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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Static Thoughts - Top 13 Samurai Jack Episodes

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So, Samurai Jack is coming back for a fifth season.  If you’ve never seen or heard of Samurai Jack that probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, so I’ll try and elaborate.  Samurai Jack was one of the last cartoons from what’s considered the Golden Age of WB’s animation channel Cartoon Network.  To be fair, that’s a biased title imposed by people who grew up with the Network during this time, but by the same token, there were plenty of quality programs.  However, most of them were geared towards comedy like Dexter’s Laboratory or Johnny Bravo, with the narrative stuff being mostly relegated to the DC Comics shows. 

Samurai Jack is the prime exception there, a dramatic and beautifully animated series about a time displaced Samurai in a dystopic future desperately trying to return to the past and undo the future he’s trapped within.  It was a well written and wonderfully produced show that was fun for kids and offered a lot to adults in the animation and some of the stories as well.  With that in mind and to celebrate its upcoming revival, I count down my top 13 Samurai Jack episodes. 

Firstly, get used to that naming system because nearly all of these are structured in that “Jack and ____” format.  It fit well with the structure of the show as Jack himself didn’t really have a whole lot of personality or complexity, he was just an unstoppable force on a quest to a seemingly unattainable goal.  

He was sort of like some iterations of Batman that way, a character so beyond human faults or frailty that his villains end up having to do a good deal of the emoting for him.  That’s not really the case with Demongo, but this episode is worth it mainly for the villains. 

In a lot of ways this episode is the archetypical Samurai Jack episode.  Jack’s archenemy Aku, a super demon of primordial evil, has launched one of his many deadly lieutenants against Jack in the hopes of destroying him.  This is the titular Demongo, a demon who can absorb the souls of defeated warriors into little skulls.  

What really sells this episode is the combat as Jack is thrown up against an incredible army of evil, each more creative than the last.  Seriously, Samurai Jack always thrived on its imaginative visuals and antagonists, but Demongo’s horde of captured souls may be the most impressive collection of high-concept conjurings they’ve ever sported.  They may not be as well characterized as some other bad guys, but there’s nothing more creative. 

Here’s an episode that’s a lot more comedy than action but still stands up as a great blend of both.  A lot of my love for this particular entry comes from being able to appreciate the old cartoons and tropes it’s referencing and having a sincere affection for the same.  

The plot is that Jack ends up throwing in with some stereotypical 1920s gangsters, who are all incredibly short, in an attempt to find Aku’s stronghold by helping them with a scheme.  It’s a solid comedy premise based mainly around both Jack and the Gangsters mistaking the other for a gullible chump they can use for their own purposes.  There’s also an amazing fight scene of Jack against elemental titans of Earth, Wind, and Fire. 

What I really love about this episode, however, is the Gangsters themselves.  They’re a weird blend of elements that speaks heavily to creator Gendry Tartakosvsky’s unique influences from cartoon history.  Their visual design is drawn from an old Looney Tunes gangster named Rocky while their voices are heavily influenced by the performance of Edward G. Robinson in Little Ceasar.  For the longest time in animation that combo was the quick shorthand for mobsters, so it’s fun to see it thrown around in this weird, cyberpunk Samurai setting. 

This is a good example of a lot of what I consider the show’s prime episodes and their format.  The structure is that Jack is thrust up against some new obstacle menace, either through his quest for a time portal or through Aku’s meddling.  In this case, the new threat he faces is a band of lion/human alien hunters called the Imakandi.  

This is an excellent example of how Samurai Jack started actively trying to find identity and depth through its villains, using them as a reflection of Jack or giving them more of an identity than just bounty hunters and henchmen.  The Imakandi are the greatest hunters in the galaxy, their entire culture is based around it.  For them, the hunt is an art, a religion, and a science and you can see a great reflection of Jack’s own dedication in them.

Most of the episode is dedicated to the Imakandi’s hunt for Jack, which is just wonderfully choreographed and scored.  So much of Samurai Jack works because the writers were willing to let the show be this mostly silent exploration of color, motion, and musical score.  

However, part of what helps this episode stand out as more than just another solid entry is the ending, making it one of a trilogy of episodes on this list.  The ending is where the nobility and ideology of the Imakandi really comes into play and grants them a degree of humanity and characterization the show just hadn’t featured before.  It’s really where 3-act structure and sympathetic villains became a part of Samurai Jack’s winning combination. 

This is a unique episode, one not driven by an active, singular antagonist.  There are a few like this and certainly, plenty where Aku isn’t a factor in the episode’s plot at all, but ‘Jack and the Monks’ is easily the best “Jack against the World” type episode.  The plot is that through his travels Jack comes upon the massive and mysterious Mount Fatoom, a seemingly impassable mountain.  However, a passing trio of monks informs Jack that the mountain’s summit holds an incredible treasure of immeasurable power, prompting Jack to join them in their attempt to climb the mountain. 

Like ‘Jack and the Hunters’ this is an episode mostly about the visuals, choreography, and conclusion more than anything else.  The big difference here is in the nature of the thing Jack is encountering.  The mountain itself has no sense of identity or philosophy, and while the Monks have a purpose, it’s not really one that allows for a lot of humanity.  This is an episode more about Jack and the toll his seemingly endless quest has begun to take on him.  It’s an absorbing way of making Jack more human than he can sometimes appear when he’s just an unstoppable killing machine. 

The conclusion to the trilogy of episodes I mentioned where the ending makes all the difference.  This episode is basically what you’d get if you combined the previous two somehow.  The plot is that Jack ends up embroiled in a gauntlet of challenges with the promise of vanquishing evil at the end.  

The gauntlet even leads through a big, imposing mountain, the only difference is that here the traps and obstacles are fire themed instead of ice-themed like in ‘Jack and the Monks.’  The evil at the heart of this labyrinth is the titular Lava Man, who is amazingly rendered with this great use of simple colors and complicated line work.  He looks like a creature of legitimately living rock, with a white-hot core and these cool crystals growing out of his back. 

Where the episode really shines, though, is the last third where we learn the secret of the Lava Monster.  I can’t really talk about why this episode works without spoiling the third act, so consider yourself warned.  It turns out the Lava Man was a Viking warrior who opposed Aku, like Jack, however, he failed, and Aku punished him by entombing him in rock and flame.  

The only way the Lava Monster can be free and enter the gates of Valhalla is to fall in honorable combat.  It’s a great reflection of Jack’s own form of eternal torment and, more than likely, the ultimate fate that will befall him.  Episodes like this, where the villains move beyond depth and into genuine tragedy, have always stood tall as the series best. 

If you’re wondering where Jack and the Scotsman I is well, I don’t think it’s really that great even if it did introduce the show’s only reoccurring character aside from the hero and villain.  That would be the eponymous Scotsman, a hardy super-warrior like Jack who fights with a gigantic claymore sword and has a machine gun for a leg 6 years before the chick from Planet Terror pulled the same move.  

He’s a series favorite and rightly so, the only other warrior in this dark new world who can actually match Jack in power and freedom as he’s also a wanted fugitive by Aku’s forces.  He’s basically Jack’s equal and opposite, an amazing fighter who values overkill and ridiculous verbosity compared with Jack’s solemnity and restraint. 

I favor the Scotsman’s second appearance mainly because it’s a lot more Scottish in theme.   Their first team-up found them chained together in a swamp and not able to fight that well.  The second time around, Jack travels to future Scotland to meet the Scotsman’s clan and help save his wife from a creepy druidic cult.  It’s a much more comedic episode than the series norm but stacks up real well and real funny.  

The Scotsman’s wife, in particular, is a great comedic stand-up and completely upsets the plot in a great way with her final reveal.  They tried a third entry with this character, but it was far less than memorable, here’s hope he comes back for a better send off in season 5. 

If you wanted me to name the best Samurai Jack villains, it would be the Ultra-Robots, 100%.  They’re such a cool and menacing concept and their design so brilliantly evocative they’re easily the series most chilling villains.  The Ultra-Robots area another threat conjured from the ether by Aku, a troop of robots specifically built to kill Samurai Jack.  

Each robot has a unique and deadly ability meant to counter Jack’s skill, and they’re actually made from Adamantium, the same unbreakable metal on Wolverine’s bones.  Then, they were programmed for months to analyze Jack’s fighting style and, finally, they were powered by a piece of Aku’s own darkness. 

What I love about this pitch is its simplicity.  The Ultra-Robots don’t need complex motivations or any nuance to their outlook or tactics, they’re just murderbots, it’s what they do, it’s all they do.  The episode actually starts with the Ultra-Robots having completely annihilated several small villages just to draw Jack out, that’s how little they perceive life to have value.  

The real kicker, though, is that Jack’s sword can’t penetrate their adamantium bodies, making them easily the deadliest foes he’s ever faced.  Sometimes that’s all an episode needs, no deeper identity or driving ideology, just something so perfectly designed to kill it can’t be ignored. 

Okay, ignore the admittedly weak name of this episode, because it’s absolutely superb.  This episode is basically halfway Demongo and Jack and the Ultra-Robots.  Jack ends up kidnapped by a roving gang of slavers and taken to a big, cyberpunk Coliseum called The Dome of Doom.  There, he’s placed in a series of just stupendous gladiatorial showdowns against a whole host of dangerous and unique opponents.  The big difference between this episode and the Demongo one is the level of detail and identity given to Jack’s enemies and the more exciting Dome of Doom setting.  

This makes the episode a showcase of the series’ creative visual designs and creativity as well as their writing and characterization.  No one ever ends up genuinely sympathetic or humanistic, but they’ve got more of an identity than the disembodied souls Demongo enslaved to do his bidding and greater variety than the horde of Ultra-Robots.  What’s more, Jack has to defeat each opponent in increasingly unique and creative ways, which makes for some of the show’s best choreography. 

If there is a peak of Samurai Jack’s art design, it is unquestionably this episode.  Jack finds himself up against, a martial artist trained to hide in shadows and darkness.  Realizing what he’s up against, Jack reveals that he’s had similar stealth training of his own, only in his case he was trained to use the light to hide.  This kicks off an incredible struggle between the two as they move between light and shadow trying to catch each other off guard.  

What’s so impressive is the way the animators realize the visual of each warrior being hidden, with the white and black of their costumes completely disappearing into the light and shadow of the scene.  It’s a truly breathtaking work of animation and stacks up as one of the most complex, impressive, and visually arresting things I’ve seen in a network animated show. 

You remember how earlier I talked about that trilogy of episodes that were mostly solid action elevated by a really fresh and impressive conclusion or third act?  Jack and the Blind Archers is basically that but taken to the next level.  The story is, again, probably the most quintessential Samurai Jack story there is: Jack discovers a mythic thing that can bring him back in time but is fraught with unimaginable dangers.  In this case, the object in question is a magic well located atop a tower on a misty island and defended by three deadly archers, who are also blind.  I admit, the title gives away one of the episode’s better twist but the big ending twist actually remains intact so don’t worry about spoilers. 

Given it’s an early episode, this is the installment that really helped establish the kind of show Samurai Jack wanted to be.  It had had some comedic episodes previously with the occasional serious moment, but this is where the series slowed down, held its breath, and gave a legitimately challenging episode in pace and tone.  See, after Jack realizes the archers are blind and that’s key to their incredible skill, he decides he must fight on their level- blind.  

This leads to a terrific slow burn sequence of Jack’s senses adjusting to not being able to see that’s a beautifully delicate work of pacing and sound design that balances nicely with the more intense action in previous scenes.  Like I already mentioned, this episode also features a big twist in the ending, which will probably be obvious as it’s basic story structure stuff, but this is Samurai Jack, where the journey is more important than the destination.  Even so, the final moments of the episode are easily one of the show’s strongest. 

So, you know the film 300 by Zack Snyder, based on the Frank Miller comic of the same name?  Well, that was based on a real-life occurrence where 300 Spartans held back an invading Persian army at a place called Thermopylae, and Samurai Jack decided to adapt an entire episode about it.  

Basically, they just took the situation of the battle of Thermopylae and adapted it to the world of Samurai Jack, with a hidden valley of Spartan culture coming under threat from Aku.  Jack becomes roped into the Spartan’s struggle and joins King Leonidas in what ends up their final and decisive attack against Aku’s forces as the 300, plus 1. 

It’s a very strange episode in how much it actually does borrow from the Frank Miller graphic novel, though it predates the Zack Snyder film.  The look and feel of the Spartans fits Miller’s vision of their group, and the comic only came out 4 years before the episode, so it makes sense as something to draw from.  

As with the Adamantium reference from Jack and the Ultra-Robots, Samurai Jack has always been one to draw from nerd culture and comic books, so this isn’t really surprising, but it is very impressive.  It’s easily one of the most plot heavy episodes the series ever made, but it stands strong with a ton of great moments and visuals that tell a really satisfying story out of the historical events and Miller’s take on them. 

If you’ve ever wondered what a kaiju film would look like without all the boring and superfluous human bits that always ruin them, this is the episode for you.  This episode fits into the other standard Samurai Jack plot of Jack stumbling upon some horrible evil and taking it upon himself to vanquish it.  In this case, Jack discovers a once prosperous robot metropolis that’s become an apocalyptic urban wasteland.  Eventually, Jack learns the thing responsible for this destruction is Mondo-Bot, a gigantic security robot the city built but has since gone rogue.  Unable to vanquish the behemoth in his usual fashion, Jack mind melds with an ancient giant magic Samurai statue beneath the city and then…they fight. 

This is legitimately one of the coolest giant monster battles I’ve ever seen.  It’s a perfect smack down, with both sides busting out all their coolest moves and maneuvers while taking up about ½ the episode.  Mondo-Bot is basically a less inhibited version of the Jaegers from Pacific Rim, outfitted with tons of machine guns, rockets, laser cannons, and even a sword.  There’s no dialogue at all, the two just fight it out through the ruins of the city, the ultimate battle in technology vs. magic and it’s the coolest.  Sometimes all you need is a really cool robot battle. 

1. TALE OF X-9
I mentioned earlier that tragedy is a significant component of what makes Samurai Jack great and there is no better example of that than the Tale of X-9.  This ties into one of Samurai Jack’s most common conceits that the things Jack’s usually brutally murdering with his sword are just soulless machines.  They’re usually insectoid machines, adding an extra layer of distance between Jack’s foes and any semblance of humanity, that’s what made the episodes where Jack’s enemies were humanized all the more impactful. 

All of that gets swept away in the ‘Take of X-9,’ the enemy may still be a robot, but he is as human as you could conceivably get.  Framed as a clear riff on Bladerunner, the episode follows the story of X-9, the last of Aku’s humanoid combat droids, the only one to survive their time as war machines thanks to an emotion chip installed in him.  X-9 had actually retired to spend more time with Lulu, the love of his life who’s also a pug when Aku forced him back into action for one last job: kill Samurai Jack. 

What’s so great about this episode is that we basically know how it ends from the start- that’s the tragedy.  We spend the whole time going through X-9’s life, from inception on the manufacturing line to seeing his brother robots cut down and experiencing emotion for the first time, to finding love and tranquility with his dog.  It’s basically a look into the life of a one being, everything he experiences and treasures in that life, all leading up to his inevitable death at the hands of the hero.  We know X-9 won’t kill Jack, that’s a given by nature of an episodic show, that really only leaves one option here- we’re watching someone’s life from birth to death, regardless of the fact that someone is a robot. 

Suddenly, every action Jack has taken is thrown into a much darker light if the idea the things he’s killing had souls and lives all their own, especially with how impossible Jack’s own goal is.  We don’t even get a token fig leaf of the afterlife as we’d seen in a handful of previous episodes.  When X-9 finally goes down that’s all there is to it- he’s just gone, all that fighting, everything he struggled and died for snuffed out with him as part of some eternal quest and he’s probably not the only one.  It was bold, it was challenging, it was harsh and barely had the main character in it but it stands tall as the best episode of Samurai Jack…so far. 

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