Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bushido Blues: The Final Season of Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack's fifth and final season concluded on May 20.

The journey of Samurai Jack (Phil LaMarr) is a story of solitude. Loneliness marks every trudging step of Jack's quest to return from the corrupted future to his tranquil past. Like the heroes of Japanese folktale, literature, and cinema that creator Genndy Tartakovsky loves so dearly, Jack will pause along the way to aid the meek and the innocent in their own fights against injustice, but he never lingers in one place for too long. He is a ronin in the truest sense: a warrior without a master, whose goal of finding a time portal that will bring him home is simply an extension of the larger quest to bring honour and righteousness to himself and to the world. And every step along that path is a step he takes alone.

Until now, that is.

Premiering in 2001 and lasting for four consecutive seasons on Cartoon Network, in its the original run Samurai Jack was an action-adventure show whose worst-kept secret was this same undercurrent of loneliness that pervaded its surface-level pleasures. It’s since been lovingly placed into the vault of cultural appreciation, its own influences – Kurosawa, Leone, the Wachowskis, Lean, Lucas – transmuted for a new audience with the purity of their essence intact. I grew up watching Samurai Jack not even realizing yet that I loved the work of these master filmmakers, but I did – because Tartakovsky did too. Every frame of the show hummed with a cinematic zeal that no live-action series has ever matched, and though the show was criticized for emphasizing style over substance, it never let go of that thread of tragic pathos: the melancholy that hangs over the lonely samurai’s hopeless quest. When the series ended in 2004, with Jack’s fate left as a cliffhanger, it was clear not only that we had lost something very precious indeed, but that the melancholy feeling might never go away. Jack might never defeat Aku (Mako Iwematsu) and avenge his people. The quest would end unfinished.

The restlessness of the fans who had listened eagerly to this mythic tale, who desperately craved an ending to this story, was obviously shared by the storyteller too. Tartakovsky fought for twelve years to bring closure to Jack’s story, and finally found help at Adult Swim, who not only funded a final fifth season, but lifted the censorship restrictions imposed on the original run by the kid-friendly Cartoon Network. Jack was coming back, and the conclusion to his tale would be allowed to portray the blood and sweat and dark personal strife that would naturally accompany such an ending. Suffice it to say, the lead-up to the premiere in March 2017 was thrilling, if somewhat marred by the nagging doubt that, after so long a hiatus, the show could recapture its former magic.

I shouldn’t have worried. Tartakovsky has been bursting at the seams to tell this story for over a decade, and given full creative freedom with his original team (and some talented new collaborators), he has delivered what must be considered his magnum opus. Samurai Jack’s final season explodes into glorious high definition, its painterly backdrops and stylized animation enhanced by a crisp aspect ratio and judicious CG effects. It dives into a full-throated exploration of the loneliness that subtly marked the original series, showing us a broken samurai beset by the demons of his guilt, grief, and seclusion, teetering on the edge of suicide. Set a full fifty years after the end of the fourth season, when Jack has lost both his magic sword and his sense of purpose, the final season is a beautiful coda to the story we enjoyed so many years ago, full of action, humour, sadness, and some of the most stunning animation work ever aired on television.

The Daughters of Aku, from the final season of Samurai Jack.

The twisted future hellscape born of Aku’s tyranny is dominated by machinery, with droids and automatons comprising both his legions of insectoid troops and the citizens that populate his polluted byzantine cities. Jack’s shown few compunctions about slicing and dicing his way through thousands of these robotic foes over the years (and it was handy for the sake of the network to be able to show black oil and green cyber-ooze squirting out of bisected baddies instead of blood). But now, with no age restrictions and a more mature tone, Tartakovsky can take this to its next logical narrative step: what if the foes that Aku sends to defeat Jack are robotic in nature, but not in form? What would happen if Jack had to defend himself against human adversaries, whose minds were wholly controlled as though they were automatons themselves? Enter the Daughters of Aku, a coven of septuplet assassins born into a secret order and raised from birth with a single purpose: Kill The Samurai.

Jack faces other obstacles in the final season (and sees a few familiar faces), but it’s through his conflict with the Daughters of Aku that the over-arching theme of loneliness is really fleshed out. We see the solitude felt by each of the daughters through the eyes of Ashi (Tara Strong), who is never without her sisters, yet never a part of any real human connection. We see the way that taking a life grinds down on the soul of the samurai, each death a barrier that pushes him further away from others. We see the separation Jack feels from his family and his culture, their ghosts bearing down on him in the moments when he actually wants to be alone. When Jack makes a connection with Ashi – the kind he’s never made before – and he takes the first steps of his journey that aren’t totally alone, we feel how tenuous this connection is, how fragile hope can be in the face of vast, endless despair. It’s heavy stuff for a cartoon series, and it’s a powerful way to realize the scope and ambitions of a show that could only hint at these things in its earlier seasons. I was blown away by the ferocity and fearlessness of Tartakovsky’s storytelling, by the way he tortured our beloved Jack. The final season is a crucible by which both our own personal connections to the series and the samurai himself are melted down and remade.

If there’s one thing I can point to as an obvious step down from the original series, it’s the fact that the incomparable Mako has died in the interim, and the actor chosen to replace him (Greg Baldwin) does a piss-poor job of imitating his predecessor. It’s a thankless job, and I don’t envy him the task of trying to recreate a voice – with its rich shades of humour, warmth, venom, and rage – as iconic as Mako’s. I just wish they hadn’t even tried. In this case I actually would have preferred that Tartakovsky followed his original plan and did something different with Aku’s voice, lampshading the change with some story explanation. It didn’t work for the final season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it doesn’t work here. (It’s not helped by the fact that Aku’s character goes through the same lonely ennui in the fifth season that his nemesis does, which results in some wacky comic relief that was occasionally funny, but mostly drab. I maintain that Mako would have killed the material.)

In the end, Jack’s story got the conclusion it deserved. The final season introduced elements of romance, humour, violence, and psychological darkness that I wish the show had always been able to explore. I’m grateful that we were given even this much, because it’s far too seldom in the world of television production that a creator like Tartakovsky actually gets the fairytale ending they hope for. And as for Jack – his fairy-tale ending was happy and touching, dark and brutal, sweet and sad. It was the ultimate end to the ultimate tale of good versus evil. It was everything I hoped for, too.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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