Samurai Jack is an animated film series that follows the exploits of an ancient warrior, Jack, as he battles the Japanese demon Aku. After having his kingdom destroyed by Aku as a child, jack spends his youth intensely training to combat the powerful villain. Aided by a magic sword, the only known object in existence that can kill Aku, Jack almost defeats his foe before being thrust into the future by a magical time portal. He then must battle hordes of robot and alien antagonists in a world where Aku has grown to be an omnipotent governing force, all the while having to adjust to the culture shock of being thrust into a foreign land.
Season 5 episode two picks up 50 years into the conflict after Aku has destroyed the last of the time portals for jack to go back in time. Unknowing that Jack has lost his magical sword, Aku has slipped into a deep depression due to the fact jack has been altered by time travel and cannot age. Meanwhile Jack continues his wandering quest to find his sword when he crosses paths with the daughters of Aku, a group of seven young women raised by a cult with the single purpose of killing him. In the subsequent combat and chase Jack is forced to flee into an ancient temple where must overcome incredible adversity against a superior foe while simultaneously battling his own sense of hopelessness and guilt. In a traumatic climax, a severely injured Jack manages to slay one of the daughters only to come to the horrifying realization that he has for the first time killed another human.
Much like Genndy Tartakovsky’s other works, the aesthetic of Samurai jack’s animation doesn’t rely on incredibly detailed imagery but the usage of dynamic action sequences, cinematography, and sound to convey meaning. During the initial clash between jack and the daughters he is thrust from his motorcycle due to a tripwire and flies through the air scanning his surroundings in slow motion, illustrating his superior reflexes. Upon landing the daughters attack at supernatural speed appearing as blurs he cannot track. The staging of contrasting speed between the two consecutive shots serves to increase the impact of how quick the samurai’s adversaries truly are and give an elevated sense of lethality. Lighting is also used to increase dramatic effect when Jack stumbles upon two of the daughters in a narrow corridor. Already a tight and claustrophobic area, the only light provided is by the dim sporadic pulses of a lightning bugs thorax, further constricting the sense of space. The dark tension is then shifted to dangerous urgency as the violence begins, changing the light to pangs of black and white illuminated by the sparks of their weapons. Without the harsh transition in lighting it would be nearly impossible to express the suddenness and danger of the encounter.
Perhaps the most thoughtful usage of these elements comes near the climax of the episode as jack seeks refuge in an ancient cemetery. Taking inspiration from Sergio Leonne’s classic “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”, the scene uses a score which slowly ramps in intensity aided by extreme close ups of characters facial features to emphasize the emotion of the situation. Again, a lightning bug is used to provide light for a closed space, except this time slowly fading to symbolize the last shreds of hope for Jacks escape slipping away. What results is an incredibly absorbing sequence that leaves viewers tied to every character’s footstep and furrowed eyebrow as they await the inevitable confrontation.
There are only two instances of dialogue in the entire episode, the majority of both occurring between characters and themselves, serving to summarize the last 50 years of the plot and the feelings it has left them with. The remainder of the story is guided through the metaphor of an alpha wolf wandering a forest and fighting large beasts paired with Jacks mirroring conflict against the daughters of Aku. This allows for some wonderful transitions in action such as a beast’s tail morphing into a striking scythe, which adds an entirely new dimension to the shows combat. However, the comparison of Jack and the wolf feels forced at times such as when they both come to a mysterious fork in the road along their path, one directly after the other. Ultimately the interpretation becomes far too literal and lacking in subtlety, which detracts from its overall value.
Instead, what allows the story of this episode to be so successful is the pacing and use of the cat and mouse game that arises between Jack and the daughters of Aku. After chasing Jack into the temple, the daughters are unable to locate him with each taking up a separate hiding spot wait for him to reveal himself. Each daughter is closely followed with special attention paid to each location they choose to hide in. When the story then progresses to each hiding spot the viewer is left with a sense of tension as they wait to see how each assault will unfold. The scope is then narrowed to a graveyard instead of a large temple, closing off the space and making a final confrontation inevitable without feeling forced.
The subject matter of the episode highlights a shift to more mature subject matter by taking on rather adult ideas such as depression, suicide, and the humanity of killing. The opening segment of the show focuses on a distraught Aku disregarding many of his follower’s gifts which his prideful self would have previously relished. He instead sinks deep into his lair and begins to converse with a therapist alter ego of himself. What follows is a very touchy discussion of his despair over being unable to solve his samurai crisis, even going so far as to refer to the session being a “safe place” when he tries to say Jacks name. Later, after the nearly being defeated by the daughters, Jack seeks refuge in a destroyed robot when his own alter ego confronts him. Jack proceeds to argue with himself about the idea of “ending it” with suicide being the “honorable thing to do”. In the misty distance, a figure of his ancient ancestor appears embodying the guilt of his failure to save his home, further pushing him towards the edge. The sheer intimacy and desperation of the moment bites deeply and delves to places never before explored by traditional cartoon network programming.
In the final minutes of the episode Jack rushes down a hallway where he manages to disarm one of the daughters and land a lethal blow. After her mask falls off and he sees blood pouring from the wound, Jack comes to the harsh realization that he has killed another human. During the earlier combat Jack received a dagger wound to his stomach which the writers waited to reveal until this moment to give a physical representation of the pain they wished to express it causing him. Battered and dripping blood, Jack then proceeds to limp to the end of the passage and fall into a river, the final shot being of him floating away motionless in a pool of his own blood. Unlike the previous 4 seasons where he battled inorganic robots and alien life forms, this is an entirely new realm of violence for the show. Much like the post-Vietnam war era where film and television took on much darker tones, these subjects could be seen as the writers’ way of expressing societies views after over a decade of violent conflict in the middle east and the current emphasis placed on mental health.
This episode is one of the most successful Cartoon Network productions in recent memory, elevating the genre beyond the linear action adventure it had come to be known as. Ultimately the show provides and intense viewing experience which keeps viewers thinking long after the final credits have ended. Perhaps more programs will follow suit and address mature themes of today’s society and provide more than just basic visual entertainment.