Short Version: ALL OF THIS BLOOD
So, 2017 has so far been a good year for stories about grizzled heroes past their prime who decide to grow out their facial hair and must undergo one deadly, final journey that will hopefully allow them to do something right after a long string of failures; a journey that turns out to be far more violent than anything that they’ve done before.
But, enough about Logan. Let’s see what Samurai Jack is up to now.
Where we last left our hero, he was passed out and floating down a river with a knife sticking out of his gut, leaving a long trail of blood behind him. If it wasn’t remarkable enough that he’s survived this so far, he manages to go down some rapids filled with rocks (and a waterfall!) without adding new wounds for him to worry about. Eventually, he regains consciousness and grabs hold of a log to prevent him from drowning. Too weak to do anything, he keeps going along the current until his mind gives him a reminder (in the form of a talking frog) that “They’re coming”. Jack snaps back to life and tries to make his way to dry land…but not before passing out again.
Look, I know Jack is tough, but being alive after all this is nothing short of divine intervention.
Anyway, he eventually winds up in dry land. He staggers his way through a forest at night, where the art direction REALLY wants you to pay attention at all the cuts and dripping blood on Jack’s body, like he just jumped out of a random page from Frank Miller’s Sin City (though Ronin has been quoted by Tartakovsky to be a direct inspiration for several elements of the show). Throughout this sequence, and a little later, Jack’s silhouette feels purposefully darkened or completely blacked out, while all the red on him gets highlighted.
Hallucinations of the Horseback Samurai return, only now it’s shown to be actively stalking Jack rather than just stoically standing around. Jack finds shelter in a cave, which allows him to catch a break and get that knife out of his side; a process shown to us in slow, agonizing detail.So…yeah, if you happened to think that the first two episodes were as gruesome as it was gonna get, you have another thing coming.
Resting proves difficult for Jack in this cave; he’s in pain, he’s constantly sweating (cold sweat, I would imagine) and gets a visit from another hallucination of a ghostly version of himself, just like in the previous episode. This time, however, it’s far more distorted, with more jagged edges in its design, razor sharp teeth, and off-model proportions. Instead of anger and frustration, this one appears to manifest Jack’s guilt, as it taunts him about the girl he killed in the previous episode, how that’s the thing that bothers him more than his cut, whether he’ll be able to kill the other Daughters of Aku when they find him, or if he actually wants them to kill him, which Jack denies. So, that’s two apparitions of Jack’s subconscious heavily implying that he’s considered killing himself for a while now. While he keeps denying them, it’s clear that the thought persists and his inner demons are exploiting this.
During his time in the cave, Jack gets a chance to patch himself up using some improvised sutures made out of bark (This guy is just full of surprises, isn’t he?). He’s joined by the white wolf from the previous episode, who’s also survived from injuries that should’ve killed him and needs a place to rest. For a period of what I’m assuming has to be several days (if not weeks), they help each other treat their wounds, find food, stay warm (Jack is wearing nothing but rags), and get their strength back. I’ve heard elsewhere that some interpreted the scenes with the wolf as being 100% a storytelling device made to parallel Jack’s encounter with the Daughters, but now we see that it’s in fact a creature living in Jack’s world.
While at the cave, Jack has a dream/repressed memory of his pre-Aku youth where his father protected him and his mother from bandits. After they ignore his ultimatum of either leaving or staying to die (it’s described as “bushido nonsense” as one of them), he strikes them all down with his sword. As Jack witness this, blood from one of the bandits sprays on his face. Later, as his father washes the blood away, he takes the time to give his son a lesson about how the decisions you make are an expression of who you really are, and no matter what you do, you can’t deny it.
So far, the episode has been pretty straightforward, as it’s mainly a continuation of the chase scene from last week, as Jack gets a chance to catch his breath and prepare for another round with the Daughters of Aku. However, I would like to talk about a couple of themes popping out from here. First of all, I’m pretty sure plenty will look at images of Jack flowing down the river, arms stretched out with a proverbial lance on his side or being tempted by demonic manifestations in moments of suffering, as religious symbolism, particularly allusions to Jesus Christ. After all, Jack is to be the savior of mankind, the one who’s been chosen to deliver us from evil, and at this point, someone for whom martyrdom is his life story. Sound familiar?
Ok, maybe it’s a stretch, but I will give credit to the episode for being not particularly blunt about it.
Up to this point, I feel like we’ve been seeing a small but important shift in Jack’s character since the killing of one of the Daughters previously. Since then, we’ve seen plenty of shots of Jack covered in blood, both in his past and his present. What’s interesting about the flashback where he’s lectured by his father is that he makes no apologies or attempts to rationalize to his son why he killed those men. He’s admitting to his son that it’s in his nature to be that way, and that there’s no reason to be ashamed. This, of course, wouldn’t be the first time Jack has had violence against another human have an impact on him when he was young. In the episode “Jack Remembers The Past”, there’s another flashback to when he was a child where he witnesses a warrior travelling with a small child (a direct reference to the 1970 Chambara manga “Lone Wolf and Cub”) defeat a group of bandits on a bridge. This was in Cartoon Network, so there was no blood, but it’s heavily implied that those men died that day (the source material this takes inspiration from is regarded as an extremely violent depiction of Japan’s Edo period). Regardless of this, this appears to be a key moment where Jack found his warrior spirit (and trademark glare), as he shortly after plays with a tree branch as if it were a sword.
I feel like what the series is trying to say here is that while it’s been shocking at first for both Jack and the viewer experience this kind of violence, it’s all meant to be a natural progression for Jack, both the man and the show. Whether this has been the intent from the beginning or a liberty that Tartakovsky and Co. acquired in their transition to Adult Swim, I think it’s clear that they’re handling this as responsibly as they can. The question of whether violence is justified in media when carried out by series, characters, etc. who aren’t typically violent has been a topic of contention for a while now, thanks to a few mainstream comic book adaptations, and I feel like Samurai Jack is walking that fine line quite boldly and confidently. So far, it understands that violence shouldn’t just exist for its own sake, but it can be used as a means for storytelling, to make a point about its characters and/or world, not just use it for disposable entertainment. Jack is coming to terms to how he has to do what he has to do to survive, but realizes he can carry it out in a way he can deem as “honorable”. Remember the warning from Jack’s father that was dismissed as “bushido nonsense” by the bandits, where he gave them the choice to run and live or stay and die? This could also be interpreted as a personal decision: either do nothing and let his family die, or take action to protect it. He has no choice (he’s outnumbered and his family is in danger), but accepts what he must do to protect what he cares for with little to no hint of regret or hesitation. Jack is currently faced with a similar choice: either let himself be defeated by his circumstances or rise above them to get back in the fight. He quietly accepts that the Daughters will find him, and when they do, it will be an encounter that ends with either his death or theirs. And all he had to do to come to terms with this is to emerge from the brink of death (reborn, if you will), baptized in blood for a second time.
Part of me questions whether his rationale would be the same if he still had his sword, but we’ll cross that bridge if/when we get to it. All that matters right now is that Jack has a lot of fight coming his way and he must be prepared for anything.
After the break, we see The Daughters of Aku emerge from the ruins of the temple and begin tracking down Jack once again, following the trail of blood he left behind. We get a few extra glimpses of their lack of humanity: while they drag the body of their dead sister out of the rubble, they unceremoniously leave her corpse behind with nothing more than the intonation of the words “Death is defeat”. During their hunt for Jack, a few of the sisters are frustrated and annoyed at the sight of a stag (its antlers remind them of Aku) showing affection to a doe. This sequence alone adds a new disturbing layer to the Daughters: they don’t recognize these animals; they only identify them as “creatures”, a sign of their very sheltered life. It’s also impossible for them to recognize or feel anything other than hatred and fighting, even when the opposite is presented right at them. It’s an almost…innocent look at brutality; they’re expert killers, but they still have the minds of children, looking at life in nothing more than the very exact terms of cruelty and death they’ve been raised all they’re lives. (Think the War Boys from Mad Max: Fury Road).
It’s only a matter of time before they encounter Jack again, except this time, it’s he who has the drop on them. While it begins to snow, quickly covering the woods in white, Jack gives the Daughters the same choice his father gave those thugs long ago: leave so they may live, or stay and “face their destiny”. The choice is a no-brainer for the Daughters, so Jack does what he must. Just as his father did, Jack doesn’t think twice about picking off his enemies one-by-one, with a little help from some improvised weaponry and disarming skills. And it’s not just throat-slitting this time around, oh no. He impales the girls with spears! At one point, he throws a sword at one and pins her to a tree!
Aesthetically, the fight calls back the episode “Samurai vs. Ninja”, in which Jack got to show off one of his most impressive techniques: a variation of Ninjutsu that allows him to use light the same way ninjas use darkness and shadows for stealth. It’s clear that the tables have turned for the Daughters, as they could blend into the shadows with ease before, but now they stick out like sore thumbs while Jack has the advantage. This continues to show off just how versatile he can be in a fight: he’s fast, acrobatic, sharp-witted, resourceful, mindful of his environment, and highly responsive to his opponents’ tactics. He eventually leads the fight to the edge of a cliff, where the three remaining Daughters corner him on a dangling tree trunk. Using his bare hands, he sends two of them flying and turns the final Daughter’s own chain-sickle against her.
After getting an earful from her about how he doesn’t have a chance against Aku (hello, Tara Strong), he releases her and sends her falling to her death, something that from the look on his face you know he clearly has no joy in doing, but accepts as something he must do. Unfortunately, before he can get away, the trunk he’s standing on breaks below his feet, sending him down into the same precipice as the Daughters, leaving us in yet another cliffhanger.
And, that’s it for now. Jack is once again coming face to face with his own possible death that he’ll surely find a way out of (I mean, he HAS to). I’m curious as to whether the Daughters that fell along with him will survive as well. After so much build-up and establishing of how they perceive the world, it’ll be a bit of a shame for them to just go away like that. It’s rare to get supporting characters with this much exposure, and I think it’d be worth watching whether Jack can give at least one of the Daughters a reality check (The one named Ashi has been made to stand out from the rest). Then again, Jack’s survivability rate has been much higher than that of the Daughters, so I have my doubts. Plus, the preview for next week is teasing Jack having to dive into a pool of acid, so who knows? Could this have anything to do with the whereabouts of Jack’s sword? Find out along with me next week!