On March 11th an absolute classic returns, but before we enter the future of Samurai Jack, let’s return to its past.
Back in August 2001, Genndy Tartakovsky’s new series Samurai Jack debuted on Cartoon Network with a three-parter labelled “The Premiere Movie”. I vaguely remember catching said movie way back when and enjoying it immensely, which basically describes my experience looking back on Samurai Jack. I don’t recall a lot of specifics about it, prior to today I haven’t watched it in over a decade but the strong feelings I had towards it did linger. My personal bias towards samurai aside, the series was such a unique entity in the landscape of western cartoons, and still to this day it remains a one of a kind series. And this is all made explicitly clear by the first episode alone.
The series begins with an eclipse causing the resurrection of an ancient evil, Aku. From there we’re transported to a father detailing his personal history with Aku to his son. How with the help of enchanted sword forged by mystical monks he was capable of sealing Aku’s evil into the Earth. I love how the history is depicted with the aid of Japanese style murals. Following the history lesson, the son, who later takes on the name Jack, indulges in some fun playing samurai only to be swiftly interrupted by the returning Aku. Chaos quickly ensued, with Aku capturing Jack’s father before he could reclaim the sword that defeated Aku all those years ago. Instead, the father indebted the safety of that sword in his wife’s position, as well as Jack’s.
From here we’re treated to likely my favorite sequence from the first three episodes. For the next nine minutes, not single line of dialogue is uttered, not even an audible sound is made from any singular character. This segment of the episode covers Jack’s formative years, and the story gets across perfectly solely on the strength of its visual storytelling. Well, that and the impressive score composed by James L. Venable. This is a clear case where the music was created using the visuals as a guide, the two sync up flawlessly. Not only does the song match the intended tone of each moment but the instrumentation and style even shifts to compliment the cultural sound of each distinct location Jack visits upon his long training. Outside of the diverse amount of skills Jack taught, including understanding hieroglyphics and archery, the montage also remains engaging through its stylized transitions and clever visual moments. On the former, the most common practice are wide shot travel sequences but my favorite is the pan up from Jack’s hieroglyphics lessons in Egypt to his time in the Greek coliseum. On the latter, I love the use of lightning as a shot transition during the storm segment, particularly the brief moments of the ship being silhouetted between flashes. And at the end of this glorious journey, Jack is reunited with his mother at a mountain monastery. It’s a touching reunion and between two people who’ve yet to speak, that’s a remarkable feat.
Proceeding that reunion, Jack is granted the sword to vanquish Aku, and is later reunited with his father. Unlike his mother, the father isn’t immediately recognizable through design. This is intentional, as it displays the suffering Aku inflicts on others. His once proud stature has deformed into that of a decrepit old man. Still, the audience is informed of who this man is by the manner he’s treated in. As a slave he’s giving a particularly arduous task all by himself and is exclusively denied water by the guards. With our knowledge between the history of him and Aku, the connection is quickly made, resulting in Jack’s rescue being even more satisfying. Following a speech from his father about the importance of not relying solely on the power of the weapon, Jack finally confronts Aku. Aku’s shape-shifting keeps the honestly one-sided fight entertaining, and the end result as we all know is Aku sending Jack into the distant future in order to save his hide.
Despite Episode II firmly establishing the world we’ll be inhabiting for the remainder of the series and providing the most exposition, it’s actually the episode I have the least to say on. Jack finds himself dropped in the future, and is immediately presented with a life-threatening situation. After he manages to escape, his lauded with colloquial slang praise from local teens that mostly sounds like gibberish to my ears. I’m sure Jack felt the same way, but he quite takes to their branded name for him, Jack and later adopts it as his own. The teens send him in the direction of a dance club/bar so that he can be refreshed. The alien lifeforms inside take Jack by surprise, which causes a confrontation between Jack and one of the aliens, despite Jack’s best attempts to placate him. Once Jack wins that kerfuffle, Sir Colin Bartholomew Montgomery Rothchild III, a canine archaeologist searching for someone’s aid in releasing his kind from Aku’s clutches, introduces himself to Jack. Perhaps the funniest moment of the three episodes, not only for Jack’s assertion that he’s a “talking demon dog” but for the visual attention to detail with Rothchild’s audible wagging tail during his introduction. He’s just so happy to find someone who might be willing to help. Anyway, Rothchild explains the migration of alien lifeforms to Earth due to Aku’s constant raiding of other planets resources across the galaxies, and explains their plight. Jack agrees to help and takes him with them to The City of Townsville, where he once again witnesses first-hand the suffering Aku has placed them under. Upon re-watch, the most surprising moment in the three episodes was the visual of the crucified dogs. Outside of maybe Genndy’s follow-up Sym-Bionic Titan and a particular episode of Invader Zim, I can’t think of any cartoons over here that top that kind of disturbing imagery.
Aku was alerted to Jack’s returning presence thanks to an eavesdropper at the bar/club from earlier, and in response he sent out a massive army of drones to his location. This brings us to the third and final episode in this trilogy, and thankfully this turns out to be a case of saving the best for last. While those nine minutes in the first act truly is my favorite portion of “The Premiere Movie”, this episode takes the same principles that made that montage great, and narrows the scope to an action epic. Any dialogue is sparse as usual, and the story is derived solely through its visual presentation. The first half of the episode is dedicated to the planning process, as Jack and crew discovered the drones far before they reached them. We see them set up different traps, craft weapons, and armor for the upcoming battle, all of which get used. Despite Jack’s inability to figure out a ballpoint pen on his own, he sure does a great job using all this advanced technology in combat. But seriously, I really appreciate the fact that not only do we see extended sequence of his battle preparations but the fact that he needs them. Not to echo his father but despite his amazing abilities, he can’t solely rely on his skills with his weapon, instead he has to also use his mind. This makes the combat a lot more captivating to watch, and it’s what makes the first half of the battle so enjoyable.
However it’s the second half of the battle that’s the true spectacle. At first we’re treated to some incredibly fluid fast-pace action sequences, with Jack defeating multiple drones while sustaining some damage in the process. The animation in Samurai Jack still holds up over here even nearly 16 years later. There of course occasional shortcuts taken, separating the attack animation from the damage received or motion backgrounds used to illustrate a sense of movement that isn’t technically present. But the usage of these techniques are sparse, and the amount of flair and style exhibited here more than makes up for it. For example, earlier in the battle how the gleam from the colliding blades overcast Jack with bright flash colors or the constant use of the letter box format in order to emphasize dramatic moments and provide the action sequences with a cinematic feel, developing a grander scope through visual execution alone. This applies to the non-battle segments too, I loved Aku’s demonic laughter layering over the multiple perspectives of the effects of his tyranny from the first episode or how the series utilizes reflections here to further demonstrate Aku’s confidence that the sword won’t prison him again.
The pinnacle of their visual execution comes within the final segments of the battle. Rather than remaining with the faster pace, the series drags each moment out to an unsettling level. Emphasizing the individual ‘deaths’ of each drone, complete with transplanting oil as a substitution for blood. This eventually leads to the drones themselves to fear for the life, displayed through a singular step-back that is as powerful as it is funny. Jack doesn’t allow a single one to escape ‘alive’, and during this sequence the pacing picks up immediately. Another highlight of visual story-telling are the shots from the point of view of the drones wounds. All darkness cut in half by Samurai Jack. Not only is this a nifty way to symbolize the good Jack does, as he tears away darkness and brings light but quite frankly, it just looks cool. The battle ends with Jack soaked in the ‘blood’ of the fallen enemies, proudly holding the flag displaying a symbol of his heritage and his new compatriots. Following a display of gratitude on part of the canine archaeologists, Jack turns down their offer to venture with them and departs on his quest to return to his timeline and vanquish Aku once and for all. “The Premiere Movie” concludes with Aku delivering a rousing speech to himself, declaring his intentions to end Samurai Jack on his own terms.
Ultimately, my decision is to re-visit Samurai Jack has already turned out to be a great one. The series quiet nature, unique visual identity, and total dedication to allowing the visuals to express themselves (or show, not tell) makes it an instant classic. To be honest, I don’t think I can even name a western animated premiere as good as “The Premiere Movie” was. Granted, three full-length episodes as opposed to the traditional one or even the growing in popular double, is arguably an unfair comparison. But Samurai Jack starts with lofty ambitions and delivers all them, providing a unique viewing experience that is not only tailor more strictly to my personal preferences but crafts an engaging tale that can be enjoyed by a wide demographic of people. My anticipation for the final season has definitely grown after this re-watch.