Thursday, May 30, 2024

Samurai Jack Returns with a Sobering Intensity

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The fifth season of Samurai Jack begins in style. We see our samurai fifty years into the future, no closer of returning to his own time than he was when we last saw him. This has taken a toll on him, and the world around him. How has the show changed in ten years since the last season was broadcast? The first episode gives us a good idea.

The episode begins in a way the old series made us expect. It’s a cold open, with a small family trying to flee Aku’s scarab-robots. They fail, and accept their fate before a warrior appears on a motorcycle. He decimates the robots… and to the surprise of no one, turns out to be Jack.

It’s not the same samurai we know, though. He has a beard, wears metal armor and uses guns. There’s also no sight of his signature katana. He leaves in silence after saving the family, and it’s then that we learn how things stand.

And how things stand aren’t good. Fifty years have passed, and he has found no way to return to the past. He doesn’t physically age, but the mental toll is obvious. He then repeats the words from the original series’ introduction song: “Gotta get back to the past. Samurai Jack”. It’s a rather sad rendition of the original.

Daughters of Aku

It’s not the same series anymore, in many ways. After Jack’s reappearance, we’re introduced to an Aku-worshipping cult. Its leader gives birth to seven girls – Aku’s daughters. Whether it’s in the literal or symbolic sense is unclear as of now. They begin training those children as assassins, with utterly ruthless and brutal methods.

The scenes where we see the girls’ training are new in two senses. First is the visceral and realistic brutality of their abuse by their mother and other cultists. The second is that it clearly sets the stage for Jack’s further confrontation with them, which didn’t really happen in the previous seasons.

Jack and His Growth

Jack as a character has changed. His fifty years has meant he’s become jaded to the world. In one of the series’s most telling moments, Jack drives past a burning city. This is something Jack would never, under any conditions, do. But he has changed. For him it’s like the myth of Sisyphus and the Boulder. for so long he has fought, yet he made no ground against Aku, and every victory is followed up by a return to the vile world of Aku. For every step taken, there are two steps taken back. The result is that Jack doesn’t bother, not because he doesn’t care, but because it hurts to care.

This comes to a head when he hallucinates his parents and all the people affected by Aku. They express his guilt for failing to stop Aku, and their wails of pain and haunt the Samurai until he goes back to ‘save’ the village. We also see the image of a rider, wearing an antler-adorned helmet, at the apex of Jack’s traumatic hallucinations. Whether it’s a real person or just a figment of Jack’s tormented psyche is unclear, but the fact that it appears consistently suggests the former.

A major part of Jack’s internal torment is the fact that he lost his sword. The blade he carried throughout his original adventure is gone. It’s obvious that it symbolizes his failure to him – but in more practical terms, it means he’s now powerless against Aku. Only the fact that the Shogun of Sorrow doesn’t know about the loss prevents him from simply appearing and crushing Jack like a bug. Unless he recovers it, or finds another means of protection, it’s yet another difficulty for him. We see a brief glimpse of the sword falling out of Jack’s hand into a chasm – it’s almost certain we’ll find out more about that event.

And Aku indeed does not appear. We see his statue, worshipped by the cult. We also hear his voice through the phone an assassin uses – right before Jack destroys the phone to prevent the news of his sword’s disappearance from reaching Aku. The sheer contrast between the cult addressing him as an aloof figure whose presence is a hard-won favor, and the robot assassin who reaches him immediately by means of a smartphone, is a glimpse of the old series’ sense of humor. Regardless, Aku is so far invisible. We’ll see whether or not it changes.

Something to note is that the episode is able to juggle these several plot threads without fumbling: Jack’s internal guilt, the horror of the daughters’ lives, the epic fight with the robot, all needing attention in both detail and story. This is a level of writing few can handle, but when it’s done well, we get stories like these.

Overall Thoughts

The new season opens with something quite new, but with a clear root in what happened before we parted with Jack for all those years. Where will it go? We don’t know yet, but so far it seems we’ll enjoy finding out. This episode hit the ground running: excellent portrayal of Jack, a new element in the Daughters of Aku, a somehow even smoother and more refined animation, and a new stellar direction. We eagerly await the next episode.

Images courtesy of Adult Swim

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