Jul 1, 2010

[TV] Samurai Jack: Season 1

Samurai Jack: Season 1There are some cartoons that become a lot more than just a cartoon. They become epic masterpieces in their own right - a clear reminder that animation really just a medium and not a definition of what they are capable of. Just because it's a cartoon doesn't mean it's just for kids - to make this assumption would be just plain wrong.

These days, you can't get through much channel surfing without encountering a cartoon that tries to work on multiple levels. You can blame the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks for upping the ante in the movie realm. However for the small screen environment, there were other pioneers of the craft. You can trace the roots of such a trend with the old Batman: The Animated series run, which certainly did a good job of targeting a multiple audiences.

Then you get this genius of a show that tried to tap into the fun of cartoons, the action of samurai movies and the epic scale of well-done cinema. I've yet to see another cartoon that has quite matched this one in terms of flavor and tone - and that may not be a bad thing in itself. It's really something special beyond all the others and this will always have a special place in my heart.

Samurai JackImage via Wikipedia
Samurai Jack was a cartoon series unlike any other of its time (and perhaps compared to shows that are still around today). The brainchild of Genndy Tartakovsky of Dexter's Laboratory fame, the show as a lot more mature in nature and yet was done in a manner that was still accessible to children.

The premise of the show is something right out of a classic samurai movie or perhaps a science fiction one. Our friend Jack (Phil LaMarr) is a samurai from the past who was banished to the future by the shape-changing demon wizard Aku (Mako). The sad irony of this fact was that Jack was just about to strike Aku down forever with the aid of his enchanted sword when Aku managed one last trick.

Now in a highly advanced yet dystopian future, the world is teeming with different forms of life including diverse alien races and sentient robots. Aku is lord and master of all and criminals roam freely across the planet. Now Jack needs to learn to understand the technological wonders of this world while trying to find a way back to his home timeline in order to prevent all of this death and destruction from happening.

The animated series had a distinct look and feel to it that made it feel more like a movie translated into something appropriate for the silver screen. Genndy made good use of old school cinematic techniques like various split-screen sequences or switching to a narrower letterbox format in order to emphasis movement or distance. Plus he adopted many Asian movie sensibilities such as the effective use of silent moments and attention on more subtle movements and small gestures.

Plus you have Jack himself, who makes for an amazing titular hero. He is the classic son of destiny, born on the day his father first defeated Aku and then trained by masters around the world once Aku escaped his prison. He's really much more than just a samurai since had exposure and training from many different martial arts and combat styles, learned to use a wide variety of weapons and ultimately was granted a magical sword blessed by the powers of Odin, Ra and Rama. He had everything going for him but despite all his training, he was unprepared for Aku and his tricks during that very first confrontation.

And Aku is no pushover - he changes into a wide variety of shapes and forms when directly in combat. Plus in the future of his creation, he has an entire world bent under his heel and even alien races at his command. Only Jack's sword stands a chance of defeating him and his magic and thus he remains a force to be reckoned with.

This first season of the show, while linear in progression, was composed largely of standalone adventures of Jack in this new world. Each episode runs like a short film where Jack has to face some new form of Aku's evil trickery or the injustices he's rained upon the world and thus battle by battle, Jack fights the good fight. And the whole time he has his eyes on his true goal - of getting back to his time to defeat Aku once and for all. It's a noble quest worthy of a true hero and one that seems almost impossible given his lack of "modern" knowledge of this world. But somehow his keen mind and straightforward approach to things sees him through and brings him closer and closer to defeating Aku.

Samurai Jack is an awesome cartoon no matter how you look at it and this first season does a stellar job of showing viewers just who and what Jack is. It gets 5 of Aku's magical animal forms out of a possible 5.

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