Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Animation Deviation: The End of Samurai Jack

Well... there is a lot to unpack here.

As I mentioned before in my return to the Cybertavern, I have missed out on giving my thoughts quite a bit on Samurai Jack. The last time I talked extensively about the series here was the episode where Jack had completely lost hope after seeing an army of killer children allegedly die (they didn't) in front of him, with his ally Ashi completely lost as to where he went.

I did talk briefly about elements in certain sections of That Random Podcast Show, but I try to have Animation Deviation focus a bit more on certain thematic or logistical story points that I find particularly problematic, poignant, or swiftly handled. And as much as I love good old Zafmod, subtlety and deep examination isn't exactly something we do on that show.

So for the sake of brevity, let me try to break down every single event that occurred between the last Animation Deviation of Samurai Jack and the penultimate episode. Buckle up, patrons!

The following episode has Ashi on a large world-spanning adventure looking for Samurai Jack. But along the way she comes across fan service, I mean a bunch of major characters that Jack has helped throughout the entire original run of the show. These include appearances by the woolies, the three blind archers, the Sam-Moo-Rah, and even the ravers. If you have no idea who those character are, first of all you got some watching to do, and the episode does a good job giving an abridged version of how Jack helped and protected these people in the past. And it is through these travels that Ashi fully moves away from her roots as a soldier by the Daughters of Aku, which is visualized beautifully in a sequence where she scrapes and scrubs her black body suit off. Turns out that body suit was grafted on to her from childhood made from molten rock. Holy. Freaking. Crap. That is dark. But off it comes and she whips together a new outfit out of leaves, bark, vines, and the like.

Side note: Did anybody else get a weird nostalgic urge to see Ferngully again after that? No, just me? Alright then.

This leads to a climax where Ashi finds Jack at a cemetery about to commit seppuku, with the mysterious ghostly horseman as his second. And we finally get an explanation as to who he is: the spirit of Jack's ancestors urging him to retain his honor by taking his life rather than wander aimlessly letting his guilt ultimately crush him. Literally the weight of his failure and disgrace telling him to give up.

But of course Ashi is there to fight the horseman off and talk Jack away from the edge with a big reminder of the good he has done for this world and that there is still hope to be found. Which snaps him out of it, spurring the duo on to finally look for his magic sword.

There is also a subplot brought up here involving the severed head of the scatting synth, Scaramouche, coming back to life and getting into whacky shenanigans to try to inform Aku that his sworn enemy just lost the only weapon on the planet that can kill him.

And it's kind of pointless. I mean it still gives us tension as to whether or not the message will be relayed, but a lot of it is undercut for jokes. Scaramouche has been built up as an odd combo of silly and dangerous in the first episode, but from here on out he just turns to silly.

The closest thing that makes it worth it is the fact that we get Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob, to say the phrase, “looked like a talking penis.” which is just surreal enough to get a laugh out of me.

The next episode is...arguably the weakest out of the series. Jack and Ashi return to where Jack lost his sword, only to discover that it is physically not there anymore. It is here that Jack realizes he didn't just lose the weapon, he lost his right to wield the weapon. Think of it in terms of Dungeons and Dragons where a character has a weapon that is so unbelievably powerful but he has to retain a moral alignment of True Good or Neutral Good: don't get angry, be helpful, only defend yourself, be charitable, etc., and he then jeopardizes that alignment with a chaotic or hateful act. And considering that the magic sword was forged from the good soul of Jack's father and shaped by Ra, Odin, and Shiva, I'd say that qualifies.

And what exactly made Jack unworthy of the sword? We get a flashback where Jack finds a time portal that is under the watch of several adorable sheep-like creatures, seriously if there were plushes of these things I'd get a dozen of them and throw them at people to brighten their day. But before he can get back to the past, Aku shows up and destroys the portal then gloats to his face that it was the very last portal on Earth. Which causes Jack to snap, go into a murderous rage and slaughter the sheep in a flailing attempt to kill Aku. It doesn't work, and the sword fell into the crater where the portal once resided. Which gives us an explanation for why Ghost Jack has been around, a true manifestation of his anger and indignation from that event. Alright, then.
To hopefully make himself worthy again, Jack enters a meditative state to face and purify his inner demons, just in time for an entire army of soldiers to bear down on him and Ashi. So she decides to defend him while in his trancelike state.

So why don't I think this episode fully sticks the landing? Well for one, the army is too easily defeated. Ashi has proven she is basically on par with Jack's fighting prowess. And we have seen Jack fight armies before, but usually with planning, help, and even then barely making it through by the skin of his teeth. Meanwhile, Ashi basically carves through them like it's a level in Dynasty Warriors. There is an argument that there was a lot of environmental advantage here: they were at the top of a mountain, the path upwards was narrow, etc., but you can still feel the tension go out like air coming out of a balloon.

As for Jack's spiritual journey, it is visualized as him speaking to a wise man while performing the Japanese tea ceremony, and them having a discussion about the balance of his spirit. This culminates in a final confrontation with Ghost Jack, which now up close is pretty obviously a recurring variation of Mad Jack, an evil double made by Aku to face our hero in a one-off episode back in the 2000s' series, ending with him being banished from the mindscape. Once this is done, Jack is greeted by Ra, Shiva, and Odin, who accept his newfound resolve for his quest and grant him the magic sword once again, complete with a transformation sequence that cleans up his hair, removes his beard, and gives him back his iconic white gi.

Eh, I'm not gonna argue, they're flipping gods they can do what they want.

What I will argue with is the quick resolution of Ashi's subplot in this episode. Her mother, the leader of the Daughters of Aku, arrives basically out of nowhere and they have a big Daughter-Mother duel to the death. You can already guess the dialogue and the grand exchanges of who is right about the world, and it does lead to a nail-biting finale where Ashi barely saves Jack's life and quickly kills her mother.

The reason why I'm underwhelmed by this is mostly due to the structure of the show. Ten thirty-minute long episodes seems like a lot, and Genndy Tartokovsky has made great strides in showing and expressing so much in those crucial minutes. However, it is in this episode that I feel too much was streamlined and cut out. The army fight felt like a stock threat to keep Ashi busy, but then they completely rush through what should have been the climax for one of her character arcs. Imagine if instead of an army, she had to fight the remaining members of the Daughters of Aku. The big burly trainer woman that beat the shit of her as a kid, the cruel obstacle course trainer, then her mother. All while literally and metaphorically protecting Samurai Jack. Instead we get a disposable army that is gone in literally five minutes. I'm not asking for a shonen-anime level of focus where it's an entire five episode thing but a bit more follow-through would have been appreciated.

I know I'm splitting hairs but it's what I do.

The next episode follows Jack and Ashi trying to make their way to Aku's tower to kill him and end his reign. I'm mostly going to skip talking about Episode 8 because from the strict criteria of events that forward the plot or unravels any mysteries, almost nothing happens. Jack and Ashi travel for a while through a desert, get caught in a sandstorm, seek refuge in a crashed alien spaceship, and work together to survive against an escaped horrific monster. There's some gags regarding Jack's ineptitude for modern electronics and gadgets, but that's about it.

Oh yeah, also Jack and Ashi awkwardly flirt like two adorable high-school students throughout the entire episode and once the monster is dead, they wind up KISSING ALREADY!

I'm not going to get into an argument on whether or not they work as a couple or how Ashi reads as a feminist character, but for the record I totally approve of “Jashi” and think they work great as characters and as lovers ( sorry Tumblr hetero relationships aren't the devil) and it was ultimately a relationship earned rather than a relationship won.

Which finally brings us the penultimate episode of the return of Samurai Jack.

Oh boy. Where to begin?

The first half gets to a rocky start where Jack decides to run off from Ashi to face Aku alone, using the usual macho justification that he doesn't want her to get hurt or killed. She of course smacks that down immediately and goes with him. Fighting monsters robots, ninjas, brainwashed children, your own psycho mother, and a cosmic horror all to protect you is more than reason enough to stick around.

Oh, and we finally get a pay off to Scaramouche hopping his severed head around in a desperate attempt to get to Aku. He makes it all the way back to the doom fortress and finally tells the big man that Samurai Jack lost his sword. To which the master of all things evil and dark, starts dancing in joy while restoring Scaramoush to his full body and planning to go out and kill his sworn enemy once and for all.

From here I just imagined a death clock on top of the robot's head like Death Note. Queue gruesome death in five minutes!

Turns out I was pretty much right. Why else would this subplot be in the show at all if not to get some jokes and levity between all the heavy stuff? Jack and Ashi find the remains of an ancient battlefield, where some serious nonsense went down between what appears to be giant robots of some kind. And it is here that Jack and Aku finally meet after fifty years. Our hero and his final showdown against the big villain.

Except Aku notices that Jack has his sword back. So, being the competent villain that he his, he vaporizes Scaramouche to scrap before he can even finish the phrase, “please give me another chance.”

Geez, that was even less time he gave Demongo.

But another grand twist happens in our narrative. Aku is Ashi's father. He seriously showed up to the Daughters of Aku during one of their ceremonies praising how great he is, he said “I like you guys, keep it up” offered them a goblet full of his dark essence, then left. To which the leader drank it, which somehow impregnated her, and she gave birth to the seven daughters we saw at the beginning. Ashi is literally a Daughter of Aku.

And since Aku doesn't play fair (he's evil what did you expect?) he uses this connection to his essence to possess Ashi and use her as a weapon against Samurai Jack. Even going so far as to have her body become consumed by his darkness, turning her into a smaller version of him complete with shapeshifting powers and flaming eyes. Oh, and she's utterly helpless this entire time, yelling and trying to fight back. It gets so bad she finally asks Jack to just kill her so he can end Aku.

But he can't. He won't raise his sword to another human being again, he doesn't want the victory to be tainted with blood, and also he clearly has strong feelings for her. So he surrenders to Aku, with the episode ending on the lord darkness holding his magic sword up high in victory.

Tartokovsky, can I ask you where the hell did you learn this kind of thematic story structure? Because it's giving me serious feels!

So, here we come now to the final episode of the show. The thrilling conclusion that the creator has wanted made for so long. The one fans have been waiting for...

It was pretty good!

Alright, we've come this far, home stretch now!

The episode opens with everyone around the world tuning in to some sort of broadcast made by Aku. For a guy that rules the world and is born from the primordial evil of the universe, apparently this guy is really considerate to give everyone a wide-screen 4k resolution television for his evil declarations and speeches.

And oh what a declaration it is. He broadcasts to the world the capture of Samurai Jack and his magic sword, then announces that he will be executing him...right now.

Seriously, did Aku look up the Evil Overlord Dos and Don'ts? I'm not complaining, I'm just impressed.

So of course all of Jack's friends, including the army of battle maidens lead by the ghost of Scotsman, all decide that they should get everything they can and Leroy Jenkins their way into Aku's Tower to rescue Jack.

So what exactly is the hold up? Well, Aku has spent so long thinking about how he would kill Jack, he can't...settle on one. Classic Aku. Supremely evil, interestingly difficult when put on the spot.

Of course he decides to use Ashi to kill Jack, just in time for the cavalry to arrive. And we get one hell of a battle sequence out of it. The archers, the woolies, the ravers, Scotsman's daughters, even minor characters that didn't get a whole recent episode dedicated to them like the fish people, the Wild Man and his jumping monkeys, and the three-hundred Spartans, all fight Aku while Jack takes advantage of the chaos to escape and try one last time to reach Ashi.

I'm not gonna lie, I was fourteen years old again during this entire sequence. Seeing Aku spawn hundreds of foot soldiers and giant bat monsters from his being attack and actually killing some of the supporting cast was emotionally visceral and hard to watch.

We even get one last interaction between Jack and Scotsman where he tries to hook the Samurai up with one of his daughters. With Jack awkwardly explaining that he found someone, while pointing to the tall dark flaming eyed monstrosity skewering people with her blade arms.

But of course, Jack throws himself once more into the breach trying to save the part of Ashi he knows to be good and pure. Turns out finally just flat out saying that he loves her was the magic phrase, and she slowly regains control over her body. Cheesy? You bet your ass it is and I don't care it was eight episodes in the making and they earned it!

We have a brief father-daughter scrap with Ashi realizing she can use Aku's shapeshifting powers at will. Then Jack gets a brilliant idea. If Ashi has command over Aku's powers, that means she can also summon a time portal and send Jack back to the past! Without missing a beat the pair leap into the time vortex.

And we finally get the battle we've all been waiting for. Jack returning to the exact point where Aku threw him into the future, albeit with over fifty years of mileage on him, and delivering the final crucial blow. 

The ultimate evil is defeated, Jack has returned home, he is re-united with his family and friends, and there is an entire celebration where every hero and king from around the world attends. Also, Ashi is introduced to the family and a grand wedding is planned. A truly happy ending is in sight....

Then Ashi collapses on her way down the aisle, and she slowly vanishes from existence in Jack's arms. Since Aku's future never came to pass, she does not exist. The woman that helped bring him back from the brink of despair, helped him re-find himself, and helped him return home is gone.

Goddamn ninjas with onions... how do they keep getting past my security?

We then get a final shot of Jack in solitude, brooding over his loss. Among beautiful cherry blossom trees spread as far as the eye could see. And he...accepts his loss. He won, he is home, and the future is truly bright. It's a bittersweet bit of solace, but one that ultimately ends on a high note.

Bravo Genndy Tartokovsky. Well done. My only real problem with this episode? The second act, it went by a little too fast for my liking. That's it. I know, splitting hairs!

Tune in next Tuesday if you want me to go into further thoughts about the series as a whole once it's had more time to settle. Or maybe something else entirely, who knows how my brain will go.

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