Samurai Jack, 1: Telling a Story through Action

Image from Flickr user Surian Soosay

Samurai Jack begins with action and sound — a single note, long and ominous, booms. The sun and moon cross paths and a red bolt of lightning strikes a decrepit, spiky bush. It transforms into something dark, tall, and fiery, a crowned head set against a blood-red sky: he — as in Aku, our villain — turns (or does the camera turn?) and stares us down. Aku states his goal in a direct and clean sentence, and then his image fades into an ancient tapestry of his ravaging a city. Jack’s father narrates Aku’s story from here, and we are not sure if the opening scene was in fact the past Jack’s father describes or the actual present. Only later do we realize that history and present intertwine when Aku does in fact appear and assaults the city. All throughout this crucial attack, as arrows, spears, and fiery catapults Characters say very little: gesture, action, and facial expressions drives the rest of the story.

The first episode sets the artistic and narrative philosophy of the entire series: Samurai Jack uses what governs most of human communication: subtle and explicit gestures and facial expressions and, I would add, subtext, the stuff hidden beneath the action. The dialogue is spare — no talking heads, no witty remarks, just straightforward, emotionally appropriate words. It’s not that Samurai Jack has anything against dialogue; it’s just unnecessary to the story some times.

Jack’s training montage embodies all of this. We really don’t need to know how Jack’s mother knows the merchant she leaves Jack. We don’t need exposition or heartfelt gratitude. As Jack’s father says, this is what we planned. Whatever needs to be said was already said years ago among Jack’s mother and father and the world’s best warriors and scholars he must train with. So we can race along to what matters: getting to know Jack.

Interestingly enough, I get emotionally invested in Jack’s body and by watching his body in motion, I place emotional investment in Jack himself. I watch him grow not just from boy to man but from prince to warrior, a warrior prince who accepts his mission without a qualm. What motivates his body to practice such extravagant athleticism from the way he looks at his mother when they part ways, so we have a reason to root for him and stay with him for the entire journey.

And it’s nearly ten minutes. Ten minutes of straight visuals, no dialogue. Ten minutes is a long time to run a montage. Most montages run for less than that, at least in my viewing experience — it’s a bridge between major events, a bridge that really is both important and unimportant visually and emotionally for viewers. We need to cover ground and move the story along but we also want to do the character’s growth or journey justice. We can’t lose the viewers’ interests, so let’s draw a few quick scenes.

But Samurai Jack is patient; the show carefully outlines how Jack’s body develops through the intense training. And it’s both a serious and playful endeavor: there’s enough humor during the training that we know Jack isn’t just an embroiled warrior. He’s gentle, he’s spiritual, he’s respectful, he’s daring. The simple, flat visuals capture the complexity of the human in surprisingly full three dimension, as I watch Jack adapt his body to the actions and gestures of the cultures he lives among. I learn much about Jack’s personality through these adaptations alone that I’m willing to sit through his training forever. And by the time he receives his sword and duels Aku, I believe in Jack’s abilities. But I’m also excited. I anticipate his success, and when he fights Aku and wins, I’m pleased that his training paid off. And then disappointed that despite his training, Jack is ill-equipped for defending against Aku’s magic.

This first episode of Samurai Jack, and the entire series, really, demonstrates the strength of visual media. Director Genndy Tartakovsky gives close attention to gesture — even the smallest of gestures — for large swathes of time without boring me. I’m watching actions that I never give my conscious to. How many times do we use our muscles everyday? The answer is probably an infinite amount.

But animating infinite action doesn’t work in every medium. I can’t not ignore the overlap between visual media and print: Film and television have no doubt influenced how fiction writers tell stories. Because so many books are easy material for film adaptation, fiction writers imagine their books as movies or television shows before their work even gets raptured to Hollywood (most books are left behind).

Because writers imagine their work as movies and not as novels, I’m left reading cinema stories — narratives in which the writer describe every. Single. Movement. Every. Single. Facial Expression. This makes for boring reading. The sentences don’t sing, and I spend more time trying to piece together the character’s movement in my head(“Wait, where is Emily’s left foot in relation to John’s right arm again?”)than enjoying the writer’s play with words and the emotional worth of the story. I get especially bored when a writer attempts to describe an intense battle: every sword swing must be documented. “He came down with his blade, but Emily stepped to the side and came back with a deadly stab!” I’d rather know about what the fighters are thinking as they fight rather than read about their mad sword fighting skills.

I was guilty of this myself when I was a young lad writing a fantasy trilogy. That was the summer of 2002, and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones were always in my head, always on repeat on my parent’s big television set in the living room. All I could think about was how I could make the action look and feel like those movies. I got caught up in the successes of these films; I wanted to be like them, so I wrote my books like movies. They’re too painful to read now.

Exploring the interior life of characters suit the novel well. That’s why writers worth their salt make sweeping generalizations in their writing before focusing on that one crucial action that drives the narrative forward or reveals something telling about a character’s personality and history. I say that if fiction writers want to capture every sword swipe and every twitch in facial muscles, they should write a script or play (even, then, screenplays are actually group affairs. Scripts are blueprints that the director and his production team than fill with their own vision of what the story looks and feels like. Very few screenplay writers have a say in what the movie will do, unless they themselves direct or produce the film).

Samurai Jack’s hyper attention to movement rather than dialogue is risky, I think, in an industry that demands snappy, witty jokes and endless chattering. Samurai Jack is a relief from overbearing television and film; it’s a testament to what telling a story through action can do.

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