After a long and arduous wait of over 12 years, the cult animated series Samurai Jack is back. The cartoon series that ran from 2001 to 2004 tells the story of a samurai who has been flung into a dystopian future by Aku, the shape-shifting dark lord. Aided by his trusty magic sword, which is the only weapon that can put an end to his arch-enemy, the samurai (voiced by Phil LaMarr) spent four seasons roaming post-apocalyptic lands, fighting evil, and looking for a way back home to kill Aku (voiced originally by Mako Iwamatsu and now, Greg Baldwin) before the time portal was opened.
Even when it was first aired, the four-time Emmy winner was like nothing on television. Created by master animator Genndy Tartakovsky, who is also behind Dexter’s Lab, Powerpuff Girls, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the Hotel Transylvania franchise, Samurai Jack was known for its captivating artistry, intense and intricate action, intelligent comedy, unhurried narrative, and minimal dialogue. Low angle shots, long silences, close-ups, slow motion – the show was a visual masterpiece and years ahead of its sugar rush-happy contemporaries.
Tartakovsky has acknowledged Akira Kurosawa’s movies and Frank Miller’s comics as inspirations. While Samurai Jack was never really aimed at a young audience, it had to keep the blood, gore, brutality to a minimum since it was on Cartoon Network. All of this has changed after the show’s return on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s night-time programming block for grown-ups.
At the beginning of season five, 50 years have passed since we last saw Jack. As a side-effect of time travel, he has stopped aging. Aku, the Shogun of Sorrow, is still alive and still rules the world.
Samurai Jack has evolved from one man’s journey back in time to a more complicated and troubled study of Jack’s psyche. He can’t kill Aku and can’t return home either – the years of searching for a way to defeat Aku have come to nothing, and this realisation is taking a toll on him. Stuck in this purgatory, he is no longer the stone faced do-gooder. He is conflicted, tired and haunted by the souls and ghosts of his ancestors. His trusty sword has been replaced with bigger and meaner guns. He has visions of the past and apparitions that berate him for forgetting his purpose.
Aku too has changed. The shape-shifting master of darkness was always a bit of a comic relief. His evil machinations were carried out by robot drones and mechanical bugs and beetles. Now, he has a cult of assassins, the seven daughters of Aku who have been bred to defeat the samurai. Clearly, the show has earned its place in the more grown-up space of Adult Swim.
Jack’s purpose was always to find a time portal – Will.I.Am’s opening track for the show Gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack, is still catchy. But episodes from the initial run were self-contained and ended with Jack helping the victims of Aku’s evil reign survive another day. The new season is more connected in terms of storyline, and has opened itself up to a more intricate and detailed flow of characters and themes.
Samurai Jack was intended to end with a movie, but when that didn’t seem to be working out, Tartakovsky reached out to Cartoon Network for a limited series to bring an end to Jack’s story. While the new storyline has become more mature, this is still Samurai Jack. The show is still a tour de force. The sequences in the new episodes are breathtaking, be a high-speed action fight sequence or a slow chase inside an ancient temple in the woods. Through the darkness, the show retains a measure of its comedic genius too, thanks to Aku.
With newer technology, the process of filmmaking was amped up, but the show remains calmer than anything else out there. Samurai Jack is still a stylised 2D animated show that takes it slow and makes a long-lasting impact.