Reviews of an Acute Cinephile.

Samurai Jack (2001 – 2004) Animated series review

Before Joss Whedon and MARVEL came along with their fantastical comic-based cinematic universe filled with superheroes and larger than life characters, there was Genndy Tartakovsky and HIS larger than life creations. I am talking, of course, about the various cartoon network TV shows that this genius either created or was involved with; like Dexter’s Laboratory, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, PowerPuff Girls and of course, Samurai Jack. The reason that I’ve decided to focus a review of mine on one of his creations is because I personally feel that this man’s genius has not yet been fully acknowledged and yet, he is the source of many of our primetime cartoon shows that served it’s run during our childhood.

The reason I’ve picked Samurai Jack out of Mr. Tartakovsky’s very impressive Roster is because personally, out of all the other great cartoons that Genndy has been involved in, I’ve always felt that Samurai Jack has been the most thought provoking, stylistic and just flatout awesome. So, thanking Genndy Tartakovsky once again for an awesome part of my childhood and not to mention, kindling my interest in sketching by trying to recreate scenes from his cartoons, I begin my review.

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It’s really quite difficult for me to review a cartoon like Samurai Jack. The reason being that this cartoon is actually a potpourri of action, visual flair, in-jokes, heart, pop-culture references, comedy and even adds a generous dash of reverence to Japanese culture along the way, making it a Jack of all trades (no pun intended) and since this is a master of all the trades as well, that is precisely what makes it difficult to review and yet, All the aforementioned characteristics of the show is wrapped neatly in the form of a cartoon show. Now, this is why i keep referencing to Mr. Tartakovsky as a genius. You see, many TV shows or even movies for that matter struggle to do even two of those aforementioned things properly but such is not the case with Samurai Jack.

This show manages to tie in all its various ideas and schemes in such a manner that it’s appealing to kids and adults alike and it’s also not one of those cartoons that insults the audience’s imagination through fart jokes and other mindless gags (I’m looking at you, chowder and flapjack!) but instead it actually sometimes becomes poignant and thought provoking. So much so, that when I rewatched the entire series again, I was amazed at certain sequences and storylines that I’m pretty sure even great directors like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan or even Steven Spielberg would have borrowed from it.

For those of you who just time travelled from the prehistoric period, the premise of Samurai Jack is best explained by the monologue that the main antagonist, the demon AKU gives at the beginning of the show – “Long ago, in a distant land, I, Aku, shape-shifting master of darkness, released an UNSPEAKABLE evil. But a foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword step forth to oppose me” * scenes of battle between the warrior and AKU ensues*.  “Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and FLUNG him into the future. There, my evil is raw and now the fool seeks to return to the past and UNDO the future that is AKU” (now, will.i.am proceeds to sing the Samurai Jack theme song which is perhaps, the best ringtone EVER)

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The premise on paper may seem weird but that’s exactly what it’s meant to be. You thought Captain America was the man out of his time? Wait until you see the things Jack sees in the future. Flying cars, talking dogs (yes!), weird-ass aliens, lots and lots of robots and hell, even a futuristic version of the 300 spartans that I’ve a feeling Jack Snyder took a LOT of inspiration from for his 300 film.

Sure, that may seem like a lot of weird but the storyline and the theme makes it all so overwhelming that you just start lapping up all the weirdness ( kind of like how you start swallowing complicated words whilst reading a really interesting book).

Another thing what I want to say about this show is its tone. Each episode in this show has a drastically different tone than the previous one. Ranging from comedy, fantasy, horror, noir, martial arts and even westerns, This show does all the aforementioned motifs to perfection ensuring surprise and variety in every episode.

When I first watched this show as a kid, as mentioned earlier, I just lapped up the color palette, the cool action sequences etc. but now, when I rewatch certain episodes, there are these tiny references to pop-culture like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Star Trek and various Akiro Kurosawa films like Seven Samurai etc. All this references are really respectful to their source and one can assume that the creators have a lot of love for the same. All This just contributes to the rewatch factor of this show, making it a modern classic.

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The characters in this show are perhaps the most varied of any set of characters that you may find in a cartoon (or dare I say, a TV show) for that matter. Jack, our eponymous Samurai hero ( voiced by a very talented Phil LaMarr) is perhaps best described as a calm, self-composed warrior who can be a badass when he needs to be, he does no pleasure in killing, but does so when the need arises ( that being said, jack’s main foes, save a few, are Aku’s robot minions and it’s really cool to see the way that the creators cleverly substituted blood with oil to render the same effect as an ultraviolent samurai flick without  alienating their target audience (kids) as well as adults) Jack, at times also reveals himself as a very introspective character with conflicts and doubts but faces them all without any fear . Impressively though, Jack’s training and his basic origin story is not explained through a long drawn out special episode but is shown visually with just music in the background as an amazing montage ( kind of similar to the PIXAR film UP) but the montage does not detract from the character at all, rather makes him seem all the more deep and relevant for we see Jack not only train in the way of the Samurai ( always wanted to say that) but also in the customs of other civilizations all around the world, making him more of a GLOBAL Samurai.

Aku , on the other hand is kind of like a mixed bag ( and I mean that in a good way). He can be really scary or threatening on one hand but he also sometimes turns into the monologuing, comic-relief type villain with all bark and no bite (read: BANE) and the voice actor Mako (R.I.P) brought Aku to life in a way that very few voice actors can even hope to accomplish (coincidentally, Mako also voiced another awesome villain, Mojo Jojo. But that’s another review for another time).There are also other more colorful characters that Jack encounters in his quest to defeat Aku but they are best experienced rather than described (Watch out for the Scotsman though, He’s a Riot!)

Stylistically, Samurai Jack’s action sequences would perhaps make Jack Snyder (the director of 300 and watchmen as well as the forthcoming man of steel film) weep with joy. The action is well realized and takes hints from Japanese anime as well as martial-arts and sci-fi films. Truth be told, I’ve not seen action of this caliber in any other cartoon show hence. There are some brilliant uses of colour and sketching that makes even the subtlety of certain scenes awesome. There is one specific moment that is perhaps the staple of Samurai Jack. Namely, scenes when Jack is surrounded by Aku’s minions and the screen suddenly turns black and all you can see are these brilliant streaks of light. Finally, when we do see Jack again, we see his robotic foes slowly falling slice by slice like salami and then exploding.

So.Much.WIN!

Most episodes of Samurai Jack start quietly (surprising for a cartoon show) before the momentum slowly builds up and we see some amazing stuff.

To sum it up, Samurai Jack is an all-in-one platter with enough to go around for everyone. Sadly though, the show got cancelled before it could end its run so as of now, there are talks of Genndy Tartakovsky directing a Samurai Jack theatrical animated film that brings our hero’s journey to an end. When that film releases in theatre, I know for a fact that I’ll be booking tickets for the midnight show.

Samurai Jack is a Deep, Thoughtful and a very entertaining Modern Day masterpiece and I’ve not seen any other cartoon show even come CLOSE to beating it. (Barring a few anime, but more on that later)

RATING: 10/10 (BRING ON THE MOVIE!)

MONEY MOMENT: Perhaps, my favorite episode would be the one where a lot of bounty hunters make tremendous plans to take down Jack but they soon realize that they underestimated the samurai in the straw hat. Check it out!

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