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
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
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
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
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
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