Thursday, April 4, 2013

Day Ninety-four - Samurai Jack: Season 1, Episodes 1, 2, and 3, "My god... the ARTISTRY!"

When Samurai Jack came out on Cartoon Network over a decade ago, I was instantly a fan. Already enamored with anime in general and the live action samurai dramas, seeing the styles fused with a dystopian cyberpunk future and American animation sensibilities under the direction of CN's golden boy, Genndy Tartakovsky, I was hooked from moment one.

Now, after ten years, to revisit it, I find myself even more in love... and oh so glad that Netflix has picked it up (though, as with other series in the new licensing deal, it's only the first season).

The first three episodes of the series are effectively its pilot in three parts.

The first tells the origin story of how a nameless young samurai is forced to flee his homeland, which is represented through its art and architecture feudal Japan. It's hard to pin down which period, exactly, as it seems to exist in this sort of nebulous time that includes art, spirituality, and mythology that cover many eras.

As the young boy flees, he progressively travels from continent to continent, training with many different warriors, scholars, and tradesmen from almost a dozen different cultures... from horse-riding in the Arabian deserts to calligraphy in sight of the pyramids to archery and axe-throwing in what look to be an England and Russia of antiquity.

Each region and culture is artistically distinct and seem lovingly crafted to challenge the viewer first by presenting folk stereotypes and replacing them with innocence and goodwill as well as strength and determination. It's like watching the folk tales of our forefathers come to life and combine to imbue the young hero-to-be with the attributes of all the world in order to combat the supernatural terror that is the series' villain, the demon Aku.

Over the course of those first twenty minutes we are given what has to be the SINGLE GREATEST TRAINING MONTAGE in the history of motion picture storytelling. In terms of art, pacing, relevance, culture, and emotional range and sensativity, I have never before and probably never will again see its like.

If it weren't for the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger that leads to a complete shift in genre, I would say the first episode is a masterpiece. In many ways, it is... but it must be taken as merely a part of its whole, which continue in episodes two and three.

At the end of the first episode, with the now adult samurai confronting, and almost defeating, Aku, a last second bit of treachery rips the man out of time where he is flung to the distant future. The series then becomes a sci-fi dystopian epic genre deconstruction where the Wandering Samurai trope is relocated to the flexible story boundaries of a future Earth.

Here he can fight aliens, cyborgs, and robots (sometimes, all three!) and befriend talking dogs while making enemies with three-eyed go-go dancers. With anything and everything past and present to draw from thanks to its far out setting, Samurai Jack (as his far-future admirers dub him) becomes the insert through which the viewers explore both period samurai drama and every historical and speculative trope under the sun.

I have no doubt, had the series not been cancelled after four seasons, that Samurai Jack could've plumbed the myths, art, and tropes of every real and imagined culture our poets and scholars have created.

What's more impressive is just how well done both the art and direction are. What could've been a cheesy as hell Hanna-Barbera adventure production from the sixties and seventies, like Space Ghost or The Heculoids, was instead a collaborative effort of tremendously talented artists, writers, and directors who let the art tell the story instead of using it simply as a medium to prop up cliched jokes.

That's not to say that there aren't familiar gags and one-liners to draw in the occasional bit of silly, but the majority of the series is art and myth.

When it comes to the voice work, I particularly love Mako Iwamatsu's rendition of Aku. Drawing from his grasp of the ancient mystic-type character that he was certainly familiar with via his role in the Conan series, Mako imbues Aku with such gravity, menace, and cackling glee that, even as I'm rooting for Jack, Aku remains my favorite villain of all time.

On the whole, the only criticism that I have for the series is that it doesn't remain true to it's wandering samurai premise... relying on the comedic value of its side characters and extras to lighten the mood too much. I think this could have been done without the Dexter/Powerpuff-styled goofiness.

Still, in spite of this mild weakness, Samurai Jack is one of the greatest animated series I've ever seen and certainly surpasses both its cartoon and live-action competitors. I only wish a proper send-off episode could've been created to either give Jack his deserved vengeance or send him off into the sunset to travel without our witness.

If you have any love for art, style, martial arts, and science fiction... you will love Samurai Jack (or, should, anyway). I definitely recommend it to any and everyone. It's a masterpiece of stylistic and genre fusion.

Until tomorrow, Potatoes~

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more! I just rediscovered Samurai Jack on Netflix and haven't been able to put it down. Too bad it's only the first season.