Samurai Jack is a 2001 series created by Genndy Tartavosky who is also known for creating Dexter’s Laboratory and more recently Sym Bionic Titan. The story kicks off long ago in feudal Japan where Aku a shapeshifting being of darkness is resurrected and ravages the land. To stop him, the young prince of the land is taken to train all across the world under different cultures and masters for the final confrontation and is given a magic sword which holds the only power that can harm Aku. He eventually manages to confront Aku and nearly defeats him but before the final blow could be struck, Aku used his powers to open a portal in time and fling the prince into the distant future in which Aku’s evil is law. Now trapped in the future and given the nickname “Jack” by the locals, he must now seek a way to return to the past and undo Aku’s evil.
Samurai Jack was one of my favorite shows growing up as a kid and over a decade later the show is still pretty well remembered and remained enough of a classic to get a run on the current late night version of Toonami, but does it still hold up that well? The answer is mostly yes.
Though the end goal of the series is laid out pretty clearly from the get go, Samurai Jack is more of an anthology than an ongoing epic as there’s very little continuity between episodes outside of the occasionally episodes that expand both Jack and Aku’s respective backstories. While that might initially seem detrimental to an action show, it works in its favor as it allows for the series to take on a somewhat different approach in style. Even though Aku is generally involved somehow in the plots of most episodes, many of them function like standalone mini-films allowing for the series to take different approaches in style.
In fact style is generally the series greatest strength as the series pays great homage to action films of all kinds ranging from noir films, to kung-fu movies, and even giant robots. Of course, given the title of the show, the style it tends to stick to the most are samurai films and the show tends to rely on music more than dialogue to create atmosphere as Jack fights all manner of opponents from demons to robot bounty hunters and the show delivers on having tons of action pretty much all the time while occasionally dishing out thematic stories though they aren’t quite as frequent.
For Lulu…sweet thing
The show also pays a great homage to its samurai film origins in terms of violence. Though it’s a TV-Y7 rated show and the mutilation of actual people wouldn’t exactly go over well with the censors, the series is usually pretty creative about getting around that as the frequent robotic opponents that Jack fights tend to meet their end pretty horrifically and there are many instances where it’s blatant that the staff is making fun of the fact that they’d never get away with some of the violence displayed if Jack was fighting human opponents.
That oil seems an awful lot like blood splatter…
That being said one of the largest grievances in the series is that Jack’s foes tend to be robots a bit too often, even sometimes when they clearly shouldn’t be and there are instances where clearly organic looking creatures are revealed to be robots shortly after getting butchered which can be somewhat annoying. Additionally as the show is mostly an anthology while there are a lot of strong episodes, there are some pretty weak ones as the series is forced every now and then to cater towards it’s target younger audience. Thankfully they tend to have titles that are obvious enough to avoid (looking at you “Jack and the Farting Dragon”) but it does hurt the series somewhat.
As the series doesn’t have much continuity, Jack and Aku are the only really notable characters in the series though both are interesting enough in spite of that. Jack is more or less the classical samurai archetype and it generally works for him as his sense of justice is both his greatest strength as it keeps him from abandoning his mission and his greatest flaw as it often costs him opportunities to make his return to the past due to his need to put others first. Meanwhile Aku is a pretty straightforward evil overlord, but he makes up for the genericness of his archetype with sheer hamminess as his trolling and villainy are usually just over the top enough to be entertaining though his overuse of it also tends to cost him many opportunities to finish Jack for good. Another character of note is The Scottsman, who is pretty much the only other recurring character and the closest thing to a best friend Jack has in the future and though he doesn’t appear in too many episodes he’s pretty amusing to watch when he does as his brash nature tends to play off of Jack’s calm demeanor pretty well.
Behold his GREAT FLAMING EYEBROWS!!!
The artstyle of the show is the part of it that holds up the least as it feels a bit dated now, but style of the series tends to make it work for the most part and there are some occasional visual shifts that are pretty cool to watch. Since the show tends to rely on music more than dialog as mentioned earlier, music is another of the show’s strong suits as the soundtrack is typically very distinct and goes very well with many of the show’s action sequences though the show’s theme song is kind of hit or miss.
Samurai Jack is a show with a lot of style and that style is what has kept the show well remembered even today as it’s a pretty unique kind of action show. Though some episodes don’t hold up as well as others and there’s no definitive ending yet (hopefully Genndy will get to make that movie finale he wanted some day) the series is more about the journey than the destination and its a pretty action-packed journey.
Available on streaming on Netflix, Currently airing on Toonami