Review: Samurai Jack Shows the Right Way to Revive a Story

Within moments of beginning, Samurai Jack rides onto screen; Clad in metal armor, wielding machine guns, and astride a spiked motorcycle, it is clear this is a darker, edgier, more serious Jack……….

Look. We all get old. It is an unstoppable force of our cruel reality. As we grow and age we often find ourselves afflicted with the need for the things we loved when we were younger.. We develop a homesickness and longing for time and place. Our media landscape reflects this now more than ever.

Dark and Gritty

Reboots and revivals for a countless number of shows and movies actively court adult fans of those properties. Many of these revivals hang their hopes of appealing to adults by striking a “serious” and “dark” tone. The use of excessive violence and cynicism marks these properties as “not for kids!”

Often these revivals have shown a limited degree of necessity to their characters and stories. They just don’t add much. Enter Adult Swim’s sequel to the 2001 animated series, Samurai Jack.

Easily the most artful series by Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Clone Wars, Hotel Transylvania), Samurai Jack tells a story of heroism in the face of loss. The titular Jack is a duty-bound samurai in feudal Japan who has found himself engaged in a battle with the ultimate evil, a shape-shifting demon called Aku.

Just as Jack is about to strike the final blow, Aku tears open a hole in time and sends Jack to a bleak future where Aku has ruled the Earth for eons. Jack spent the better part of 4 seasons attempting to return home and right Aku’s evil deeds.

Like many other revivals, this is a series that didn’t have to happen. The original series was functionally an excuse for Tartakovsky to throw together cool Samurai vs. Robot fights. The original run was satisfying and also briefly hinted at a future positive conclusion to the narrative.

The new series probably would have been successful enough at simply retreading ground Jack already covered. But Tartakovsky clearly had something different in mind- deepening his characters and making his story for adults, while avoiding the typical traps of “adultifying” a creation.

That scene I mentioned in the opening of the blog? Within the first two episodes Jack is stripped naked and weaponless and forced to move forward on foot. The “gritty reboot” is quickly subverted. In his physical vulnerability, Jack must confront his inner demons as much as those that seek his demise.

Hope is Lost?

The 10 episode 2017 sequel series finds Jack decades older, but unable to age. He is weighed upon by decades of failure. His hopes and his purpose (and his sword) have been lost. Grizzled and aimless, Jack is no longer a child-like fantasy of supreme competence, but more like a fallible and troubled adult. When he is left with nothing but his thoughts, we see a complicated character balancing hope against fear, anger, and failure.

Tartakovsky has done what so many adult revivals fail to do: Meets his adult audience on their terms by giving Jack valid adult feelings and thoughts. He doesn’t need a machine gun or to casually say “fuck.” to be adult. We can recognize the weariness, the effort, and the struggle over time in his actions and thoughts. After all, we have felt it too. Watching Jack confront his loss of purpose will resonate with anyone who has had an existential crisis.

Yet, despite this, the show never allows itself to languish in darkness. Cynicism, anger, and senseless violence are personified as a literal enemy that has to be bested. Hope is eternally bubbling under the surface of a series that could just as easily swamp its audience with pessimism.

This is the maturity gap between Jack and lesser revivals. When given the tools and production leniency to do what they want, the writers never abandon the core ideals of the show and the character. They deepen instead of darken.

Hard Art

Per Tartakovsky’s usual style, the screen is flooded with colors and crisp lines. He has made slight modifications to the bold outlines and character designs that he is known for, but nothing radical. The backgrounds maintain the same warm and noisy water color aesthetic we have come to appreciate.

Samurai Jack feels like the ultimate culmination of the oft-copied art style that Tartakovsky (and Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken) were using in the 1990’s. That the style is largely falling out of favor with animators and producers really makes this feel like we have received a strong final heartbeat for the flowing, angular art design on display in Samurai Jack.

The original series reveled in the art and choreography of its fight sequences. Many stories seemed composed just to allow the animator’s a perfect chance at creating a spectacle. Tartakovsky is a master of composition and the new Jack is more proof of that.  Just watch the intro for the new series to see how intensely ordered the action and art are.

If anything, the revival’s scene building is more contemplative than ever. The camera is happy to linger on long shots. The artwork and shot framing are used magnificently to evoke Jack’s turmoil and isolation. And of course there are more fantastical, dramatically choreographed fight scenes.

A Conclusion 16 Years in the Making

It has been nearly two decades since Jack commenced his mission to get back to the past. And the revival has provided a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Samurai Jack gives everything that adult fans of the series needed: Growth in Jack’s character, an expansion of his story, and for it to feel relevant today to those who watched his adventures in the past.

The show isn’t perfect (a rushed and somewhat familiar ending are notable), but it is admirable and worthy of its title and characters.

Reviving a beloved property to make it more relevant to the interests of older fans can be a precarious proposition. Samurai Jack has done something exceptional. There are certainly fans of Transformers, Power Rangers, and DC Comics that wish similar thoughtfulness would be been directed towards their properties. Hopefully this short series can become a model for how to properly revive a property for adults.

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