Not long ago in my iPad, I, Alpha, the shapeshifting master of darkness, watched an unspeakable evil…
I recently finished watching Samurai Jack, the full series.
For some things, I think it was really revolutionary. The episodes were mostly self-conclusive and there’s little to no continuity (except for the last season). But still, some things about it stroke me as interesting.
First, the music. The first season has impressive, beyond and above musical soundtrack composed for chapters that are mostly devoid of dialogue. However, the sound effects really kill the mood. Most of them are recognizable from the old Hannah-Barbera style cartoons.
The second season kept the music and lowered the impact sound had. story-wise, not too much to tell, but every once in a while it would make emphasis of the growing frustration that Jack experienced over being held back again and again.
The third and fourth seasons were pretty forgettable, except for a couple of gems hidden in them.
Over all these four seasons, we get pretty much all of the cliches for cartoon series. We’ve got the “journey inside the body” episode, the “body change” episode, the old western, the retold fairy tales, the mafia, the spy, the baby that gets in trouble, the mecha-robots, the villain in disguise, the gladiator arena, the evil doppleganger…
Finally, I really hate the trope of the villain being dumb, but Aku is so in a slight way that is very consistent — it didn’t feel that much of a trope but rather a very deliberate choice for his personality to be quirky and funny. It truly is.
Samurai Jack 2017
The fifth season, which aired in Adult Swim (instead of Cartoon Network) had a different air to it, but when you account for the story, it just feels like a long episode. However, it is a conclusive end to the series, and it introduces a few more aspects that are really suited for adult audiences.
Mind you, I really loved that. The story of a lone person that needs to save an already-devastated world has powerful aspects to tell that a children’s show will not explore. The burden of everyone being dead, the temptation of suicide as giving up and joining loved ones in the afterlife, the dilemma that being a defender of good still doesn’t get rid of evil in the world and that injustices still happen.
But then, the execution of the storytelling really lack the pace that most of the previous series set up. It is just too rushed. And not to mention that it introduces lots of inconsistencies and breaks with the little continuity that the previous series built on.
One of the things I did like about the series in general is that, even when the animators could not get away with certain amounts of violence, they were able to circumvent it by making every slain enemy into a robot. The line is blurred at times, but the sentiment is the same, and the character’s progression is exactly as if the dead allies/enemies were all sentient.
In several occasions Jack gets to hear the last words of a robot, and even when it is not so “hard” on us, it is for him.
In other situations, he does remember the wonders of the world he knew, accentuating how far long it is gone, and how far away his goal is.
The whole concept of the series is that evil has already won, and while we know that he can go back in time and undo everything, he gets to perceive how the aftermath of a fallen world looks like. I think this is very powerful storytelling: never before we get to see how things look when the villains that want to “destroy the world” really have their chance.
There are elements I think could have made the story more interesting.
One of the premises of the show is that Jack is sent into a world that he doesn’t comprehend. That culture shock, the futuristic technology against his own blade is a battle to lose. However, this never becomes a huge deal, and I think it should have been: putting him in the disadvantage only to show how technology is fleaky on particular situations could have been a great element to the show. In the last season, where we see a Jack that has spend over 50 years roaming the Earth, we could have expected some growth in that aspect, making him still samurai-style, but modernized, or at the very least, without that disadvantage.
(Spoiler in this paragraph.) The concept of Jack loving someone does not get explored up until the very end — we could have seen him before getting to trust and love someone, only for them to get stripped away by Aku. Which would, in turn, make him bitter and reserved, but it would have given more depth and strength to his desire for justice.
A few gems
If I was asked if the full series is worth watching, I’d probably say no… but there are a few gems that I believe, defy what we currently hold as standards for children’s shows and animation in general. I’d recommend these episodes:
- S01E07: Jack and the Three Blind Archers
What’s great about it: The exaggerated mastery of the archers and the pacing of the episode make for a really intense buildup to the challenge.
- S01E10: Jack and the Lava Monster
What’s great about it: This is the first time Jack sees how death may be the only way left for some.
- S03E09: Jack and the Haunted House
What’s great about it: The animation goes out of its way for a different style of battle. The story itself is pretty visceral, if you don’t account for the probably-obligated happy ending.
- S03E11–12: The Birth of Evil
What’s great about it: Backstory, and why Aku is really so evil.
- S04E01: Jack vs. The Ninja
What’s great about it: The Jack-Shinobi battle. This is a true masterpiece of animation.
- S04E11: Tale of X49
What’s great about it: Jack’s not the hero in this one.
Still, if you want my top one and if you’re not going to watch anything else, please, see this one, the battle from S04E01: