Welcome, friends! This is the first in a new column about the Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, which ran on Cartoon Network from 2001-2004 for a total of 52 episodes. I probably won’t be covering all 52 of these episodes at this juncture, but you never know. (I’ve done similar columns for Batman: The Animated Series and Cowboy Bebop, which you can read by clicking on their highlighted titles.)
Created by Genndy Tartakovsky as his follow-up to Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack combines, not unlike Bebop, several seemingly-disparate genres, including martial arts epic, Spaghetti Western, Cyberpunk, fantasy, and comedy. It’s a show that set itself up early to be able to do anything it likes, and largely it did, and it did so by being incredibly traditional in its innovation.
It’s been several years since I’ve watched Samurai Jack and right away, I realized taking screengrabs was going to prove very difficult. Each and every frame is a work of art, an actual painting full of detail, and I want to share all of them as visual aids, but at the same time no one frame does the scene or even the shot justice. While he’s certainly been transposed to other mediums, I feel like for Samurai Jack to truly work, it needs to be televisual and/or cinematic.
A lot of what Tartakovsky did seems very “simple,” but it actually makes the show as complex and unique as it is. Firstly, the style of the art is very much like a pop-art version of Japanese scroll art, a form of storytelling through visuals. The characters and backgrounds have equal detail and are the exact same visual quality. He famously removed the thick black line around characters’ features and silhouettes, which allows them to of bleed into the scenery, making it at once more 2-D, like a painting, and more realistic. Really, it’s only the eyes and mouths that have that black line. He also employed different aspect ratios and split screens of the same action with moving backgrounds to give the impression of lots of movement without having to animate many different shots.
And finally, like those scroll paintings and indeed most Japanese animation, Tartakovsky employed the method of painting scenes and scenery on very long pieces of paper, so that if you follow them either vertically or horizontally from one end to the other, the piece of the narrative unfolds without having to do much if any individual cell animation. This was a fairly inexpensive way to get several seconds of the show with only having to paint a still image. You can see an example of this on the right, where the shot started at the top with Aku and the warrior, and scrolled down to find the Emperor and the Prince. This technique was used quite a lot in the series, to incredible effect.
The first episode was part of a feature-length presentation which premiered on August 10th, 2001, and comprises three full, 23-minute episodes. Episode 1, later given the individual title “The Beginning,” depicts our hero, at first known only as the Prince, being told by his father, the Emperor, of the epic battle between the forces of Japan (it’s never named, but it’s very obviously Japan) and an evil, vile demonic entity named Aku. After forging an unbreakable sword, the Emperor managed to slay Aku and send him back to the pit that spawned him. However, after many decades, an eclipse happens and Aku is again set free.
The Emperor, knowing he isn’t strong enough to face Aku currently, sends his young son away with his wife and the sword until the Prince is old enough to fight Aku, who takes control of Japan for around 15 years or so. During that time, the Prince is handed off to various warriors from all around the world, all of whom are loyal to the Emperor, to train him in various different disciplines. A ship’s captain teaches the prince about astrology; an Arab Sheikh teaches him about riding horses; he learns about hieroglyphics in Egypt; an African tribal leader teaches him fighting with a staff; he learns wrestling in Greece; in England, Robin Hood himself teaches the Prince about archery and marksmanship; a Viking ship captain teaches him seamanship; in Russia, he learns ax throwing from a Boyar; Mongol warriors teach him how to throw spears; and he learns Kung Fu from actual Shaolin monks.
At no point during this, by the way, does he actually learn about how to use a samurai sword, but I guess we can infer that he does along the way.
This sequence is wonderful, lengthy, and totally without dialogue. Throughout, we see the Prince start to grow up, little by little, as he learns these various skills that will aid him in the battle to come. He’s like Bruce Wayne, going all around the world, learning from different masters, and finally returning ready for the battle at hand. As far as training montages go, this has to be one of the best ever done, and each of the different nations depicted feature all the proper colors you’d expect from those places, but still in the distinctive Japanese pop art style. It’s gorgeous.
Once the Prince returns, he’s greeted by his mother, who is looking quite old, hiding out in a Buddhist monastery. She bestows upon him the magical sword and he goes to fight Aku. The kingdom is now totally overrun and its people are enslaved. The Emperor is now an old and shriveled man who is made to turn a giant cog wheel carved with the visage of Aku all day every day, just to show how much power Aku has. The Prince arrives and defeats some of Aku’s magical demon guards, but before he heads off into the fiery inner sanctum of Aku, his father tells him the sword is but a tool that can help; it needs the intelligence and sure-hand of the wielder to be its most powerful.
Aku laughs at the puny human, but when the Prince lands a strike with the sword, Aku realizes he’s the blood of the Emperor and that the sword was once his undoing. Aku then transforms into different types of giant creatures such as a lion, a scorpion, a bat, and a dragon, but the Prince is able to thwart all of them. Before the final blow is struck, Aku is able to create a time portal that sucks the Prince into the future where Aku will have been in power for centuries and will be nigh-unstoppable. His evil is law.
This episode is absolutely wonderful and a great place for the series to begin. It gives us all we need to know about the style and tone of the series going forward. There are certain cartoony/comedic moments that get fleshed out in later episodes, but there’s enough in there to let us know this show will be exciting, adventurous, dangerous, but also funny. The design of Aku is a thing of genius, so simple and yet so menacing, and lends itself to distortion for the purposes of expressionism. And right away, we know the Prince (who will become Jack in the next episode) is a noble and capable hero, one who believes in justice above all else. He doesn’t need to say much because it’s all there in his eyes and stance. As heroic characters go, Samurai Jack is one of the best.
Next time, we’ll see how our hero handles being hundreds of years in the future, where he’ll meet alien kids and talking dogs. “The Samurai Called Jack” is next week. I think this column will be immeasurably fun to do; I hope it’ll be similarly fun to read! <watch out!>