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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Review: Samurai Jack (Season 5)

NOTE: There may be some spoilers in the review. Far, far from enough to spoil any episode in great detail, but I still advise you proceed with caution.

“Long ago, in a distant land, I, Aku, the shapeshifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now, the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku…”

Samurai Jack is one of the many shows from Cartoon Network’s golden era; whereas the other programs placed a big emphasis on comedy, however, Samurai Jack was a lot more subtle and deep. It still provided humor, but it was balanced with a sense of adventure and suspense. Viewers follow this lone samurai in a surreal futuristic setting as the shapeshifting Master of Darkness, Aku, constantly prevents him from coming back home. This is all you really need to know to get into the latest season, but there are some references for the die-hard fans sprinkled into certain episodes.

So what is Season 5 like? How does it continue the story that was abruptly cut off for so long? Well, fifty years have passed since the last time Jack – still voiced by Phil LaMarr – has ever faced Aku. Fifty years. With no progress to show for it. That isn’t to say he would be able to make any to begin with, unfortunately; every single time portal (which Jack needs to jump into to travel back in time and therefore home) is destroyed! As such, the very premise of the original series gets deconstructed before our very eyes.

Here’s the beauty of Samurai Jack‘s return to television: In a day and age where Cartoon Network frequently cashes in on old names by crapping out terrible shows carrying them (cough The Powerpuff Girls, cough Teen Titans Go), Samurai Jack is not only untouched by any of the reboot pitfalls, but what is new adds to the show rather than detracts from it…for the most part. I’ll get to that later, though.

Anyway, if there aren’t any time portals, what is it that the new season has in store for Jack? A lot actually. In fact, Jack becomes outright broken for much of the show. He who was once a noble warrior immediately charging into battle for what’s right is now a paranoid runaway that, in the first episode’s case, only came into battle with one of Aku’s minions after said minion destroyed the entire village and everyone in it. His signature sword is gone, he hallucinates the victims he failed to save, and worst of all…he’s grown a beard.

Unbeknownst to him, there is a cult by the name of “The Daughters of Aku”. A dastardly, yet extremely durable woman gives birth to seven daughters in a row to train them with one singular purpose in mind: Kill Samurai Jack, and earn Aku’s presence as a result. After years and years of severe torture and unbelievably abusive practices, the seven daughters proceed to find him. One would think that with such a no-nonsense, un-apologetically, sinister troupe, Aku himself may have had a personality change or something during the fifty years that passed.

NOPE! Aku is just as comical and hilariously troll-like as he is in the original series. He has a voice actor change (on account of Mako Iwamatsu having passed away after the show’s run), but there’s no denying that Greg Baldwin gave it his all as the Master of Darkness. Yet, he hasn’t ever dared to confront the samurai for much of the season. This is because of the fact that having Jack travel through time made him immune to aging, something Aku hoped would eventually kill him. Thanks to that not being the case, the samurai could potentially be out there forever looking to kill Aku, leaving the depressed shapeshifter confined to his underground caverns. Ironically he’s unaware that Jack lost his sword, the only weapon that can be used to slay him.

So, there’s quite a bit going on. The daughters are set to kill Jack, Jack fights his own self-doubt and frustrations, Aku deals with his stalemate, and the events only escalate from there. On that note, I think the show is great at keeping things suspenseful. There was almost no telling what could happen next, and the extremes the situations can go can definitely put people on the edges of their seats. It’s especially chilling when a fight scene happens and blood sprays; this isn’t the kind of show that uses blood for the sake of being able to use blood. This is a former “children’s” show that scars its protagonist for killing something that happened to be made of flesh for the first time ever!

Anyway, when the daughters and Jack eventually confront each other, he gets surprisingly outplayed as they all whale on him with great agility and prowess. It doesn’t help that he kills one of them and realizes they’re actually human beings rather than robotic like his usual enemies. After believing that they’ve chosen their fate to kill him, he eventually he manages to eliminate all but one. That one…becomes a love interest for Jack.

I think it’s time I start getting across the aspects that I thought didn’t work as well as the many elements that did.

While Jack spends a couple episodes to succeed in getting this Daughter (known as “Ashi”) to see that Aku isn’t the perfect optimistic leader they were duped to think, was a romance between the two really needed? I was hoping that after she sees the light, she just serves as an ally and fellow fighter for the rest of the way and nothing more. If they were able to make Jack and Ashi a couple in ways that could work, I would be all for it, but the romance didn’t really add anything in the long run other than a kissing scene and sexual tension between the duo. Guys, it’s fine to have a platonic relationship between male and female characters. Not every cartoon or movie needs a romance like that to be engaging.

The ending is also sort of weak. It’s not bad, but it could have been better. It gives closure on the story, yet I wish we got to see more of the village Jack lives in. Heck, Jack’s father could have helped the conclusion by talking with his son and congratulating him for completing the journey. It felt kind of odd that a lot of the ending was dedicated to a wedding scene between Ashi and Jack. Well, before it’s realized that without Aku, Ashi wouldn’t be able to exist.

That said, Ashi is a great character. She holds her own (I mean, she has to after all the training from Hell she went through) as a fierce warrior, is voiced by the always-awesome Tara Strong, and her presence aids Jack from going into further insanity and mental deconstruction on his own. But man, if there was any character that stole the show this season, it was Scaramouche; this guy’s the robotic mook I briefly mentioned earlier, but his role as Aku’s henchman has to be greatly overshadowed by the sheer absurdity and laughter he brings to the table.

If anyone ever thought the series may get too serious with this continuation, look no further than literally any scene with Scaramouche! Nearly every single line he has is comedy gold, and his mannerisms – along with him being played by Tom Kenny – amplify the sheer hilarity of his character whenever he’s onscreen.

When the time is right, Samurai Jack doesn’t slouch on its flavor of comedy. Aku is always a fun watch, especially during scenes such as his therapy session with himself. And for what the Jack x Ashi ship is worth, there were definitely some funny moments that came out of their time together.

Really, Samurai Jack remains a solid show all things considered. There’s a lot to love about it, even if there are certain things that may come off as rough around the edges. The action is well animated, the visual style is as amazing as it was in the original series, the story is interesting and deep, and the characters all deliver what you would expect – and beyond – to come from them. That’s much more than I could ever say for Cartoon Network’s other “attempts” to revive older properties (It helps that Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of the show, came back onboard for this run). Everyone behind this season did great, and it’s nice to see the show finally get some closure after over a decade of nothing produced after the show left TV without a proper finale.

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