'Samurai Jack’ is Back, Bleak, and Beautiful / by Jefferson Geiger

This weekend I went back in time to the early 2000s. I was in my basement surrounded by my LEGOs, “Star Wars” action figures and had no care in the world. How and why did this happen?  Because “Samurai Jack” was back on the air.

Created by Genndy Tartakovsky—Known for “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Star Wars: Clone Wars”—in 2001, the animated television show ended in 2004 after 52 episodes. The titular hero, voiced by Philip LaMarr when he decides to spare a few words, tried to defeat the demon Aku with his father’s magical katana in feudal Japan. Yet before he can strike the final blow, Aku sends Jack via a portal into a future dystopia where the demon rules. Jack’s new quest is to go back in time and end Aku’s reign before it can begin.

While the fish-out-of-water story is interesting, the hook of the show is Tartakovsky’s angular and minimalistic aesthetic. It was, and still is, unlike any other cartoon that aired. Each scene is museum-worthy and Tartakovsky uses more unique cinematography in a 2D program than some use in live-action feature-length films. The stellar animation won the series four well-deserved Primetime Emmy Awards.

On Saturday Jack returned to the present for the fifth and final season. LaMarr’s choice words and Tartakovsky’s penchant for widescreen shots returned as well. The only major cast change is that Greg Baldwin now voices Aku because Mako Iwamatsu passed away in 2006.

Another change is that Tartakovsky has more creative freedom. His love of classic films like “Seven Samurai” is apparent in his direction, but not everything about those films can translate to a cartoon airing on a children’s network. In the original run, they got around the censors by making turning humanoid foes into androids that spilled oil instead of blood.

Thanks to the ratings being bumped up to TV-14 and it officially airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, it can be darker and more mature.

At the end of season four Jack lost his magical sword leaving him no way to defeat Aku. There was a foreshadowing glimpse of him returning to the past through a portal, giving the audience some closure, but most would agree that it ended too soon.

At the start of the fifth season, fifty years have passed without sight of a time portal but Jack has physically stayed the same for magical reasons. Except for unkempt hair and a beard, he looks the same and can still destroy robots like he used to.

Mentally, things have gotten worst for him. He is plagued by visions of his parents and neighbors that he failed to save in the original timeline and may never have to opportunity to save. Lacking his sword, he finally embraced the technology of the future like machine guns, a motorcycle and an electrified staff. He’s doing his best to accept his place and fate.

Aside from the always beautifully choreographed fight scenes, the moments of internal strife were the best part of the premiere. Finally there is depth to lone hero. The old Jack wasn’t loathsome, but it’s hard to get attached to a practically mute person who saves every creature in trouble without a second thought. Having a glimpse of something other than a white knight gives the audience something relatable.

Reaching the end of the first 20 minutes of his return was bittersweet. In just nine weeks I’ll have to say goodbye again. Yet I have faith that it’ll be the sendoff he deserves.

This column was originally published in the March 15, 2017 edition of the Valley Courier.