Judge Neil Dorsett battles the evil that is Warner Brothers's video encoding division!
"Long ago, in a distant land, I, Aku, the shapeshifting Master of Darkness unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword, stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I opened a portal and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!"
No amount of italicization can truly do justice to Mako's delivery of the above passage, that which introduces each episode of Samurai Jack. Mako has had a lot of juicy roles in his life, including the wizard of Conan the Barbarian (a heavy influence on this show). But nothing seems to have fired him up quite like Aku. You can feel the enthusiasm as he delightedly chews every line for its last bit of glee and evil intent. And why wouldn't he be enthusiastic? He's on Samurai Jack and Samurai Jack is cool as hell!
A lot of Western (occidental western, not horse-and-cowboy western) shows have attempted to amalgamate the popular trappings of anime to little or no success. Samurai Jack shows distinct eastern influence in this regard, but rather than latch onto the trappings of anime (the big eyes, tentacles, school outfits and such), Genndy Tartakovsky and his team have been inspired by the nuts and bolts side of the eastern animation world. The aspect ratio shifts and dodges like a Wack-a-Mole game, there is much in the way of silent combat, and the stakes are high—Jack is not afraid to kill. The show blunts the violence often by using robots or cyborgs, but occasionally Jack is called upon to make a genuine kill and he does so without hesitation.
This is not to say that Jack is devoid of Western influence as well; nothing could be further from the truth. The show wears its extensive awareness of animation and cinema history right on its sleeve, whether invoking ancient Japanese legends in the form of an endless bridge upon which Jack meets a Scotsman traveling the other direction, or displaying a crowd of cosmonauts who seem to have sprung right off of a 1950s cocktail napkin. And the whole thing—the whole thing, from the top layer to the deepest bottom—looks like the painted backgrounds of an old Road Runner cartoon. Flat planes of color or pattern are very rarely supplied with outlines, leading to a clean, smooth look that always appeals and communicates quickly and with style. The show's homages are many and rapid.
And Samurai Jack really moves. Outside of perhaps the Cartoon Network's own Powerpuff Girls, I have never seen kineticism like this on a television cartoon. While the show often pauses in a reflective passage, and the characters themselves are incredibly simple and often static, when things start happening on Samurai Jack, they really start happening. Like the Itto Ogami, Sanjuro, and Zatoichi characters who directly inspire him, Jack typically smites his opponents in an instant, leaving them to fall, or often in this case, explode. This means lots of opponents! My favorite scenes are those which pit Jack against a variety of foes, usually in a Star Wars-ish cantina/bar setting. The show really delivers some simply conceived but very bizarre creatures. Among my favorites were the lava lamp-headed green guy among the bunch of goofballs who give Jack his name, and the dancers in the bar in the same episode. Later in the series we are treated to such strangenesses as a giant rock-man, a set of three invincible archers imprisoned at the top of a tower, a warthog driving a giant one-wheeled war machine, and whole big bunches of other stuff. The thing about Samurai Jack is that its formula is so flexible (television's great staple, The Fugitive again, when you get down to it) that nearly anything goes. A one-on-one combat with Jack's darker side, portentous and deadly, can coexist easily with a rebellion of giant sloths against an oppressive society of little blue ducks or an episode about Jack's difficulty finding a new set of shoes. The series is so conscious of its own flexibility that one almost expects a self-awareness a la The Prisoner to seep in.
And then there is Aku, a villain so extreme that his name is simply the Japanese word for "evil." As mentioned earlier, Mako, voicing the character, delivers incredible gusto to any scene featuring the pliable villain. And when Jack and Aku fight, watch out! Aku's design is incredibly simple and his changes of shape are, as a result, totally convincing. He's essentially a Chinese dragon face with flaming eyes, stylized down to almost a Duchamp level of minimalism. When he changes, the black inkiness that is his body flies out into dazzling and kinetic blots carrying a lot of menace. When Aku turns into a gigantic squid and threatens the underwater city where Jack has made some allies, there's a genuine sense of fear as the city's inhabitants flee. The sound helps out a lot on these and other action scenes; Samurai Jack has a beat and you can dance to it—or fight to it, as it were. Long wordless sequences are often accompanied by vibrant, catchy little electronic beat numbers; the extensive fight scenes nearly always carry loud war drum tracks. Phil LaMarr (Pulp Fiction), providing the voice of Jack, keeps it steady and sane—Samurai Jack is the straight man on his own show, and LaMarr doesn't let him slip into anything other than pure, calm earnestness at all times—except when locked in vicious combat, when Jack's mouth will contort into a gigantic maw as he screams and flies through the air, sword in hand, ready to slice something off of whatever's coming.
Cartoon Network presents the first season of Samurai Jack as a two-disc set, packaged as per the usual Warner two-disc special editions—you know, the ones with those awful plastic non-replaceable spindles that break at the slightest pressure—and priced at $29.98. This is the first full-season release from the Cartoon Network, hopefully with more to follow. The first season comprises 13 numbered episodes. Each is excellent, but I would not advise biting off too much Samurai Jack in one go; it is openly formulaic and almost certain to tire if viewed too quickly. Break it off in chunks at a time, one or two episodes at once (other than the pilot, which should be viewed in its entire three-episode glory), and if you're a fan of animation as an art form or just a fan of action in general, Samurai Jack is great fun. It's not for very young children and it's definitely aimed at boys, roughly from ages ten to forty. You know who you are. Buy and enjoy.
Samurai Jack is presented in its native full-frame aspect ratio, although that is subject to change at any time. Which is to say, your set should stay at full-frame settings, but the picture's going to whiz all around the screen of its own volition. The effect is not dissimilar to that of Ang Lee's Hulk, only here it seems effective and useful instead of annoying and pointless. The image on the first three episodes leaves much to be desired; these three episodes, which constitute the pilot of the series, appear to have been recycled straight from the earlier, pilot-only disc. Odd patterns to the interlacing resulted in a very oft-torn picture when I viewed the disc on a PC; set-top owners may be spared these difficulties. Other episodes displayed this problem not as badly, and generally had a sharper feel than the first three. Overall I would say that the picture is adequate, but more attention to the use of progressive transfers is important as more people begin to use HDTV or home theater PCs to view their discs. Cartoon Network has notoriously treated their releases as if no one cared what they look like, so I would say that Samurai Jack: The Complete First Season does represent some mild improvement in this regard. There's still plenty of room for more refinement, though. For instance, the first disc displays much in the way of poor motion during pans (a virtual inevitability during animation pans, since the frames are so discrete from one another)—but only uses 6.85 of its available eight gigabytes. Why not use the extra room to fluff up the bitrate a little and combat these effects? And is it really that hard to do a progressive transfer, which would also help that same problem?
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Surround, and the mix is fairly strong, particularly in the aforementioned war drum combat scenes. Extras are in the form of commentary from Tartakovsky on episode #007, some animation tests, a short documentary on the making of Samurai Jack, some trailers for Justice League: Starcrossed (the second season finale of that show), and two other full-season box sets: The Jetsons and Jonny Quest. They're not really trailers, just house ads. The "making of" documentary describes Tartakovsky's intentions in boiling down the idea of an action series to its most basic components, and highlights the studio team's process of developing each episode. It's fairly interesting and doesn't overstay its welcome, and certainly gets across the point that this show is both hard work and great fun to produce.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It must be said that an often-wordless series about a time-lost samurai delivered in flat-plane animation on a network aimed at kids is not going to appeal to everyone, no matter how slick or kinetic it may be. Samurai Jack is a children's cartoon and nothing's going to change that—on top of that, it's silly and often frivolous, and if you can't handle line-chewing, Mako might be a turnoff as well. Better, though, a children's cartoon that can appeal to adults than a show supposedly for adults that operates on a child's level. It must also be said that many may view its strict episodic formula as inherently tiresome. If you're not interested in things like this, there's no way it can succeed with you by being excellent at such things. But this is obvious.
Samurai Jack has already won plenty of awards and it deserves them; there has rarely been a show in western television animation that tackles the medium and tries to expand it on a formalistic level. Formalism is its own end; Samurai Jack has no particular message to deliver, unless perhaps it is "Fight evil and stick up for yourself." The medium, in this case, is the message. Delightful imagery and incredibly smooth animation combine with a refined and deliberately minimal story approach to produce something which is unique, exciting, and—like many mostly-wordless children's projects such as the classic Red Balloon—easily translated to foreign languages. The aesthetic qualities of the first two combine with the technical flexibility of the third to produce something that has a real chance of being regarded as a classic.
Samurai Jack is acquitted of all charges! Genndy Tartakovsky and his production team are free to go. May this excellent cartoon grace the airwaves for much time to come. Mako is further invited to tear up the traffic ticket of his choice. Warner and Cartoon Network are placed on probation for presenting second-rate transfers particularly of the important three-part pilot. Good progressive transfers next time! And in the name of there being a next time, please go about your business. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• The Making of Samurai Jack
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