Samurai Jack season 5 moves the recently revived series from its old time slot on kid friendly Cartoon Network to the late night block Adult Swim. However, it was never intended as a children’s cartoon insists series creator Genndy Tartakovsky.
“We never did stuff for kids specifically,” Tartakovsky explained during a Q&A. “We knew we couldn’t do racy stuff and swear obviously. I don’t know what an eight-year-old likes. I really don’t even know what an adult likes. I know what I like and what the crew likes.”
While the spirit of the show remains, it’s much darker (read: PG-13). Jack (Phil LaMarr) has given up on returning home after being thrown into the distant future by the demon Aku, voiced by Greg Baldwin who fills in for the late Makoto Iwamatsu. It’s not until mid-season that we learn the reason for his hopelessness. A flashback reveals Jack lost his magical sword, the one thing that can defeat Aku. Its loss is tied to the murdering of three innocent rams that were transformed into monsters by Aku. The samurai’s fate is literally sealed when Aku closes the last time portal home. With no hope or purpose, he becomes a full-fledged rōnin typical in samurai films. The story begins with Jack having aimlessly wandered the world for 50 years without aging.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
The years have taken a toll on Jack, who seems to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He talks to spirits both real and imagined. Jack is haunted by the ghost of his father, who is shown burning in hellfire. Manifestations of his own psyche urge him to give into his dark side. The breaking point comes when Jack mistakenly believes he has killed an army of children under mind control. A samurai ghost dubbed the Omen (Aaron LaPlante) encourages him commit seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment.
“Death follows in your wake,” Omen tells him. “Men, women, children. Yes, all those children dead because of you.”
Jack comes to his senses only when he learns the children are alive. He defeats Omen but to regain his sword he must overcome his greatest opponent. . . himself. The confrontation happens during a tea ceremony on the astral plane. It’s just one of many introspective scenes you won’t find in your average American cartoon.
Jack isn’t the only one dealing with depression. Aku creates a clone to psychoanalyzes himself. He explains that his plan was to destroy the time portals and wait for the samurai to die. However, time travel has had the unintended effect of making Jack immortal. The villain has given up just like the hero of the story. Both Akus break the fourth wall by looking into the camera and wishing for someone to kill Jack for them. Aku’s henchman Scaramouche (Tom Kenny) tries but also loses his head. . . literally. The decapitated robot spends the rest of the season serving as comic relief. Scaramouche is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to relay Jack’s vulnerability following the loss of his sword. Not even a direct assault on Aku’s castle by the Scotsman (John DiMaggio) can get him off the couch for long.
Daughters of Aku
Aku’s wish comes true unbeknownst to him. Long ago, he showed favor to a cult of female worshipers by offering them his blood. The High Priestess (Grey Griffin) impregnated herself by drinking the demon blood. She gave birth to septuplets known as the Daughters of Aku, yet another group of characters in a seemingly hopeless situation. The sisters were raised in complete isolation and trained as assassins to kill Samurai Jack whom they have been taught is the real bad guy. Their mother shows them only tough love including throwing the toddlers into a pit of hot coals. It’s a stark contrast to the popular trope of having parents with dueling natures of light and dark. Both nature and nurture have fated the Daughters of Aku for a life of villainy. And yet Ashi (Tara Strong) is not like her sisters. She sees beauty in the world whereas her sisters are disturbed by the very sight of two deer kissing.
When the Daughters of Aku track down Jack, he gives them a chance to walk away and avoid their “destiny.” Of course, they refuse. The samurai doesn’t hold back as sword wielding heroes usually do against flesh and blood opponents. He slits the throat of one girl and skewers three others. Another girl is punched so hard that her neck snaps. And he throws one to her death. Ashi is the last girl standing so to speak. She helplessly hangs off a cliff by her kusarigama (chain-sickle). Despite her predicament, she continues to fanatically curse his name. Jack unheroically releases the chain and lets the girl fall to her death. In an instance of cosmic karma, the tree limb he’s standing on snaps and sentences him to share her fate.
The persistent assassin is knocked unconscious while fighting in free-fall. This time Jack does the the right thing and reluctantly saves her but they are swallowed by a gigantic monster. Even then he continues to debate with himself whether to leave her in the belly of beast. There isn’t one light bulb moment when he realizes things aren’t hopeless and finds his way. It’s a gradual process intertwined with opening the eyes of his misled enemy.
Fan service with a smile
The second half of the season becomes a love story filled with fan service but it’s playful rather than lewd. Ashi is too naive to know better and Jack is too much a gentlemen to take advantage. Ashi’s transformation is signified with a new look. She scrubs off her black catsuit and rinses off in a waterfall, which conveniently reveals only her nude silhouette. Ashi literally turns over a new leaf with a dress made from vegetation. Inevitably, bugs eat it but she is unfazed and continues to fight in her birthday suit. Luckily, Jack is shy enough for the both of them and covers her with his robe. Ironically, this just flips the fan service audience.
Fanboys will enjoy the climax, which is straight out of Star Wars. Ashi learns Aku is her father and must battle her dark side — literally! She is enveloped by a black mass and transformed into a female Aku. Jack tries to reach Ashi while Aku faces an army consisting of all the people the samurai has helped from past seasons. Of course, only the chosen one can defeat the ultimate power in the universe. The series comes full circle as Jack finally returns to the past where he battles a young Aku complete with the audio of the original voice actor, Makoto Iwamatsu!
Samurai Jack season 6 in the future?
Samurai Jack is history said Tartakovsky when asked about the possibility of another season.
“You never say never cause this is Hollywood and who knows. And they’re cartoons. And so there always could be,” he said. “But I think right now in the state that I’m in and the way we’re finishing the story, I think it’s an ending. And then maybe if somebody wanted to pick it up and find a different way in then maybe that could be cool. Maybe an alternate timeline or who knows what. But for me, I what to really finish it on a tremendous high note where everyone is going to loose their crap. And then get on to the next thing because who knows what if the next thing that I want to do is just as exciting maybe even more.”
Season 5 hits that high note by finding balance much like Jack’s journey. The dark themes are tempered by a love story that’s truly timeless. It’s an ending worth the wait.