Samurai Jack fans haven’t had it easy. It was September 25, 2004 when the Season 4 finale saw the warrior reuniting a lost infant with its mother before walking off towards the horizon, continuing his pursuit of the shapeshifting demon Aku — only he didn’t. That day became the unexpected series finale, and the following years weren’t that much kinder to viewers. Creator Genndy Tartakovsky was able to keep hope alive that he would one day revisit Samurai Jack with a movie, but it seemed trapped in development hell.
Now, Jack is back in the form of a 10-episode fifth season that’ll finally give fans the conclusion they’ve been aching for. But compared to what viewers have been through, Jack himself has had it much, much worse.
An image is worth a thousand words, and the frames in Samurai Jack have always had a tendency to knock you on your ass. They’re bold, they’re evocative, they tell stories, they are frozen moments in time. So even without the new season’s brief logline, we need only look at the opening image of the trailer to get a sense of what’s been happening in Jack’s world: the samurai is standing at the edge of a cliff, with only his shadowed silhouette visible from a distance as the wind tosses back his un-cinched hair. He stares into the crashing waves below, despaired.
He’s not in a good place. More than 12 years have passed since the Season 4 finale, but for Jack it’s been 50. On the surface, everything looks exactly where we left it: the signature animation style makes a comeback (albeit with sleeker lines and richer colors), and the visuals still hold more authority than the dialogue. Aku still rules the earth (now with a few more interesting followers). But Jack still can’t find a way back to his own time, so he can’t reunite with his family. He also doesn’t age, so he’s been living for years without death’s release.
Though representative of Tartakovsky’s cinematic sensibilities, the vivid animation is shattered when an apparition appears to him, wreathing in flame and shouting, “You have forgotten your purpose!” He’s later haunted again, this time by a ghostly form that appears as Jack’s former self. His hair pinned back in a bun, the pale-skinned figure screams, “How much longer can you keep this up?” All of this is in the trailer, so I’m not spoiling anything. But, suffice to say, this is some pretty serious stuff — and it gets more brutal from there.
The fans who were wooed by the show’s artistry are older, and because Samurai Jack is now in a later time spot on Adult Swim, rather than the kid-friendly afternoon block, the tone can accommodate more mature material. But Tartakovsky isn’t much interested in blood and guts. Yes, there is plenty of blood, but it’s not over used. Instead, the emphasis is on Jack’s decaying mind, his waning will. Even the opening credits — once of Aku reciting the legend of how he flung his nemesis through a time portal to the future — is now told from Jack’s perspective, reinforcing a more psychological story.
Where this sometimes falters is when it needs to remind us that it is a cartoon with cheeky comedic moments. Samurai Jack was never really made for toddlers, but it still had flamboyance and outlandish characters like The Scotsman, the talking dogs, and Aku himself. So the shift from Jack’s mental purgatory to the hijinks of his adversaries aren’t always smooth, especially when some of these scenes would be considered grave by normal Hollywood standards. (See the mysterious masked women in the premiere episode and the one action Jack may not come back from in the second.)
Even when things are dark, the show is still fun in the way that Tartakovsky, his team of animators, and the writers have always approached scenes. It’s rarely a straight-on shot of an armored Jack riding his motorcycle (yes, a motorcycle) down a wooded road. We’re peering at him through an opening in the autumn tree tops above, or peeking his journey through the slits in a sea of trees, or watching a leaf fall limply into a running stream as his engine roars in the distance. In one of the more unique sequences, Jack is forced to do battle in the pitch black of a dark temple, illuminated only by the flickering glow of a firefly.
Tartakovsky had described Season 5 as 10 parts of a five-hour movie, and it’s felt instantly. The episodes from the first four seasons were more like isolated vignettes — they helped tell a larger story but their order could be shifted around without too much disruption. I haven’t seen the end of Season 5, but it does have a beginning that bleeds into the next episode. This is still Jack we’re talking about. He’s just a little bit more experienced.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Samurai Jack season 5 premieres on March 11 at 11 p.m. on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.