It’s pretty amazing to me that the first three episodes of Samurai Jack comprise a pilot movie and were all shown as one adventure, because I couldn’t think of three more different toned and differently paced episodes.
With “The Beginning” you have a montage of growing up and training in the middle-ages of Japan punctuated by an end battle and in “The Samurai Called Jack” it’s a fish-out-of-water, future shock narrative that introduces aliens and robots and a dark, Aku-fueled future.
With Episode III, “The First Fight,” we have the most apropos title that could possibly be: Jack has a fight, and that’s most of the episode. And you know what? It’s amazing.
With this episode, Genndy Tartakovsky and crew absolutely solidify the kind of action they’re going to have going forward. The fights could be lengthy, they could be enormous, they’re going to be largely music-less, and, like a Sergio Leone western, there’s going to be long pauses in between violence so that we the audience can get excited and the makers can ramp up the tension by shifting the frame and showing us millions of different angles with little-to-no movement by the characters. They ensure, in this way, that each and every eye dart, wrist flick, and wind gust will have importance and meaning. It’s genius. And it allows for an animated show to not be very animated sometimes and still have action. But don’t get me wrong; there’s still a whole lot of action.
When we last left him, the newly-dubbed Samurai Jack had joined up with the dog archaeologists and has agreed to free them from Aku, who is using them to mine for a specific gem. Upon hearing this, Aku has dispatched a veritable sea of mechanized beetles to devour the dogs and Jack. Luckily for the noble ones, they see the beetles when they’re very far away and Jack has time to hatch a plan. This plan involves setting up a series of booby traps and weapons. Jack draws schematics while the dogs all watch intently, their tails wagging adorably. Jack gets some good ideas including digging trenches, making spears out of sticks and this gem, which is also incredibly sharp, making arrows with the same gem, setting up explosive barrels of oil, and fitting himself and a six-legged pack animal with armor made from spare pieces of metal, a pot on his head for a helmet, and a pewter dog as a headdress.
In this whole ten minutes, there’s only been a few lines of dialogue, but for the next ten, there isn’t one. The beetles attack and Jack starts springing traps, firing arrows, throwing spears, and generally effing up a lot of bad robots, but there’s far more than he can take, it seems. Even his trusty horse-thing, which can run into several of them like a train, runs off at a certain point, and Jack is surrounded by a dozen of them, and that’s when he has to turn to his sword.
There’s a type of Hong Kong action movie known as “Heroic Bloodshed” in which the good guy will always get as beat up as the bad guy, and sometimes worse. While Jack certainly doesn’t bleed (this is still a kids show), he gets very banged up and beaten and bashed but he eventually starts slicing through the beetles and getting covered in oil, otherwise known as robot blood. It’s quite a sight to behold.
Like I said, this episode is almost entirely action and describing action scenes gets boring, so I won’t do that. But what I will do is point out some things that Tartakovsky does that makes the action more exciting. These are things he’s done in both previous episodes, but it’s more prevalent here. Firstly, the scene changes aspect ratios a lot. Usually, being a TV show made before the HD revolution, it’s in 4:3, but occasionally it’ll become a letterboxed frame when something particularly epic is about to happen. Similarly, there will be slash cuts of three shots in one frame, either horizontally or vertically. This is done often in this episode, and I’ve screengrabbed two of my favorites below.
First, when Jack is on horseback…
And the second when Jack is about to go ape with his sword near the end of the episode…
There’s also a greater usage of shadow and silhouette that’s incredibly effective, each one like a painting. Here’s when Jack is getting ready for battle…
…and here’s when he’s been completely triumphant…
As an action TV show, Samurai Jack is, so far after three episodes, flawless. It’s got the best sense of visuals and sound mixtures and even adds in super cartoony humor because it’s not pretending to be anything other than a cartoon. I mean, it’s got dogs in hats that speak in British accents, and it also has a samurai slicing up robot beetles with a sword. It’s just a damned awesome show, and I’m excited to continue this journey.
Next time, Jack starts his journey in earnest with Episode IV: Jack, the Woolies, and the Chritchellites.