“Fifty years have passed, but I do not age. Time has lost its effect on me. Yet, the suffering continues. Aku’s grasp chokes the past, present, and future. Hope is lost. Gotta get back. Back to the past. Samurai Jack.”
All it takes is watching the opening minutes of the premiere episode to see that even though it’s been 11 years (50 for Jack himself), there is no doubt that Jack is back.
Samurai Jack returns with its almost overwhelming animation style full of intricate, ornate fight sequences and an endless list of pastiches honoring its influences. Several moments from the battle that kicks off this concluding season made me cheer out loud. This was always a series that was just a joy to look at and now it looks like Genndy Tartakovsky has grown even more confident filling up space and telling a story through movement. Tartakovsky has been up front about how this return is strictly a limited series meant to conclude Jack’s long-standing battle against Aku, but if this tiny dose is really all we’re getting, it’s nice to see that Tartakovsky is going for broke here and trying (and succeeding) to make all of this as awesome as possible as often as possible. This is a show that never runs out of ways to cram incredible visuals in your face and these new episodes are no exception.
Back when Samurai Jack debuted in 2001, it was still a distinctly different cartoon. The action-packed Cartoon Network property played like the Lars Von Trier or Edgar Wright of cartoons on the network rather than something admittedly simpler like 2 Stupid Dogs or Cow and Chicken. Samurai Jack is endlessly more interested in atmosphere, rhythm, music, and refining its unique voice, over the typical tenets of children’s animation. On face value, a program like this should be far too deep for children and strives for references that soar above their heads. This is a show that will feature extended homages to the films of Studio Ghibli or noir cinema, after all. Accordingly, the characters that Jack encounters every week brilliantly have broad, cartoonish voices or are a species of anthropomorphic dogs or a bunch of adorable monsters. Sly tricks were present to get children on board, and once they were, they were welcomed to embrace the heady and ambitious storytelling that Samurai Jack celebrates on a weekly basis.
Miraculously, the show has returned after 11 years to finally conclude the story of Jack and Aku, and just like how the series was capable of defying expectations and re-inventing the genre back in 2001, Genndy Tartakovsky’s return to the series does so once more in new, exciting ways. The show is eager to throw archetypal samurai aesthetics in with classical storytelling, vibrant, electric new worlds, and a dry, absurd sense of humor that helps tie together the extreme balancing act of elements. Often the solutions to Jack’s obstacles are philosophical, scientific routes that highlight how brilliant of a thinker and strategist he is in addition to being a powerhouse of a warrior.
There was a certain simplicity to Samurai Jack’s animation during its first run, and while that’s still true to some degree, the advent of high definition has been good to this world. Everything pops likes crazy and is just so damn beautiful. Tartakovsky fills screens with flowing purple sunsets or lush forests that are nothing short of looking at a dream. Other moments, where Jack is lost in thought, see Tartakovsky going above and beyond to have his animation kick your ass just as hard as Jack is kicking robot butt. This show is simply too pretty at times.
There’s a very Mad Max infusion to Jack and his mission this time around, with this tonal shift feeling very appropriate for this final run of episodes. It does feel like all bets are off and that it’s the end of the road. Now that Tartakovsky finally gets to complete his vision, I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to off Jack in the final episode. Such a conclusion wouldn’t be out of place with the grimmer aesthetic that the show is playing with now.
While the samurai supreme is clearly the show’s focal point, these episodes aren’t afraid to pull focus away from the show’s titular character. This season introduces a compelling storyline that brews in the background where a league of young female assassins, the Daughters of Aku, are being trained to become an unstoppable force that will ultimately be Jack’s undoing. Their intense training scenes definitely mirror Jack’s very own back in the show’s pilot. It’s nice to see the show splitting its narrative between Jack roaming the world and these new villains-in-training.
The second episode also delightfully gets into Aku’s routine and explores what he’s been up to during this 50-year absence rather than purely looking at Jack hacking and slashing his way to salvation. In one of my favorite scenes from the entire series, Aku laments to his therapist about his Jack killing woes and how he’d like to just move on from all of this, rather than still be caught up in some eternal struggle. Aku claims, “That was the old Aku. This is the new Aku and he really doesn’t care about that pathetic samurai,” but it’s hard to take him too seriously. If you squint real hard you can pick up a bit of commentary here on Tartakovsky saying that he’s relieved to finally get to wrap up Jack’s story and move on, rather than having Hotel Transylvania or Clone Wars interviews bombarded with, “Hey, is Samurai Jack going to return?” questions.
This final season isn’t just about moving on though, it’s very much about embracing old loved ones, too.
Jack’s mortality and the futility of his mission also see consideration in a surprisingly thoughtful way. These touches add a welcome depth and sadness to Jack’s journey that helps represent the weight of the 50 years that he’s been fighting to stay alive. In spite of Jack seeming to be ultra-resilient and always having a way out of a situation, these new episodes do a good job at actually making him feel vulnerable and in danger for once. One episode beautifully juxtaposes Jack’s struggle with that of a wild wolf’s, showing both of these rabid warriors clawing against odds to stay afloat. It’s a purely unnecessary touch, but the sort of moving artistic elegance this show is capable of that makes all of this so much more than just Cool Samurai Shit.
It’s really hard to nitpick about anything here, though, when it’s crazy to have this show back in the first place. It’s eclectic, chaotic mix of styles feels much more in tone with today’s sensibilities than it did with the early 2000s. In spite of the series “growing up,” so to speak, this is still the show where you can see bonkers action like Jack battling an enchanted, disembodied sword that’s being controlled by a robotic scat man.
As with most episodes of this show, these first two installments fly by far too quickly and merely feel like a tease to Samurai Jack’s swan song. They’re glowing, strong episodes, but they just left me wanting more rather than leaving me with a firm sense of satisfaction. This season has been constructed with serialization much more in mind than it was in the original series. While the original seasons took pleasure in throwing Jack into some totally new environment to navigate through week after week, this is much more about the grueling task that Jack is trying to achieve and the damage—both physically and mentally—that he receives along the way. The new season ends each installment with a suspenseful cliffhanger as well as more forward momentum regarding this final season’s larger story. Each episode still succeeds in standing on its own merits, there’s just a deeper narrative pull on everything now.
Whether a fan of the original series or a complete newcomer, Samurai Jack is accomplished, intelligent action-adventure storytelling at its most creative. It’s always satisfying to get to see someone get to complete their story, with Genndy Tartakovsky’s abbreviated final season being the satisfying conclusion that fans have been waiting 11 years for.
Samurai Jack’s fifth season premieres March 11th at 11pm on Adult Swim
This review is based on the first two half-hour episodes of Samurai Jack’s fifth season