Show: Samurai Jack, Season 5
Genre: Animation, action, drama
Network: Cartoon Network
Premiered: March 11, 2017
Way back in the early 2000s, Cartoon Network released an inconspicuous little animated gem by the name of Samurai Jack. Spawned from the mind of animation icon Genndy Tartakovsky, this Kurosawa-esque tale of a wandering samurai lost in a dark future and seeking a way back home while doing battle with his eternal nemesis Aku, possessed a unique aesthetic and storytelling style that intrigued audiences even beyond its targeted fanbase. But to its dedicated fans, it was so much more: a cartoon magnum opus that, alas, had succumbed to that dreaded television disease known as early cancellation; after four seasons of artistry and spellbinding narratives woven with skill and dexterity, the series came to an astoundingly unsatisfying conclusion featuring our hero Jack essentially being a babysitter. No end to his quest, no resolution to his story, no nothing. Fans were apparently left with yet another franchise that went belly up, and while Jack’s legacy continued in other media, even his creator was chomping to bring his tale back to the screen for a fitting finale.
But thankfully, this woeful story has a happier ending than most, for after nearly a decade and a half of languishing on Tartakovsky’s bucket list, the series will once again see the light of day, premiering on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] property with an updated look, a new attitude, and a commitment to bringing Jack's journey to a close. So with expectations riding high, how does this new chapter in the Book of Jack pan out?
(You can read up on the premise of the original series here)
Fifty years have passed since the end of season four, and Jack, rendered ageless due to his time traveling, has shown the worst of it. With his face framed in a scruffy beard and sporting long, unkempt locks, he looks every bit the rootless rounin as he transverses the Aku-infected landscape. Plagued by both terrifying visions of failure and a subtle but growing cynicism, Jack holds ever more tenuously to his single hope of returning to his own time, which thanks to Aku, seems further and further out of reach with each passing day. Meanwhile, his ancient nemesis has been busy with plans of his own, tying together a cult of devotees and laying out his latest plan to be rid of the samurai for good: a group of seven female assassins, raised from birth with only one purpose - kill Samurai Jack. Now, our hero, bereft of both his sword and his purpose, must face this latest challenge, and in the process maybe recover some of the fire and righteousness that sparked his legend to begin with.
Right from the initial cold open, you get the sense that this is a very different kind of story from what we're used to. While Samurai Jack never shied away from darker plots in the past, they had always worked by way of contrast to Jack's own pure and indomitable spirit. But here, Jack is a changed man: jaded, world weary, and haunted, as likely to help the helpless as he is to turn his back on an endangered village since he simply can't be bothered at the moment. This all works very well with the more mature setting, whose depictions of a heroic icon bent low by the baggage of his life draw favorable comparisons to both John Wick and Logan, and gives this last arc a degree of gravitas quite removed from the often quirky earlier seasons. But simply mentioning that there's an actual story arc to speak of points out another fundamental change to the franchise - one that, in my opinion, can only be for the better. As much as I enjoyed the original series, it wasn't exactly a narrative juggernaut. This isn't a slight against Tartakovsky’s talent for kabuki style storycrafting, but Samurai Jack's episodic format and the varying quality that entails meant that, for some episodes at least, there was little to keep fans interested save for the lovely animation. But now, the show’s set up a tense, multi episode arc that, if this first taste is any indication, will surely compel us to see through its conclusion. But thankfully, Samurai Jack hasn't completely turned its back on the same qualities that propelled its success in the first place. Tartakovsky’s “show, don't tell“ philosophy is still there, gliding over the lushly illustrated backdrops to tell his story in silence and muted glances. And the presence of Scaramouch, a robotic Sammy Davis, Jr. expy of a bounty hunter who throws out witty musical dialogue as he tries his luck against Jack, reminds us that the show hasn't lost its sense of humor despite the mature image, giving fans of all tastes a reason to tune in.
Not much to complain about, really, though I can't say I'm particularly fond of how much is thrown at us in the first episode. Though the depiction of Jack’s malaise is thorough and heart-rending, too many flashbacks were tossed about, revealing key plot points I would have much preferred to see gradually unfolding over the course of several episodes. Key points include the reveal that Jack lost his sword, or maybe to have stretched out the training of the Daughters of Aku over another episode. This may be due to time constraints, as we’re still not sure how long this season will run, but I do hope that revelations of what drove Jack to the threshold of hopelessness will be expanded at a more leisurely pace over the upcoming episodes.
So far I’ve been pretty mum on the premiere’s B story - the birth and development of the Seven Daughters of Aku, the gaggle of laser-guided tyke bombs who promise to put our hero through a world of hurt. I’m still weighing in on how their appearance will affect the series in the long run. On the one hand, they're practically the heralds of this new long-running story arc approach, being no mere villain of the week, but a consistent and dangerous threat to a warrior who’s been almost invincible to most of his enemies. Being raised in a cult that worships Aku as a god and castigates Jack as his evil usurper, they likely harbor viewpoints that may add a splash of gray to a traditionally black-and-white series, which when combined with Jack’s more cynical outlook, might make for some interesting interactions beyond the sharp clanging of sword on sword action. But on the other hand, this could all be squandered if the arc resolves itself too quickly, or if Jack somehow “handles” the situation in his usual quick and efficient manner - leading the whole thing to just one big bust. Other than that, the animation, while still the gorgeous wash of lineless artwork that’s come to define the series, has added CG to the palette - a necessary addition in my book, though we’ll have to see how it’s used and maintained as time goes by.
Tune In or Tune Out
Tune In, folks - it’s a no-brainer. We’re talking about the resurrection of the biggest cult animated series from the early 2000s here - of course you should tune in. Old fans will finally get a sense of closure for this modern-day chanbara saga, and even if you’re new to the dystopian world of Samurai Jack, this first episode, minus a few foibles, packs enough humor, action, and hard-boiled grit to beat back even the most vociferous cries of “It’s just a cartoon.” It's time to get back to Jack.