News Column

Samurai Jack – thrilling, international TV that doesn't involve a football

June 24, 2014

Richard Vine, theguardian.com



If you're looking for some alternative TV during the World Cup, how about watching something that's just as international in spirit?

Samurai Jack is an American cartoon about a Japanese samurai written by Genndy Tartakovsky, a Russian emigre who grew up on a diet of Saturday-morning cartoons, cut his teeth with Dexter's Laboratory and went on to make Star Wars: Clone Wars (this version not the CGI-style Star Wars: The Clone Wars) and more recently Hotel Transylvania.

It first appeared on Cartoon Network in 2001, and seemed at the time as though it was aimed not just at kids, but also at people who grew up watching cartoons. Without being self-consciously adult or ironic in its themes and stories, it really captures the freedom and excitement of what it feels like to first discover animation when you're young.

It's a simple enough story: Jack's homeland is attacked by an evil shape-shifting demon named Aku. Jack's father the emperor in a feudal Japanese society sends him into exile. in order to keep him safe He roams the world, like a young Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, learning different fighting techniques from a string of master fighters: Shaolin monks, Vikings, Zulu warriors and even Robin Hood (there's a pretty fast and loose approach to historical accuracy), before returning as a young man, ready to battle Aku.

This is all shown in a great sequence, a 10-minute, dialogue-free chunk that's as economical and elegant in its storytelling as the opening montage in Up.

They fight, and Aku banishes Jack from his home once more sending him into a dark future filled with killer robots, wild aliens and talking dogs, where Aku's empire now extends to the entire planet. (He's so evil he even has his own line of soft drinks.)

Samurai Jack is packed with references to everything from world mythology (Odin, Vishnu and Ra feature alongside Buddha), to the Star Wars Cantina, manga stories such as Lone Wolf And Cub, Akira Kurosawa's samurai films, Frank Miller's Ronin and 300, and the 70s TV classic Kung Fu, whose wandering warrior monk Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) is clearly a big influence on the story.

Jack is as monosyllabic as a Clint Eastwood gunslinger, which adds an element of calm that you rarely get in cartoons (a later episode, Jack and the Four Seasons, is almost entirely dialogue-free, and every bit as intense and tightly crafted as Buffy's lauded Hush episode. Overall, it is one of the quietest cartoons you will ever see, with a great use of silence and sound design throughout (Will.i.am's theme tune is one of the catchiest things he has ever written).

The action sequences are frenetic, stylish, gripping and artfully told. They make full use of Tartakovsky's wide palette: staccato freeze-frames that suddenly chop up the screen, flipping into widescreen panels; a brilliant use of graphics and negative space, with a distinctive "no outlines" drawing style.

At times Samurai Jack looks like a trippy 70s Czech cartoon or an animated Saul Bass poster, at others it's every bit as full-on as an anime series such as Dragonball Z.

Stories about a new movie version of Samurai Jack are floated regularly at the moment it seems to be off again but the series is perfect as it is. The first two seasons are currently streaming on Netflix, which is great, as it never seemed to get a proper DVD release in the UK.


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Source: Guardian Web


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