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Samurai Jack

Entry updated 14 June 2021. Tagged: TV.

US animated tv series (2001-2004; 2017). Cartoon Network (2001-2004); Williams Street (2017). Creator and executive producer: Genndy Tartakovsky. Writers include Bryan Andrews and Genndy Tartakovsky. Directors include Robert Alvarez, Randy Myers and Genndy Tartakovsky. Voice cast includes Greg Baldwin, Phil LaMarr, Mako and Tara Strong. 62 episodes of approximately 23 minutes. Colour.

The first episode begins as if this were a feudal fantasy: the demon Aku (Mako 2001-2004, Baldwin 2017) conquers medieval Japan; the Emperor's son (LaMarr) escapes, travelling the world acquiring fighting skills, later to confront the demon with a magical sword. Unexpectedly the story shifts: facing defeat, Aku expels the hero into the future (see Time Travel), to a Dystopia ruled by Aku where we find advanced Technology, Aliens, Robots, Scotsmen and Spaceships. Our hero, named Jack by locals, must return to his own time to defeat Aku and prevent this tyranny evolving.

Jack searches for a Time Gate, encountering many strange cultures as he does so: historical, mythological, alien and just plain odd. The closest Jack comes to success is when he must decide between entering a time portal before its destruction or saving his friends: he chooses the latter. The show's cancellation after season four left the tale unfinished.

The fifth season arrived after a thirteen-year hiatus. In the story fifty years have passed; Jack has not aged (a side effect of his initial time travel) but all the time portals have been destroyed. Unknown to Aku, Jack has lost his sword, is despairing and considering seppuku. Aku too has sunk into a malaise – he thought he only had to wait for Jack to die. But the status quo is broken by the Cult of Aku who train the "Seven Daughters of Aku" to kill Jack: six die, but Ashi (Strong) – whose dedication is weakened by an attraction to nature – falls in love with Jack, and he with her. Being partially made from Aku means that the demon can control her, but Ashi's love for Jack overrides this influence; whereupon – finding herself sharing Aku's powers – she takes Jack back in time. Aku is killed, but at the cost of Ashi fading away (rather belatedly and with poor timing) on her and Jack's wedding day: "without Aku, I would have never existed" (see Time Paradoxes).

The show's storytelling is good and the use of long dialogue-free scenes is effective; but the animation is the standout feature, with distinctive and wide-ranging art styles (from nightmare to whacky kids' cartoons) that are striking and frequently breath-taking. Having a non-white protagonist was a rarity in western animation at this time; though the early seasons' shortage of significant female characters was jarring, the imbalance was lessened in the last two seasons.

Inspired by its creator's youthful enthusiasm for samurai culture and the bushido code, along with Frank Miller's Comic book series Ronin (1983-1984; graph 1987), Japanese Manga and such films as Shichinin no Samurai ["The Seven Samurai"] (1954), Samurai Jack is – despite a partially flawed ending – rightly praised as one of the most important western animations of recent decades. [SP]


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