Length: 62 episodes (5 seasons)
- Incredible style from top to bottom.
- Balance of humour, action, and emotion.
- Less is more to perfection.
- I can’t think of anything notable.
Samurai Jack is a unique show. I wager you won’t find its likeness just anywhere. From its striking visual style to its storytelling through sound and silence with little dialogue, this cartoon is a once every few generations type of art piece.
We follow Jack, a samurai thrown from his time into the future by the shape-shifting master of darkness, Aku. Jack must find a way back to the past to finish the job he started and stop Aku. His journey will take him to the far corners of the world, where Aku’s evil weighs heavily on all. This isn’t Jack’s world anymore. Robots, aliens, and all manner of beasts roam the world now.
Samurai Jack’s brilliance is in the cohesion of its every facet, each unique in style, yet brought together to perfection. The animation fluidity is low, for instance, but it’s sharp execution combined with precise editing gives it weight and impact, so much so that to improve the fluidity to the level of, say, a Ghibli film wouldn’t look right anymore. In fact, increasing the quality as they did for the final season could have been a disaster. Not the case, thankfully.
Genndy Tartakovsky has a style to his cartoons that extracts every grain of quality from a limited budget. It wouldn’t work without all elements uniting as one. Had the editing been off, the limited animation would stand out. It would have felt cluttered had there been more dialogue and sound. Genndy likes to give his scenes breathing time with subtle visual and auditory humour. When Jack meets a trio of talking dogs, everything stops for a long time to allow Jack’s awkwardness in this new world to sink in. It’s nothing but Jack looking left and right as club music pounds outside the booth. Less is more seems to be Genndy’s life motto.
Then when the action starts, the gear shifts into overdrive. Quick cuts, multi-panel shots, and single sound actions take over to give us the most tightly edited action scenes in animation. Samurai Jack never ever wastes your time. Watch the following video of a fight between Jack and a ninja to see what I mean.
It draws inspiration from many styles cinema and world culture. You will find influence from Kurosawa films, anime (Jack fights in a mecha samurai one episode), noir, cyberpunk, Ghibli, silent film, Star Wars, comic books, aboriginal art, and the list goes on. It would take several viewings to find them all. More importantly, this show succeeds in making them work together.
The future Earth in Samurai Jack is a post-apocalyptic melting pot that allows the series to bring you something new each episode. One episode could be in a city out of Blade Runner and the next could have Jack meeting a caveman. The overarching story is to defeat Aku, while the episodic plot is about Jack helping the many peoples and societies affect by Aku’s tyranny. This episodic structure allowed you to watch any episode back in the days when we were slaves to the TV schedule. Only the final season weaves ongoing narrative each episode, required in the build up to the finale.
This plethora of locations and characters to choose from also gives us great variety in the types of episodes. One has Jack polymorphed into a chicken, where he is kidnapped and forced into cock fighting. Sounds weird? It works. I imagine the production team kept thinking of crazier and weirder ideas for the series just to see if they could make it work. How about an episode that breaks the mould of minimal dialogue? Jack encounters a Scotsman that has the longest insults you’ve ever had the fortune to hear. He’s loud, brusque, and aggressive – Jack’s opposite. Hey, it works. Can we get Jack to join the mafia? Sure, let’s do it.
One of my favourite episodes has to be the season one finale, where Aku recites fairy tales to children with him featured as the hero or Jack as the evil villain. “Once upon a time there was a little girl with an adorable red cape, and great flaaaming eyebrows!”
Aku is a brilliant villain. He may be the all-powerful evil of the universe, but he is so much fun! Every scene with the guy is a riot. He is a villain that loves being evil, but he has his share of problems too. His inability to catch Jack has him depressed at times, so he sees a therapist. It’s a clone of himself… Perfect.
Think about this: they managed to have a villain that kills indiscriminately in a kid’s cartoon. It should traumatise kids, but due to the careful balance with humour, it succeeds. Samurai Jack is full of humour, and yet full of emotion. It reminds me of Fullmetal Alchemist in how it balanced both ends.
And here we arrive at Jack himself. He could have easily been a standard protagonist surrounded by a brilliant series, someone we would remember for the series not for the character. Genndy could have gotten away with the cultural encounters and odd scenarios to keep us engaged. Most cartoon protagonists for kids don’t have much depth to them. It’s about the whole package of the cartoon rather than the character. However, Jack has the qualities of a character worthy of any drama series. He breaks, he falls, he thinks it all too much, especially when he arrives so close to success and it slips through his fingers. It is in his effort to stand back up that we see a complete character.
Samurai Jack adapts Bushido culture better than most anime. The final season in particular draws on the earthly and the mystical aspects of the samurai legend. His culture is at the core of his character, yet he is a character out of his time where such a culture no longer exists. The internal conflict that arises is fantastic. As I said – could have gotten away without it, but that extra effort elevates this show into the hall of excellence and makes it one worth remembering.
I have no notable complaints with Samurai Jack. At most, I could say some episodes aren’t as good as others, though that’s an occasional drop to 95% quality. Not a real complaint, is it? There was a time when I could bemoan its incomplete state, but after a 13-year wait, Genndy gave us the conclusion to the samurai’s journey. It was everything I had hoped for.
Art – Very High
Samurai Jack needs to be seen to appreciate the quality of its visuals, thanks in no small part to the sharp animation, pinpoint editing, and cinematic flair. I love the character designs – identifiable, distinct silhouettes, and it all fits together, from the caveman to the robot assassin.
Sound – Very High
Phil LaMarr as Jack and the late Mako as Aku – a perfect match. The stellar sound mixing matches the editing style. Minimalist, restrained, and flawless.
Story – Very High
A samurai searches for a way back to the past to save the ruined future from a master of darkness. You could watch any episode of Samurai Jack and have a great time. Why do that though, when you can watch all of them?
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: A must watch. There is nothing else like Samurai Jack.
Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)