Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Toon-arama: Samurai Jack (2001-2004)

You’ve probably never heard of Samurai Jack. Samurai Jack is a cartoon by Genndy Tartakovsky that appeared on the Cartoon Network between 2001 and 2004. It’s brilliant. But I’m not entirely sure if I should recommend it. Why not? Well, let’s discuss.

To answer this question, let us begin with a more basic question: what is Samurai Jack? Hm. Good question. Here’s the backstory. Jack is a young prince and Samurai from Feudal Japan. Jack’s father’s empire is destroyed by a demon named Aku. Jack takes his father’s magical sword and defeats Aku. However, before Jack can kill Aku, Aku sends them both through a time portal to a dystopian future ruled by Aku. Jack must now battle his way until he can find and kill Aku and find a time portal home. Aku, meanwhile, is hoping to see Jack killed before they fight again.
So if that’s the backstory, then what is the show about? Well, that’s where this gets a little hazy. In each episode, Jack fights robots, aliens, gangsters, demons, ghosts, an evil himself or whatever Tartakovsky felt Jack should be fighting that week. And although each of the episodes is ostensibly part of the same story, they bare little connection in that they are rarely episodic. So for the most part, it doesn’t actually matter what order you watch them in, though over time, they do kind of add up to a mythology.

This is both a problem and a moment of genius. The problem is this: when you start watching the show, little of it makes sense. There does not appear to be a purpose, i.e. no overriding story. The episodes don’t seem to contribute to “the story” either. Things happen too that don’t seem to relate to anything or that aren’t explained. And they are rarely addressed in the following episode. So unless you have an extremely high tolerance for ambiguity, you are going to hate this show and will probably quit after a couple of episodes.
But if you can stand the ambiguity, then one day you will have an epiphany: even though they have never once laid out the story... even though none of the episodes contribute to the story... even though nothing in the show seems to be related, you will one day realize that you have a total grasp of the storyline and you know exactly what is going on. It’s almost bizarre when you realize that you know this, because you have no idea how you ever learned it. That’s a pretty special feeling. And more to the point, at that point, you come to see just how brilliant this storyline is and how it has built.

And that brings us to the second issue. Like the first, this issue is a major strike against for most viewers, but a huge selling point for the others. This issue is that most of the episodes are essentially knock-offs of something else. For example, you may have an episode that mirrors A Fistful of Dollars one week, and then you get Pulp Fiction the next. It’s never that blatant that you feel like they are copying those films, but what you get is a visual style, pacing and “mood” that mirrors those films. In effect, Tartakovsky has stylized these films, distilled the style into its most potent form and then written that as an episode of Samurai Jack. The result is absolutely brilliant for film buffs. Indeed, it’s totally fantastic to tune in to each episode and see something completely unlike anything else you’ve seen in the series and then spend your time trying to figure out what Tartakovsky has done this time. Hurray!
But on the other hand, this will also be totally disconcerting to the vast majority of people. One of the things most people crave in a television show is consistency. Even something like The Twilight Zone which presented a wild array of unrelated storylines each week still made sure to provide key anchors to create consistency: Rod Serling’s introduction, similar film styles, similar costumes, similar actors and acting styles, consistent writing. Without those things, people quickly become confused about what exactly it is they are supposed to be watching. Samurai Jack really dances along that line with different storylines seemingly set in different worlds and different film styles, e.g. shooting in frames versus traditional setups versus color-coding your scenes, etc. The only consistency is Jack, and he’s largely mute with little in the way of character. In fact, there's almost no dialog.
This is why I struggle to recommend this. Personally, I think it’s brilliant. I loved seeing what Tartakovsky could come up with each week, especially after it all started to make sense to me. But for most people, this will be beyond their tolerance for ambiguity, and I can’t say that they are wrong. In many ways, Samurai Jack is an experimental cartoon and for some it will have worked swimmingly. For others, it was a total loss.



Kit said...

I watched it a bit as a kid when it aired. Though I barely remember it now. I do remember enjoying it.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It took me a bit of time get into it, but I really came to like it a lot. I eventually thought it was brilliant, though I didn't think that at first.

Anthony said...

I've been a huge fan of Samurai Jack from the beginning. I didn't really pick up on a lack on consistency.

Jack is a deadly samurai looking for a way home (which would allow him to end Aku's story before he takes over the world) though he's happy to right wrongs and help people (many of whom have their own agendas) in the strange world in which he finds himself in,

Aku is the demonic master of the world who seeks to stop him (he has largely made the world over in his image so he has a lot of allies in his war against Jack).

Anyway, I love Samurai Jack. Great fights, interesting characters and clever storylines. My favorite episode is probably Jack and the Rave.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, The inconsistency is in the shooting style and the feel of the episodes. There are episodes that feel like Westerns and then suddenly you have a police procedural or a superhero cartoon. And the animation/shooting style often changed to match whatever Tartakovsky was referencing that week. Comparing something like this to The Simpsons, The Simpsons are very consistent week after week and you know when you tune in what the look, feel and style will be each week. You don't with Samurai Jack.

In any event, it is a great cartoon, but it's definitely not for everyone.

Rustbelt said...

I remember seeing commercials for this on CN and having no idea what to make of it. Part of this has to do with my feelings towards cartoons at the time.
My feelings were cartoons in general- especially CN originals- had been getting cheaper for a decade. Batman: the Animated Series started out really good. But halfway through, they simplified everything in terms of animation. It looked like they were just trying to either save money or get things done faster. Maybe both. Either way, I wasn't impressed.
That clouded my opinion of Genndy Tartakovsky's work. I had trouble getting past what looked- IMO- animation on a 'don't care' budget. This also applied to "Dexter's Laboratory," "Powerpuff Girls," "Johnny Bravo," etc.
However, that being said, I came to like the other shows as I watched them. The characters were all unique, the stories were witty and fit together, and the voice acting was top notch.
I guess I just never got around to "Samurai Jack" because it didn't fit my schedule. Or I thought it was just CN's attempt to make primetime anime, which isn't really my thing. Looks like my first impression may have been a misfire. I may have to look into "Jack" just to see what it's all about.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I know what you mean. I avoided most of the CN cartoons because the animation was so bad that I just wasn't interested. It looked like cartoons done on the way cheap just to fill time slots.

This really isn't that though. The animation here is actually really sophisticated. His use of color and light and angles and the such is clever from an artistic perspective and pretty much unique in the world of cartooning. This also isn't really anime, even if it looks similar. This is much more adult than anime in the sense that it maintains real world physics, it's not about blood and dorky kids and disproportionate bodies.

Add to that strangely compelling stories, even as almost no dialog is exchanged and you get something pretty special.

Now, that doesn't mean it will fit everyone's taste. This is the deep end of the pool, so to speak, in terms of pushing the limits on what people expect from cartoons. So you may find that it's simply not for you.

I would say to give it a chance. If it doesn't begin to interest you after a few episodes, then quit.

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax, even though I haven't seen this, and am not really a "toon buff", I enjoyed the analysis you have done. The back story shares some things with the classic Prince Valiant. The notion of a film buff trying to determine from where a particular episode is gleaned is rather brilliant in a way.

Dwizzum said...

Love Samurai Jack. BTW, for those interested it is streamable on Netflix now.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks! It is an interesting way to make a cartoon. This is ultimately a very experimental show and I think it worked really well.

AndrewPrice said...

Dwizzum, Great! :D

Kit said...

Dwizzum, I guess I will have to check it out again!

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