The most important sound from this episode, is that of the applause from all those watch it.
“Jack and the Three Blind Archers” is an absolute classic, one of the most iconic entries in the series, constantly appearing on virtually every top episode lists I’ve seen (pre-season five anyway). Penned and storyboarded by the brother duo of Bryan and Mark Andrews, two names that are worth noting for any fan of Samurai Jack, especially Bryan Andrews. For starters, according to the DVD commentary, it was the brothers idea for Jack to wear the straw hat (it’s likely Genndy would’ve added it eventually but they were the first to incorporate it). Mark Andrews only has a total of five writing/storyboard credits on the show, all great episodes, Bryan however, may just be the most important person behind Samurai Jack’s success after Genndy himself. Out of the 62 episodes of the series, Bryan Andrews received writings credits for 21 one of them, 15 for the original four season one. Which, unless I miscounted, and more than anyone else (including Genndy, though Genndy also served as perennial director for all episodes). Even though he’s always paired with another, his prominence speaks volumes.
And volumes is what this episode is all about. Most episodes of Samurai Jack revolve around the visuals to communicate the story, and while this episode certainly relies on the visuals to aid, the sound design here is equally, if not more, integral to this episodes design. The episode contains multiple segments where they forego any kind of incidental music in favor of granting the sounds to take center stage. This is apparent right from the opening seconds, where we’re treated to a forest accompanied by the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves blowing in the wind until the rumble from the army approaching takes over, eventually bringing music into the fold too. The second instance comes as Jack makes his way through the island to reach the tower, setting the mood mostly through the pitter-patter of Jack walking through the snow or the sound of the water in motion. The episode constantly reinforces the idea the sound is a key component before Jack actually engages with the Three Blind Archers, a vital decision considering how important their nature is to the narrative, and how we’re providing time to figure it out alongside Jack.
While nowadays with the advent of the internet, nobody is going to be alarmed to discover that the Three Blind Archers are in fact, blind archers from the title alone, it’s important to note that the title of the episode is never mentioned in the episode itself. The only identifier it gets is the “Episode VII” screen right before the credits. While it’s impossible to replicate the feeling of actually figuring out for yourself that the Archers are operating solely off sound, just watching the episode with that foreknowledge makes you really appreciate the amount of visual clues they leave you with. For starters, the designs of the Archers themselves are filled with clues. To how their eyes are completely white devoid of any pupils and the how the close-ups on them showcase their ears changing directions. While I’m talking about character designs, allow me to go on a little tangent. The designs of the Archers are brilliant, not only because they themselves include clues to their blindness, but also because their nose/snout/mouth pieces are shaped like arrows, reflecting their role in their design. I also love that the true form of the Aliens contain Egyptian Goatees, since the Archer designs also seemed reminiscent to Anubis.
Digressions aside, the ridiculous amount of arrows in the opening segments feel like a misdirect, even with knowing the grand scale of the robotic army, it’s kind of preposterous to assume all these arrows in this shot are aimed only for what’s making sound. It gives the impression that rather than reacting to the sounds the army make, they were instead just bombarding the massive army with as much arrows as they had simply to defeat them. Regardless, the segment also contains various hints to their true nature. A lot of these hints can also be interpreted as good strategy rather than more straightforward confirmation of their “Attack by sound” prowess, stuff like shooting the gun from the barrel or targeting the continuous track aren’t huge indicators but right before the scene ends, we’re supplied with a major clue. In-between a flurry of action, we get a quick glimpse of an axe landing on the ground and immediately being struck by arrows upon impact, in contrast to other two instances there is no sound logic for them doing this. It’s a quick moment that would tip-off attentive viewers to the Archers blindness.
The rest of us are giving plenty of time to catch up, as when Jack finally does encounter the Archers we have an extended sequence of seeing him process their abilities. There’s no lengthy explanation from some internal monologue, no brief lines from Jack to make it explicitly clear to the audience, instead everything is conveyed through actions. We Jack test their range with his foot, and when he’s backed behind a tree we see the reflection off the arrows spring an idea to his mind. A classic idea of attempting to blind them in order to obscure their vision (side-note: I love how the failed attempt is depicted, with the backgrounds being wiped up in favor of the blinding light while the Archers remain unaffected, for a beautiful monochrome shot). Again, the series is taking as along for the journey in figuring out that the Archers M.O., through simply visuals steps. The final piece of direct evidence comes in the form of Jack’s own confirmation. Using his straw hat, gently waving it in the air doesn’t cause a reaction however the second he drops it and it lands on the ground, it’s pierced by a barrage of arrows. Even then, we only receive two lines addressing their blindness, Jack’s assertions that he must fight on their level after his sight deprivation training flashback, and one of the aliens exclamation that he can see once Jack breaks the curse. I just love the amount of faith the series places in its audience, even before Jack indirectly confirms it, the audience should have already figured it out.
The following sequence is perhaps the most memorable from the episode, as we witness Jack’s training, his meditation leading to him focusing on sounds in order to discern their physical locations. According to the DVD commentary, this segment was basically story-boarded entirely by Mark Andrews, and it’ll be surprising if this isn’t his finest contribution to the series. The general concept alone is great, with an entirely black screen being filled in by the sounds made. Whether it be the hooves of a doe scratching the snow in order to eat some of the grass beneath or the dripping of water into water. There’s a great sense of progression present too, as we personally get to experience the improvements of Jack’s abilities. Not only through the distance covered, as the sounds constantly come from different directions but also through the sounds he hears. We begin with the most prominent sounds, the doe’s plodding around and consuming grass, moving on to birds and water before settling on Jack being able to hear the individual snowflakes as they hit the ground. I love the distinct sound they went with for the breaking snowflakes, it’s like this weird echoed chime, creating a more mystical vibe to the sequence.
The final action sequence is great too, as should be expected. The constant emphasis on Jack’s ear to reinforce his utilization of just sound is a great way to build upon on the previous scenes, and gives this fight a distinct feel to it. And as creepy as it sounds, I like that Jack discards his clothes for this fight, as they cost him in the first match, as the wind blowing his gi tipped them off to his location. Perhaps my favorite element of the fight, is the preamble to it. Samurai Jack has already crafted it’s identity around split frames (they did it twice earlier in the episode, one of those even serving the same purpose), so finding unique ways to achieve the same effect in of itself is rewarding. Them using the trees of the forest to frame the upcoming encounter is right in-line with the series visual identity, just a little more an interesting spin on it while accomplishing the Mexican stand-off sense of hype and tension. The conclusion to the battle with the three arrows ricocheting off each-other and breaking the curse is a satisfying conclusion, I particularly liked how they focused on the arrow’s fletching as Jack’s source of sensory information.
Outside of the exquisite visual and sound based scenes that dominate they episode, we get two great scenes that actually feature some dialogue. It’s still minimalistic, even by Samurai Jack standards, but they stand out regardless here. The first comes when Jack learns about the wish-granting well from the commander of the robotic army the Archers decimated earlier. I really love the conversation the two have as said commander tries to convince him not to go, Jack’s “Not for me” is powerful statement, and one that helps inform his reaction later in the episode. That reaction of course, being his anguish when he learns the true nature of King Orzic’s Well. I love the slow build of his expressions here, you can really feel the anger truly begin to simmer erupting in Samurai Jack showing the essence of his character, sacrificing for others. There’s a chance the portal would’ve granted his wished in a way that would’ve ultimately screwed him regardless but you can tell from his word choice his decision was formed around the idea of preventing anyone else from becoming victims like the Alien trio was. This is the first instance of Jack opting out of a chance home in order to help others, and it’s the defining essence of his character, and the series in my opinion. This isn’t my favorite instance but it arguably holds the most power, since we see the pain of losing his chance home so clearly before the sacrifice.
The one complaint I do have to lobby against this episode however, is the how much they underlined all this at the end with the Alien’s speech as Jack walks off to continue his journey. The episode had so cleverly avoided unnecessary dialogue to highlight the message up until this point, that it felt a little insulting to have the final words being praise on Jack and his “such sacrifice”. I think the ending would’ve been stronger and more in line with the writing previously had the simply removed those lines, or perhaps just replace them for more vague words of gratitude at worst. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge problem, and I still certainly consider this to be one of the shows strongest entries.