TV: Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack, the animated show on Cartoon Network, returned in March for a fifth and final season. The Emmy-award winning program has been off the air for 14 years. It follows the exploits of Samurai Jack, voiced by Yale alum and former Purple Crayon member Phil Lamarr, YC ’89, as he attempts to defeat Aku, a vicious warlord who wreaks havoc and destruction upon all he encounters.

The new season picks up 50 years after the end of the fourth season, and while Jack has not aged for reasons not made entirely clear, it is obvious he carries the burden of all of his years of battling Aku. He now sports a haggard beard with a mane of wild hair and he frequently goes shirtless to reveal a gaunt chest with protruding ribs.

The show is now markedly darker as well, a tonal shift which has landed it a TV-MA rating as well as a programming spot in Adult Swim’s lineup. It serves the fifth season well as Jack begins to confront weightier subject matter. Gone are his relentless determination and unwavering commitment to defeating Aku. Jack is now tired and vulnerable and his victories are less assured. This is evidenced by his second battle with the Daughters of Aku, in the middle of which, Jack pauses and pants heavily, completely exhausted. In this moment, we feel Jack’s fatigue, both from fighting seven highly-trained assassins born to kill him and from fighting an enemy he can never seem to get any closer to defeating.

The main continuity with the previous four seasons is the exquisite animation which garnered the show so much attention originally. Each shot marries a photographic sensibility of the placement of objects in the frame with the audacious beauty of sharp lines and deep, vibrant colors. A stronger plot only serves to imbue the animation with a meaning and weight that was lacking in the much more episodic earlier seasons.

While creator Genndy Tartakovsky should be lauded for creating a show where each frame could hang in the MoMA, there are more than a handful of creative choices which should be critically examined. Jack’s first villain, Scaramouche, with his flamboyant dress and mannerisms which include ending every sentence with “babe,” reads as somewhat tone deaf and homophobic. The portrayal of samurai seems to be rooted in a Wikipedia level understanding of the historical figure and feels appropriative at times. While this season introduces the strong, nuanced female character of Ashi, women’s bodies are often depicted as hyper-sexual, a fact made uncomfortably clear by the daughters of the Scotsman in the latest episode. The show has wandered into this territory before, most notably with the character of “Da Samurai” in the fourth season, who was nothing more than a racist caricature.

Samurai Jack is thus flawed in the many ways that most mass entertainment is flawed, and thus deserves the same critical eye. With this in mind, whether the show is still worth experiencing should be left to the discretion of the individual viewer.

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