If a person only saw the first episode of Samurai Jack and knew nothing about the overall premise of the series, they might expect it was a fantasy action show set in or around a fictional version of Feudal Japan. But, it’s lucky the first three episodes were originally shown in a single evening, because while “The Beginning” set up our hero as a force with which to be reckoned and the villain as a particularly nasty beast, Episode II, “The Samurai Called Jack” sets up the insane dystopian future world we’ll be inhabiting for most of the series. And it’s particularly hard for the hero to take.
I love the way creator Genndy Tartakovsky unfolded this series. We get an entire episode all about the hero growing up and learning all of these amazing skills and fighting styles, and then he follows that up with an episode in which that selfsame hero is completely out of his depth, confused and scared, and yet still stepping up to be a hero in a number of ways. It’s because of this, and that he’s humble on top of being so good at everything, that he’s as likable as he ends up being. Jack might be the most noble hero in animation.
“The Samurai Called Jack” is an explosion of scary futurism of robots, aliens, talking dogs, and a world dedicated to Aku.
Our samurai has no time to acclimate to the future at all because the second he falls out of Aku’s time portal, he lands on a speeding car flying through the sky highway. He’d later refer to it as a “flying chariot.” And, for whatever reason, another car begins firing machine guns at him and he has to quickly jump and cut that car’s front end off before landing on the ground, about to be crushed by a spike-wheeled trash-smasher. He eventually makes it to safety as three alien kids, all speaking a weird form of jive, cheer him on, calling him “Jack” and saying he’s a master of whatever. From them, our hero learns that Aku has indeed taken over the world and it must be way later in time than when he left. They tell him he ought to go have a drink and calm down, which sounds good in theory.
The samurai enters a nightclub that looks like a techno version of the cantina in Star Wars, with all manner of huge, mean-looking aliens and go-go dancers with three eyes and things. Naturally, being from Earth in the 14th Century or whenever (I have literally no idea when he’s supposed to be from), the samurai doesn’t know how to respond to this overload of new information besides looking aghast, which is not the way a dragon-looking fellow likes to be stared at. The lizard guy stands up along with his cronies and gets in the samurai’s face, but, unlike what you’d expect (and this is what makes Jack so great), he apologizes. He realizes he’s the one out-of-place here and he even gets on his knees to show that he meant no harm. I cannot describe how awesome I find this. He may be the fiercest and best warrior in his own time, but he knows when he’s made a mistake and isn’t a macho d-hole about it.
Alas, his humility means nothing. The dragon wants to fight and draws his own mechanical edged weapon to do so. The Samurai has no other outlet but to defend himself, which he does, swiftly, by cutting off the dragon’s weapon arm. Unfortunately, this draws the unwanted attention from all the dragon soldiers around, and Jack soon has to fight a whole cadre of aliens bent on killing him. So what’s a samurai to do? He cuts off pretty much everybody’s arms. (George Lucas must love this cartoon.) He wins the fight handily (pun intended) and just stands amid the bar, with people not involved in the fight not really caring what had happened. Three people who DID take an interest are the bipedal, English-speaking dogs.
The Samurai accepts the leader’s invitation for a drink, despite really being put off by the nature of talking dogs. He says a lot of pretty insensitive things about them, but usually apologizes. These three, who introduce themselves as Sir Drifus Alexander (Bulldog), Sir Angus McDuffy (Scottish Terrier), and Sir Colin Bartholomew Montgomery Rothchild III (Dachsund), need the Samurai’s help. Pretty badly, actually. Rothie tells the Samurai all about how Aku has been ruling the world “forever” but had recently set his sights on conquering the universe as well, and opened trade routes with other planets, leading to Earth being overrun with alien bad things. The canines were endeavoring to learn more about their history through an archaeological dig but they found a particular jewel that Aku wants to be able to continue space exploration. So the dogs have been, effectively, enslaved to dig for these gems and if the Samurai doesn’t help them, they’ll be trapped like this forever.
He agrees to help because, as he says, “Just because you are dogs doesn’t mean you should have to work like dogs,” which got some scowls, but also they were glad of his help. They ask what they should call him and he answers “Jack,” because of what those kids had called him. Unfortunately, one of the waitresses at the bar overheard all of this, and about how the dogs want the Samurai to help them overthrow Aku. She turns out to be a spy for the Master of Masters and goes back to his horrible-looking castle to see him allow an aquatic race (which he himself displaced from their planet) to live in Earth’s oceans, provided they continually construct giant statues in his likeness for people to worship. The waitress tells Aku of the plot by the canines and he sees footage of the Samurai Prince. He decides to end the rebellion before it starts and sends robotic insectoid drones to destroy the canines and Jack. The episode ends with a sea of drones going up and over the hillside.
As I said earlier, this episode is the perfect Act II. It’s a complete change from what Act I had been, places our hero in a setting nobody is familiar with, including the audience, and sets up the first of his many challenges. As gorgeous as the first episode’s ancient Japan landscape looked, future Akuworld is equally as foreboding. The art style for everything involved is chosen to be different and un-earthy. Harsh reds, blacks, purples, and unnatural shades of blue are everywhere, and Jack in his white traditional garments stand out even more. And, above all, it’s an episode that shows how adaptable Jack is as a character, and how he’ll always try to do what’s right even when it certainly doesn’t look easy.
Next time, we get the finale to the pilot movie, fittingly titled “The First Fight.” Expect a lot of action next week.