After its initial 52 episode run 12 years ago, the final season of “Samurai Jack” began on March 11.
After such a long wait, one question begs answering: was the original series actually that good, or are people being blinded by their nostalgia?
In short, the series holds up well, but with a few glaring flaws. Some are creative decisions, others are byproducts of the time.
Before delving into the positives and negatives of the show though, a brief reminder about the overall plot of “Samurai Jack,” as explained by the series’ antagonist, Aku:
“Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!”
Aku says this at the beginning of every episode after the first. Every. Single. Episode. The narration is then followed by about 30 seconds of a montage of scenes mostly taken directly from the show with a simple but catchy tune composed by Will.I.Am (yes, seriously). The song is so memorable that it is one of the most enduring part of the show. However, because the opening never changes for the entire run of the show, a viewer can skip the first minute and a half of any episode and miss absolutely nothing.
The name “Jack” is repeated so much, both in the opening and the show itself, that most people forget that the main character’s name has never actually been revealed in the show. When he was first transported to the future, some random people kept calling him Jack as a slang term, and he adopted it as his name. At the time, he did so seemingly to stay hidden from Aku, although later in the series, “Samurai Jack” would be labelled “the most dangerous man on the planet,” with seemingly every bounty hunter in existence out to kill him and children looking to him as a source of inspiration, so the low profile idea did not really pan out.
Throughout all of the visuals, the series’ simple and unique art style shows through. Many objects are reduced to little more than the outline of their shape with a general color. However, this is not a negative point. While the art style is simplistic, no other show has repeated it, meaning that a viewer would be able to identify any still frame from “Samurai Jack” as being from “Samurai Jack,” instead of from anything else.
The unique art also helps with the sheer amount of silence of the show. Entire scenes can go by without any dialogue and minimal sound effects or music, be it because there is a multi-minute long continual fight scene or because a character is sneaking around and so needs to be quiet. Because the scenes are so devoid of extraneous details, the audience has almost nothing to focus on, and so the silence becomes a part of the narrative more easily.
The minimalistic approach extends to the episode names. While other shows would try to draw viewers in by having interesting titles, a “Samurai Jack” episode is only called by its number in Roman numerals (so the fifteenth episode is simply “Episode XV”).
One of the most memorable scenes of the entire show is from the first episode, when Jack escapes Aku’s decimation of his home to go train around the world until he is ready to fight. The entire sequence of going to various masters and learning many different styles of martial arts is a continual montage of training and travelling, all without any dialogue.
The kid-to-adult training montage (we are never told exactly how long it lasted) also highlights one of the main ways that the show has not aged well. At the time, the various masters were interesting examples of world culture. Now, they are horribly racist stereotypes. For example, the first master Jack meets is a fat man in white robes and a turban with a curved dagger on his belt, many children and who teaches him horseback riding.
The show also shows off its age when Jack’s sandals get destroyed. As he goes through a montage of trying on different new shoes, he attempts a pair of stiletto heels that literally have stiletto daggers as the heels. The shoes allow him to cut through metal with his kicks, run up buildings and generally help him fight more effectively. But he gets catcalled when he shows up to fight, and so returns the heels because he is embarrassed instead of kicking ass in heels.
For better or worse, the catcallers never come back after the episode. In fact, the same can be said about almost any character in the show. With the exception of Jack, Aku, and a handful of important characters, every character in the show only exists for a single episode.
However, it is possible to argue that the episodic nature of the show is because we are following the journey of a nomad. Jack will intervene when he sees someone doing evil or in danger, but when the problem is solved, he moves on to another area. He has a mission, and so he will not stay in one area.
This is a harder argument in cases like episode 23, where a creature that looks like the Totoros from “My Neighbor Totoro” starts following Jack around. By the end of the episode, Jack accepts that the creatures wants to help him and stops being annoyed by its behavior, allowing it to join him. The creature was never heard from again.
Unfortunately, this is an example of how the show struggles a bit with continuity. Early on, Jack learned from a tribe of what look like albino gorillas how to “jump good,” which involved strapping so many rocks to him that he could barely move, so when he acclimated to the weight, he could practically fly. This ability is only ever referenced once after the episode, even though at the end of the episode, Jack may have been able to go home thanks to his new ability. Much like the one off characters, most of the lessons and abilities learned or used in an episode do not carry over past their initial use.
One exception to the rule is the Scotsman, who is initially introduced as a rude, loudmouthed, barrel chested, bagpipe playing, kilt wearing redhead with a large sword on his back and a machinegun for a leg. Like Jack, he has no official name in the show. He comes back multiple times, including for one of only two two-part episodes in the entire show, and when he needs help rescuing his wife, and so brings Jack to the highlands.
The environments are extremely varied in “Samurai Jack,” but that leads to some confusion. In a time when aliens are a known presence on Earth to the point that there are at least three separate sapient species living in Earth’s oceans and seemingly everything evil is a robot (so that Jack can cut everything in half without too much gore), the Scottish highlands still exist alongside megacities where people drive rocket cars hundreds of feet in the air and a medieval village being terrorized by a dragon. And at the same time, somehow a ship can sail into uncharted waters and accidentally find an island of sirens.
The implication is that the different settings take place in different times, but Jack is never explicitly shown going through a time portal after the first episode, so either events happen off screen or Earth has both megacities and medieval villages. Either way, the audience can not know for sure.
Later in the show, some episodes start to combine some of the disparate elements, such as when rave music turns teenagers into zombies that destroy a likely medieval-era town.
If the writers continue to improve the continuity of the show in this way, loyal fans may be rewarded. In one particular episode (episode 32), Jack finds a time portal and needs to fight a guardian to use it because, as the guardian puts it, “only one man has been prophesized to defeat me. And that man is the only man who can use this time passage.” Jack loses, but instead of being killed, the guardian calls for an animal to take him away because, as he says “can’t use it yet, Samurai Jack. Not yet,” as he looks into the portal at an older Jack with a long beard, crown and a red cape.
The fights continue to be a highlight of the series. Almost all of them are impressive, at least in how ridiculously good Jack is at taking down his opponents. However, some of the fights were truly inspired, like when Jack fought a ninja, and the hiding in the shadows motif extended to the point that the entire screen was white and black, and even the audience could only see one of the combatants if they were in the opposite color. Or the first beetle-bot fight, where Jack is pushed to his limit and the entire episode goes into slow motion for a few minutes as the audience sees Jack become increasingly vicious, even making the robots begin to flee until he tells them that there is no escape.
Does “Samurai Jack” hold up after all these years? Per episode, yes. As a whole, it is a harder sell. Now that audiences have shows like “Steven Universe” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the bar for what defines a good cartoon is much higher than before.
When “Samurai Jack” first aired, it was a unicorn, a unique beast the likes of which no one had seen before. It was a cartoon for kids that knew how to tell a good story, was action packed without being stupid and generally could be enjoyed by most anyone who wanted something with violence.
Nowadays, the action and atmosphere still hold up well, but the lack of true continuity between episodes (aside from Jack becoming more infamous over time) stops it from being truly amazing.
If you have not seen the show, it is definitely worth a watch, especially now that the final season is airing and promises to be darker and give an actual conclusion (instead of an episode where Jack rescues a baby and molests animals for milk, which is how the series currently ends). However, only watch a few episodes at a time, and try to forgive the offensive moments.