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“Samurai Jack” Returns With More Mature Lens

By Hubert Ta

The TV industry has an emerging trend of returning to old, fan-favorite cancelled TV shows and continuing them from where the story left off. Several shows like “Veronica Mars,” “Arrested Development,” “Gilmore Girls” and “24” have received this treatment, while others like “Hey Arnold” and “Twin Peaks” are currently in production. “Samurai Jack” is the latest of this new trend and has revitalized Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated classic in a mature, stylish light with Jack’s return for a final season, 12 years since the series was cancelled in 2004.

The original “Samurai Jack” ran for four seasons from 2001 to 2004 on Cartoon Network and starred the eponymoustitular character (Phil LaMarr) in his quest to defeat the evil demon Aku (Mako Iwamatsu). After nearly defeating Aku with his magic sword, Aku banishes Jack to the future through a time portal. Here, Aku has ruled for centuries and shaped the world in his image, rife with destruction, death and dystopia. Jack searches for a way back to the past, meeting dozens of characters and villains in his mission to stop Aku from conquering the world.

What made the original four seasons beloved by fans and critics was the slick animation and art style Tartakovsky employed in telling Jack’s story. A fusion of multiple genres allowed for an episodic plot that weaved storylines and characters in with Jack’s journey. Jack encounters everything from a Scotsman, Chicago gangsters and Spartan warriors, and battles robot assassins, monstrous creatures and criminal aliens. Story and design elements from westerns, dystopian narratives, crime dramas and epics interweaved with fast-paced action backed by traditional East Asian and modern electrofunk music. Classic Hollywood cinematography and a fast editing style reflective of action montages also pushed the sharp, comic book-like artistic visuals to the forefront of the show. All of these combined into Tartakovsky’s emphasis of visuals over dialogue, recreating a silent film method of storytelling that utilized diegetic sound, dialogue and music to foreground the visual component of Samurai Jack’s battle against Aku, earning the show four Emmys during its original broadcast.

Set 50 years after the end of season four, season five of “Samurai Jack” recounts the finale of Jack’s battle against Aku. Having not aged at all in 50 years, Jack, clad in armor and masks, using guns, polearms and a weaponized motorcycle, wanders a bleak landscape. Having lost hope in his fight against evil after losing his magic sword and with Aku having destroyed the remaining time portals back to the past, Jack is haunted by hallucinations of his family and the innocents of his past, all asking him why he hasn’t returned and why he left them to die. Aside from the usual robot soldiers sent to challenge him, Jack’s mental deterioration and feelings of guilt are coupled with a new threat in assassins from the Cult of Aku.

Escaping Cartoon Network’s MPAA youth-oriented programs to the creative leeway of Adult Swim, this season of “Samurai Jack” is much more mature and unleashed. Blood and stylistic violence is more commonplace, with both editing and art style enhancing the show’s action (rather than obscuring it as it did in the first four seasons). Feelings of loss, despair and guilt run rampant alongside the horror, doubt and suicidal thoughts that linger in Jack’s mind. In addition, dark humor is used to portray Aku’s (now played by Greg Baldwin) boredom as he waits for Jack to die, and to craft a dystopian world ruled by evil, reinforced with revolts, massacres, indoctrination and the employment of children as weapons. But the spirit of the original show still runs strong, with Jack’s honorable characterization shining through, an art style that mimics classic Hollywood and graphic novels and editing that reflects a quick approach to the action, blended in with stunning visuals and sly humor that portray both a dreary dystopian future and the beauty that shines underneath it. Even the original’s memorable theme song is back, closing out the show’s end credits with its distinctive sword-slash sound effect. This revival of “Samurai Jack” is essentially a mature, upgraded version of the story that wasn’t finished, and it looks like this will finally complete Tartakovsky’s visual marvel on a satisfying note.