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Samurai Jack
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: TV
By:   Genndy Tartakovsky
Genre:   Fantasy / Animation
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

From across time and space, trained in dozens of fighting styles, comes a hero, a righter of wrongs, a beater of impossible odds, a lone warrior armed with a sword and a furrowed brow. His name is… Samurai Jack.

Don't know Jack? You soon will. On Friday August 10, at 7:00 p.m., the Cartoon Network will air the three-part premier of their newest genre-defying cartoon, Samurai Jack. Samurai Jack is the brainchild of Genndy Tartakovsky, the man who brought us Dexter's Laboratory. And while Dexter's Laboratory can be described as wacky and a little demented, Samurai Jack is best described as… what?… esoteric… mythic… Sergio Leone on opium?

Start with the concept. A square-jawed samurai attempts to save the world from Aku, an all-powerful reptilian demon who looks like a stolen costume from a Chinese New Year parade. But it's not a Japanimation rip-off, or a straight-up serious action cartoon like Batman: The Animated Series. Nor is it an adventure cartoon - aimed at younger kids - whose villains are ultimately a little too bumbling to be really threatening (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; G.I. Joe). And it's not a zany animated yuk-fest like many of the Cartoon Network's original toons.

So then what the hell is it? A mix of the dark (the subjugation and exploitation of the entire planet) and the ridiculous (in the first episode, Jack helps out a trio of talking dogs, one of whom looks suspiciously like Mr. Peabody from Rocky and Bullwinkle).

Jack isn't your stereotypical cartoon hero. He's not one to crack wise while dispatching bad guys. He's a simple, honorable, stand-up guy, and the humor in the show often comes from Jack's straight-man response to the situations he finds himself in. Perhaps the funniest scene in the first three-episode cycle comes when Jack walks into a Mos Eisley type bar filled with blaring music, monstrous creatures, and girls dancing inside transparent spheres. It's a simple scene, a drawn-out depiction of Jack's increasing sense of confusion and horror at the topsy-turvy, wholly alien environment he finds himself in. Most cartoon heroes, at this point, would make a smirky pop-culture reference. But Jack doesn't, and that, believe it or not, is exactly what makes the scene so funny.

Perhaps even more notable than Samurai Jack's unique sense of humor is its visuals. The show is often very simply animated, but with a highly cinematic style. The show makes excellent use of split-screen, cut shots, and close-ups. I'm not certain, but Samurai Jack may very well air in an entirely letter-boxed format. In addition, the painted backgrounds are just beautiful. One confrontation between Jack and Aku takes place in an area made entirely of what looks like solidified flames.

Jack is played by Phil LaMarr, who also does the voice of Hermes the Rastafarian in Futurama. Aku is voiced by Japanese actor Mako. You may not recognize the name, but anyone who's seen the Conan movies will immediately recognize his voice. Mako has appeared in Pearl Harbor, Crying Freeman, and The Big Brawl, but he is best known (at least among us American genre geeks) as Arnold Schwarzenegger's wizard companion. He is also Conan's chronicler, the man whose grizzled oak-tree throat intones the opening lines "Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow." In short, you could not ask for a more perfect voice actor for the role.

The other important sonic element to Samurai Jackis the soundtrack. The music for many cartoons consists of countless repetitions of the same theme, or bottom-of-the-barrel compositions more suited for early 90s console game soundtracks. Samurai Jack's music, which is a strange combination of world-beat and techno, actively pulls you into the events happening onscreen. The only animated TV shows that even come close are Batman and Beast Machines .

Oh, I almost forgot the most important ingredient of Samurai Jack. Action. Lots and lots and LOTS of action. Tartakovsky says that he was inspired by Frank Miller's Ronin and by Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (he also lists Thundarr the Barbarian among his influences, which might explain why the horse that Jack rides in the premiere has a very beak-like snout). Action was evidently Tartakovsky's main directive. The action sequences are longer and more elaborate than the fight scenes in a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie. The entire last half-hour of the premiere plays like the pirate invasion climax of Swiss Family Robinson, or like the final fifteen minutes of every A-Team episode ever filmed (Now that I think of it, The A-Team was probably inspired by those samurai movies too). There are countless insect creatures advancing on Jack's position. In an A-Team montage, Jack sets up defenses, lays traps, and builds weapons. Then Jack fights the insects, FOR THE NEXT FIFTEEN OR TWENTY MINUTES STRAIGHT!

I'm not exaggerating. Usually, when a hero faces an impossibly huge hoard of enemies, the fighting starts, and at some point, there is a time lapse, or a dissolve, and we see that the hero has emerged victorious. But there was no time lapse, no dissolve. We watch Jack take out every single one of those insects, in a sometimes highly choreographed manner. What's more, during this whole time, there was not one word of dialog. This could very easily have become mind-numbingly tedious, but I found myself totally entertained by the sheer audacity of it all.

Sometimes, late at night, you run across something fascinatingly odd, and you can't stop watching because you just can't believe that someone actually managed to get something like this on television. It's the way I felt the first time I saw American Gothic, the first time I saw Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, the first time I saw Iron Chef. And it's the way I felt watching Samurai Jack. Who knows; maybe the novelty will run out after a few more episodes. For now, though, I'm hooked.

Samurai Jack won't be everyone's cup of ginseng, but it's literally unlike anything you've ever seen before. For that reason, if nothing else, it's worth checking out.

Want behind-the-scenes info on Samurai Jack? Read the Q&A with Genndy Tartakovsky.


- For months after he first saw Mako's wizard character in Conan, RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers made countless attempts to open doors by mumbling to himself and making hand gestures.

 
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