Saturday, March 11, 2017

Animation Review: Samurai Jack: Jack is Back!

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 Long ago in a distant land, I Aku the shapeshifting master of darkness unleashed an unspeakable evil. But a foolish Samurai warrior welding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past and undo the future that is Aku!

 After all these years he has returned. Samurai Jack returns for a 5th season today on Adult Swim with all but one of the key players returning to either continue the adventures of our favorite time slipped Samurai or at least give him a proper conclusion to his fight to save the world from Aku. Now for those who've never seen Samurai Jack the intro that I summarized is the basic story but I'll elaborate.

 In the beginning there was darkness. But then light came into the universe driving the darkness away. It was nearly exterminated by 3 deities, Odin, Vishnu and Ra. Though the three defeated the darkness a small sliver survived and wandered the cosmos until it crashed into a small underdeveloped Earth. The darkness was slowly encompassing the earth for generations until a Samurai Emperor and his army braved the darkness, eventually the Emperor reached the center of the darkness and fired a special poison tipped arrow into the darkness.

 However instead of destroying the darkness it instead gave the darkness physical form and consciousness, giving birth to the master of masters, the deliverer of darkness, the shogun of sorrow; Aku. Once Aku was born he crucified the Emperor and forced him to watch as Aku gleefully destroyed the Emperor's kingdom. Though beaten but not broken he was guided to the 3 gods who agreed to forge him a weapon that could hurt and eventually destroy Aku. The sword, forged from the Emperor's own light, soul and love of humanity was an anathema to Aku. Armed with this divine sword the Emperor managed to seal Aku into a petrified state. However the Emperor and his wife knew this wasn't the end and so made preparations in case Aku returned.

 Eventually the plan was implemented as with the return of Aku the Emperor had his wife send their young son away to train in various skills and combat techniques around the world until he returned to his homeland years later armed with his father's sword to free his land from Aku. Despite the Samurai's efforts Aku managed to outwit him by sending him into the future to where not only did Aku conquer the earth but also opened channels to various planets and alien races to trade, thus slowly expanding his reach to most of the galaxy with Aku's ultimate goal of conquering the universe. So the Samurai who adopted the name Jack swore to find a way to return to his own time and destroy Aku before he enslaved the earth. So in between trying to discover a way to return; Jack also deals with helping people he comes across, fighting bounty hunters or dealing with Aku's schemes to kill him, and that's the premise. Sure there is some serialization with one or two re occurring characters or following plot points from previous episodes but Samurai Jack's episodes are mostly standalone tales not unlike shows like Cowboy Bebop.

 One of the things that made Jack stand out and stick with people is that there's not all that much dialogue in every episode. In fact I think there may have been one or two episodes that had zero dialogue, which for a kids show is very rare. The reason why is twofold, one Genndy Tartakovsky the creator of Samurai Jack remembers that animation is a visual medium and thus trusts that what the audience sees is enough to convey the story being presented, and when there is dialogue it gets straight to the point and conveys what isn't shown but not in a way where it's holding the audiences hand, mostly character motivation, developmental conversations or just small amounts of levity to the proceedings, nothing more or less and nothing that overstays it's welcome. Leading to my second point, this show does not talk down to its audience! 

 I mean my god do you know how rare that is these days and even back then? A mostly visual action show that conveys its ideas and themes not through dialogue but visually that does not shirk from the overall message even through the "for kids" filter. I mean we see that the monsters Jack fights are robots but we know that they're only robots for sake of censorship and narrative coherency. I mean Aku does have thousands of insect robots under his command so clearly robotics technology has flourished in this setting so if Aku can have robots why not everyone? And if robots are in, cybernetic enhancements aren't out of the question either so all the robots that Jack fights do make sense and even back then I knew why that was.

 But what is good writing without good characters that the writing centers around? First is our main hero Jack, he's a determined focused and honorable warrior that while the new surroundings stun and confuse him he does adapt extremely quickly. No doubt due in part to moving around the world learning from different teachers for most of his life so adapting to new surroundings and social customs is second nature to him. In combat he's strong but thankfully not invincible and also recognizes when strength alone is not enough to win the day. My personal favorite examples are the episodes "Jack and the Three Blind Archers" and "Jack Vs Mad Jack" where Jack managed to get around the 3 archers by relying on their sonar hearing to outmaneuver them and take the three out in a simultaneous attack and where Jack defeated his rage ruled doppelgänger through brief meditation and self actualization respectively. 

 Moving on to the big bad himself who easily makes the top 10 of my favorite villains list, Aku. He's everything I love in a villain, cruel, powerful, intelligent, intimidating, cunning and sadistic but still has a sense of humor about him and has a very simple but memorable and very, very evil design. Like Lord Zedd most of his humor comes from his Genre Savviness and his anger at the failure of his minions, though Aku does tend to succeed more often then naught. So long as he can keep Jack from returning home he succeeds. Also like Robotnik from Sonic SAT AM Aku already rules the world and is working to conquer the universe so Jack frees a species under his subjugation, it's only drinking a cup of water when he has to drain the ocean, in short Aku should be used as an example of how to make a competent, memorable and badass villain. 

 But that was then now to look ahead and speculate. We already know that season 5 takes place 50 years from when we last saw Jack and yet he hasn't aged a day, grew a beard and is seeing visions of his beardless self that talks to him. We also see that Aku's been stepping up his game by more brutal subjugation of those who don't submit to his rule; even taking a page from M Bison/ Vega's book and created an all Female hit squad to kill Jack. And unlike the lord of Shadaloo these ladies didn't need to be brainwashed, so less like the dolls and more Aku's female furies.

 On top of all of this the 5 decades trying and failing to return home is clearly starting to get to Jack as his literal inner monologue tells him. The animation and art style is still consistent with the show back then which is a major plus. (And yes Genndy admitted in an interview that Samurai Jack drew heavy inspiration from Frank Miller's Ronin, hell the Episode "Jack in the Spartans" was clearly inspired by 300, so yeah without Frank Miller we may never have Samurai Jack, you get this ONE Franky boy but only this one.) Back on track, from an uninformed perspective this seems like a good deal, but there is some concern from me and some other fans. First Cartoon Network doesn't have the best track record of reviving shows under their banner, examples include Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans Go and Season 2 of The Big O. Second, we all know that Aku was played by the lord of all that is and ever shall be, the almighty and eternally glorious Mako. 

Praise be to lord Mako!
 So who are they going to get to replace him? I mean Mako gave Aku an unforgettable and fitting voice, almost as much of a match between actor and character as Hugh Jackman and Wolverine; Mark Hamel and the Joker; Kevin Conroy and Batman; Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow, Clancy Brown and Lex Luthor and even Patrick Stewart and Charles Xavier you just can't imagine another actor in that role without feeling that something was off. Lastly they've been advertising this as a limited series, meaning that this is just a testing phase to see if the show is still viable. So the question is; will the show draw enough viewers to keep around and will the show be worth keeping around after so long? 

 Hopefully we'll see a positive outcome from all of this. And if we don't get a season 6 at least give us a satisfactory and logical conclusion that sees Jack succeed, destroy Aku and set Earth back to its normal history. All we can do is tune in, watch and judge for ourselves so check your TV guides, DVRs or what have you and watch the premiere of Season 5 of Samurai Jack and show Cartoon Network that this deserves to come back. That is unless it sucks in which case hang your heads in shame. But please do well I want Genndy to be remembered for more then just animating one of 3 actually watchable Adam Sandler movies, that's a fate far worse then anything Aku can conceive.

Samurai Jack is owned by Cartoon Network, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Warner Bros Television Distribution.
Nostalgia Critic is owned by Doug Walker and Channel Awesome.
Jontron is owned by Jon Jaffri and Normal Boots.