Genndy Tartakovsky took his blocky, minimal detail design from Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls andmade it kinetic while infusing it with a cinematic flair not seen since Batman: The Animated Series.
In Samurai Jack’s 13-year absence there have been 3D animated TV reboots of Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Tartakovsky’s own Clone Wars, but the 2D animated action genre has been all but abandoned by the West.
But now Jack is back to reclaim that throne with a ten-episode final season run on Cartoon Network’s late night Toonami block.
With its shift to a more adult-oriented programming block, the series has taken on a darker and more violent tone.
The very first episode sets this tone immediately when it opens with a figure masked in a traditional samurai helmet riding in on a spiked-wheeled motorcycle to rescue a mute alien and her daughter from a pack of robot beetles.
The action is classic Jack: sharp and simple expressionistic movement and a shifting aspect ratio that puts emphasis on specific objects, actions, and compositions.
But the action is nastier than the original 2000s run; the inside of the robots’ exoskeleton is blood red and wires spill out like viscera as the figure rips them apart with the tires of his cycle.Finally, the mask is shattered revealing a disheveled and bearded Jack who resembles Tom Hardy’s Mad Max from Fury Road more than the stoic time-travelling ronin we’ve become familiar with.
It’s been 50 years since Jack was thrown into the future by Aku, the evil shapeshifting master of darkness, and mysteriously he has not physically aged.
Like Max Rockatansky, he wanders from battle to battle haunted by the lives he couldn’t save and by visions of his future as a soulless monstrosity riding on a black horse.
With Jack’s magic sword gone, Aku has been able to comfortably rule over his domain without challenge.
About midway through the first episode I began to wonder if the show had completely lost its sense ofoddball humor from the original run and if it could sustain a 10 episode season under this dreary self-serious tone.
Then a flamboyant Sammy Davis robot assassin shows up to battle Jack and the show finally regains its sense of fun.
The comedy moments are fewer and farther between than before, but they’ve become more pronounced as relief to the more tense moments.
Aku himself was the best comedic part in the original run, but he doesn’t make an appearance until the second episode.
I love this take of a bored deity going through ennui as he wakes up to his alarm clock every morning, puts on his big flaming eyebrows, and receives tributes from his puny subjects.
The animation is big and expressive, putting emphasis on Aku’s shape-shifting powers, however the loss of the original voice actor Mako is heavily felt as soon as Aku speaks.
Greg Baldwin had replaced Mako’s roles in the Avatar and Legend of Korra series and even took on the role of Aku in video game form in Cartoon Network’s Fusion Fall, but here he sounds like an imitation.
He can’t seem to capture Mako’s bigger moments or his unique laugh. It’ll take some time to warm up to the voice, but the animation more than makes up for it.
Samurai Jack has also taken on a serial format that gives each episode more weight and consequences, while also allowing more time to flesh out Jack’s enemies. The three episode arc to open the season introduces the Daughters of Aku, a set of septuplet sisters birthed by a priestess of Aku trained from birth to hold no empathy and to accomplish only one goal: kill the samurai.
Their design is pure Tartakovsky: sharp, sleek edges and a monochromatic palette that looks great in motion.
There’s a great bit of comedic dissonance in how psychotically devoted the Daughters are to their dark lord Aku who by comparison has nearly forgotten about Jack and probably is completely unaware of the assassins’ existence.
We’ve never seen Jack pushed this far to his limits before and the Daughters of Aku are easily one of the most compelling villains the show has ever produced.
Three episodes in and Samurai Jack already has its hooks into me. The darker tone pairs well with Tartakovsky knack for expressionistic animation and visual metaphor, but is measured enough that it doesn’t betray the show’s fun pulpy roots.
With seven episodes left, this is shaping up to be a perfect farewell for the fearsome Samurai Jack.