Sunday, March 26, 2017

Animation Deviation: Samurai Jack Episodes 2 and 3 Review

Well...Tartokovsky's not slowing down anytime soon.

As I mentioned before in my Schedule Change post, I've decided to move game design commentary to Wednesdays in order to have Animation Deviation here, so I can have an excuse to give an immediate reaction and analysis of the revival of Samurai Jack. So let's get started on what happened last Saturday, cuz it's a doozy.

Episode 2 opens with an extended scene with the always enjoyable Aku, the shapeshifting ultimate master of pure evil in his evil lair. What sort of diabolical plans does he have in motion to further terrorize the world that he has under his thumb?

Nothin' really. He's kind of lost his drive.

That's right. Aku is dealing with ennui and it's kind of hilarious. Some subjects come in to appease him? He casually waves them aside. Scientists come in to show off a new superweapon that will definitely destroy that pesky samurai? His reaction is basically, “fine whatever, I don't really care anymore.”

And for like ten seconds I bought this. Aside from Samurai Jack wielding a magic sword that is the only thing that can kill him, Aku has basically won. The world is his, what does he have to worry about.

Then we get a pretty amusing sequence where Aku...creates a copy of himself to act as his therapist. The funny thing about Aku as a villain is that he always manages to be equally terrifying and intimidating as a villain, while also being playfully amusing. He could go from being a force of nature made to end worlds to...reading propaganda as bed time stories for children to turn them against Samurai Jack. All evil in different flavors, but the pettiness is amusing.

This scene does bring up two crucial bits of information. First is the reason why Aku has lost his drive to kill Jack. Turns out Aku actually did the smartest thing he could against an enemy whose sole motivation was to get back to the past: he destroyed every single form of time travel he could find and decided to just wait out Jack dying of old age. But, as the new opening handily reminds us, time has lost its effect on Jack. Aku even mentions all that has really happened is that he grew a beard. Which has allowed the thought to creep into his head that Jack will be stuck here forever and that they're at a stalemate.

The second fact revealed to us is that it is a damn shame Mako Iwamatsu had to die. The original voice for Aku was an absolute joy to listen to. He could go back and forth between being funny to menacing to acidic to downright obnoxious and make it feel organic.

To his credit, Greg Baldwin does a decent job capturing Iwamatsu's speech patterns and tones. Yeah, a freaking Baldwin is voice-acting in Samurai Jack and it's a Baldwin that hasn't completely shat the bed and lost their damn mind to boot.

But at the same time... it's noticeable. Not a dealbreaker but noticeable.

Which brings us to the lion's share of the episode: Jack's introduction to the seven assassins sent to kill him trained by the Daughters of Aku.

I'm not gonna lie... it's pretty brutal.

Within an astonishingly short amount of time, Jack is basically left running for his life. All of the weapons he was seen wielding in the first episode are either stolen or destroyed, his armor gets torn to shreds, and his firearms are fully depleted of ammo. So he runs and hides, genuinely afraid of just how skilled these new enemies truly are.

And here we are brought to the entire thematic focus on this episode: Jack's deteriorating sense of self and self-worth in light of an enemy that is his equal. This is epitomized in a sequence where Jack argues with himself, imagined as his more ideal self. Clean-shaven, in his Gi, but completely maddened by the multitude of his failures. Jack of course tries to re-center himself by saying he's been in this situation before on multiple occasions, and that whatever this new enemy is, they are just machines. Simply programmed and unable to adapt like he can.

Usually whenever a hero speaks with himself, it feels like a clumsy way to express their emotional state since body language can't be expressed. But here it makes sense since he is under great duress and it helps give Jack more character beyond his more stoic nature from before.

But the key element of the scene is that Jack...sincerely believes in a part of his mind that he has completely lost and his very honor has been besmirched. His sword is gone, these enemies are out of his league, and even if he escapes, it'll just be more torture of what will be an eternity of wandering aimlessly looking for false hope. He even entertains the idea of hara-kiri, to join his ancestors. But then, Jack spots a temple and takes advantage of an impending thunderstorm to run to a larger more advantageous area, silencing this part of himself resigned to failure.

Right here is why I need to give Genndy Tartokovsky more credit as a creator. This could have easily been a recurring motif, the idea of the hero slowly giving up. Imagine if this ghost version of Jack just kept showing up in almost every single scene. It would get old really fast and it would undermine just how much the character has already gone through in the show and in the fifty years worth of adventures we haven't seen as viewers. But here it is used just enough at a moment of weakness, then quickly thrown away.

And from here, the entire second half of the episode is Jack fighting off the assassins inside the temple, through hiding, attacks of opportunity, and a lot of thinking on his feet. No dialogue, no sound effects, not even any of the stylistic black bars Tartokovsky likes to use to focus the viewer on something of importance. Just a slow building suspenseful orchestral swell coinciding with our hero's rising panic.

Of course the way I'm writing this makes it almost sound like our hero has become a total wuss somehow, and I am here to say that is absolutely not the case. These assassins are professionals and they are truly frightening. As a unit they watch eachothers' backs. They don't conveniently wander off. They don't make mistakes. Their weapons of choice are all designed to counteract battle with a katana. The blade catching sais, the range and the stance-breaking of a kusari-gama, the weight and force of a spiked club, the reach of a spear, the list goes on. But of course the most disturbing of all is that we as an audience know that they aren't machines, and the ruthless efficiency to which they improvise and laterally think makes this abundantly clear.
But of course after a beautifully animated extended chase and fight sequence it ends with Jack killing one of the assassins and getting mortally wounded in the process. But not before seeing to his horror that for the first time ever he had taken another human being's life. The episode concludes with him using the sonic weapon he had picked up from Scaramoush in the first episode to collapse the temple and limp out to the exit, a dagger still in his gut.

Yeah, that's how episode 2 ends. Jack getting the absolute shit kicked out of him by our new enemies, considering ritual suicide for possibly failing his mission to save the world, spending an entire night trying not to die by seven highly trained assassins out to kill him, and it ending with him escaping while bleeding to death.

I mentioned before how this show seems to be going out of its way to sidestep the pitfalls of darker nostalgia revivals, and this episode is another example of Tartokovsky understanding basic motivations and character informing decisions rather than basic juvenile pandering or shock. 

Imagine if this new season opened with Jack as a gun toting warrior that killed these assassins and felt nothing because he Just Didn't Care Anymore. That would be far too incongruous with a character that, while basic in terms of personality, had a concrete and defined moral center.

It'd be like going from ANY version of Batman to Frank Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin. For those who don't know, that was a hated version of the character that psychologically tortured kids, killed people, actively screwed over the Justice League because he hates them for some reason, and was basically seen as a maniac in the mask. The most egregious example of this is a scene where he blows up a warehouse full of people than has sex with Black Canary. Outside the building. While the bodies were still burning.

Instead, they treat the serious moments with enough emotional weight, then move on.

And in that spirit, let's move on to the episode that broadcast just a few hours ago.

Episode 3 picks up immediately after this brutal encounter with Jack floating down river. He continuously slips in and out of consciousness since he has a large bleeding untreated stab wound, and he is still in a panicked state.

After this atmospheric sequence we have Jack finding refuge in a cave where he slowly nurses himself back to health and tries to plan ahead for what will happen next. Since his pursuers are actual thinking human beings they will not let up the same way a machine will. And we see this pain up close as he uses improvised stitches, healing herbs, and shivering in the harsh cold once what little firewood he has has been used up.

Now there is one misstep in this entire large stretch of episode: Jack's hallucination returns to deride him for killing a human being in the last episode. On the one hand, this is still a manifestation of Jack's ideals made feral and hostile in light of what our hero has become. But visually he becomes more exaggerated and he is even given sharp teeth and it...outstays its welcome despite being around for like ten seconds.

It is also rendered moot by a scene of growth and a re-affirmation of Jack's morality in a flashback sequence to his childhood. It shows that despite his father banishing a warrior of ultimate evil from the world using a magic sword forged by Odin, Ra, and Vishnu using the solidified essence of his righteousness and good heart (no, really), there were still bandits and highwaymen trying to kill him. It shows his father trying to be diplomatic and peaceful before killing them, and Jack witnesses the whole thing. All while staying silent of course, there are some traditions you have to keep. It concludes with his father basically telling him that your actions alone aren't what defines you, but how and why you do them.

The episode's second half is then shown through the assassins' point of view as they track Jack. Eventually they find the cave and signs that he has moved to a snowy forest and start to move in, but are oddly startled by the wildlife interacting nearby. Apparently when you are raised from birth in a dark cave and are only taught pain and suffering you tend to get weirded out that things like birds and deer exist.

But Jack then reaches out an olive branch and tells them to stop, speaking from a hidden location. As a matter of fact in brilliant bit of bookending, he echoes the same diplomatic words his father used in the flashback. The assassins of course tell him no, and then the second battle begins with Jack using the environment to his advantage and some improvised throwing spears, all while a white out blizzard kicks up.

Once again, absolute highlight of the episode. The assassins are off balance by the natural environment and the alien behavior of the animals, Jack keeps taking advantage of the low visibility and the range of his throwing spears. And he actually takes down more of the assassins with definitive killing blows, and they do not linger on it. He tried to be nice, he didn't want to kill them, but he had to defend himself.

There's an old adage when it comes to narrative that I'm fond of, “heroes are reactive, villains are proactive.” A villain wants to get stuff done and goes right to the most lateral method possible like killing the hero or nuking a place. The hero reacts to this, and it is in this reaction that his true character is revealed.

This is why Jack killing these assassins sat well with me when any other way would have made me sick. It also puts to bed the idea that Jack has to continuously sacrifice his ideals in order to survive in his increasingly harsh environment, which means Ghost Jack might not be as pronounced of a presence further down the road.

The episode ends with Jack and the remaining assassins falling off a cliff and into an unknown location with next week's teaser showing Jack trying to navigate it.

Once again, smart storytelling by Tartokovsky. If the entire season was Jack dealing with these unstoppable ninja warriors it would get one note and boring very fast. But now they are either out of the picture completely, though I doubt it, or if they returned it will be in a different context in capacity. Less death troopers and more fish out of water with an honor-bound mission to uphold with death being the failure state. A dark parallel to Jack himself when the series first started. Coincidence? I think not!

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