Samurai Jack
The creator of Dexter's Laboratory sends a Japanese warrior back to the future
Samurai Jack
Cartoon Network Studios
USA, 2001
A few years back I was watching an episode of Dexter's Laboratory, where Dexter's watching Action Hank on TV. Action Hank's titular character is sort of a blaxploitation/action hero crossed with GI Joe, and this particular sequence had him busting up the bad guy's hideout. I think there may have been a hot mama with an Angela Davis-sized Afro as well, but I'm not sure.

The important thing is that the show-within-a-show was note-perfect. It nailed all the clichés of tough-guy and blaxploitation movies without once tipping into overt farce, using stylized visuals that perfectly captured the essence of the genre but, paradoxically, would have been impossible to duplicate in live-action.

I remember saying right then, "That's it. These guys can make anything they want."

"These guys" referred to Dexter creator Genndy Tartakovsky, as well as Craig McCracken, Paul Rudish, and Larry Huber—all former CalArts students who started work on 2 Stupid Dogs and Super Secret Secret Squirrel for Hanna-Barbera in 1993 and then went on to create or shape The Powerpuff Girls as well as Dexter and its accompanying Dial M for Monkey and The Justice Friends.

The first inkling of their savvy came with Super Secret Secret Squirrel. A remake of Hanna-Barbera's so-so 1965 spy spoof Secret Squirrel, it cleverly poked fun at spy shows, cartoons about spy shows, and Hanna-Barbera themselves while employing an aesthetic that made it seem more 1960s than the spy shows actually created in the 1960s.

Clearly, the team knew how to analyze, disassemble, and reassemble a genre. But they really honed their skills with Dexter, which featured riffs on superhero comics, consumer culture, still more spy shows, sitcoms, anime, and even opera (owing no doubt to both Looney Tunes and the beginning of the musical TV episode trend).

Eight years of increasingly assured work has culminated in Genndy Tartakovsky's recent creation, Samurai Jack. The show debuted on Cartoon Network (which absorbed Hanna-Barbera after 2 Stupid Dogs started its run) last fall, and no Canadian broadcaster has picked it up as yet. So unless you were lucky enough to catch the unheralded one-time airing of the first four episodes on the WB network or have access to a grey-market satellite dish, your first chance to see Samurai Jack is Warner Home Video's recent release of the premiere movie—a fancy name for the three-times-large pilot episode—on video and DVD.

It's hard to say what the biggest tipoff is as to Samurai Jack's strikingly unique take on the animated action cartoon. The evil Aku's "Once again, I am free to smite the world as I did in days long past," the very first line of dialogue after two minutes of a bizarrely abstract rebirth sequence, is delivered with the cadence of a myth. So, too, is the tale of the shape-changing Aku's earlier defeat, which an unnamed Japanese emperor is relating to his son—neither suspecting that the reborn Aku is about to lay siege to Japan and enslave the populace. The boy's mother spirits him away to learn the ways of combat at the hands of the world's foremost warriors, eventually bequeathing to him the magic katana with which his father first banished Aku to the "Pit of Hate."

The boy, now a samurai, confronts Aku and nearly triumphs. But at the last moment Aku blasts him centuries into the future—a future where Aku's rule of Earth is nearly absolute, and is spreading to other worlds. Named Jack by the locals, the samurai tries to make sense of this strange new world while avoiding or battling Aku's minions and trying to find a way to return to the past to stop Aku's evil before it begins.

Like that Action Hank episode, Samurai Jack is a take on samurai films, science fiction, Batman, and quest mythology. It appropriates without the self-mockery that's become de rigeur in the past decade, and it works. Every element, from the imagery to the pacing to James Venable's stellar soundtrack reinforces the idea that we are witnessing a timeless legend about a noble warrior on a quest for justice.

But as you might expect, the most striking thing about Samurai Jack is its aesthetic. Historically, Hanna-Barbera's output has been relentlessly two-dimensional, and with good reason. William Hanna and Joe Barbera's simplified, limited-animation system allowed them to keep costs down and crank out cartoons, claiming the burgeoning TV animation market while other studios struggled to adapt to the shrinking theatrical market. The CalArts gang took it a step further with their '90s output, simplifying their designs even more and often playing up the limited-animation feel by holding images or animating strictly by using the camera or a cel level—for example, panning across a static background or sliding an unmoving character into or out of a scene.

With Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky and company didn't so much take another step forward as leap. Taking advantage of the benefits of digital ink and paint systems, they have eliminated the black outlines that are usually the hallmark of cel-style animation. (This isn't new. Disney used to use coloured outlines to get softer edges in all their feature films until the advent of Xerography, first used for 101 Dalmatians. They went back to coloured outlines when they switched to digital ink and paint in the 1990s.)

What's different is that Samurai Jack has no outlines; everything is defined by solid coloured shapes. The last time I saw this technique done well was in Jamie Mason's The Magic of Anansi and Micronutrients UNICEF short films for the National Film Board. But with the benefit of two studios and a fair-sized staff, Samurai Jack has a richer, more detailed feel.

Furthermore, the animation itself has become stylized to the point where people and things don't necessarily move as they should naturally, but in such a way as to get the best visual impact—more than a little reminiscent of the best of the UPA cartoons, like 1953's The Tell-Tale Heart. Jack's first battle with the shape-shifting Aku, rendered with semi-abstract designs, a dynamic variety of split screens, and a minimum of dialogue is unlike anything I've ever seen on TV.

But Jack falters a little because it's still tied to North American sensibilities. There's still this urge to make sure cartoons are funny. Quite sensibly, much of that humour is mined from the fact that Jack is a fish out of water in Earth's strange, lawless future. That's fine, and it even works dramatically (keep an eye on Jack's face—he often seems truly bewildered and not a little anguished at being so far from home).

But sometimes it gets a little too absurd. In the premiere movie, Jack encounters dogs that have evolved to the point where they walk and talk—yet they have enough old-fashioned dog in them for sight gags that are funny when taken individually but temporarily steer the show into a different direction, squandering some of the dramatic and emotional investment that had been carefully established up to then. The bonus episode included on the tape and disc is also a mixed bag, as Jack battles a garrulous Scotsman for the right to pass a long, narrow bridge before bounty hunters set upon them. There is humour in their verbal and physical clashes, but it's not the same as the goofy humor of the bounty hunters, absurd creatures who look like they were lifted from earlier Tartakovsky and McCracken projects (one of them is in fact from Dial M for Monkey).

The push and pull between drama and humour gives Samurai Jack an unusual charm that may put off some people. But as far as I'm concerned, its creators' willingness to go their own way in an increasingly corporate and focus-grouped television market is refreshing. I'm certainly willing to follow Jack and see where he leads us.

Unpublished; originally intended for Parsec
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