Over a decade since its debut on Cartoon Network in 2001 and unresolved cut-off in 2004, we’re catching up with the wayward samurai in 2017.
When I caught the series premiere in 2003 at age ten, I couldn’t explain why I was mesmerized. What transpired on the television screen was like an epic song that trusts its audience to fill in the lyrics. The samurai prince travels far and wide into a montage of distant landscapes, studies in the sunniness of Egypt, runs with teachers in Africa, shoots arrows with Robin Hood, before confronting the shape shifting demon who snatched away his father.
After the premiere movie, the intros of Samurai Jack had a curious thematic choice: giving the villain narrative control over the hero’s story.
“Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!”
Fans remember the series most for its kinetic psychics of martial arts, ballads of swordplay, swift close-ups of violence, and volleys of gunfire flares. I remember it most for the pauses—the intense ambiance of nature without a music score as Jack travails pass countless panoramas. A woosh of a leaf, a swoop of the sword, a breeze ruffling his robes. The details are hypnotic.
With the warm vocal performance of Phil LaMarr, Jack, though static in character, bears marvelous dimensions to his mannerisms. With the drawn slant of his brows, his default stoicism imposes quite a disciplined stage presence with little slips of smiles, chuckles, sheepish grins, and unbridled anguish, and sorrow.
Jack’s arch-nemesis is a gem himself. Voiced by the late Mako in a Noh-Kabuki oratory inflection reminiscent of his performance in Broadway’s Pacific Overtures, the shape-shifting demon Aku is one of the most terrifying cartoon villains in shape and deed. He also commits the funniest shenanigans, phone calling a bounty hunter like he’s ordering pizza, telling his distorted rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, and toying with the samurai like a cruel owner withholding a ball of yawn from his cat. For all his terrorization, he radiates an endearing childlike joy in tormenting the innocent and Jack.
Samurai Jack set a precedent for the epic theatricality of animation and its rich potential. While being one of Cartoon Network's most high-brow experimental presentations, it can’t resist letting priceless goofiness and comedic breathers co-exist with shameless griminess. Samurai Jack rotates around lighthearted and dark classics, from western, to Akira Kurosawa, to gangster stories, to Chuck Jones, to the artistry of Studio Ghibli, to the ancient creation myths of storybooks.
Finally, after the preproduction hell of a movie project and fandom petitions, the samurai will return to Cartoon Network in March, bumped to the grown up timeslot of Adult Swim. As the trailer signifies, five decades have passed, and while Jack has not aged, he remains ensnared in a rotten future in which he doesn’t belong.
The assistance he provides to the future is not enough to cure the wider world, or the past, or the present. That’s the tragic paradox. If he’s doing his duties in the future, he doesn’t really change his world in the past. And if he goes back to the past to ensure a better alternative future, does that render all his good deeds futile? But Samurai Code compels him to help anyone in the moment. Because the moment counts to keep us hypnotized. For the warrior, the light of his happy ending ducks in and out of the horizon. He’ll have to survive through many dystopias to win closure.
Anyway, welcome home, warrior.