Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Animation Deviation: My Final Thoughts On Samurai Jack

Alright, let's get this out of way since I'm running late to the party as it is.

Now that the entire new series has officially concluded and I've had some time to let the whole thing digest, I really can say that Genndy Tartokovsky's return of Samurai Jack was a major success. It retained the epic scale and ingenuity of the original series while taking advantage of having a more mature-leaning rating on Adult Swim. It was an update that didn't pander, nor did it completely alienate a new audience from enjoying the series either. Speaking personally I actually knew a friend who never got into the show simply because he was older than me, citing the reason being generational. However, he has seen the entire ten episode return and heartily enjoyed it on its own merits despite some of the shout-outs to the prior seasons.

But there were also some elements that didn't exactly work as effectively as they could. So on this week's Animation Deviation I wish to bring up three things the Samurai Jack revival did especially well from a narrative and thematic standpoint, and three things that failed in this regard.

First, the Good:

Every Single Step of Samurai Jack's Struggle and Redemption

As I mentioned way back when I started this column, I was beyond worried about what had become of our hero after spending over fifty years in a dark future. The promo art of him without his sword and donning a suit of armor littered with weapons and firearms didn't exactly assuage these worries either.

But Genndy is a smart writer and covered single base imaginable with Samurai Jack. His guilt and trauma over what he has lost is established early and is easily understood. His goals are clear yet seemingly impossible, get back his magic sword and kill Aku, but there are multiple obstacles in his way. Not just the immediate physical danger of assassins, but also an emotional obstacle of whether or not he will even finish what he started, let alone go home.

But since having our main hero brood over an entire season would be about as entertaining as shoving bamboo shoots up my ass, the show decided to personify this in the character I have grown to call Ghost Jack. Initially I couldn't stand this use of the character since I was afraid it was leading to a hackneyed riff on Mad Max. That Jack's self-imposed isolation has caused him to talk to himself, and this other self was a more strict and disciplinary shell of what Jack once was.

Turns out this wasn't the case; in fact it was the opposite. Ghost Jack was in fact a corruption of our hero's time spent in Aku's future, driven hateful by how little progress was made, and even developing a blood lust for the battles Jack was waging against Aku's forces. It could even be argued that it was because of this more pronounced element of Jack's mind that drove him to adopt the Mystical Samurai-Meets Post-Apocalyptic Do-Gooder appearance he adopted in the first three episodes.

It is not until episode 7 that Jack fully confronts this part of himself, re-orienting his spirit and reaffirming his heart, that Ghost Jack is removed. Simply put, he metaphorically shoved doubt and anxiety out of his mind and took control of his destiny back from himself.

Cliched? Of course. Poignant? Absolutely

Also, it's a much needed human element to make us feel for this hero. To put it bluntly, the Samurai Jack of the original series was a blank slate. He was clever, naive, and whatever else the episode at the moment needed him to be for interesting dilemmas and challenges. But otherwise, he had very little dialogue and very little to interact or play off of. The closest thing we did get was a prolonged origin episode showing Jack's training to defeat Aku, and even then it was mostly just montages and small vignettes.

Which brings me to the next strength....

The Introduction and Use of Ashi

Now for one of the most contentious additions to the canon: Ashi. The psycho assassin trained by a cult for the express purpose of killing Samurai Jack, who winds up learning more about the world and the truth, becomes an ally in his journey to end Aku's reign of tyranny, and ultimately becomes a love interest.

Time for a swerve here folks, I actually enjoyed Ashi. She had a great character arc that was not only informed by Jack's personal struggle to find the good in everything he finds, but also informed by how much an environment can have an effect on people.

The first big change in Samurai Jack from this new season was the addition of the human element not just of the hero, but of the enemy. Unlike machines, the writers understood that human beings are a lot more complex than just simple programmable tasks, and took advantage of the longstanding propaganda and sociological and economic influence of Aku's world. In this case, a warrior trained to believe that the lord of all evil is actually a loving god and that Jack is a sort of manipulative chaotic threat to an otherwise peaceful world.
In other words it was a lot more interested in how a human would understand good and evil rather than how cool it would be to see them bleed.

This is why Episodes 3, 4, 5 and 6 are so brilliant from a character perspective. Having Jack actively give Ashi and her sisters the choice to stand down, and even after defending himself and having every opportunity to kill her, he doesn't. It's also why, in addition to being some unintentional dark comedy, Ashi kept attacking Jack and not listening despite his actions being clearly defensive and protective. This nature is eventually reflected and imitated when she defeats the torturer and frees the manipulated children, and even further when she adopts a new look and identity for herself in her search for Jack. Actions define a character more than words, which is why so much emotional range is covered in these small but poignant beats. All choices made directly by her as a character thanks to the influence of a wise mentor that she eventually comes to respect and love.

Which brings me nicely to the topic of her romance with Jack. As I briefly touched upon before in last week's Animation Deviation, I had no real issue whatsoever with this development occurring. I was also a bit flippant when it came to the fan reaction to Jashi as it is called and discovered that they simply wanted the relationship to remain student-mentor as opposed to lovers. Which is a perfectly understandable and legitimate desire for the series given the beats and arcs for all the characters involved. But when you have an entire episode, one tenth of your limited-run series dedicated to a lot of flirting and adorably cheesy bits of tasteful nudity and innuendo woven into an intense battle for their lives, it's pretty clear this is the direction Tartokovsky wanted.

Also a relationship earned compared to a relationship won is something I really should clarify. A relationship earned is when there is plenty of amiable respect and friendship between two characters that eventually becomes something more. Turanga Leela and Phillip Fry in Futurama is a great example of this. A relationship won meanwhile is a coupling that happens in the heat of the moment then somehow sticks. “Oh look, we survived not dying in horrible pain from a crap load of adversity, let's kiss and have that be the entire basis for us getting married.” In the case of Jack and Ashi, I kept getting the distinct impression that even without the insanity of Aku's world and the big mission, they still would have gotten together and have truly been made for each other. This is thanks to all of the work that had gone into her development as a character rather than a pep talk and a “trophy” for the hero to earn.

Even in the final two episodes when she became Aku's puppet did she remain a character. A lesser series could have easily made it edgeporn by having Jack kill Ashi because “you must kill what you love because evil affects us all” or something emo like that all while fridging a woman because why not piss off both genders with your offensiveness. But there was still so much passion and dedication to not just Phil Lamarr and Tara Strong's performances that it was still intense.

The Animation, Art, and Score

I know, obvious point is obvious but it must be repeated. Samurai Jack is such an old-school action cartoon with how it stages its fights, its dialogues and its scenes. It was risky before back in the 2000s back when other shows felt like they had to fill dead air all the time, and even now in 2017 it is still a rare sight.

A sight that the show takes full advantage of. The prolonged chase sequence in the temple of Episode 2 was so suspenseful because of the tense strings playing and the absolute lack of dialogue and the camera's insistence on simple static shots and simple pans that I did not realize I was holding my breath the entire time. Seriously I could just fill this section with stills from the show and let the story tell itself!

… but I won't, I have a schedule to keep.

Now for the bad, and these are completely subjective so don't murder me over it.

The Wasted Potential of the Daughters of Aku

While Ashi was a smart decision to the show in her own right, I can't help but shake the feeling the cult she was a part of, The Daughters of Aku, should have played a larger role in the overarching plot. We get a great beginning with the leader giving birth to Ashi and her six sisters, followed by a montage of them being trained into killing machines, and some other small flashbacks of just how unpleasant and cruel their training was.

This was all in service of Ashi's characterization, but what about the rest of the cult? What about that statuesque woman that was basically beating children to teach them how to fight? What else did the cult do when it wasn't creating moppets to serve their master? How did they recruit more to their cause?

Some of the episodes later did show how certain businesses or even organizations had taken full advantage of Aku's new world order. The rise of bounty hunting, the carving up of land to those who could simply take it from the innocent, the use of child slavery. All given screen time and eventually taken care of. But the Daughters of Aku? Barely two episodes tops and aside from having their top seven assassins killed by Jack, no final resolution was given.

What is especially shortchanged is Ashi facing this organization as well. The best we get is a very quick fight with her mother at the end of episode 7, but even then it felt very half-hearted. How did mommy know she was there? Were the Daughters tracking Ashi? If so why was it just her mom? Why the disposable army? It was a much needed crescendo of her turn from the dark side that could have been more impactful than what we got.

The Overuse of Scaramouche

Once again, put the pitchforks down and hear me out. Scaramouche in concept is a character I'm glad they got out of the way in episode 1. Despite the darker tone and headier themes, Samurai Jack is still a pretty bizarre show that mixes several different flavors of sci-fi and fantasy together. And a beat-boxing robot assassin that can control objects with his voice and a magic flute will do just fine for setting the baseline of unusual in a series to newcomers and a crystalization of those ideas to older fans.

But once Jack defeats him in episode 1, Scaramouche contributes nothing to plot but a sidestory with some wacky situations. Seriously, take him out of the show and absolutely nothing changes on a strict narrative level.

Taking Scaramouche's point-of-view from his introduction to his death here's exactly what happens. He finds Jack. He sees Jack doesn't have his magic sword and tries to call Aku. Jack cuts him to pieces but he's a robot so his head re-activates. He then goes from place to place trying to contact Aku about Jack's lack of a holy weapon and comes up empty-handed (empty-headed?). He finally hops to Aku's tower and tells him... at which point Jack already has his sword back. Aku and Scara approach Jack, and then Aku kills Scara.

The only change that would have happened would be that Jack and Ashi go all the way to Aku's tower to confront him...and then basically the entire string of events leading up to the finale would have happened exactly as they did before.

Once again, I understand the need for levity in a series like this, and Scaramouche fits the roll of a Starscream to Aku's Megatron, but in a series that needs to take advantage of every second of screen time it has, this was a crucial twenty minutes or so that could have been used elsewhere.

Hell if you really wanted to keep him around, have Scara stay unmentioned until like Episode 8, at which point we get a small montage of him going through hell for some jokes, then he gets to Aku so we have our set-up for his inevitable death by eye laser. Which could have opened up for more groundwork for returning supporting characters or some more resolution with the Daughters of Aku.

Which does bring me to my last big issue with the series.

There Just Wasn't Enough Time

On the one hand, this is me desperately wanting more time with these characters and this world. What happened to Extor? Or the good natured robots that showed up in the giant samurai robot in the finale? What exactly was Scotsman's big plan before his impromptu storming of the castle?

This is especially felt in the final episode. It is an absolute rush to see the entire supporting cast fight in an all-or-nothing battle against the Master of Darkness while Jack struggles against a possessed Ashi. But so much goes by so fast, the big battle doesn't have as much weight as it could have.

This is obviously a limitation of the show being on television. Ten episodes is only so much time and while Tartokovsky and his team did a fantastic job getting as much as they could into these shows, I desperately wanted them to say screw it make the final episode an hour long.

Then again I'm not an executive or a producer so I could only imagine the logistical and financial problems that would come with that arrangement.

At the same time this problem is also a testament for what Tartokovsky accomplished. And as rushed as it was, the finale was the best possible ending for Jack's journey, and it should be applauded.

And that is it for Animation Deviation's take on Samurai Jack. Next week, hopefully something different.

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