Samurai Jack Season 5: Episode 1 (XCII)

Short Version: 12 years later, the future still sucks and our samurai savior may not be up to the task anymore…

Long Version:

So, going into this new season, there are a few expectations that are shaping what people like me would want from Samurai Jack’s return, mainly something that takes me back to the presentation and style of the series’ original run, while delivering on the staff’s promises of adding more mature themes without having to sacrifice the overall feel of the show. So, after this premiere, how’d they do? Let’s see…

We begin with an action scene where Jack rescues a family of aliens in danger from a swarm of Aku’s robots, who are vaguely reminiscent of the one’s he fought in his first major encounter in the series’ premiere. However, he’s looking a bit different from before. Instead of his traditional white kimono, he’s garbed from head to toe in armor. His helmet alone gives him a more demonic silhouette (uh-oh). Instead of fighting using his sword, his methods are far more aggressive and brute, using firearms, explosives, a collapsible trident, and a motorcycle with spiked wheels that tear through robots like they’re made of tissue paper.

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He’s just as tenacious as ever, even if his methods are far less elegant. After he makes quick work of the horde, he leaves as soon as he arrived, not even bothering to check in on the would-be victims, who recognized him and were still grateful for saving their lives. These aliens, by the way, communicate with each other by turning their thoughts into messages they display through electric signals between antenna sticking out of their heads. They feel like the kind of inventive characters an old episode of the show would’ve built an entire episode around and Jack would likely bond with, yet here they are, so casually thrown in like it’s no problem at all. It’s the kind of thing the show probably didn’t need to do, yet they put in the effort to make these random characters we’re probably never gonna see again all the more memorable. I love it!

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This scene does a good job of re-introducing us to the show’s unique action style: from the sound-mixing, the editing (hello, letterboxing), the peppering of slow motion throughout, etc. Even if it’s not what we’re typically used to seeing from Jack (it’s supposed to be part of a larger point), it’s clear the show’s still got it, and even finds new tricks to add into the mix. For example, it’s clear to see at times that Jack’s motorcycle is more “digital” than traditionally animated, but it’s used to enhance the effect of watching it roll out. Some purists will probably take issue with how these kind of enhancements used to smooth out animation at several points make this look less like the hand-drawn/painted look the series has had from the beginning, but personally, I feel the core of what makes the fights what they are is still there.

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After his fight, Jack makes his escape, showing off beautiful shots of the environment along the way, seamlessly transitioning from a desert to a forest. They’re certainly very familiar settings for the show, though they do a good job of reminding how gorgeous the art direction can be. It should be noted that instead of taking our time to let the scenery sink in, as the show usually has done, we’re speeding right past it all. Jack used to take his time walking from place to place, drawing attention to his surroundings. Now, with his motorbike, it’s all about moving from point A to B ASAP. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this is also part of showing off how there’s something not quite right with Jack at the moment…

Along the way, he hears an explosion and sees a billow of black smoke rising in the distance, which…he ignores. Shortly after, as he’s taking a break for a drink of water, he begins to have nightmarish hallucinations about his family, asking him why he’s forsaken them. Leaves floating in a river turn into a vision of a literal river of corpses calling out to him. These visions continue later that night when Jack sees his father being burnt alive as he condemns him for forgetting about returning to the past. Jack attempts to justify himself by claiming that he hasn’t forgotten but that Aku has destroyed “the way home”. He also repeatedly sees a dark figure of another warrior, possibly another samurai, on horseback, which absolutely terrifies him.

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So…yeah, let’s unpack this.

As the scenes suggest, Jack is still trying to do good, but seems to have given up on returning to the past. As fans would know, there were plenty of episodes before where Jack hears about a possible new method for him to travel back in time, only to come up short of his goal or realizing he’s been misled. However, his words to his father sound very definitive, as if to say there’s no new way for him to go back at all anymore. This will undoubtedly spark curiosity for many, as there’s a fan-favorite episode (“Jack and the Traveling Creatures”) where it’s prophesized that Jack is meant to return to a portal that will take him back when he’s ready to fight its guardian. Whether this is still at play isn’t indicated, though it’s possible it can be addressed in the future. Whether Jack’s words are fact or just an excuse, we’ve yet to know, though I’m sure we’ll get our answer once we find out who the mysterious warrior is and what he did to Jack.

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Anyway, these horrifying visions force Jack to finally follow the trail of smoke, which lead him to a village destoyed by an assassin named Scarabouch, who’s exactly the kind of offbeat, inventive opponent that Jack faced all the time back in the day: Imagine a scat-singing robot who plays a flute that can make golems out of rubble and makes his sword fly with his singing (think Yondu’s arrow from Guardians of the Galaxy). Jack defeats him, though not before having more haunting visions, this time a village calling out for help while the mysterious samurai looms over him. During this scene, we get a hint of what happened to Jack’s sword: we see a short flashback of the blade falling into a chasm, which has the same kind of green hue as the visions of Jack’s mystery assailant (again, uh-oh). We also get a short vocal cameo for Aku when Scarabouch gives him a call.

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Allow me to briefly address the elephant in the room: Aku’s voice actor, Mako Iwamatsu, passed away in 2006, which means that a replacement was needed. The staff has called in Greg Baldwin, the same actor who filled in for Mako in his role as Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. However, while Iroh was only a supporting character of the series, offering more leeway to write around minimizing the need for his voice, Aku is indispensable, the second most important character on the show, with his vocals being a key part of his presence. I’m intrigued to see how the rest of the season will handle his appearances. Genndy Tartakovsky has talked plenty of times how Mako was irreplaceable and wants to do him justice, so I can only imagine there will have to be a balance between exposing Aku and using him only when it’s absolutely necessary.

If this episode is any indication, we’re gonna be taking a brief look at a workaround for this issue:

Intercut with Jack’s story is tale of “The Daughters of Aku”, a group of septuplets born into a cult of women who worship Aku as the creator of the world and see Jack as one who seeks to destroy it, so they make it their mission to kill him so they can win the admiration of their god. From the moment they were born, they’ve been trained to become merciless killing machines, with grueling training that puts them in mortal danger. (Remember the Spartans from 300? They’re kinda like that, except they’re evil ninja ladies). It’s through these moments that the episode truly earns that new TV-14 rating. While the original run wasn’t afraid of walking the line regarding acceptable violence for a mainstream animated series, these scenes show off a darkness and cruelty that we’ve rarely seen before. We get a glimpse of the birth of these girls and their brutal training regimes that slowly being warped into killers for Aku, with any hint of humanity the girls could possibly develop being snuffed out by their ruthless mentors. While Aku himself is absent here, a shrine in his honor gives him an omnipresence over the Daughters’ domain, further pushing the show’s theme of how Aku’s very existence breeds destruction, sometimes without his direct involvement. Unlike many one-shot villains Jack has faced in the past, these are receiving a lot of build-up, so it should be interesting to see how their encounter with Jack will play out in the future. Usually, when villains get this much hype from the show, it’s made for some very memorable episodes (“Tale of X-9”, “The Princess and the Bounty Hunters”), so here’s hoping this will be a fight to remember.

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Usually when creators talk about a series becoming more “mature”, there’s usually one of two mentalities at play: the first one, the nobler of the two, is the decision of making a show “grow up” alongside its audience. This tends to apply to series where the characters are young and develop as the story goes on. This doesn’t really apply to Samurai Jack since our hero is largely the same, even age-wise, as time goes on. The other mentality, the more superficial, is about adding “dark” and “gritty” elements for the hell of it and confuse it with actual maturity. While it approximates the direction the show has taken, I don’t think it applies either. While the backstory for the Daughters of Aku seems to stem from this mindset, the core story that’s been present from the start remains largely unchanged.  So far, these mature elements all feel like they’re in favor of re-inventing the familiar story, and integrating them into what already exists without becoming overpowering. It’s easy to see how this new stuff still belongs in the world the staff has created since the beginning. While Jack and his circumstances have changed, the feel of the world, and the series, hasn’t. Jack’s story has always followed that of a pretty straightforward Hero’s Journey, though we’re getting a look at what happens when the hero becomes stagnant, when he begins to lose himself. So far, the biggest indicator of this is his seeming reluctance to jump into action to attend people in danger, which is a pretty severe violation of the moral code (“Bushido”) he’s been following all his life. While Jack used to jump into danger to help others at the drop of a hat, this Jack seems very open to avoiding it whenever possible.

We’re told that every episode of the season we’ll learn a new piece of information that will allow us to figure out what has happened in the last 50 years that have led Jack to where he is at the moment, so until it’s all said and done, I don’t think we’ll be able to properly determine how the return of Jack stacks up or how this stage of his journey, now taking an angle of self-reflection and rediscovery, turns out. Still, the primary function of this episode was to re-introduce us to the world of the series while setting up what Jack’s story is supposed to be and the obstacles he’ll have to overcome. On that respect, it’s certainly a success. Overall, it’s still the same show from back in the day with a fresh coat of paint, and even if it’s getting rough around the edges, it only adds to the work’s impact rather than take away, which is the best thing you can say about a series that decides to go “dark”.

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