Genndy Tartakovsky is the world’s greatest living action filmmaker, and Samurai Jack, which starts its fifth and final season on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim March 11, is the most aesthetically daring series on TV. Amazingly, both statements were true back in 2004, the last time Samurai Jack aired new episodes.
If you’re new to this show about a samurai stranded in a post-apocalyptic future while battling a demon, you may find my proclamations excessive and weird, for three reasons: (1) Samurai Jack is a cartoon, and cartoons aren’t often mentioned when Quality TV is discussed — especially cartoons about swordsmen stranded in a post-apocalyptic future while battling a demon, because anything so described must be trite; (2) Samurai Jack looks at first glance like a parade of action sequences with little plot or dialogue, and after even a few minutes of watching it, you realize that yes, in fact, that’s unapologetically what it is; and, most importantly, (3) you can follow Samurai Jack without having seen one second of any previous season, because the show is a rare example of storytelling that’s not about what happens, but how it happens.
I should back up for a second and gripe about the medium I love so much.
Whenever I try to sell an uninitiated viewer on the virtues of Tartakovsky’s Jack, I start by disabusing them of preconceived notions about what great popular art is supposed to be. The most pernicious, knowingly and unknowingly spread by folks like yours truly, is that scripted television must be driven by the word — i.e., by literary values, such as a classically structured narrative, “realistic” characterizations, and socially relevant themes — and that images, sound effects, and music must serve the word, otherwise the work in question cannot be serious. A lot of great TV does satisfy all those criteria, granted. But that’s not all that scripted TV should aspire to be, just as it’s not all that theatrical filmmaking should aspire to be.
Samurai Jack does offer familiar narrative pleasures: Tartakovsky and his screenwriters tell a compelling, deliberately spare story about a man who’s as cut off from his geographical and emotional roots as Odysseus. Prior seasons weren’t afraid to structure themselves as collections of encounters or moments, akin to poems, short stories collected in a book, or songs on an album. These new episodes feel more obviously serialized, which makes sense considering it’s chugging toward a finish line. But the style is still dazzlingly, and at times alienatingly unlike anything you’ve seen recently, unless you count the most audacious stretches of Hannibal, The Leftovers, Louie, Atlanta, or The Girlfriend Experience — and even those shows don’t adopt muscular, abstract minimalism and run with it the way Jack does.
As always, Jack switches between Akira Kurosawa–Frank Miller combat sequences, atmospheric landscapes, and wacky comedy interludes (the demon Aku submitting to Freudian analysis with a version of himself that wears a tweed jacket with elbow patches; Jack battling a killer droid that speaks in Rat Pack jive). And it still boasts expressionistic or allegorical touches, like the sequence that crosscuts between Jack fighting invisible assassins and a white wolf battling Spearmint-striped tigers with crocodile jaws.
But there’s an uncanny power to this series that defies language, and it’s rooted in Samurai Jack’s commitment to formal experimentation. How can I describe in words the effect of hearing Prince’s Purple Rain soundtrack for the first time, or staring at Robert Rauschenberg’s “Skyway” on a wall of the Dallas Museum of Art, or seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey on a big screen? I could quote the lyrics of Prince’s songs, or tell you which photos and news clippings Rauschenberg placed and painted over, or list the images arranged by Stanley Kubrick and tell you how he edited and scored them. But none of that would capture the lived experience of engaging with the art.
Similarly, I could try to give you a taste of Tartakovsky’s aesthetic by describing the first minute of the opening scene of the premiere, which shows a much older, hairier Jack — you don’t know he’s Jack yet, but you figure it out — riding to save an elfin, blue-skinned mother and daughter from a herd of mechanical beetles with hellish red eyes. But even a shot-by-shot dissection of the scene wouldn’t convey the buildup to Jack’s first appearance, which is preceded by a series of shots that emphasize the mother and daughter’s smallness and fragility and the metal bugs’ relentlessness (those wheat-thresher sounds are horrendous). Nor would it capture the breathtaking cut to a high angle showing the bugs as they circle their prey in clockwise and counterclockwise rings, creating a hypnotic spiral effect: Busby Berkeley meets The Matrix.
But even that level of analysis would barely scratch the surface of Jack. And, hey, what do you know: I checked the time code after writing the above paragraph and realized I’ve only described the first 30 seconds. I’d need another paragraph to do the next half-minute justice. That’s how much care has been put into Jack. You can’t half-watch this show and say you saw it. You have to commit to it, really watch it and listen to it. Every frame is not just a painting; it’s a note in a symphony and step in a dance routine. It’s more interested in rhythm, rhyme, color, texture, silence, and noise than setup and payoff or the relationship between subtext and text. It has no subtext to speak of, really. As in an ancient fable, the story’s deeper meanings are right there on the surface, distilled to their essence, color-coded, and placed in the frame just so.
But even as Tartakovsky and his collaborators make smart observations about how time softens rage and what becomes of vengeance when enemies can’t kill or escape one another, these matters are never Jack’s sole focus. The show is always more attuned to the sensations conjured by the interplay of pictures, sound effects, and music. It’s so assured that it dips into Jungian nightmare imagery at will, as in the scene where Jack drinks from a stream and falling leaves start speaking to him. When he looks closely at the leaves, he sees the faces of loved ones left to suffer when the demon sealed the time portals and trapped him in the future. The sequence builds until the crests and troughs in the river transform into a slipstream of contorted faces.
It’s not just the big scenes that sing. Every few seconds there’s a just-right grace note, such as the way Tartakovsky uses rectangles within rectangles to highlight the telltale narrowing of a warrior’s eyes or the hiding place of a weapon. Note, too, how Tartakovsky pans up from a forest valley to the sky at dusk, each band of foliage a paler shade of blue: Even the show’s connective tissue is a thing of beauty. Then marvel at the precision of the show’s sound design, which isolates distinct sensations (such as the “skritch” of a leaf detaching from a branch, or the flap-flap of Jack’s bandana as he rides) instead of cluttering your ears with redundant noise. Then note how Tartakovsky uses smoke, mist, flame, rain, and shadow to conceal or reveal characters, like a theatrical impresario lowering a curtain on a play or a magician pulling a card from his sleeve. You’re watching the work of an artist at the peak of his powers: Rauschenberg in ’64, Kubrick in ’68, Prince in ’84.
There’s a sequence of shots in the second episode where Samurai Jack finds a way to show exactly what happens when two characters sword fight in total darkness, without cheating and putting a light where a light couldn’t be. It’s a subjective representation of what it feels like to fight in the dark. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I’ve been saying that about Samurai Jack since its first episode: I’ve never seen anything like it.
It’s still true.