Samurai Jack Review: Blast to the Past?
Samurai Jack was one of the most innovative and alluring animated series of the early 2000s. Unfortunately, it was cancelled before it got to tell its full story.
Now revived on Adult Swim in 2017, Jack returned, finally given the chance to complete his quest of defeating an ancient shape-shifting demon while lost in a terrifying future filled with guns, robots, aliens and all manner of arcane magics. The newly dubbed Jack sought to return to the past and prevent the horrible dystopia from ever arising. Does it live up to the original? And if you’re a newcomer, should you give it a try?
The season opens fifty years since Jack was flung into the future, and the samurai is now on the brink of despair. With every time-portal destroyed, and his enchanted sword lost, the now-ageless Jack fears that he is cursed to live eternity in Aku’s cruel future, outliving everyone around him. Plagued by hallucinations and nightmares, he struggles to find any reason to continue his quest. When one of the land’s greatest assassins discovers that Jack’s sword was lost, he sets out to inform his demonic master Aku, so that Jack can be struck down once and for all.
However, there is another threat: seven demonic children, indoctrinated and trained from birth. Defeating them will push Jack to his limits, and force him to confront the moral necessity of killing another human being.
It’s an excellent set-up, and at least initially, the story delivers on it. Being on Adult Swim gives the show the freedom to discuss topics that it would never have been allowed to touch on Cartoon Network proper, and it does so with aplomb. Without giving too much away, however, the writing in the last quarter of the season is rather… controversial, so if you’re specifically seeking something with a tight plot, this might be the wrong place to look.
However, where the show truly shines, as always, is with its artistic direction. Samurai Jack is absolutely striking in its animation, using bold lines and vibrant colors. It is an absolute master at building atmosphere. Everything from the scenery, pace, sound design and expressions all serve to create rich scenes that convey everything from tension, awe, fear, or joy. If you are a fan of animation as a medium, then the final season of Samurai Jack is essential viewing.
Beware! Here Be Spoilers!
The first four seasons of Samurai Jack were highly episodic, with only a handful of recurring characters and occasional call-backs to past events. This final season forgoes that approach for a single, tight narrative. I was hugely excited about it, and at first, the payoff was wonderful. By allowing the Daughters of Aku to serve as antagonists across multiple episodes, the show really built them as a threat, making them hands down the best part of the season. As terrifying as they were, they nonetheless remained sympathetic figures. It was painful to see Jack grapple with the morality of killing them, wondering if he should just allow himself to die at their hands instead.
“Your choices have led you here,” Jack eventually concludes after a great deal of soul-searching. The conclusion hurts, because we know they haven’t actually chosen this at all — they’re just the byproduct of years and years of abuse and conditioning. Jack wasn’t in the wrong defending himself against them, but it is nonetheless brutal watching them go to their deaths, one by one.
The only one who survives is Ashi. Left injured in the snow, Jack resolves to try and save her, despite the threat she posed him. I am a sucker for redemption narratives, and it was wonderful getting to watch Ashi’s unfold on screen. This poor girl, abused all her life, for the first time is getting to explore the world, discover love, and forge her own identity.
And then they made her Jack’s love interest.
Now don’t get me wrong — I love myself a good romance. Except, this really wasn’t a good romance. I’ll admit part of this might be my personal preference of found-family, parental substitute stories, but I genuinely thought that was where the writers were taking it. Jack and Ashi’s romantic attraction to each other comes out of nowhere in episode XCIX. Instead of developing it gradually over the course of the whole season, it’s very forced, and brings the plot to a screeching halt as the two of them have a random side-adventure as they deal with their feelings.
Ultimately, though, it always would have been very tricky making Ashi and Jack’s romance feel natural, because of the Born Sexy Yesterday trope, explained excellently in this video. Essentially, this is when a beautiful, young woman with essentially no knowledge of the outside world falls in love with the first guy she meets. This sets us up for some painfully cliched scenes like Ashi’s clothes getting eaten off, and her not understanding any of Jack’s subsequent embarrassment as she fights naked in front of him. The main crux of the trope is always the experience disparity; it’s easy for the female character to fall in love with the male hero, no matter how experienced he is, no matter what mistakes he makes, because he is literally the best guy she’s ever met. This was especially egregious considering the sheer gap between the two characters. Ashi was a twenty-something girl who routinely had child-like tantrums due to having practically no experience with human interaction. Jack was a seventy-year-old man who’d traveled the entire world. Extreme May-December romances can work in fiction, but only if the writers acknowledge the age difference and have the characters work through it. Here they didn’t, and it left a sour taste in my mouth.
Despite this trope and the forced elements of the romance, I was still hopeful. She and Jack still had a cute dynamic, and I really delighted with how the two of them helped each other work through their own trauma. The important thing would be that she still had an arc of her own independent of her romance with Jack. She had discovered the lies she’d been fed since childhood. She had tracked Jack across the entire world and literally fought his inner-demons. She had faced down and killed her abusive mother. The final episode promised to be the culmination of all of this; with Aku literally taking control of her body, Ashi was literally struggling to save her mind from her father’s demonic influence. All of this was set against the spectacular backdrop of perhaps the most wonderfully ridiculous battle in all of fiction as all of Jack’s previous allies came to his aid. Talking dogs, samurai mechas, flying go-go dancers, and a hoard of Celtic warriors — all led by the ghost of the Scotsman — rode into battle against the immense power of Aku.
But in the end, all of Ashi’s development was left for naught. So was, incidentally, the development of every other character, however minor, who’d gotten screen-time in the show. The series ends with Ashi inheriting Aku’s powers, sending Jack back in time, where he kills Aku before he can ever come to power. A true happy ending appears to finally be in Jack’s grasp — only for it to be snatched away, with Ashi fading from existence as she walks down the aisle, revealing that all his adventures have been wiped from the timeline.
Ashi breaking out of her vile conditioning? The talking dogs’ archaeological research into their past? The new civilization the archers’ built? The camaraderie forged between Jack and the Scotsman? Even Aku’s own development as he struggled with depression in the face of Jack’s apparent invulnerability? All of it gone.
It all just feels cheap, reducing the value of the entire cast simply to provide Jack with more angst. I can think of so many more fulfilling alternative endings. An ending where going to the past was impossible, so Jack had to defeat Aku in the future, finally accepting it as his new present. One where he dies in the final battle, sacrificing himself. He gets to go to the afterlife with the Scotsman in peace, leaving Ashi to take up the mantle of the samurai. Or perhaps one where Ashi instead takes the title of Aku, but instead uses his power for good, undoing the horrors he created. Or one where Jack lives, and gets to rebuild a new life for himself in the future, along with all the friends he’s made. Perhaps one where he goes back into the past, but in doing so, creates split timelines, leaving two Akus to be defeated. Afterward, Jack is given the choice of returning to his family and his homeland, or living the rest of his life in the alternate future.
Or, if the writers truly wanted to end the series with Ashi’s death, give her agency in it. Have her realize what going back in time to defeat her father will mean for her. Have her decide to do it anyway. Make her sacrifice a choice, and it all feels so much more meaningful.
The current ending is beautiful. It is joyous to see the return of all of Jack’s mentors from the very first episode. His reunion with his family is heartwarming. The vivid colors of the wedding ceremony are gorgeous. It is beautiful too, in its own horrible way, to watch Ashi fade out of existence in Jack’s arms. There’s a subtle elegance of Jack riding through the mist, contemplating all he has lost. Of seeing the ladybug, the symbol which first kindled his friendship with Ashi, reminiscing in his journey, and appreciating the world he has saved.
But there are different kinds of beauty. In my opinion, the Samurai Jack finale opted for a superficial kind. It does a disservice to Jack, to Ashi, and to all the other characters it crafted.
Ultimately, I still love the series, and I don’t regret watching this final season. But it still leaves me with a bitter taste of ‘what might have been’.
Author: Laura B
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