Sunday, July 14, 2024

Samurai Jack is Both Viscerally Exciting and Haunting

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Last time we saw Jack, he was falling into a river, with a knife in his side. It wasn’t looking good, and it continues to be bad in this one. A large stretch of it is devoted to Jack floating on the river, slipping in and out of consciousness. He manages to regain his senses just in time not to drown, and then to stagger out onto the shore.

This is the first (but not last) time the episode returns to the minimalism we recognize from the original seasons. There’s no dialogue or real action – just Jack’s struggle to stay alive and keep going. His pain and exhaustion are very clear and visceral. The blood that covers him and trails after him stands out against his surroundings. When they get dark, leaving his features invisible, blood is overlaid on them. As he slowly walks through the woods, he once again sees the vision of a rider. It has appeared in all three episodes so far. But we’re no closer to knowing what it is.

He eventually reaches a cave where he can take shelter, but it’s not of much comfort. He’s still wounded, and almost naked in a cold environment. Once there, he pulls out the dagger, in a scene that really lets you feel every centimeter of the blade coming out. And let’s be honest – Jack should have died halfway through this episode (A la Your Sister of the Canals), at the latest, given how much blood he was losing. He still would have died, if not for a white wolf.

The Wolf and a Samurai’s Struggle

The One True BroTP.

Introduced in  the previous episode, the Wolf was an interesting bit of symbolism that mirrored Jack’s struggle against the sisters. Its relevance to Jack’s struggle only intensifies in this episode, as Jack actually meets the wolf physically. They mutually care for each other. With Jack making a fire to cook the meat the wolf pulls in, to snuggling with each other when it’s cold, to helping each other heal.

Together, the wolf and Jack work to help each other heal mentally and physically. They struggle together and eventually heal. This prepares Jack for his battle with the Daughters.

It’s hard to tell how supernatural the wolf is. But it’s doubtful that it’s a normal animal. It comes just in time to save Jack, and leaves once he’s safe. More importantly, it licks his wounds, which causes them to heal far more quickly than they should. He recovers by the time dawn breaks.

Hubba hubba

Before the wolf arrives, in his darkest hour, Jack has another struggle with himself. The image of the samurai as he was in the original season appears… this time, though, it’s distorted and caricaturist. He mocks Jack for his pain and exhaustion, but also for his distress over killing a human. He confirms that she was indeed the first human to die by Jack’s hand, and points out that he had destroyed countless robots. Is the show pointing out the double standard of treating the lives of machines as less than beings of flesh and blood? It’s difficult to tell at this point. The past Jack even accuses the current one of wishing the Sisters would kill him.

Jack also sees an image of his past. While he’s traveling with his parents, assassins attack the carriage. Jack’s father takes up his sword and slays them all. Their blood slashes on young Jack, who watches from the inside. Later, his father cleans the blood off his face and says that a person is a sum of their choices, and those choices’ consequences. The parallel is clear – the assassins had chosen to threaten the emperor and his family, so he had to kill them. This helps Jack steel himself for what he has to do.

Of course… we know that the Daughters never did have a choice. They were raised with a single purpose – killing Jack. They know nothing else, which we plainly see when they encounter a doe. They have no idea what to make of it, and grow more confused when a buck appears. They take it for a representation of Aku, due to the antlers, and expect it to destroy the “lesser creature”. They grow uncomfortable when the two animals start displaying affection for one another.

Filled with a new clarity of purpose, Jack is ready when the Daughters of Aku finally catch up to him. He hides from them, using his skill in stealth that we saw in Samurai vs. Ninja. He then makes a declaration, echoing his father’s words: they have a choice between leaving and facing their destiny. They refuse to leave, of course – one of them tells Jack to shut up mid-sentence, but he stoically finishes. And then the battle begins.

This time, it’s brutal in the entirely opposite direction. Jack appears from under the snow, and immediately impales one of the Daughters with a spear, killing her without ceremony. He then disappears again, before re-emerging to throw another spear. The Daughter of Aku he aimed for dodges… and lets it hit her sister, who was standing behind her.

The ease with which Jack takes down two of his pursuers was anticlimactic at first. I wouldn’t fault anyone for feeling disappointed, but to me, it adds up. Last time, the Daughters surprised Jack. This time, he was waiting for them, and attacked from hiding. Standing out in the open and waiting for an unseen enemy is a very poor position for assassins to be in. Jack seized the initiative in the beginning, and kept his momentum throughout the fight. This is a more subtle display of martial prowess than hitting hard and hitting fast, but no less decisive.

More than that, the Sisters’ black uniforms stood out against the snow, in stark contrast with how they had melted into the darkness of the woods and old temple. Jack, meanwhile, is trained in the art of using the light to hide himself. The fight was a deliberate call-back to that episode, with the entire environment blending into a single sheet of white for a while.

After the initial surprise attack, Jack flees deeper into the forest, and the battle becomes more even. The sisters attack the samurai from all sides, but they’re clearly not at the top of their game, without three of their members. Jack keeps moving, to make it harder for them to surround him. After a tense melee, another assassin falls, to the cutlass Jack steals from one of her sisters.

The battle goes on, and the Sisters get the upper hand for a while – Jack doesn’t let it last, though. It’s subtle, but he always puts a conscious effort into countering their tactics, and doesn’t let himself get bogged down in close combat where he’s outnumbered. The fight reaches its finale when Jack retreats onto a dead tree, hanging above a chasm – where the enemies can only attack him one at a time.

Like before, singling the Sisters out has a brutal effect. Jack abandons the club he snatched, and fights unarmed – which still has him deal with two Sisters in very short order, throwing them into the chasm. The third one is left dangling from her own chain… before the tree gives way and she falls alongside Jack.

The Sister’s Fate

It seems two sisters may have survived. One of them being Ashi. Out of all the sisters, it should be noted Ashi is the one with the most character. She was the one was looked out of the cracks in the temple, was the one who tried to save her sister the one time while training, was probably the one who volunteered to take watch and gaze upon the stars above her. Unlike her sisters, she has had subtle tweaks to her character, and has the most defined personality out of all of them.

So it’s no surprise that unlike her sisters, she is probably the only one to have survived, as Jack fell down the exact same way. (And at this point it would be very stupid for him to die, and possible in only its most literal meaning.) It will be interesting to see if she can change at all and if Jack will feel regret over their deaths.

In Summary

Once again the animation of this show grows ever more refined. The blood of this episode was visceral and dirty. Long gone are the more cartoony battles of old. Now in are almost brutal depictions of violence. Yet the show avoids glorification, and it instead comes off as both an exciting but incredibly sad affair. There is talent in this show. And it returns to the aesthetics of the old seasons, for this episode at least, with how minimalistic it gets with sound and action.

This episode of Samurai Jack was intense, action packed, somber, sad, revealing, and so much more. The end product ends up feeling like a mini-movie, with excellent pacing and beautifully haunting sequences. If you do not mind blood too much, this is an episode not to miss.

All Images Courtesy of Adult Swim

[starbox id=“Cameron,Michał”]

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