Decades ago, the samurai warrior created a template for the modern action hero, inspiring silent western heroes and gunslinging detectives alike. So it follows that any modern take on the samurai really needs to prove its worth. Quentin Tarantino’s two-part “Kill Bill” charts the history of stylized action from the East to the West, but Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Samurai Jack” fuses them into a spectacular whole. The animated series originally aired on Cartoon Network between 2001 and 2004, but returns as a miniseries this March to conclude the story — and so far, it remains some of the best action-based storytelling out there. Exploiting the pliability of animation to its greatest potential, Tartakovsky transforms his influences into a hugely satisfying formula of his own making, delivering an action-packed masterpiece on par with the best of the genre.
For the uninitiated, the premise of “Samurai Jack” is relatively straightforward: In feudal Japan, a prince engages in battle with the demonic wizard Aku, a shadowy, angular monstrosity with fiery eyebrows intent on ruling civilization. While the prince’s sword has the rare ability to injure Aku, he opens up a time portal in the midst of battle and flings the warrior into the distant future. Dubbed “Jack” by a smarmy robot, the samurai finds himself a flashy dystopian world ruled by Aku and dominated by menacing cyborgs that do his bidding.
As the catchy theme song reminds us, Jack must get back to the past, but most episodes find him enmeshed in that quest rather than making any real progress. Heading to the countryside, Jack usually just winds up defending the various human and humanlike residents of this distant land from oppression, providing one excuse after another for Tartakovsky’s imaginative riffs on familiar material, from storybook fantasy to edgy sci-fi.
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The result is often like “Blade Runner” by way of Akira Kurosawa. The animator’s 2D style treasures expressionistic images and exuberant, steampunk-inflected battle sequences over traditional narrative structure, creating a hypnotic experience riddled with unpredictability. (Tartakovsky, who honed the approach with “Dexter’s Laboratory,” also applied that style to his astounding “Star Wars: Clone Wars” minisodes in 2003, which collectively form the greatest “Star Wars” movie since “Return of the Jedi.”) The first two episodes of the new “Samurai Jack” season only intensify the appeal of Tartakovsky’s approach, resurrecting the best samurai of 21st century popular culture for a new chapter that suggests major payoff just around the corner.
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Thirteen years have passed since the last installment of Jack’s journey, but it’s been 50 for poor Jack, still wandering a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape and looking more hopeless than ever. Though some kind of loophole in his time travel experience has kept him from aging, he looks pretty worn down anyway: Frumpy, bearded and permanently scowling, he wears metallic armor and speeds across the barren, woodsy terrain with a range of weaponry at his disposal. But even Mad Max can’t move like Jack, who takes down an army of robot beetles in the opening minutes before continuing on his aimless way.
He hasn’t heard from Aku in some time — the super villain doesn’t even surface in the first episode — but Jack’s dealing with his own internal demons. He’s haunted by his relatives from the past, and gazing at the river, he witnesses a remarkably terrifying vision of their undead souls crying out to him. That’s the first sign of the darker, edgier version of the show that speaks to its new home on Adult Swim, where many of the complex themes surrounding Jack’s relationship to his grim situation had to be implied in an all-ages mode of address. Now, many of those viewers have grown up, and so has “Samurai Jack.”
In another shift, the earlier seasons were narrated by Aku, setting the stage for his endless battles with the samurai; Jack takes the reigns for the openings of the new installments, making it clear that this arc belongs to his point-of-view. And it’s quite the tumultuous one: Weary and impatient, he’s a brooding soul plagued by anger and guilt. Another startling vision finds him arguing with an evil subconscious version of himself who tries to make a reasonable case for suicide, and his situation has grown so morose that Tartakovsky almost makes it seem like the guy might go through with it. But of course his samurai philosophy is as sharp as his sword, and Jack’s ability to battle through his own frustrations makes room for a bracing psychological crisis in between the stunning fight sequences.
It’s exciting enough to return to the “Samurai Jack” world and experience Tartakovsky at the height of his creative potential after his less inspired experiments in the studio arena with two “Hotel Transylvania” movies. (Really, why even bother?) Even more exciting is that this time, the director seems to be building to a big finale. While most earlier “Samurai Jack” episodes were standalones, these first two installments flow together, suggesting a genuine conclusion is not too far off. The climax at the end of the second episode is a particularly enticing cliffhanger (and it won’t be spoiled here), as it comes on the heels of a revelation that we’re about to watch a much bloodier, violent saga than anything Jack’s endured before.
But Tartakovsky isn’t stuck with a single tone. The joys of this format come from creators able to experiment with multiple possibilities, and it’s energizing to watch Tartakovsky juggle numerous genres in such a brief running time. After a creepy ending to the first episode, Tartakovsky gives us a hilarious peek at Aku’s lair, starting with his morning routine. The monster wakes up, puts on his eyes and does exercises — then launches into a whiny therapy session about his own frustrations over Jack’s continuing resilience. A Trump-like figure who’s unhappy even at the height of his reign, Aku’s pathetic obsession with Jack only intensifies the excitement of watching the hero put evil in its place.
You never know what’s coming in “Samurai Jack,” and Tartakovsky squeezes an astonishing amount of storytelling into 20-minute installments. The same episode that opens with a comical Aku bit concludes with Jack speeding through a shadowy tunnel and engaging in gripping swordplay. With the flexible potential of animation at his disposal, Tartakovsky hurtles fascinating images at the screen at an astonishing rate. Each scene catapults to the next, and it will be thrilling to anticipate new installments in the weeks to come, as well as a sense of closure just around the corner. It’s hard to tell if this tighter approach to episodic storytelling will reach a satisfying end, since Tartakovsky excels more at bringing us into the heat of the moment than exploring a bigger picture. But he’s off to a promising start. Jack may not be back from the past just yet, but Genndy Tartakovsky has certainly returned to form.
“Samurai Jack” premieres Saturday, March 11th at 11:00p.m. on Adult Swim’s Toonami Block.