symbolism, more grounded stakes, and a more hardened Jack. Indeed, this is what makes a majority of the season so fascinating to watch.
During the original series on Cartoon Network, our hero was a calm, silent, confident warrior on a mission. Despite being a stranger in a strange land, he always kept his wits about him. Rarely did he lose. Watching the show as kids, we just knew that he was going to eventually make it back to the past to stop Aku.
In season five, we’re not so certain anymore. Jack is now more of a ronin, wandering the apocalyptic wasteland of Aku’s future looking for lives to save. It’s become so routine that he’s almost forgotten why he does it anymore. His mind is corrupted by vicious thoughts that constantly bombard him with self-doubt. He suffers from hallucinations of his family and loved ones suffering in the past without him. All the while, he’s being followed by the spirit of death, who is patiently waiting for Jack’s seemingly-inevitable suicide. Even with the introduction of comedic characters like Scaramouche, we’re shown immediately just how much darker this world had become.
That threat grows worse with the introduction of the Daughters of Aku, seven warriors bred specifically to kill Jack. In my opinion, the episodes surrounding their hunt and the subsequent battles were the highlight of the season, showcasing Tartakovsky’s storytelling nuances at their brightest. The action is as swift and dazzling as ever, and the use of dramatic lighting and suspenseful music is downright ingenious. Balancing the hard-hitting violence with the somber moments of fear and reflection make the battles between Jack and the Daughters some of the best directed scenes not simply in recent animated history, but in television history as a whole.
After a poignant childhood flashback of his father reluctantly slaying an army of foes, Jack comes to terms with the fact that he sometimes needs to shed human blood, despite having never done such a thing before. He slays six of the seven Daughters of Aku in a beautiful snow-covered forest (again showing us how much Tartakovsky and his team love playing with color), sparing only one of their lives. This is when we meet Ashi, who becomes the driving force of the entire season.
I was legitimately impressed with how the show handled Ashi’s transformation from brainwashed killing machine to Jack’s partner in good. Within the span of two incredibly-paced episodes, we saw her slowly peel away the layers of both who she and the “evil” samurai were. Contrasting the unforgiving violence of her upbringing to the gentleness of her former enemy causes her to question everything she knew, and interacting with Jack’s old friends from the original series solidified her stance on the matter: Jack, despite everything she knew, was a hero.
(Just an aside, seeing Ashi break lose and dance at the Rave with a big smile on her face was one of the happiest damn moments of the season for me)
A lot of people were unsure of how to interpret Ashi. I know a lot of people felt she was very sexualized throughout the series, and I felt there was a definitive lack of understanding when it came time for the character to “wash herself clean” of Aku’s influence (does it matter if she was technically naked the whole time? Can’t we just accept physical metaphors and move on?). Some didn’t like that she had to save Jack on multiple occasions, while some didn’t like the fact that she, herself, had to be saved on multiple occasions. I feel as if those people were simply looking for something to complain about, because I legitimately found Ashi to be a great character.
The episode in which she needed to take down an entire army sent to kill Jack while he was meditating his anger away and acquiring his sword is an all-timer, and probably the most Tartakovsky-esque of the season. The action sequences are as brutal as they had ever been, with bright Tarantino-styled blood spilling over the battlefield; Meanwhile, Jack’s spiritual quest for inner-peace is filled with as much stillness and restraint as the creative staff could muster. Truly the last perfect episode of the season.
I felt as if every idea and story beat Tartakovsky had planned ended up in the season in some capacity, though I felt that the pacing was forced to grow a bit rushed as the season wrapped up. The best – and most unfortunate – example of this is the finale itself.
It’s exactly how we all secretly wanted the show to end: Jack is seemingly defeated, and Aku can’t help but gloat to everyone on the planet. Right as a possessed Ashi is about to deliver the fatal blow, all of Jack’s allies rally together for a full assault on Aku’s castle (what else could’ve possibly connected all of these strange characters than the capture of their legendary savior?). Jack breaks free and assists Ashi in overcoming Aku’s demonic grasp. Upon learning that she possesses all of Aku’s abilities, she’s the one who opens up a new portal in time, allowing Jack to go back to the past and finally defeat Aku.
(In what was easily my favorite part of the finale, Jack and Ashi appear almost immediately after his original self was sent back, leaving Aku flustered, baffled, ill-prepared, and horrified. “You’re back already?!” he spits out. Jack conquers his foe easily, and while some found the final battle anti-climactic, I felt it was perfect.)
Afterwards, Jack finally returns home, Ashi by his side. A wedding is arranged immediately, and they’re ready to spend the rest of their lives together. In a dark twist that those of us familiar with time travel almost saw coming, however, Ashi disappears from existence in Jack’s arms, having never been born due to Aku never taking over the future. Jack, bitterly alone, retreats to the forest, where a ladybug (a beautiful callback to Ashi’s character arc) allows him to see the promise of what’s to come.
It all sounds so perfect. Unfortunately, everything emotional that happened in this episode had to be squeezed into the last ten minutes. This maybe could’ve worked if Tartakovsky hadn’t perfectly spaced out Jack’s inner turmoil at the beginning of the season. After such perfect reflection, I wanted to see more emotion from these last few moments. There was a lot Jack needed to react to, from all of his friends coming together to fight Aku, to Ashi finally defeating and channeling the darkness within her, to the unadulterated and enormous impact of finally returning to the past! Jack had spent over fifty years trying to get there, and we didn’t even get to see an emotional reunion with his family. That just didn’t feel right to me.
Then there’s Ashi’s disappearance. She didn’t die, she was erased from existence. After struggling with his inner demons throughout the first half of the season, I wanted to see Jack mentally and emotionally try and cope with that. After all, it wasn’t simply Ashi who vanished; it was all of his friends and allies whose lives he had touched throughout his decades in the future. All of them were gone, a curse that inevitable if Jack were to complete his mission. There is pain, horror, and guilt bursting at the seams with such an ending. We could’ve had an entire half hour dedicated to Jack accepting what he had done. It’s such a bitter, dark, and beautiful ending emotionally, and I felt the writing staff wasn’t given the time to appropriately explore it.
Still, all of the ideas were there, and Genndy ended the show on his own terms creatively. He still provided us with nine-and-a-half perfect episodes that broke the boundaries of what Western animation was capable of. It practiced restraint and patience when other action cartoons insist on doing the complete opposite. It gave us a hero plagued with inner-darkness and mental illness on a journey of self-purpose. It gave us a character with a redemption arc we never saw coming and rooted for until her tragic end. And – for me, anyway – it gave me hope for animation as a medium, that more audiences will look at this sweeping epic of a story and think “I want more.”