The Timeless Storytelling Aesthetic of Samurai Jack

My unabashed gushing love letter to Samurai Jack.

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When Samurai Jack first aired on the Cartoon Network in August 2001, it was clear with the opening credits that something timeless and artful was taking place. Now nearing the end of its long awaited 5th season the timing feels just right.  The previous four seasons aired from 2001 to 2004 and can now all be seen in their entirety from various streaming vendors. We now stand at the end of the story of the samurai who was aptly named Jack. The story of Jack is a common enough troupe. Like with most things it’s the execution that will make it legendary.

New to the Samurai

Aku OpeningJack is the son of a great king who had to face an ultimate evil named Aku. Soon Jack had to take up his father’s sword. After being thrown into a time portal by his nearly defeated ultimate evil foe, Jack arrives in a time where ‘Jack’ is the common vernacular for referencing the everyman. So fitting of his tale, he adopts the name Samurai Jack. For years Jack has sought to return to his actual time from his current dystopian time bending landscape in order to ‘undo the future that is Aku‘. This really set the stage for what was to come. A universe of untold time frame in an uncertain moral climate.

Hiatus

Unfortunately we were left by Jack when writer and director Genndy Tartakovsky took a hiatus from the show. In that time other projects were created including the acclaimed Star Wars: The Clone Wars series.  The legendary Mako Iwamatsu, who was the voice actor for the big bad Aku passed away. Cartoon Network had not greenlighted another season.  Then in an upswing much like the ones experienced when watching the show, the tide changed. Tartakovsky knew how he needed to end this story. A miraculously suitable replacement voice actor was found in Greg Baldwin. Cartoon Network was ready for a grittier reboot of an old favorite.

Visually

Ashi horde

Very poetic is the visual explosion within the telling of Jack’s journey. Staging is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa samurai movies with a slightly Fauvist style of color and landscape creation.  All in all, such an enigmatic combination of style with a flare for Japan’s Edo art period translates the disjointed dystopian locales featured well. The seemingly two dimensional characters breathe with sharp expressions and angular lines. The battles pound as they move in rows, runs and circles.

Before

Ashi Jack Statue

Samurai Jack episodes often embraced humor along with stylized art and difficult if not obvious morality choices. However it is the Aesop-esque story style that stuns the most. Jack has existed in a place of preserved even measured justice.  The character knew no shades of grey for 4 seasons.  Only the unending fight for what is right.  This gave Jack time to only consider the journey to the next potential answer back home.  Consequently, also meeting the mostly mechanical minions of Aku eager to stop him. Jack has been presented with almost Faustian circumstances and has usually, if sometimes a struggle, erred towards the most righteous path. Mostly despite how it deterred him from his purpose.

And Now

This has changed and now all Jack seems to see are shades of grey.  Most are disparaging to him and him alone as his perceived failure has overtaken him. Incidentally Jack’s lasting influence on this evil prone world is brought to glaring light in Episode XCVII. As Ashi searches for Jack, she runs across many memorable characters who have been saved by Jack over the seasons. Her understanding of his importance to others becomes a shining reflection of the hero that he no longer sees himself to be. A contrast that finishing destroying the illusion of his evil that she was raised to believe.

Jack Fire

This is epic canon. The morality of good is a classic style of tale. A great warrior must accomplish an inhuman task.  While doing this he is blinded to the charity that has been given to all those in the path of him completing his quest. Humanity lost, purpose lost, it takes one conscribed to evil to see the light and aid him on the path back to righteousness.

Jack Scream

The true beauty of Samurai Jack is it tells the story without taking away the viewer’s perception. So many sequences and segments over the years have been created with no dialogue.  Sweeping poignant moments have been made that involve nothing more than movement, color, expressions and soft flowing music. It’s a show that has always understood the power of silence. But also the power of breaking it in a blood curdling yell. Then abruptly reclaiming that silence. That stunning contrast was once again captured so eloquently in Episode XCVIII as Jack makes tea while Ashi engages in a gruesome bloody battle to defend him at his most vulnerable. A scene so reminiscent of many of Jack’s battles of the past.

Welcome This End

The new season had several episodes that spent countless minutes in silence. This quiet letting the new reality of Jack’s solidarity truly set in. Jack is an island. The only voices he hears nightmares from remembering what has been lost. More than that in the quiet, the living voice of his new companion can be heard even more fiercely. Ashi brings an element to the tale that has always been missing, remise or ignored. Romantic love. She is in essence a true equal and quite possibly the missing piece to Jack completing his true quest.

Ashi Smash

No one is ignorant of common story themes.  Evil always lives to fight another day. There must be more samurai to take up the blade. Every story teller worth their salt will tell you similar things. The story comes when its ready as it dictates and not when you want it or how you saw it. Because Samurai Jack has taken such time its story, its aesthetic will be rendered timeless and one of the grandest animated artistic adventures of our time.  Catch up and don’t miss this end.

How would you like this tale to end?  Leave comments below.

Christina Freeman
A Dallas Texas native, Christina Freeman writes academically for her field and under her romance writer pseudonym Suenammi Richards. She has no idea with all else she does why the potential to trash and exalt pop culture has been so needful. Mission from God. . working theory. What other possible reason is there for a person to love anime, beer, pro wrestling and symphonies. She has also managed to self-publish five novels under her pseudonym Suenammi Richards and has a running blog.

1 COMMENT

  1. Samurai Jack I think, is the first ever cartoon Network show to become an Adult Swim one, or at the least, that crosses over both. The original ones were definitely CN, but then the last season became VERY dark, and with the killing of the Daughters of Aku (technically with the killing of the cute rams), and the blood being shed, definitely AS….

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