Friday, July 19, 2024

The Subtle Theme of Hope in this Week’s Samurai Jack

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Samurai Jack‘s latest episode starts with the kind of cold open we’re used to in the series. A massive army gathers at the gates of Aku’s tower. Tanks, knights and Scottish warrior-women. The leader of the army turns out to be none other but our old friend, the Scotsman. His hair has gone white, and he’s wheelchair-bound, but he doesn’t let it slow him down.

The warrior-women all appear to be his daughters as well. He sure has been busy. Before the battle starts, he takes issue with the rather… barbarian heroine-like way they dress. Good battle armor covers guys. As soon as he’s done scolding them for their lack of adequate battle preparedness, the attack commences.

Aku seems glad to see it, and hopes that annihilating the army will break him out of his depression. He proceeds to do so with gusto, destroying the tanks and routing the knights with little effort. What what glorious is now instead a painful and quick massacre of countless hopeful men. Before he can turn his sights on the Scottish warriors, the Scotsman tells them to run, while he holds him off.

It’s hard to tell what he expected, leading this army against Aku. The Shogun of Sorrow being completely invincible to everything except Jack’s sword is common knowledge. Regardless, the Scotsman faces him down without fear. He accuses Aku of being scared of Jack, and reminds him that the samurai has inspired hope and defiance all over the world. This clearly hits a nerve, and it’s a both touching and sad contrast with Jack’s lack of hope. Aku disintegrates the Scotsman down to the bone with eye-lasers, and slinks away dejectedly.

Just as his daughters appear to mourn him and swear vengeance, however, the Scotsman turns out not to be out of the game just yet. He arises as a ghost from his skeleton, appearing like he did in his prime. Was it his intention all along? If so, then sacrificing a whole army for this purpose is rather excessive. Regardless, he resolves to find his old friend, once again showing hope that Jack himself has lost.

Following the Scotsman’s declaration, we go back to our other two heroes. Jack and Ashi remain on the island. Ashi sees a vision of her mother, telling her to slay Jack. But she refuses. She wants answers.

Ashi has always been a curious child. Even as she was being conditioned to kill Jack, in the background of her psyche was an appreciation for the beauty and nature of the world. In many ways its why she fights Jack, to preserve the beauty of the world around how.

So finding out she’s been worshipping the destroyer of that beauty, that her mission was lie, that her life is a lie…she’s very angry. She wants answers. She wants truth. And perhaps most importantly of all, she wants to do good. So this shifts her entire paradigm, and actively fights against Aku and with Jack. She devotes herself to saving children enslaved to become weapons for Aku.

This also represents an emotional shift for Ashi too. She is now focused instead of killing, to saving. She fight viciously to save the children and is invigorated with hope when they are safe. She’s starting to open up, and understand the truths of good and evil. It’s an intense thing to take on, but she does it in stride, despite her past, and her encroaching emotional fallout.

Jack’s reaction to Ashi’s demand for answers is odd. He refuses at first, but he relents when she insists. Was he testing her, perhaps? What’s curious is that after he abandons her, he hears voices from his campfire, similar to his previous hallucinations. They cease when Ashi returns. Whatever he might pretend, she brings him a measure of stability.

His first action is to tell Ashi a story about how stars were created, since she believed them to be Aku’s creation. It’s a silly children’s tale, but clearly enthralling to Ashi. Jack’s further lessons are not so cheery, however. He brings her on a journey to demonstrate all the corruption and misery Aku has brought. Allowing criminals to run unchecked, destroying beauty for the sake of it, and creating oppressive conditions to the people under his yoke.

Once Ashi sees the truth of it, she demands they do something, but Jack refuses. He says there is no hope. They can’t defeat Aku. He doesn’t mention that he used to have the means of defeating him, but instead what did happen to cost him his sword and why won’t he talk about it.

Nevertheless, when the two of them run across a destroyed city, and find out its children had been kidnapped, they both rush in to help. When it turns out the children had been turned insane by a subsonic frequency, Jack distracts them to let Ashi turn it off. She ends up captured by the man operating the machine, but breaks free, defeats him and destroys the device.

A theme that starting to sprout in these episodes is the idea of older heroes inspiring the next generation to fight against the evil world they were born into. There are two examples of this, Ashi and the Scotsman’s many, many, many daughters (sextuplets per each maybe, or was he one to spread his seed?)

Jack is inspiring Ashi to understand the truth of the world around her, like Scotsman to his daughters. Despite these men dying or even losing hope, they inspire the next generation to live on and continue to fight in their glory and memory. They still fight for right, even as Aku destroys corrupts all around him.  Despite everything, hope is still a worthwhile endeavor.

Ashi’s success quickly turns sour, however. The destruction of the device knocks out all the enslaved children. Jack appears to immediately jump to the conclusion that they’re dead…without stopping to check for their pulse, or other vital signs. The thought that he might have failed to save another group of innocents is enough to break him. The faint hope Ashi’s company and willingness to learn brought him is dashed.

It’s then that we see something missing from the previous episode—the Horseman. He appears as Jack’s hope dies. And this time, he speaks. Just a few words: “It is time”. Jack agrees, and follows him. Where, and what for? We don’t know, but it can’t be anything good.

To make it even more tragic, Ashi appears moments later, to find that the children are in fact alive; she and Jack had succeeded, and saved them. But the samurai is gone by that point. Just like the Scotsman, Ashi has more hope in Jack than the samurai himself does. Let’s hope his old friend and new student can save Jack before it’s too late.

This episode is very different. It’s quite exposition-heavy as Jack is explaining the world to Ashi as she comes to grips with who she is. Ashi’s character growth is one of the highlights of the episode. Her empathy for the children and those damaged by Aku are excellent ways of showing how she’s growing as a person. The Scotsman’s sendoff was frankly everything we could’ve wanted. He goes down giving no damns about who he’s battling and out with as much style as he possibly could have.

Jack’s journey hits a dark point this episode, and his growth up to it is setting the stage for something engrossing. Another excellent episode—we eagerly await the next.

Images courtesy of Cartoon Network

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