In previous reviews, I’ve brought up the significance of episodes of Samurai Jack that don’t feature Jack as the protagonist. This has resulted in some very unique stories, even some of the best the series has ever seen. What we have here is yet another such episode, but one that probably won’t carry as much memorability…at least the same kind.
By and large, it centers around Ashi as she travels across the world looking for Jack, who she believes might be in danger, in an unclear amount of time (days, weeks, months). Along the way, she encounters several people that Jack has helped out in his journey, all of whom describe themselves as friends of Jack and tell her about how he made a positive impact in their lives and gave them hope to overcome Aku’s tyranny. It’s essentially a trip down memory lane for old-time fans of the show, only they get to experience it through Ashi’s eyes, who know gets to have a deeper understanding of just how bad things were with Aku and how much good Jack has done for the world. Think of it as something of a greatest hits (at least some of them) collection of Jack’s adventures. Because of this, I don’t think we can talk about this episode in what’s been the traditional manner of breaking it down beat by beat. There’s still some stuff to talk about, but before we get to that, let’s get all the nostalgia out of the way first. If you haven’t seen the show, this should give you an idea of the kind of quests Jack has been on in the past.
First off, as Ashi rides on a blimp, she has a run-in with two large, furry animals called Woolies. Jack once freed their entire race from an enslaving, high-tech civilization of small blue aliens called Chrithellites. They attack Ashi when they think she’s one of Aku’s bounty hunters looking for Jack, but bond with her when they share their story of how Jack sacrificed himself to set them free.
While walking through a forest, she encounters three archers who were once aided by Jack. Long ago, they sought out a magic well that would grant them their wish to become great warriors. Unfortunately, while their wish came true, it came with a cruel price: they became possessed by the well, losing both their minds and their sight, to become its guardians. It was Jack who defeated them and freed them from their curse, which they learnt was Aku’s doing. While Jack could’ve used the well to wish himself back to the past, he decided to destroy the well instead so no one else would fall victim to it. Since then, the archers have restored their society and even made a statue to honor Jack’s selfless service.
Much later, Ashi encounters a rave outside a village. The DJ at this rave is an old woman named Olivia, who tells her in song form about her own witness of Jack’s heroism: when she was younger, he saved her from an evil DJ who was using his music to brainwash teenagers into becoming Aku’s followers. She now throws parties to pay respect to him and spread his story of standing up to Aku to new generations. In his honor, she invented a hand-sign (an “S” for Samurai), an EDM track called “Samurai Drop”, and even a dance inspired by his martial arts moves (which he turned into a pseudo-dance to blend in with the rave back then).
Later on, she encounters a bar run by an old man voiced by Keegan-Michael Key of Key & Peele fame. He tells her how he used to be an arrogant, extravagantly dressed samurai wannabe that went by the title of “Da Samurai”; more of a bully than anything else. It was Jack who taught him the real meaning of being a samurai. Humbled by this experience, he gave up his blade and became a bartender.
Some of the patrons at the bar share their encounters with Jack, showing off their wounds as if they were badges of honor. One such patron is a robot with a messed up eye and an uncanny resemblance to Popeye.
Fun Fact #1: after directing the Hotel Transylvania movies for Sony, Genndy Tartakovsky was said to be attached to a brand new animated Popeye movie, though he’s moved on to other projects since then (you can find a proof of concept of it on Youtube).
Fun Fact #2: Being the voice of Murray the Mummy in Hotel Transylvania 2, this is the second time Key has collaborated with Tartakovsky.
Anyway, this scene at the bar is briefly interrupted by a cameo of fan favorite one-shot villain, Demongo the Soul Collector. As you may or may not know, his deal is to seek out the strongest warriors in the world and consume their essence to make them fight for him. He leaves the bar after not finding anyone he deems worthy of him.
As far as cameos from previous episodes go, that’s really about it. Now, with the season being as short as it is, you’d think that an episode that plays out like a glorified clip show would be pointless. However, I feel like there’s a couple things going on under this façade. For one thing, as I said previously, the point of this trip is for Ashi to learn about a few of Jack’s previous exploits and further drive her resolve to help him out, as we get to see the past through fresh eyes. We know that Ashi wants to help Jack, but had yet to really know how. Meeting all these people, she learns how she’s not the only one to have learned of what good Jack can do, something that will prove useful a little further down the line. The theme of nostalgia permeates throughout these scenes, as the viewer learns/re-learns about Jack’s previous trials, though experiencing it through Ashi gives it a very different feel if it had been done through Jack. While she has accepted that Aku is evil, she still has little to no knowledge of the outside world and how it was before she was even born. The more she learns, the more she accepts it as inherently enriching. For long time Samurai Jack fans, this should give that nostalgic feeling in the more traditional sense of the word. However, I feel like for younger fans than me, this experience will also feel nostalgic, just not in the same way.
“Nostalgia” used to commonly refer to rediscovering experiences, locations, events, etc. that recall times long ago that left a big impact in your memory, usually one’s childhood. Today, the word comes up more often than it used to due to how it’s become a very marketable practice to sell people the entertainment of their youth/formative years, a practice that became about almost in parallel to the big Internet boom of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. It’s no accident that the first generation to learn how to harness the Internet to the best of its ability, refereed typically as Generation X, would use it to spread the influence and appraisal of their pop culture fixtures, a lot of which have only grown far stronger and more widespread because of this. From Star Wars to comic book superheroes, all of these have become more than just retro-modern entertainment juggernauts; they’ve become part of some kind of broader cultural heritage. Because of this, younger generations are discovering them thanks to modern productions of these properties and developing a unique fondness for them that separates it from the kind that people who learned about it as it was first happening have had. For people like them, it’s less about watching the rise and spread of these properties as it occurs, and more about how this thing they like has a deeper history than what they thought at first. While the older generations could be either defensive or accepting about this, it creates a connection between the two that can’t just be ignored.
Speaking from personal experience, the last decade or so has seen a strong resurgence of modern iterations of properties that the so-called “children of the 80’s” grew up on. While the experience of growing up with these during their original release will always be alien to me, I can attest to what it’s like to becoming a fan of everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Voltron and even My Little Pony thanks to modern incarnations brought to new audiences by people who grew up on them, and while I acknowledge their past history and their importance, these new versions will likely shape more of my predilection for them than any other version, and given the way things are going, it’s only a matter of time until people of my generation start running the entertainment industry and bringing back the stuff I grew up with and showing it off to new generations. In fact, it’s happening already.
…for better or for worse (Feel free to guess where I’m leaning).
Ok, so what does that have anything to do with Samurai Jack? Well, I can’t help but feel like that theme is in play both in the text and the subtext of the current season, now made more explicit than ever with this episode. This show was a part of my childhood and it has been brought back in to do a service to fans like me who grew up with it and give them closure. Despite this, it’s likely that a new, younger generation will discover the show thanks to this, and having grown up with the Internet, making it easy to learn about its history. I can’t speak on their behalf on how their appreciation for an old cartoon will be affected by this new season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they feel a stronger attachment to these new episodes and will be what turns them into fans the same way I have with other properties. I may not understand the show the same way they do, but since they’re still discovering their own way to celebrate it, it doesn’t matter.
As for what’s happening within the show itself, Ashi is rediscovering Jack and the things he’s done first-hand, as opposed to doing it through altered, muddled accounts by her mother. We can see how these new experiences don’t only bring her closer together to the people Jack has helped, but also to Jack himself. While hesitant at first to call herself a friend of his, she can bring herself to do so by the end thanks to all of this. She wasn’t around to see to see all the things she’s heard about Jack when they happened, but she still develops a relation to it through other people’s stories and retellings. There’s no way for her to know what it was like to witness it all when it was happening, but she uses that history to inform herself and develop her own perception of Jack, one that’s rooted in similar recognition of people that came before her.
Anyway, as all of this is happening, we learn that Scaramouch, the robot assassin from the season premiere, is still alive. His head is still operational, but his body has been destroyed. Nonetheless, he tries to make his way back to Aku to tell him that Jack has lost his sword. He hitches a ride on a boat with the help of a man whose head has a very…unfortunate shape. Hey, Scaramouch points this out as well, so it’s not just me with his mind in the gutter.
Fans of Tartakovsky’s previous work on Cartoon Network will know that he wasn’t afraid of getting dirty, even suggestive, with his humor. I’m sure you can find several compilations of adults-only jokes in shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls on Youtube. Also, that one dance sequence from Sym-Bionic Titan. Hell, even in the premiere of Samurai Jack back in 2001, Jack visits a bar with, let’s call them, unique entertainment choices.
On this boat, Scaramouch tries to give Aku a call, but can’t do so given a noisy crowd, which happens to have anthropomorphic talking dogs; a callback to the show’s original premiere. Pissing off these dogs causes Scaramouch to go overboard. Whether this is truly the end for him is unclear, but given his resilience, I wouldn’t be surprised if we haven’t seen the last of him. Besides, why bring up the fact that he’s still kicking if it’s not gonna have any payoff?
To answer your most obvious question, yes, that one dog looks A LOT like Astro from The Jetsons.
Fun Fact #3: This wouldn’t be the first time a classic Hanna-Barbera character has had a cameo in the show. The episode “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful” briefly features Quick Draw McGraw and his sidekick Baba Looey.
Well, enough of that, let’s go back to Ashi. So, her backstory has been all sorts of messed up until now, from manipulated into thinking Jack is her enemy, to brutal training regimes that involved getting the living hell beaten out of her since she was a child, and if you thought that was as “dark” (heh heh heh) as it was gonna get, here comes this episode like “Hello, naughty children. It’s mental-scar time”. During her visit of landmarks from the series past, as she’s walking through the wilderness, she finds a subterranean lake. This triggers a flashback in which she and her sisters, while still very young, were forced by the High Priestess to jump completely naked into a pile of burning ashes. According to the Priestess, they had to become one with the darkness, just as Aku has, for that is the source of his power. So yeah, up until now, the “outfit” that Ashi and her sisters had been wearing, which you’d be forgiven for assuming it was some kind of skin-tight black body stocking…is actually a mixture of ashes and their own charred skin. And since they did this since they were just children, that must mean they’ve done this several times as they’ve grown up. Also, this means that the girls have actually been naked this entire time.
I’m just gonna let that sink in for a bit.
Ok, everyone good? Good. Soon, Ashi jumps into the lake and stays up all night scrubbing the “darkness” off of her (SYMBOLISM!) with a rock, gives herself a new hairdo, and even makes a new outfit out of leaves and other plants that makes her look like human-sized Tinkerbell.
Learning to live off the land and making new clothes from what nature provides? If Jack had been there, he would’ve been so proud. That guy constantly got his white kimono ripped apart when fighting enemies, so he must’ve gotten new clothes from somewhere. I remember seeing him make himself a hat once before.
Eventually, Ashi finds Jack in a graveyard. He’s surrounded by ghosts of other samurai dressed in demonic-looking armor, including the one on horseback that’s been haunting Jack, who now gets to be called “The Omen”. Through this scene, we learn about the meaning behind its appearance: it’s been present since the season began due to Jack’s guilt about his failings, both in stopping Aku and as a samurai in general. Feeling dishonorable, The Omen and the other ghosts are goading him into suicide by seppuku, which Jack has now accepted.
Also, turns out that the ghost is pretty real. Up until now, I’ve believed he was just in Jack’s head, but no, turns out it has presence in the real world, as Ashi can not only see it, but is also attacked by it. As to the nature of “how” it’s come about, it’s kind of unclear. Anyone with a passing familiarity with seppuku know that it’s a ritualistic form of suicide carried out originally by samurai who feel deeply ashamed of their actions; the ultimate example of how a life without honor is not a life worth living for them. While it can only be implied that The Omen is a force that can follow not just Jack but other samurai, and it’s not the first time that such a supernatural element has been introduced to this series’ samurai lore, it does feel a little out of nowhere for this to be here. Maybe if it was a little more clear with The Omen’s dialogue on whether this is exclusive to Jack’s circumstances or if it’s happened to other samurai before, it wouldn’t feel this way.
Thankfully, before Jack can gut himself, Ashi reminds him of how he’s given hope to countless of people and saved their lives as well, herself included, despite the protests of the ghost about how he only brings death to others. Alas, the student has become the master, and is now saving Jack from going off the deep end. It’s always nice when things come full circle like this. With his confidence restored and having come back to his senses, Jack banishes the ghosts, compliments Ashi’s new “au naturel” look, and declares what fans have been waiting to hear for weeks now: It’s time to find his sword.
Man, all of this just feels very “end of Act 2”. I can almost see the end over the horizon. It saddens me how I’m just blazing through this, but still so excited to see what’s left of the season. I’m hoping that with this, we can officially set the stage for the grand finale. With the theme of remembering how many people Jack has helped, I’m hoping this comes into play later. Last week, we got a tease from The Scotsman about forming a new army with Jack in it to finish Aku once and for all. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all the friends Jack has made along the way joined him for one final battle? Also, since we still have a couple episodes left to go, and now that they stand on equal terms, I wonder if Ashi and Jack’s relationship will develop anywhere beyond where they’ve come up to here. Will Aku learn about what happened with Jack’s sword? And if he does, what will he do? Will he finally track down Jack and go all out on him? Will Jack be able to find his sword in time? What DID happen to the sword exactly? Also, most important of all: What will Jack do once he gets it back? I’ve been trying not to think about this too much, but it seems to me that the last couple of episodes have emphasized Aku’s defeat in the current time, with the topic of finding a way back in time for Jack kinda ignored. It makes me wonder how exactly it’s all gonna wrap up. I guess we’re gonna have to wait to see what happens once Jack finds his sword and the final stage of his comeback is set.
Whatever that may be, this episode stands on its own uniqueness. While light on action, it captures a lot of the show’s other aspects, ones that aren’t usually at the forefront of what fans think about when discussing this show’s merits: the heart, the humor, and the optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Ashi keeps surprising as a mainstay feature of the season and I can’t wait to see where she ends up and what her role in Jack’s destiny will eventually be. Through her, we get to see a little of just how far Jack’s come, showing how even the smallest of accomplishments in his quest can add up to something greater; something that even he needs to be reminded of sometimes. Only time will tell where this one will fall in terms of general appraisal, but for now, just like Jack taking the time to help those in need, it’ll definitely be worth remembering.
See you next time!