I don’t have any way to verify the following pondering, and I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to do one second of research about it, but Samurai Jack may well have the shortest average shot length of any cartoon in the past 15 years. While there’s certainly a fair share of lingering, Sergio Leone-inspired shots, there are just as many, if not more, absurdly quick flashes of images and motion corresponding to fight scenes.
So far, we’ve seen a lot of examples of these types of action scenes, but Genndy Tartakovsky and crew really raised their game with Episode VIII, “Jack versus Mad Jack,” an episode with cuts so fast I’m surprised kids didn’t have epileptic seizures.
Many episodes of Samurai Jack follow the Highway to Heaven mold — a guy walks into a completely new land/city/village, gets involved with the plight of the people, saves the day, and then walks on again. Classic Campbellian hero stuff. Others have Jack furthering his greater quest to defeat Aku and go home. Others, like today’s episode, is just about Jack fighting a whole lot. And it’s great. Even though the titular battle is against “Mad Jack,” that character doesn’t even show up until well over halfway through the episode. And that’s not a criticism at all; in fact, Jack and Mad Jack probably have more individual frames painted of their 8-minute fight than any other characters all season.
The episode begins in a raucous bar somewhere. It’s full of unsavory, roughneck aliens getting into fights and things. This is the first time, really, since the three-part premiere that we’ve gotten to see this level of alien, and this is when the art department and character designers really go to town (as does composer James Venable, who creates a techno-inspired riff on the Cantina Band song).
Jack comes in and sits down, ordering a pot of hot water. If he hoped this was going to be a peaceful rest, he was incorrect. A bounty has been placed on his head, and there just so happens to be dozens of bounty hunters and lowlifes ready to collect. Aku has really sweetened the pot, offering a Googolplex. That’s ten to the power of ten to the power of 100…dollars or credits or whatever it is they use in the future. (If I started typing 0s right now, I wouldn’t finish before I died.) Really it just means Aku wants him dead and will do anything to make it that way.
This begins a very long and awesome series of fights, not unlike Bruce Lee’s unfinished Game of Death, where Jack has to fight different enemies in succession, each with a different skill set and fighting style. There’s a big, round, furry thing with a Chewbacca belt that Jack has to defeat via its own weight; there’s a three-eyed robotic baboon with a finger that shoots out on a line like a harpoon; there’s a giant centipede that sprouts new heads whenever Jack slices it through; there’s a giant bear guy with a Russian accent; there’s a guy dressed like an African game warden riding on a six-legged robot elephant — one after the other (and sometimes concurrently), Jack defeats them until he finally shouts “Who else wants some?!”
In his lair, Aku is angry and frustrated. Can’t any fighting style defeat Jack’s? Then he gets a devilish idea: no fighting style can beat Jack’s…
In the forest, just as Jack has dispatched the last of the bounty hunters, his sandal strap breaks. He gets angry and throws it at his digital wanted poster and from that, an electrical spark erupts and grows from the sandal, eventually becoming red-eyed, black-robed Mad Jack, the version of Samurai Jack borne of hatred and anger and with a single purpose: destroy Jack.
While Jack is able to dodge Mad Jack’s attacks for a time, he eventually gets slashed, which irritates him, and eventually it’s an all-out, sword-pinging fight where Mad Jack’s hair comes undone and then regular Jack’s hair comes undone, and the sparks flying from their swords light the surrounding forest on fire. This is where the shots flash on the screen so fast you can barely see them. (It made attempting to get screenshots for this write-up a monster.)
Up to this point, the show has done split screens a lot, usually with three images appearing on the screen at once. In this episode, things are so fast, we get more and more images at once, until finally this happens…
How absolutely gorgeous. Eventually, Jack sees his own reflection in his sword and realizes that Mad Jack only has power if Jack feeds him with anger. If he doesn’t, then Mad Jack is useless. Jack pictures a waterfall and his heart rate slows. He puts his hair back up and stands calmly as Mad Jack runs toward him. The fire in the forest fades away as Jack realizes it was all part of his subconscious anger. Mad Jack has no more power and disappears himself. As Jack walks away, he yells to Aku that he’ll have to do better next time.
The further this episode goes, the more gorgeous the images become. Was I just not paying attention as a high schooler when this originally aired? Each and every episode I watch for this column proves just how visually groundbreaking Tartakovsky’s vision was, and how much care went into storyboarding and directing each shot. This is one of the few animated programs, certainly of that time, that put the focus on visual storytelling over goofy voiceover comedy or zany absurdity. Or, for that matter, bog-standard adventures. This is a show truly unlike any other. What episode is this? Eight? There’s 48 more of these? I mean, I guess I can handle that.
Next week, Jack travels to an underwater kingdom in search of a time portal. I mean, can you beat a premise like that? “Jack Under the Sea” is next time!