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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.

57 Responses

  1. Brad says:

    You do realize that Scaramouch is based more in Sammy Davis Jr. and other flamboyant jazz singers, right? “Flamboyant” isn’t just a gay person only thing, you know. You should be ashamed of yourself for projecting and stereotyping (wouldn’t shock me if it turns out you’re one of those folks who complained all over Twitter when it turned out that despite her haurstyle, Cora in Mass Effect Andromeda turned out to be straight).

  2. Jeremy Fisher says:

    I would argue this article betrays the prejudices of the author rather than that of the show.

    First, Scaramouch is an Italian pantomime character, akin to the harlequin, dating back to at least the Renaissance. This Scaramouch’s behaviour was also flamboyant and campus, but was not a representation of homosexuals but rather a reflection of comedic tropes of the time. The fact that the author defaults to assuming that such a character is homosexual reflects their own underlying prejudices and is more homophobic than anything in the show.

    Second, how are the women “hypersexualized” in the show? Nothing they do can be described as sexual. Indeed, all the female characters in the show have been represented as strong and capable. It therefore seems that you are suggesting representing women as attractive is somehow inately sexual, or rather “hypersexual” as you put it. Attractive women are not automatically sexual, and to claim such is more sexist and chauvinistic than anything on TV. Your comments echo those of bigots who claim rape victims “deserved it” because they dressed immodestly. If anything, the representation of the scotsman’s daughters are very progressive even by today’s standards, in that they represent beauty outside the “thin and pretty” archetype.

  3. SJWs are worthless says:

    @the last paragraph; who cares???

  4. Scaramouche the Merciless says:

    Well c’mon Sammy baby, whip it out! You know what I’m talking about – those crazy accusations!

  5. Reaper says:

    Scaramouch is derived from Sammy Davis Jr.’s colloquialism (babe) used to reference a person regardless of sex/gender; it’s not homophobic in the slightest. Learn your history before you expel unfounded precedence; it’s quite insulting to the creator of the show.

  6. Curt says:

    I have to respectfully but emphatically disagree regarding the portrayals of women, and of Scaramouche.

    As an openly gay man living in San Francisco, I didn’t interpret Scaramouche as a homophobic portrayal, or even meant to be coded as homosexual — he reminded me more of a cross between the “1920s mobster” and “scatting 50s beatnik”, which I personally thought was an interesting choice. Samurai Jack is known for colorful characters as well as for beautiful artwork, and Scaramouche fit right in, though he lacked the pathos of X-49. His wardrobe was…odd…but suited the over-the-top nature of the character.

    As for Ashi, and the females of the show in general, and the last season in particular, the “sex appeal” is entirely subjective. Ashi’s nudity in episode XCVII was purely character- and story-driven, symbolizing a rebirth, and it was a powerful moment.

    Indeed, looking back on the series as a whole, Jack himself is sexualized much more often than any of the women on the show — either through clothing damage or just stripping down to bathe. There’s an entire episode of the old show dedicated to a naked Jack doing what he can to cover himself while finding his clothes, and it’s a hilarious cross between a sitcom episode and Alice in Wonderland.

    Season 5, despite the upped “MA” rating, has relatively little sexual about it — the women are drawn in a variety of shapes and sizes, but it never feels lewd or pandering, at least not to me. And while not every female character is given the same nuance, complexity, or pathos as Ashi, they ARE all in the story for a reason, and it’s never just “to be sexy”. Ashi is depicted as sexy, but it’s far from her only defining character trait, by the article’s own admission.

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