Long ago, on a channel that used to show cartoons exclusively – many of them good – there was a show in which a hero with a magic sword is flung from his time into a future controlled by a supreme evil. I know, it sounds kinda generic, but it isn’t, this is my Samurai Jack retrospective.
Samurai Jack Retrospective
The Samurai Jack series wasn’t just one of the most important animated shows that I watched during my teenage years but it was by far one of the best Western animation shows released in the 2000s.
The show’s driving force isn’t its story – as extraordinarily flimsy as it is, it is so with good reason – instead, the show runners chose to focus on a special art style, movie-style directing and editing, and on the metric fuck-tonne of incredibly dynamic fights that Jack gets involved in.
Samurai Jack – Style over substance?
At first sight one could argue that this is nothing more than a case of style over substance, but i want you to hold off on that rather rushed opinion. Allow me to tell you a bit about the many things that set Samurai Jack apart from most other animated shows. This applies not only to contemporary animations, but animated shows in general.
The story is so simple that it’s summarized at the beginning of each episode. It’s narrated by none other than the show’s villain, the evil Aku, who tells us that he has immeasurable power, but that his only weakness is a magic sword wielded by a foolish samurai. In order to avoid perishing, Aku uses his dark powers to throw the samurai into the future, a future in which Aku has control of the entire planet. The samurai’s mission now being to find a way to go back to the past, to defeat Aku, and as a result, to prevent all the destruction and sorrow he has caused.
The only clear theme of the show is Jack’s mission, which is closely linked to his unwavering dedication to upholding his system of morals. Even when this directly means that he must forego many opportunities of returning to the past, he will not budge from his version of bushido.
But one of the main strengths of Samurai Jack relies upon its atmosphere, with the episodes ranging from dark and epic, to joyful and comical. Generally they begin and end with Jack continuing his travels – usually literally, Jack walks a lot in this show…A LOT.
Samurai Jack’s art style
The most striking thing about the show is its art style. This is usually the first thing that one observes in an animation anyway, but the way they draw Samurai Jack is definitely something apart from the usual. The art style is minimalistic, and characterized by a lack of black borders between the various elements of a scene. The show runners also take some risks with the style in several episodes, experimenting with scenes that differ wildly from their standard look, so as to better illustrate the action going on in the story.
This peculiar and particular art style is then complemented by the directing and editing of the show, both of which are heavily inspired by classic Japanese samurai movies. It so happened that a deep appreciation for the aesthetics of older films is in Samurai Jack. Many episodes reference both old Japanese movies as well as featuring many Western movie concepts.
Sounds and music
The atmosphere is then completed by the soundtrack. the episodes tend to feature lots of very quiet sections in which you’ll only hear background noise, like the noise of the wind, birds chirping or water running. This relative silence contrasts heavily with the quickness of the action scenes, as well as with the speed with which the episode changes from quiet to action, to then quiet again.
All of these apparently different characteristics converge to create a universe that could only exist within an animation, or a comic book. Samurai Jack’s universe being an amalgam of different time periods, cultures and especially different mythologies.
This proves itself as yet another advantage of the series, because in this incredibly diverse and weird world, pretty much anything can happen and as such, each episode is different from the one before and from the one following. There is close to nothing linking one Samurai Jack season to another, except maybe the returning character of the Scotsman.
In one episode Jack will be fighting shoulder to shoulder with Spartan warriors in an anachronistic futuristic version of the battle of Thermopylae, and the next you’ll see him in a realm reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland. After which, he’ll be spending a night in a haunted mansion and in the next episode, he has to fight an ancient and once noble warrior, cursed by Aku with immortality and encased inside a crystal. These 4 really random, really different things, are just some examples of the episodes – they’re all like that, unique. However, every time, on every adventure, Jack will meet creatures with personal stories, most of which requiring Jack’s help with some aspect of Aku’s rule.
Samurai Jack’s fight scenes
One of the main features of the show is the very dynamic fights that populate pretty much every episode, and the creators were very smart to skirt around potential censorship problems by having Jack usually destroy robots that bleed black oil and sparks. Even though this aesthetic approach was ratings-driven, it also helps to further define Jack as the archetypical pure warrior – because he doesn’t destroy creatures that are self-conscious.
Jack is a warrior who leads his life according to a very well-defined honor system, which he will not break even when that means that it is stopping him from reaching his goal, and whose weapon is literally pureness of the human spirit. Because the most evil thing in the universe can only be countered by the most beneficial thing in the universe. And to finish up this archetypal construct, Jack isn’t even his real name, his real name is never revealed, the name Jack being equal to “that guy, that dude”, in essence making Jack anyone of us.
Everything I’ve been trying to explain and express until now is why I consider Samurai Jack worth your time, and if you need some tips for an entry point, I suggest you check out episodes 37 and 38 – The Birth of Evil.
The Birth of Evil
This is a two-part episode where we see how Aku comes to be, as well as the history behind the magic sword, as well as Jack. When you watch them back-to-back they form an incredibly well-made short animated film which you will surely not regret viewing, even if you don’t like the rest of the show, you’ll still like The Birth of Evil. But i will also make a short list of episodes I suggest you might want to check out before diving into the full series, at the end of this article.
The show does not end on a conclusion for Jack’s story, although it is strongly suggested in one episode that he will eventually succeed, with what can only be described as being an old Samurai Jack appearing in one episode. There have been rumors for years as to the story’s conclusion being made into a feature-length movie – the creator saying that he would like for that to happen – but unfortunately there’s nothing solid in this respect. However, till the possible conclusion of the story, the adventures of the samurai flung from his time continue in the only other medium that can support his universe – comic books – but we’ll talk about those, in a future article.
I want to thank you for your attention, make sure you let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this retrospective, if you knew about Samurai Jack or have never heard of the show till now.
Here’s my suggested Samurai Jack episode list:
VII – Jack and The Three Blind Archers
X – Jack and The Lava Monster
XI – Jack and The Scotsman, Part I
XVIII – Jack and The Ultra-Robots
XX – Jack and The Monks
XXIII – Jack versus Demongo, The Soul Collector
XXIV – Jack is naked
XXV – Jack and The Spartans
XXX – Jack and The Zombies
XXXII – Jack and The Traveling Creatures
XXXV – Jack and The Haunted House
XXXVI – Jack, The Monks, and The Ancient Master’s Son
XXXVII – The Birth of Evil, Part 1
XXXVIII – The Birth of Evil, Part 2
XL – Samurai versus Ninja
If this beautiful piece of nostalgia resonates with you, the Samurai Jack: Seasons 1-4 DVD Box Set is available for purchase on Amazon.