Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Samurai Jack," Year Five

It's been a long time since we've seen "Samurai Jack," or really any Genndy Tartakovsky show.  And the best thing about the "Samurai Jack" revival is realizing that he hasn't lost a step.  The show looks as gorgeous as it always did, and despite airing on Adult Swim, it retains all the goofiness and fun and wild creativity of the original series.  It's just thematically a few shades darker than it used to be, and showing cartoon blood is no longer verboten.  The new season is also highly serialized, with a clear, definite ending.

We find our samurai hero still wandering the world of the future after many years, still trying to find a way back home to the past so he can defeat the evil demon Aku.  He's not in good shape, physically or mentally, having experienced several major setbacks while Aku has only grown stronger.  At the beginning of this new season, he's in the middle of a massive crisis of faith, being haunted by past failures, and contemplating giving up completely.  However, encounters with new enemies and old friends mean that his journey is far from over.

This is easily the best revival of any series that I've seen so far, because though the show acknowledges the passage of time, there's precious little in the production that has changed.  The spectacular stylized visuals are intact.  I've missed those glorious slow pans over the hand-drawn backgrounds.  Phil LaMarr is still voicing Jack, though a beaten-down, more cynical version.  Mako passed some years ago, but Greg Baldwin fills in nicely as the villain Aku.  And beyond that, the show's creators are able to bring back many old favorites, paying homage to the series' most memorable moments while simultaneously bringing it to a close.  Fans of the show should be absolutely delighted to find so many little references and callbacks in these closing chapters.

I was more impressed with the show's new elements, however.  Specifically,  this season introduces a secondary hero figure in Ashi (Tara Strong), one of the seven "Daughters of Aku" who have been trained since birth to hunt down and kill Jack.  Even if you're not a fan of the show or invested in the fate of its main character, Ashi is a lot of fun to follow with her strong character arc and feisty nature.   The earlier installments of the season are very heavy, and can be overwhelmingly doom-and-gloom when it comes to Jack's struggles against despair.  Ashi's story and other little vignettes with various side characters help to balance this out.  The comedy was my least favorite part of the older seasons - I almost quit the premiere episode when the talking dogs showed up - but I really appreciated it here.      

I suspect that some may be disappointed that the new season isn't the dark and gritty adult-oriented version of "Samurai Jack" that some of the marketing suggested it was.  While the carnage of the fight scenes is definitely a few degrees more intense, it's really not all that different from the "Samurai Jack" action of the original series.  I'd hesitate to call the it really appropriate for the original audience of action-loving kids, but anyone over ten  would probably be fine.  The show doesn't make the mistake of leaning on the more adult content simply because it can.  But that said, there are some new dimensions explored by the writers that we haven't seen in the "Samurai Jack" universe before, and the long-awaited final battle with Aku probably won't be what most fans are expecting.  

The final season is a decent watch on its own, but it definitely requires some familiarity with the rest of the series for maximum impact.  I do think the revival was worth it though, especially since Cartoon Network went all in on the project.  "Samurai Jack" has never looked better, and clearly no corners were cut.  Genndy Tartakovsky clearly relished returning to this universe too - he has directing, writing, story, and storyboard credits on all ten episodes.

I sincerely hope that we'll see similar projects like this in the future, though it's hard to think of any Cartoon Network series that has had quite the critical and popular success of "Samurai Jack."  It was a unique series that was very deserving of such a unique, uncompromising finale.    


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