Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Unusual Return of "Samurai Jack"

Revivals of past hits have been all the rage on television lately, with "The X-files," "Twin Peaks," and "Full House" all coming back in various forms. One project that's escaped my attention until now, however, is the return of "Samurai Jack." The Cartoon Network series, that aired 52 episodes from 2001 to 2004, is a favorite among Millennials. It follows the adventures of the title character, voiced by Phil LaMarr, as he hops around through space and time intent on defeating the evil demon Aku, voiced by the late, great Mako.

Cartoon Network is no strange to rebooting series. Just in the past few years, "The Powerpuff Girls" was rebooted, and "Teen Titans" came back in a sillier incarnation aimed at younger kids. Apparently "Ben 10," is getting yet another series in the future, on top of the three it's already had. However, "Samurai Jack" is very much a revival instead of a reboot. The new episodes will maintain continuity with the old ones, and the same core creative team is expected to return. And on top of that, "Samurai Jack" is going to air on "Adult Swim," the home of Cartoon Network's adult-oriented programming, as part of their recently rebranded Toonami action block. This means that we can expect more mature content in the new episodes. More importantly, this means that the revival is going to be aimed at the original "Samurai Jack" audience, now grown up after fifteen years. As far as I'm aware, that's completely unprecedented for any kids' show.

I have only limited firsthand knowledge of "Samurai Jack," but I did watch a good chunk of the original episodes when they first aired (The one with X9 and Lulu is my favorite). I don't count myself a fan of the show, having watched it too sporadically to form much of an attachment, but there was a lot that I liked about it. Genndy Tartakovsky's characters are compelling, and the visual storytelling and art direction are fantastic throughout. Though highly stylized, the imagery is bold and ambitious. Several of the episodes have dialogue-free sequences, notably its intense fight scenes, which would occasionally border on the experimental. "Samurai Jack" is easily one of the best things that the Cartoon Network has ever produced, and because the central story was left unfinished, the existing fanbase has long been after a continuation in some form. There was talk of a movie version of a few years ago, but it never happened.

The level of violence in the old episodes pushed the network's standards regularly, so I can definitely see how a move to Adult Swim could be beneficial, especially if the creators intend to pursue darker storylines. There's always the danger that viewers might come across it unexpectedly, think the content is kid-friendly, and someone will watch something that they're not ready for. However, it's been so long since the original run that I don't think it's too likely. Besides, Tartakovsky and the Cartoon Network brass have stressed to the press that the new season won't be that much of a departure from the original. Most of the shows on the current Adult Swim action block aren't even all that violent. At most, I expect that Jack will now be allowed to cut down live combatants instead of robots, and he'll grapple with personal doubts in more grown-up terms.

I'm looking forward to the new episodes, because it looks like the Cartoon Network is really committed to the revival. From the clips and artwork released so far, it doesn't look like any corners were cut with the animation, unlike Warners' questionable "Killing Joke" direct-to-video Batman feature that recently had so many fans in an uproar. Animation for adults still retains a considerable stigma, but Adult Swim has been quietly chipping away at this for the past fifteen years. If there's anywhere than an adult-oriented "Samurai Jack" is going to get a fair shake, it's there.

My hope is that the fifth season of "Samurai Jack" is the ending that the fans have been hoping for, and that it does well enough to make more revivals like it a possibility. Animated shows can weather long hiatuses like this relatively unscathed, and I know there are a few other series that I'd love to see brought back in a similar fashion. At this point I should mention the other Adult Swim revival that was recently announced is a continuation of the year 2000 anime classic "FLCL," which will be getting twelve new episodes in 2017. That will triple the number of existing episodes.

And that's completely crazy, but for Adult Swim, it feels so, so right.

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