Monday, May 7, 2018

Animation April, belated: Samurai Jack, Season 5 (2017)

I wasn't planning on doing any Animation April writeups this year. I'm still pushing my way through a fairly big project elsewhere, and had no ideas for prolix toon-related posts that wouldn't have been huge wastes of time. (Just because one can examine all three X-Men animated series doesn't mean it's a good idea.) But then April dragged on, cold and cloudy and generally miserable, and in my gloomy mood I stayed inside and watched a lot of cartoons. Now that we've got a May that's looking and feeling like April waylaid, maybe a quick glance at an old favorite is in order.

It's been about a year since the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack (2001–2003; 2017) premiered on Adult Swim. Now with a TV-14 rating, its titular time-displaced ronin could finally incarnadine his sword with living blood after fifty-two episodes of oil-spurting robot villains. Was that what people were most excited about? To judge from The Comments, one might believe so, but I don't think that's actually the case. The prospect of bloodletting in a Samurai Jack cartoon was just an appealing corollary to the real cause for anticipation, which was the promise of a resolution at last. Samurai Jack had a definite beginning and an episodic middle, but no end.

Samurai Jack's very premise necessitates the eventuality of a conclusion. Jack isn't a protagonist like, say, Bruce Wayne, whose essential story is of being Batman forever. Until he either rids Gotham City of all crime (not going to happen) or suffers a case of superhero perma-death (probably not in my lifetime), his saga cannot end. Batman exists in the amorphous narrative space of myth, while Jack is more representative of the comparatively diminutive but more distinct figure of the novel. He sets off with one avowed purpose: to find a way back to his own era and defeat his archnemesis Aku before the shapeshifting master of darkness conquers the world for all time. The goalpost never moves. It doesn't change. When the fourth and once-final season concluded with an episode where Jack rescues a baby and tells it a Japanese fairy tale, Samurai Jack certainly didn't end with a bang, but not with a whimper either. It went out on an ellipsis.

Samurai Jack's three-part debut aired on Cartoon Network in August 2001. I remember watching it from beginning to end. I don't remember loving it. Not at first. Its idiosyncratic art style was a taste I had to acquire. As with Project A-ko some years before, I sensed and was slightly put off by the apparent incongruity in its mixture of cartoon silliness and dramatic action. I'd never watched any Akira Kurosawa films, the Kung-Fu TV series, or really any non-Star Wars 1970s action flicks, so all the callbacks in Samurai Jack's compositional language were lost on me. At the time, I believed the best general-audience action-oriented Western cartoon on TV was Batman Beyond (1999–2001), a very loud, gritty, and umbrous affair, where everyone was very serious except when there was a one-liner to be uttered. In other words, it was practically the inverse of Samurai Jack. Batman Beyond isn't a bad 'toon by any standard, but it hasn't exactly improved with age—either mine or its own. But there's a touch of the timeless in Samurai Jack, and its audacity and inventiveness are even more impressive in retrospect.

We'd err in calling Samurai Jack's revival "long-awaited." The final episode of Season 4 aired in 2003. Season 5 was first teased in December 2015. After almost thirteen years, anyone who'd hoped creator Genndy Tartakovsky would return to finish the story after wrapping up his latest project had moved on. Even those fans who'd clung to the tenacious rumors of a forthcoming Samurai Jack feature film must have given up after Tartakovsky signed on with Sony Pictures to direct Hotel Transylvania (2012) and its immediately greenlit sequel. Nobody could have reasonably doubted that Jack's ultimate fate was to wander the deserts of the imagination for all time.

That's why Tartakovsky's choice to pick up the story fifty years later, with a preternaturally-unaged and failure-haunted Jack roving purposelessly through the hinterlands was the perfect, and indeed the only way to return to Samurai Jack at that point. Tartovkosky has cited Frank Miller's comic-book miniseries Ronin (1983) as one of Samurai Jack's original influences, and in Season 5 a judicious pinch of Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) is added to the concoction. The end is in sight for our hero, and and things have taken a dark and brutal turn in the final stretch.

Speaking broadly of Season 5, I'll say this much. It has pacing issues. The contrast between its newfound gravitas and its exuberant silly side finally results in a tension that's not always to its benefit. It starts off stronger than it finishes. But it is still excellent. The second episode ("XCIII") has stolen my vote for Best of Show from Season 4's "The Princess and the Bounty Hunters." It's better-looking than ever, and that's quite an achievement in itself. And its climax and conclusion, for all their controversy, were probably the best we could have asked for.

What I'd like to to focus on here touches on the aforementioned controversy, or rather, the character at its center: Ashi, the half-demon samurai assassin who becomes Jack's ally and lover. Anyone who's seen Season 5 or followed the circumjacent chatter is already familiar with the typical fan grievances. Did Jack's story actually benefit from the last-act introduction of a love interest? Wasn't Ashi's acquisition of the power to open time portals a blatant deus ex machina? Wasn't it just a little too dissatisfyingly and cheaply tragic to have her blink out of existence at the end? And why did it take so long for the time paradox to catch up to her? Shouldn't she have disappeared as soon as the timeline was altered? (My answers, in order: yes; kind of; the pacing could certainly have been better; good question; probably?)

But these aren't the bones I have to pick with Ashi or her instrumental role in Samurai Jack's apotheosis.

The series' conclusion brings to mind the PlayStation game Chrono Cross (1999). The sequel to an RPG about time travel, Chrono Cross inserted a new rule into its forerunner's temporal mechanics: when you alter the timeline, you're effectively murdering everyone in the previous version of the future. They're not simply obviated: you've interacted with them, and you remember them, so they definitely did exist—and now they don't. You've gone and erased them. Nice going, hero.

In returning to the past, whacking Aku, and setting the future aright, Jack wipes out all those people he went to such pains to help during his temporal exile. The Scotsman and his bonnie daughters? Gone. The Woolies? No more. The baby he saved at the end of Season 4? Eighty-sixed. No different from Ashi, only we don't get to see any of their lives ending as the restored timeline settles into place. (Tartakovsky apparently tries to hedge the issue by having Aku kill off a whole lot of Jack's familiar allies during the climax, so they'd be gone either way. I don't think it changes things.)

This would be a monstrous and depressing denouement if Samurai Jack didn't try to assert that the world comes out better for the change. The beautifully animated final scene adumbrates The Tempest: all the charms are o'erthrown, and what strength remain's the Earth's own. No more magic, no more weirdness. No more talking dog scientists, no more alien raver kids partying in the woods, no more underwater cities built by human-sized sea monkeys, no more Tango beast, no more Traveling Creatures, no more Pig Sheriff, no more Scaramouche. (We're probably not supposed to mourn the latter two, but we do anyway.) The salient normalcy of Jack's wedding guests—the Zulu warriors, the Shaolin monks, Robin Hood, et al.—amplifies the sense of return to terra firma. Jack is finally home, back on the natural and "real" Planet Earth, and this is sufficient. It was the outcome poor Ashi would have wanted, after all.

Samurai Jack has never skimped on stylishly atmospheric depictions of outdoor splendor. Japan's long-ingrained reverence for nature (a terribly imprecise word) inevitably found expression in Japanese cinema during the twentieth century, and several such films informed Samurai Jack's design. How many episodes begin with Jack walking silently through the woods or mountains? But in Seasons 1 through 4, "nature" was present for the most part as ambiance, as a backdrop. Not until Season 5 does nature qua nature (as the non-anthropic—or non-anthropomorphic—living constituents of the Earth's biosphere, acknowledged as things existing in/for themselves) explicitly influence the plot, and Ashi is the vehicle for this shift. The joy and wonder she discovers, even as a brainwashed cultist, in those things which are "not part of Aku's order" might be accidental: as far as we know, Ashi was the only one of the Seven Daughters who happened upon a window to the outside world during her formative years. But whatever its provenance, this aberration is what makes her uniquely eligible for redemption. If she had been killed and one of her other sisters had been stranded in her stead on that solitary island with an exhausted Jack, the sight of the hated samurai kindly abiding a ladybug wouldn't have dissuaded her from murdering him while his guard was down. When Jack endeavors to convince Ashi of Aku's evil, he more often adduces scenes of ecological devastation than of the suffering and oppression of sentient beings. (We're asked to take Jack's arguments at face value: yes, the contrast between the black, red, and grey dead zones of Aku's cities and the fecund countryside has always been evident, but the fact there's never been any shortage of purling brooks, autumnal forests, or rustic mountain paths for Jack to follow belies his claim that Aku's millennia-long reign has destroyed the planet's ecological balance. Call it a retcon, I guess.) Ashi's trading her bituminous "bodysuit" (the less it's examined, the better) for a dress made of leaves and flowers underscores not only the magnitude of her transformation, but the cause of it.

It should be observed that Ashi usually reserves her loving fascination for terrestrial biota. The most notable exception is in "XCV," when she gasps to behold the strange biolumes inhabiting the leviathan's belly. Jack's remarking that "even in the bowels of the darkest of creatures, there is beautiful light" denotes that this is an exceptional case: a good thing existing in spite of, not because of, Aku bringing alien fauna to the planet, which the samurai vehemently condemns earlier in the episode. (Again, we are asked not to probe this nativistic argument too deeply, but the point stands made.)

The survival and health of the natural world Ashi adored has to be Jack's consolation, and the audience's too, for the loss of both Ashi and the weird and often wonderful "dark" future to which she belonged. The imagery on which Samurai Jack fades out is mundane in the classical sense of the word: it's earthly and familiar, but no less splendid for it. Attentive viewers will recognize that the sprawling forest Jack marvels at is preeminently composed of a kind of tree he once pointed out to Ashi. In the alternate timeline, Aku had wantonly destroyed all but one.

Jack's primary achievement then—the reason he smiles as he looks back at the ladybug alighted on his fingers—is the victory he won on behalf of Mother Earth.

Reading too deeply into cartoons and carping on possible readings that their creators didn't intend is de rigeur in culture criticism these days, and Samurai Jack exposed itself to closer scrutiny by taking itself more seriously and making itself somewhat more intellectually chewy. So let's follow the trend, shall we?

The true shortcoming of Samurai Jack's ending, as far as I'm concerned, is that his victory rings hollow, provided we've faithfully followed the narrative's hints as to its real significance. The balance of life on Earth has been restored, and history is back on track again. The problem is that the latter outcome ensures the negation of the former. Ashi's beloved wild wonders have only received a stay of execution, and a different hand on the axe. In a few hundred years, the forests Aku would have blasted to ash out of pure reckless malevolence will be razed to make room for roads, industrial sites, shopping centers, suburban developments, apartment complexes, golf courses, coal-fire powered stations, power lines, landfills, monocrop farmland, and so on. Who will be responsible for the destruction? The very same humanity Jack spared from Aku's reign of terror—all those people just living their lives, going to work, running their appliances, watching TV, and buying the sponsors' products. Funny—the problem was actually less intractable when its solution called for deposing an all-powerful immortal sorcerer.

If we judge Samurai Jack kindly, we'd grant that it was conceived as an all-ages fantasy romp through a hodgepodge of science fiction, world mythology, and pop culture, and sought just to be exciting and fun to look at, and to be faithful only to its internal logic. (The philosophy of Maximum Fun, in other words.) But if we wished to put the hermeneutical screws to Samurai Jack, we might point out that Season 5's conjoining of a veritable wood nymph of a deuteragonist and a sub-theme of natural wonder and ecological destruction wouldn't have entered into Samurai Jack (and at such a late hour) if anthropogenic extinction pulses and climactic shifts weren't on people's minds. If we squint just a little, Jack's destroying Aku and rebooting the planet to its pre-Industrial Revolution state looks a lot like the ritualistic burning of an effigy: putting a torch to the wicker witch and enacting a pantomimed episode of myth to set the wheel of renewal in motion. Like Popeye defeating the Axis Powers in World War II. Or Lisa Simpson sacrificing her prizewinning essay to make democracy work again. In the first case, the spectacle is a call to action; in the second, it's satire (which is always an indirect admonition). In Samurai Jack, the fall of the scapegoat encourages little more than a hopeful smile and the belief that everything did indeed work out. Inert optimism is barely more effective than evasion and apathy in defusing the timebomb that industrial civilization has strapped to the Earth's biosphere.

Not that Samurai Jack would have gone out any better with the insertion of a message card about land-use policy and carbon emissions before the credits, but Tartakovsky and company might have been well-advised to refrain from clothing the story with matters of immediate importance to a twenty-first century audience if they weren't prepared to consider said matters more thoroughly. And remember, none of this would be an issue if ecological rejuvenation wasn't selected by the writers to solace Jack for losing Ashi, and to balance the karmic scales after he's erased everyone he met in the future. The narrative dash of sugar added to make the conclusion bittersweet rather than tragic inadvertently ends up contributing a weird and increasingly unpleasant aftertaste instead of truly mitigating the sense of loss.

None of the above is to say I dislike Samurai Jack or its fifth season—the conclusion does work, more or less, as long as you prevent yourself from thinking about what comes next. (But that might be like asking viewers of Disney's Pocahontas (1995) to disregard the inconvenient fact that everything goes to absolute shit for the Powhatan from there on out.) To be fair to Tartakovsky, Samurai Jack's fifth season was his first "mature" outing as a writer/director. Now that he's got his feet wet, I have much higher hopes for his next one—if ever it happens. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation comes to theaters in July! Egh.


  1. (Having never seen the series, I think) the ending might be seen as an allegory written for some future audience, some set of people people who get to choose whether to keep all the humans, or let us go for the greater good.

    1. it's pre-sequels Final Fantasy VII, then?