After Genndy Tartakovsky’s cult animated series “Samurai Jack” was canceled by Cartoon Network in 2004, rumors swirled for years about a feature-length adaptation. Tartakovsky worked with four different studios to adapt his hyper-stylized blend of martial arts and sci-fi action for the big screen, including New Line, Sony and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, but none of them panned out. “As soon as we started developing it as a movie, they wanted to fit it into a box,” Tartakovsky told IndieWire. “I love ‘Jack’ as one of my creations and would never want to change it from what it was supposed to be. There was no reason to reinvent. It was working.”
Tartakovsky knew exactly how he wanted to tell his story of the titular samurai, who’s thrown into a far-off dystopian future by the demonic Aku and forced to fight his way back to the past. While “Samurai Jack” wasn’t a ratings blockbuster on its initial run, the show gradually found a fan base on DVD, paving the way for Tartakovsky to complete the show’s narrative arc with a fifth season produced for Adult Swim earlier this year, 13 years after the previous season. (The full series hits DVD and Bluray this week, following a one-night-only theatrical release of its feature-length pilot.) The show, which ended abruptly with the fourth season finale, has now reached a very satisfying conclusion. In the process, it has led Tartakovsky to a new outlook on his career that may inform his next steps. “I should be doing more of my own things,” he said.
Tartakovsky has no regrets about waiting so long. He went straight into production on Cartoon Network’s microseries “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” short episodes that tied into the “Star Wars” universe and kept the story going leading up to “Episode III.” After that, he launched the one-season show “Symbionic Titan” on Cartoon Network and, most significantly, directed the blockbuster animated features “Hotel Transylvania” and its sequel for Sony. While series grossed over $800 million worldwide to date, “Samurai Jack” remained on the back burner. “I didn’t need to make it into a movie,” Tartakovsky said. “It’s not like I had to pay my mortgage because of it.”
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He cited the many ways in which potential studio backers wanted him to update the show’s largely wordless, expressionistic storytelling quality for a new set of expectations. “They wanted a lot of story twists, more dialogue, maybe a sidekick or two,” he said. “We had to watch how much action there was. They wanted more comedy. They didn’t want the tone to be so dark. All those things equal to, ‘Nah.’”
In fact, once “Samurai Jack” landed at Adult Swim, Tartakovsky found himself more liberated than ever before. The bulk of Jack’s previous foes were robots, a workaround that enabled the animator to avoid gore prohibited by Cartoon Network’s all-ages standards. Adult Swim had no such restrictions. The show had always maintained a grim, dystopian feel at odds with Jack’s spiritual mentality, and that epic conflict suggested deeper adult circumstances always lingering just outside the frame. Tartakovsky, best known prior to “Jack” for “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Dexter’s Laboratory,” had grown used to working within the constraints of a network geared toward children.
With the new season, he could be clearer about it: If you like samurais, neo-noir and atmospheric storytelling, this show delivers the goods. So why not go wild? “Once we started doing it for Adult Swim, the initial instinct was, ‘We can go super gory, crazy violent,’” he said. “Then, as we started talking about lopping off people’s heads and blood spraying like a fountain, I was like, ‘Uh, this doesn’t feel right.’” He needed a narrative solution to introducing more graphic elements to the show’s existing universe. “We decided our violence needed to be controlled, and when we do it, it’s going to mean something,” he said.
That led to a pivotal moment in the first second of the season, in which Jack faces off against a horde of female assassins known as the Daughters of Aku, assuming that they’re cyborgs similar to the ones he fought for ages. The bloody outcome of that showdown arrives like a sudden jolt that steers the show into more complex questions about the samurai’s ethics. “He has a major response to it,” Tartakovsky said. “That’s what made it feel right. It wasn’t just violent slashing for no reason. It had meaning to it.”
But the more jarring development comes much later in the season, when one of the Daughters of the Aku — a nimble trained killer named Ashi (Laura Prats) — begins to question her allegiances, as she and Jack develop a relationship unlike anything Tartakovsky had attempted before. Their romance unfolds against high stakes, positioning them as star-crossed lovers from incompatible backgrounds and setting the stage for the emotional gut-punch of the finale. But it’s also an adorable courtship loaded with a kind of wry innuendo wouldn’t look out of place in a Lubitsch movie, most notably in an episode that finds the unexpectedly nude as they face down a foe.
“They’re both inexperienced with love and sexuality, so it’s almost like they’re children,” Tartakovsky said. “It’s awkward — that first date, when you’re standing too close to somebody. It was something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I have three kids, and I tried to picture whether they could have watched this, and I realized it was OK…I don’t have any issue with nakedness. It’s not filthy.”
Tartakovsky also had one key ally to ensure that his updated vision for “Samurai Jack” remained on-target: Adult Swim head Mike Lazzo, who was the original Cartoon Network executive overseeing the show back when it first aired, and also worked with Tartakovsky on “The Powderpuff Girls” and “Dexter’s Laboratory.”
“It was like coming home,” Tartakovsky said. “He trusts what I do and I don’t feel like he needs to direct me directing the show. He could just be honest with me. It was the best producing and production experience I’ve had in a long time.”
Still, he wasn’t thrilled with seeing the show stuffed into Adult Swim’s Toonami animation block, alongside the likes of Japanese hits such as “Dragon Ball Super” and “Ghost in the Shell,” having hoped to see the show receive a different context. “I would’ve liked it to be its own thing,” he said. “The magic of Jack is that it’s unique, there’s not a lot of stuff like it. But OK.”
Needless to say, Tartakovsky found himself grateful to be back in the television arena after enduring two studio efforts with the back-to-back productions on Sony’s “Hotel Transylvania” movies. (He’s currently at work on a third one.) “With features, you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on production and marketing, so everybody’s panicked because you literally have an opening weekend to succeed,” he said. “There’s an army of people questioning you. Trust is something you have to fight for.” On television, on the other hand, “you have six months to make this thing, here’s your amount of money, and whatever I draw today will be on the air six months later. You trust your instincts.”
Tartakovsky spent the last decade figuring out how to realize his creative instincts within the restrictions at his disposal. While his “Clone Wars” can be appreciated as a two-hour plus feature, he was tasked with creating it as a miniature episodes that ran between three-and-a-half to five minutes. “We realized it had to be one idea, one fight, and you just execute that,” he said. “It had to feel like a sequence rather than an episode. We always tried to take the restraints — from budget to time — and find a creative solution. Usually, good stuff comes out of that.” (He’s still bitter about the decision by Lucasfilm to reboot “Clone Wars” as a new series years later, but added, “I think the fate of ‘Star Wars’ is everlasting, which is great.”)
Then there was “Iron Man 2.” Tartakovsky worked alongside director Jon Favreau on the 2010 Marvel sequel, storyboarding the action sequences and injecting his own vision into the visual components of the movie. (Ultimately, these scenes were so strong they upstaged the middling plot.) “It was a very a positive experience,” said Tartakovsky, who has considered making the jump to live action directing along such animation stalwarts as Brad Bird (the Pixar director of “The Incredibles” who later did “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and “Tomorrowland”). “It made me realize I could do this.”
But he hasn’t had the best success with pitching new ideas. “It’s hard to sell original stuff in Hollywood, whether it’s TV or movies,” he said. “I’ve been trying.” He came up with a fresh take on “Popeye” that went nowhere and another original idea at Sony that fell apart. Now, he’s squeezing in a third “Hotel Transylvania” movie while contemplating more attempts at original ideas. “It’s very easy for me to say, ‘Yeah, OK, sure, I’ll do another ‘Hotel’ movie,’” he said, “but ‘Jack’ has been so successful, it was exactly what we wanted to do, so I know I should be doing more of my own thing. That should be my goal. It’s got to be one of my ideas that I write and sell. Somebody has to believe in it.”
With “Samurai Jack” at long last in the rearview mirror, he sounded as though he had rediscovered his plan of attack. “I’m like a guerrilla filmmaker,” he said. “I come in there, here’s my instinct, I don’t question it. I have a stupid confidence. That’s what a director is. If a director doesn’t have confidence, you’re dead.”
“Samurai Jack: The Complete Series” is now available on Digital HD and Blu-ray. The “Samurai Jack” soundtrack is available October 20.