For four seasons (2001-2004) fans enjoyed the mash up, steampunk awesomeness that was Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network. The show, created by Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Star Wars: Clone Wars), was about the stoic eponymous samurai battling the shape shifting demon Aku in post-apocalyptic future filled with deadly robots and odd creatures. It was beautifully animated, action packed and funny in a quirky way. When the show ended without completing the story fans were crestfallen.
Thankfully the show was brought back this year for a fifth and final 10 episode season this year and we got to go back, back to the past. And the season was not only great, it was awesome! For my review I will be going into spoilers so this is your SPOILER ALERT. Here it is in five easy to chew slices:
#1 Dang Jack. You got dark!
Season 5 finds Jack fifty years later. He has not aged – time has lost its effect on him – and lost his sword. He has some wicked facial hair, rides a bike and fires a Gatling gun. Aku still rules the future and has destroyed the last of the time portals, preventing Jack from returning to the past. Our hero has lost all hope and is borderline suicidal. He is haunted by his past and his failures.
In previous seasons Jack was always a cool character who could change from kind and soft spoken to steely eyed and lethal (to robots at least) in an instant. But this is first season we see him go through a deep emotional arc. He is brought to the brink of death, is prepared to commit suicide and kills a human for the first time. The show was on Adult Swim this time allowing Tartakovsky to explore more mature themes and include lots of blood and deaths while never feeling incongruous to the source material.
We see Jack at his nadir, angry and bitter, and then return to the hopeful (and less hirsute) samurai we all remembered. It added a depth to the character that we had not seen before and it proved to be an interesting watch. Phil LaMarr reprises his role as Jack and again is solid and entertaining.
#2 Such a pretty wasteland
The series has always had a vivid, colourful, anime-inspired art style and season five not only continues this trend but improves upon it. There are some landscapes that are jaw dropping gorgeous and look like paintings come to life.
In the episode XCIV, when Jack recuperates in a cave with a wounded wolf, the use of light and shadow and the highlighting of the blood is masterful. In the next episode the odd flying creatures within the larger creature are breathtaking in their detail. Tartakovsky definitely outdid himself with the art work in season five.
#3 When Jack met Ashi
One of the best things about season 5 is in the introduction of the character of Ashi. She begins as one of the seven daughters of Aku created by a cult of Aku worshippers. She is a highly trained, deadly assassin with one goal – kill Jack! She seemed to be just another bad guy, or gal, for Jack to defeat but her tale took an unexpected turn. After Jack slays her six sisters following a crisis of conscience over killing (pardon the alliteration) he earns her trust and she goes from adversary to ally, and from enemy to love interest.
Voiced by voice actress extraordinaire Tara Strong (Rugrats, Teen Titans) Ashi was a fun, interesting character and a most capable fighter. In the episode XCVIII she takes down an entire army single handled and bests her former mentor the High Priestess. And I was like “dang girl!” She was also great in XCIX as she and Jack battled the alien slime colony creature “Lazarus”. In that episode the two have some hilariously awkward moments that are paid off with a passionate smooch. You get some loving Jack ole boy! You deserve it. Writing a love story for a reserved character like Jack is tricky but they pulled it off well. Sadly Jack and Ashi’s love was not to be, but we will get into that later.
#4 Scaramouche, Scaramouche…
You can’t talk Samurai Jack without talking bad guys. First up in Sammy Davis Jr. inspired assassin robot Scaramouche voiced by Spongebob Squarepants himself Tom Kenny. I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Scaramouche. At times he served his purpose as comic relief but at other times he was slightly annoying. And we probably did not need an entire subplot of him trying to get back to Aku. The moment when he said a guy had a head like a penis was worth a laugh though.
Up next is the Omen, the spectral samurai who kept beckoning Jack to his death. His design was great and the final battle with him intense. The Lazarus creature was also an intriguing foe and he gave XCIX a sci-fi horror feel which I enjoyed.
Our main baddie Aku returned and Greg Baldwin does such a fantastic job some viewers may not realise that he replaced the previous Aku, late Japanese American actor Mako. Aku was as silly and overpowered as always so no surprises there.
#5 Back to the past
Throughout the series there were many callbacks and references to characters and things from previous seasons. The most notable is the return of the Scotsman character who brings along his battle hardened daughters this time around. Tartakovsky threw in a heap of fan service which diehard fans would greatly appreciate.
In the final episode we see Jack trapped by Aku and Ashi trapped in an evil form. The battle royale between Jack’s allies and Aku was thoroughly entertaining. The twist of Ashi having Aku’s powers and transporting them through time was a clever one which I did not see coming. It was also immensely satisfying seeing Jack get to go back to the past and finally slay Aku, though I feel like we could have had at least one more episode to give the finale time to breathe.
From the celebration of Aku being destroyed we have the heartbreak of seeing Ashi vanish during their wedding. Tartakovsky could have gone for a happy, joyful ending but this was true to the internal logic and fit with the overall tone of the series. The final image of Jack with the ladybug was also lovely and a fitting farewell to a fantastic show.
Rating: Samurai Jack gets 3.75/4 enchanted swords
For more samurai action you can check out my revisiting of anime classic Rurouni Kenshin here.