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The Genius of Genndy Tartakovsky – “Samurai Jack” returns one last time

I’m not an anime fan. I don’t do cosplay, and I generally like Hard Science Fiction more than novels about fairies and magic and so on. I don’t play games online and I really don’t give a fig for battles, weapons and quests to defeat evil. So why then have I been binge-watching the fifth, and last, series of Samurai Jack? There I was, eyes on stalks, laughing, sniffling and stopping to admire in every episode, and not moving from my seat for hours. Yes, I viewed all ten episodes in one sitting and was gob-smacked enough to write this. This is animation for adults, and it aired on Adult Swim. It’s violent, it’s got sneaky humour, satire, emotion, drama, great characterization, neat plots, classic heroic challenges, and the most beautiful artwork I have seen outside Studio Ghibli (minus the googly eyes).

Award-winning animated series continues 13 years later

It might as well have been a graphic novel, considering the quality of each and every frame, if it weren’t for the fact that “Samurai Jack” is a man of very few words. The speech bubbles would’ve been mostly empty. I have been a Samurai Jack fan ever since it first aired in 2001, to the last episode of the fourth series in 2004. The fourth series concluded with many loose ends, leaving fans dissatisfied and clamouring for more. So, on March 11, 2017, the creator of the series, Genndy Tartakovsky (born Gennadiy Borisovich Tartakovskiy), and the Adult Swim channel through their in-house production studio Williams Street, released Samurai Jack Series 5.

Why did I even know about Series 5? Because someone on the train was wearing an “Aku” T-shirt. I looked at it and thought, hey, that’s Aku! Sentimental being that I am, I revisited Samurai Jack on the Internet, and found the not-so-new series.

In an interview in which Tartakovsky explains the creative process that he used in Series 5, he emphasizes the fact there is almost no CGI in the artwork, and that bringing the series back to life was exhausting, so there are only ten episodes of about 21 minutes each. (Tasha Robinson, Genndy Tartakovsky on reviving Samurai Jack, The Verge, March 10, 2017, rtrvd. 2018-11-11)

The plot without spoilers

The story is roughly this: “Samurai Jack” is a Japanese warrior whose family – and most of the retro-futuristic world – were destroyed and subjugated by the wizard “Aku” (pronounced “Ah-kóóóóh!”). He travels back in time with his trusty magical sword to defeat Aku and the monsters Aku has created. And this time, his enemy is formidable – one of the children of Aku, called “Ashi”. The fight is as much mental as physical. Jack is fifty years older, but no better off. He says to himself in the opening scene:

“50 years have passed. But I do not age. Time has lost its effect on me. The suffering continues. Aku’s grasp chokes the past, present and future. All hope is lost. Got to get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack.”

Tartakovsky reassembled the team from the original Samurai Jack series: “Part of it was pretty easy. I mean, luckily I found people that are so good at what I don’t do. [Laughs] They make me look so good. We’ve been working with each other since the original days of Samurai Jack. Scott Wills and I have been doing stuff in and out. Craig Kellman, the main character designer; Darrick Bachman, who helped me write the stuff; and Bryan Andrews, who’s been storyboarding with me from Samurai through Sym-Bionic Titan through the Hotel Transylvania movies — they also came back. That was kind of the core group.” (From interview on The Verge)
An acolyte of Aku, in the meantime, has given birth to seven supernatural children, and raised them specifically to kill Samurai Jack, who has to find a time portal to get back to the past. The catchy closing theme song was written by none other than will.i.am. and pretty much summarizes the plot:

(2x) Gotta get back
Back to the past
Samurai Jack
(watch out)
Gotta get back
Back to the past
Samurai Jack
(Jack Jack Jack)

Depth of feeling

Samurai Jack has always been about good fighting evil. But this time Tartakovsky reversed the situation. Jack is no longer indefatigable. He doubts himself to such a degree he is losing his mind. His lost his magical sword (and betrayed some innocent sheep). His guilt manifests itself as visions of his ancestor spirit warriors who keep telling him that he has betrayed the code of bushido and that he must give up and take his own life by seppuku. He sees dead people everywhere and wanders the destroyed world like a mad ghost, a bearded, armoured, lonely shadow of his former self.

By contrast, Aku, him of the unlimited powers and really ugly fangs and a green face like a mask depicting an Oni (鬼) or supernatural ogre, is down on his luck. He believes that Jack still has his sword and cannot be defeated. He is a depressed evil monster. He talks to a therapist, and he is really not into the whole subjugation, torture and destruction thing any more. He just wants to hide out in his tower, leaving an automated message outside the front door about not being available for meetings. He is comes across like a tetchy diva, not a little camp. By comparison, his favourite assassin, “Scaramouche” is much more nasty and much ruder – at one point the body-less Scaramouche comments on the thing he was hitching a ride on: “Well what a freak, looks like a talking penis” (episode 6). Well, it does.

The other characters are as funny and entertaining as ever, including the mad Scotsman, who is huge and blueish and has a mouth like a potty. As he says to Jack in a previous series (c’mon you try saying this real fast, with an accent):

“Scotsman: [shows his large sword] What do ya think o’ that, Mr. Pajama-Wearing, Basket-Face, Slipper-Wielding, Clype-Dreep-Bachle Gether-Uping-Blate-Maw, Bleathering, Gomeril Jessie, Oaf-looking, Scooner, Nyaff, Plookie, Shan, Milk-Drinking Soy-Faced Shilpit, Mim-Moothed, Sniveling, Worm-Eyed, Hotten-Blaugh Vile-Stoochie, Cully-Breek Tattie?”

Tartakovsky really wrote this cleverly. You can see the mental workings of the characters in every word and in every line of every frame. When Jack is in despair, the entire landscape is transformed into the faces of the dead and then into a field of screaming flames. You’ve got to see it to appreciate the transformation. And when Jack meets his ultimate foe, you can see confusion all over him. I’d say the creation of “Ashi” is a coup. She is just bitchy and crazy enough to be convincing as an insane ninja. The scenes where Jack carries Ashi on his back while she kicks up an unholy fuss are hilarious.

Every frame is a painting

But it is the incredible attention to detail in the graphics that got me. In one scene, Ashi and Jack wander in the desert. They leave two sets of tracks, and of course I had to look closely at those. One set is rectangular, since he is wearing men’s flat wooden geta. The other is human footprints. Four lines of footprints curve up and down the dunes, sometimes wavering as they stumble.

In another scene, they are down a pit so deep that a bird has to fly them down. At the bottom, they each have a light to search with, and you can suddenly see two circles of light, each one separate, and from the top, the bird in the dark, in the centre, like a sort of Venn diagram. Then the lights move around, and you can see how they bounce off the rocks and debris.

Sometimes the frames used to depict a scene is just pure visual poetry. You could take any scene and print it out like a painting. The style has elements of  Pop Art or Superflat Art, classic Nihonga, even something of De Stijl in the blockish and geometric landscapes, and some of the scenes really reminded me of the work of Takashi Murakami.

I would expect this level of artistry and detail in a full animated movie, not a cartoon series. Matt Seitz feels about Samurai Jack the same as I do:

“I should stress up top that although Tartakovsky is a good storyteller, in a silent-movie sort of way — expressing what’s happening moment-to-moment through picture and sound rather than in dialogue — I never watched either of these programs for their plots, and I don’t re-watch them for narrative, either. I re-watch them for the same reason that I visit art museums, attend live concerts, and pause during journeys from point A to point B in New York to watch dancers, acrobats, or street musicians: because I appreciate virtuosity for its own sake. And that’s what Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars and Samurai Jack give you, scene for scene and shot for shot.” (Matt Zoller Seitz, No Respect Week: Seitz on Genndy Tartakovsky’s Underrated Classic Samurai Jack, Vulture, May 30, 2014, rtrvd. 2018-11-11)

So, all you out there who take animated series seriously, join me in applauding Season 5 of Samurai Jack. It’s a thing of beauty.

The making of Samurai Jack Season 5

 

 

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