Samurai Jack: A Retrospective

    It’s only been a week, yet I’m still processing the fact that Samurai Jack is over. That his big comeback has left us as soon as it arrived, and in its wake, it left something spectacular: a revival of a beloved TV show that remains true to the spirit of the original while updating it in all the right ways. Outside of the recent comeback for Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this, but even then, the evolution of Samurai Jack is one less of superficial style (all in all, it’s the same), but rather a narrative one. In recent memory, when you see a franchise get a new life, you expect it to draw inspiration and some basic building blocks from its predecessors, but other than that, it feels like a totally different creation. Sometimes that new direction is for its benefit, such as what Marvel Studios has been doing with its movie adaptations. Other times, you end up with something like the live-action Transformers movies. Still, this comparison feels inaccurate. Samurai Jack 2017 isn’t just a revival or a re-adaptation, it’s a continuation of the show’s original continuity with the intention of wrapping up a story that was left open-ended. Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve reviewed each episode, covering the in-the-moment developments as they were presented to us. I feel like I’ve covered plenty of ground regarding the show’s evolution and sense of theming, but now that it’s all said and done, we can see how far we came and take a look at the season as a whole so we can appreciate what made this conclusion of Jack’s story such a success. But first, we must take a look at what came before…

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One of these is not like the others. And no, I’m not talking about the cast Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.

    It would be very narrow-minded of me to say that cartoons have always been just for kids, but that really had been conventional wisdom for a while, especially between the early years of TV animation in the 60’s all the way through the early 90’s. Eventually, we would begin to get shows that would break this trend, even at just a niche level. While the ideal for any cartoon was to become profitable for a studio (i.e. make kids love it so they’ll buy whatever they can slap the cartoon likeness on), shows that would become far better appreciated by adults, not just general audiences, began to pop up, such as Disney’s Gargoyles and Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life. Over on Cartoon Network, shows like The Powerpuff Girls and Courage The Cowardly Dog were working on a level that anyone could enjoy them; there was a certain cleverness in the writing and style that worked differently depending on the viewer’s age. Kids could stay for the humor, action and visuals, while the grown-ups could appreciate the nuances that would go over younger audiences’ heads.

    Today, it’s become very acceptable for cartoons to aim for engagement outside of a general audience appeal, to the point that viewers other than kids can be the target. For example, being a 20 something figuring out your place in the world and dealing with the necessity of you to be more of an adult rather than just a big kid can make you relate more to the main characters of Regular Show than your average 12 year old. Even as a 20 something myself, I still find it hard at times to penetrate Adventure Time’s multiple layers of quirky, David Lynch-esque weirdness. I don’t think I would appreciate Steven Universe as much as I do if I wasn’t aware of how strongly it leans on the politics of its creator. Perhaps this is a sign of how niche-oriented modern entertainment has become, giving even the most left-field of creations a shot at finding its place in the entertainment world.

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    All of that being said, while largely accepted today as one of the best shows to ever come out of the network during its era, it’s still easy to forget just how weird it was to get a show like Samurai Jack back in 2001. It wasn’t just another action series, it was a heavily stylized one that wore its myriad of influences on its sleeve and made it clear that it had more ambitions than simply being appealing to kids, but rather a more adult and culturally aware audience that explicitly shouted “It’s cool if the kids can get into it, but that’s not really what we’re going for here”. I’ve often played around with the idea that the only reason this show ever got the green light from the higher-ups was because Genndy Tartakovsky had built up nearly half a decade of good will thanks to his work on shows like The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory. Even then, as the story goes, Tartakovsky pitched it to then CN executive Mike Lazzo as his version of the David Carradine show Kung Fu. He was immediately into it.

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    The show took the similar blocky, angular character design/animation from previous shows that Tartakovsky worked on and gave it an almost hand-drawn sheen to them, making it a one-of-a-kind looking show. It rejected then present-day cartoon conventions of fast pacing, loudness and attitude in favor of a slow burn, largely visual storytelling style with bursts of action. Its main character stood out like a sore thumb among his Cartoon Network regulars: an early 30’s looking Asian man known best for his stoic, soft-spoken, patient, gentle demeanor (at least outside the heat of battle). Not since Johnny Bravo had there been such an atypical cartoon protagonist, and even then, outside of his pick-up-artist, ultra-macho put-upon, Johnny felt more “in line” with the whacky, over-the-top characters the network was known for at the time. All of this was coming from an artist whose best known work had largely been action comedies. It was nothing short of a revelation.

    The show’s boldest element was its pastiche approach to crafting its world. On the surface, it looks like Tartakovsky simply took a bunch of things he thought looked cool, all sorts of historical, fantasy and science fiction elements, and stuck them together as best as he could. However, the final product added up to something far greater than the sum of its parts, like its unique setting that borrows from all sorts of mythological and pop cultural influences, everything from ancient gods, pulp sci-fi, comic books, real-life cultures, high fantasy, etc.

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    Easily the most stand-out of them all is how the show takes the term “samurai” and gives it a meaning of its own, one far more classically heroic than the real-life version. Tartakovsky has gone on record saying that, since he was very young, he was fascinated with samurai culture and the Bushido code, so much so that he would often fantasize about wandering the world with a samurai sword and killing monsters in the name of righteousness. This is definitely a much romanticized ideal of what a samurai actually was. In fact, even excluding the “killing monsters” part, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Real samurai had one job in life: serving their master, usually some powerful lord that would command them as his military force. While there was a code of honor for them to follow, this would boil down to “loyalty to the master at any cost”, which included killing in his name. Not only does Jack never have a master, he’s driven by a benevolent sense of ethics, where he believes that his skills as a warrior are for the benefit of those oppressed by evil forces, often putting their interests before his own. This is why he often forfeited his chances to fulfilling his mission for the sake of helping someone else. As we come to learn in Season 5, he even had a strict personal rule against killing human beings. With all of this, he’s far more akin to a Ronin, a term used to refer to master-less, wandering samurai without a home or purpose, which is exactly what he is/what he became over the course of the series. Considering that plenty of Tartakovsky’s key influences stem from stories involving Ronin, including Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, and even Frank Miller’s Ronin, this is no accident.

    The characters in these stories are driven less by orders of a superior or other altruistic source, but by very personal goals/fulfillments. All of this would become the backbone of the show throughout its 2001-2004 run: Jack moving from place to place looking to fulfill a mission that, while done out of a sense of duty to his family and the rest of the world at first, became very personal. All he had to do was defeat Aku to save the world, but when he was sent to the future, he now had to go back in time and reclaim his life in the past; a very personal wrong brought down on him that he needed to right. What he was fighting to protect had been taking away from him, and now he had to fight to win it back.

    Another important deviation from samurai tradition was how “well-traveled” Jack had been since an early age. Ancient Japanese empires weren’t exactly known for their acceptance or connections to anything they didn’t see as a chance for expansion of land, power, influence, etc. yet since he was very young, as part of his training to fight Aku, Jack visited many lands exotic to him where, other than fighting skills, he would develop a sense of comradery and friendship from his many peers and teachers. This wasn’t just something that sprung forth from him, it was part of a plan laid out by his parents for a long time. This presents a version of the world that promotes the unity and sharing of cultures that, retroactively, made this show more vital to modern times than ever before. Jack gets to bond with people from all walks of life who take him in not just as an ally, but as a friend. As a result, Jack becomes a much better-rounded person who’s accepting of cultures and people different from him, which would become a vital part of his travels. Even while daunted by the strangeness of the future he was sent to, he still had the necessary tools and experience for him to be able to connect and relate to a myriad of other people and creatures, even non-human ones, to the point where he’d be willing to lay his life on the line for them.

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    As we move on to Season 5, we get to see how the show evolves both its style and themes. Right off the bat, it became clear that the shift from an episodic narrative to a serialized one gave the story a much faster rhythm. While purists may decry this, I see it as a necessity for the story.  What we watched was essentially a ten episode climax to the series; a lot of what was set up before it gets to be paid off in some way. The time for slowing down to sink in the scenery and let the show wash over us was over; it was time to finish the fight. Also, the Ronin themes of Jack’s story become much more explicit. We’re told that Jack has been wandering aimlessly for 50 years, not just because his options to travel back in time have been exhausted, but because he feels he has disgraced himself and what he stands for. He let his worst instincts consume him and strayed from the path of good morals and honor that had been set up for him by his upbringing and by himself, something that, as we come to learn, he had been wrestling with for all those years, which even led him to believe that without a purpose or even his personal code guiding him, the only honorable thing left to do is to end his life.

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    This brings us to that other well-known thing about samurai ethics: seppuku. What’s best known about this term is that it’s a ritualistic method of suicide for samurais when they feel they’ve severely disgraced either themselves or the master they serve, believing that a life without honor is a life not worth living. Since the beginning of the season, we see a ghostly samurai haunting Jack, which turns out to be a manifestation of the samurai code, his personal take on Bushido, that he’s been following all his life. While Jack does his best to avoid it and pay no mind to it, he eventually succumbs to it, or rather comes close to it, when he feels his wrongdoing have taken a heavy enough toll. What makes Ronin stories so fascinating is how they present a much more human side to samurais that weren’t typically seen. They present warriors that often struggled with copings of desire, morality and failure. Jack has spent the better part of half a century doing just this, and we get to see the consequences of it unfold right before us. We watch a man on the brink of coming undone by his greatest human flaw: being exactly good enough of a person to be crushed by the guilt of failing to do better; a force so powerful, it makes him lose track of what good he HAS done. It’s only until he’s reminded of this by an outside source that he’s able to find the strength and determination to get his bearings back…

…which brings us to Ashi.

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    Upon meeting her, I don’t think many fans expected this character to have as much of a significance to the story as she ended up having. From the previews, what many expected her to be is just another obstacle for Jack to overcome on his way to recovery and defeating Aku. What we got instead was one of the most important characters in the series, third only to Jack and Aku. While that may sound like faint praise given the series’ limited cast, she’s by no means any less critical. Giving Jack a sidekick, love interest, etc. may seem on paper as the antithesis of what the show is about, but looking at this season as is, and the way the relationship between her and Jack came to be, it’s very apparent that Ashi’s introduction into the series had a far more meaningful purpose. Most important of all, it feels that Tartakovsky and his team understood that it was important to “earn” that meaningfulness before getting to it, so they decided that this relationship would be the foundation where the season’s big ideas would lay on. Going back through the season, you can appreciate how this is a dynamic that evolves with literally every passing episode, which creates a thorough line for the development of the season’s core themes.

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    Episode 1 is about establishing Jack’s new status quo and the necessity for him to get help for his mental problems, as well as introducing us to Ashi, her painful upbringing, and how she was molded all her life to worship Aku, hate Jack, and train to kill him, despite having a few small glimmers of humanity that her mother attempted to snuff out. (By the way, it’s cool how she and her sisters are coded to be ninjas, given that Ninjutsu was a discipline originally developed to fight samurai).

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    Episode 2 gives Jack his first battle with the Daughters of Aku, which pushes him to his physical and mental limits and forces him to break (on accident) his unspoken no-killing-humans rule.

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    Episode 3 foreshadows Jack’s necessity of relying on someone for the sake of getting better by recovering from his fight with Ashi and her sisters with the help of a literal lone wolf. After this, he comes to the conclusion that it’s “kill or be killed” for him, and must make a stand against his enemies, taking out most of the Daughters until only Ashi is left.

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In Episode 4, we see Ashi has survived her fight with Jack, and since the odds are no longer against him, Jack no longer sees the need for killing her. Instead, he forces himself to save her after they get swallowed by a giant monster. By the end of this misadventure, Jack has made his case of Aku’s evil against Ashi’s worship of him, which leads her to question what she’s been told all her life about him and Jack (it’s important how it’s established that this wasn’t just Jack forcing his beliefs on her. The shadow of doubt loomed over Ashi long before then).

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By Episode 5, Ashi officially becomes Jack’s ally, not much than that at this point, as she comes to accept that Aku brings only destruction and misery. While Jack didn’t want anything to do with Ashi anymore, he was coerced by her into showing her the truth.

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In Episode 6, Ashi gains first-hand experience of the good that Jack has done for the world, giving her a deeper understanding and appreciation for who Jack is and what he stands for, leading her to literally shed away her “darkness” and acquiring the tools she needed to bring Jack back from the brink of death, restoring his resolve and giving him the strength to face his personal demons.

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In Episode 7, we see Ashi prove that she’s someone Jack can depend on in battle, as she protects him from an entire army, and also her own mother, while he goes on a spiritual quest to recover his sword and put an end to his inner torment. With this, she proves that she’s given up her old ways wholesale and would put herself on the line for Jack, that she has accepted his beliefs and desires as her own.

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Episode 8 takes their relationship to the biggest extreme possible, where upon the two have gained enough trust and appreciation of each other for them to develop mutual romantic feelings. They’ve become the most important people in each other’s lives, having saved each other’s in some way and changing them for the better.

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In Episode 9, despite Jack’s insistence that he cares too much about her to put her in further danger, Ashi reassures him that it was their bond that allowed them to come as far as they’ve had. Even at the realization that Ashi is Aku’s literal daughter, he still has faith in Ashi’s humanity and inherent goodness. Ashi reveals that she’s willing to let herself die if it means that Jack can defeat Aku. Despite this, Jack’s humanity proves to be too much for him to kill the woman he loves.

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Finally, in Episode 10, it’s that humanity that allows Jack to not just save Ashi from her darkness, but to wield said darkness for good, allowing Jack to finally save the world. Unfortunately, it comes at the price of Ashi disappearing from existence. Regardless of whether she realized this was gonna happen beforehand or not, we’ve seen how far she was willing to go for Jack, so while it’s bittersweet to watch her fade away, it’s comforting to know that she loved Jack so much, she was willing to sacrifice everything, even her own life, for him to be happy. Ironically, she had become the source of plenty of happiness for Jack.

    It’s through this relationship, and the juxtaposition of Jack and Ashi as people, that the show’s theme of “balance” has its biggest payoff.  In a way, the characters are basically an inversion of each other. Jack was a boy born in a place of privilege as a prince, where his parents raised him in the ways of honor and fighting for peace. His time training didn’t just turn him into a formidable fighter, it made him a much better person in the process; a gentle, compassionate warrior who believes in selfless service. Over the course of his struggles, we see him fighting to maintain this image, but after spending such a long time fighting, a fraction of that identity became clouded in self-righteousness, doubt, selfishness, and entitlement; a belief that just because he claims to be fighting for the best of causes, that automatically meant he deserved to succeed at all costs. By contrast, Ashi is a girl born into a clan where living was suffering. She had literally the worst parents possible, as she was bred to be hateful and destructive, living for the single goal of upholding Aku’s rule and killing Jack. She spent most of her life enduring massive amounts of pain, never knowing what it’s like to feel loved, sheltered away from the world while being sold a warped version of it through her mother’s twisted beliefs. It’s nothing short of miraculous how despite such horrible circumstances, there was still a part of her that resisted this evil, one that wanted to be part of a world like the one Jack was fighting for, even when it was revealed how that darkness isn’t something that Ashi can just brush aside, it’s a literal part of who she is right down to her core. It’s just as miraculous how Jack, despite being in a position where he could’ve experienced nothing but commodity and advantage over others, lived a life that made him the exact kind of person the world needed to fight back against evil, being born into a family that would infuse those standards into his very being. Jack and Ashi were able to keep each other in check. By understanding Jack’s worldview, Ashi was able to make Jack keep his eyes on the prize. When he was at his lowest, she gave him the will to carry on and tap back into the righteousness that made him worthy of being the hope of the world. By the same token, Jack helped Ashi fight back against the darkness inside of her by appealing to her innate goodness. Through the bond they developed, she was able to find her own balance: while she couldn’t get rid of Aku’s influence over her, she COULD use what that had been given her for Jack’s benefit, which ends up being exactly what he needed to find his way back home and defeat his mortal enemy once and for all.

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    It was sweet, it was well-earned, and it reinforced core themes of the show that had been present from the beginning. Not only does this make me call “Jashi” a resounding success, it’s what makes this final season of the show work so well, giving us not just a satisfying continuation/conclusion to the Samurai Jack, but doing so in the form of a bona fide love story for the ages. I’ll definitely keep lamenting how it turns out it was never meant to be between Jack and Ashi given the tragic circumstances of the finale, especially after such a good job it did at integrating her into the story, but then again, if the show is putting me in the same sad, melancholy headspace that Jack gets to occupy in the show’s closing moments, isn’t that just the writing being good? If I feel sad because of Ashi’s fate, it’s because I too came to value her greatly.

    It’s impossible for me to see the show in any terms other than this. As I said in my review of the finale, I expected Samurai Jack’s big comeback to be many things, but mainly an updated version of what we had before, and if it had been just that, I probably would’ve been satisfied anyway. One thing I was definitely not counting on was to surprise me with bold changes to the show’s formula that expand on its philosophy while still retaining that essence that made me fall in love with it long ago. Even while showing off its brand new TV-14 rating (in most episodes), it stays true to what made the show so beloved by people of my generation while still presenting what could be an entirely different show altogether outside of having the same characters and world. While it did have a couple of faults here and there, they’re largely rendered meaningless thanks to what it accomplishes and how well it does it (besides, this editorial can only be so long). Despite having high expectations for the return of Samurai Jack, I can confidently say that they have been exceeded. With that in mind, I would like to thank Genndy Tartakovsky, his team of artists and writers, all the voice actors, and the people at Adult Swim and Toonami for letting this happen and letting such a wonderful series not just get the ending it deserved, but giving us a conclusion to the story of Jack that we didn’t know we wanted.

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    Besides, I’m sure the show’s success will definitely put Tartakovsky on very good terms with Adult Swim/Toonami. Maybe they should consider teaming up again for other projects. If only there was another show that Tartakovsky worked on that would fill right at home there. One that maybe never got a proper chance at success and went away too early.

Oh, wait a minute. There is…

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