Samurai Jack is a Cartoon Network animated series that originally began airing back in 2001. It quickly gained a very passionate fan-base due to it’s more mature tone and meaningful story compared to the other Hanna Barbera esque cartoons that were airing around it. The series took numerous risks the likes of which weren’t seen in other shows appealing to younger audiences and treated the cultural aspects and the way of life for a proud samurai warrior with a lot of respect. Introducing an alternate mindset for many younger viewers that were more attuned to the networks regular catalogue of shows that focused on over the top action and comedy.
Samurai Jack as the name suggests follows the story of Jack (not his real name, but you’ll get to that when you watch it yourself), a young prince growing up in the feudal era of Japan who’s family in the past had sealed away the pure embodiment of evil, a shape-shifting demon known as Aku.
After Aku manages to break free from his imprisonment he quickly takes over Japan. At this point, a young Jack’s parents send him away by boat to travel the world, train, learn various combat techniques from different styles and then return home to use the family’s magic sword to defeat and reseal Aku.
Jack does return and takes on Aku. But before delivering the final blow, Aku opens a portal in time and sends Jack far into the future to a time where Aku rules all and influences the lives of everyone in the world. Jack vows to find a way to return to the past and undo this future from ever becoming a reality.
And that’s just the first episode. It’s one of the most dense, but at the same time well paced and tranquil at times pilot episodes of a series I’ve seen.
The overarching goal is established from the very first episode. And is reinforced at the beginning of each episode by the Aku voice-over filling you in on what has happened to get Jack to the world he now resides in and what his goal is. This was an extremely clever choice to have this narrated intro each time because although we know Jack’s ultimate goal, the plot of each episode is almost completely stand alone. Each of them telling a new story and wrapping up by the end, almost like a ‘monster of the week’ sort of thing.
This story structure along with the story recap intro allows anyone to watch an episode of Samurai Jack and understand what’s going on and follow the plot quite easily, regardless of if they’ve seen any prior episodes.
Where Samurai Jack really shines, and what made me appreciate the series so much more is the risks it takes. It is a much more mature and violent story compared to anything else you would have seen on Cartoon Network at the time. It has slow and very cinematic moments where there a lengthy periods of time with no dialogue but still delivers a narrative through environmental and implied story-telling.
On paper it shouldn’t be a show that children should enjoy. It wasn’t over the top colourful, contain a story that was spoon fed to the viewer and packed full of comedy just to keep the kids watching. It’s almost like it was made for an older generation or perhaps to be enjoyed by the parents of the kids that would be watching. It’s a miracle the show got green lit at all as it broke the standard moulds most Cartoon Network series fit into at the time.
Even though the series is ultimately a tale of good vs evil the thing that keeps it interesting is the journey of Jack. Each episode contains a new cast of characters, with Aku and Jack being the only character’s that you know will feature in each episode in some way.
Seeing Jack have to learn how things work in this dystopian cyberpunk future while maintaining his samurai code and continuing to develop his skills keeps things constantly interesting. Jack trains in other styles of martial arts besides standard Japanese samurai arts such as wrestling and jiu jitsu. Adding a further layer of depth to his character. And is a good life lesson to younger viewers showing them to remain open minded, always keep learning and never give up.
The series ended in 2004 after 4 seasons but Jack’s story remained unfinished. After 13 long years Samurai Jack was brought back for a 5th season. A final 10 episodes that would act as the conclusion to Jack’s tale.
This new season came with some came with some change-ups. Its was even more mature, more violent, held a higher age rating and was pushed into Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim catalogue of shows.
Season 5 also has an overarching continuous story rather than monster of the week style episodes and is set 50 years after Jack had been flung into the future. But as a side affect of his time travel he doesn’t appear to have aged, besides looking quite tired and sporting overgrown hair.
It offers a fitting conclusion to the series that fan’s never expected to see and it much more mature tone and themes of depression and mental health makes me think this was definitely made for the older generation that have grown up in the past 13 years the series was off the air.
Samurai Jack isn’t a series for everyone though. The way it tells stories, often with lengthy, dialogue free sequences could easily put some people off if they weren’t open to this kind of story telling. Some of the characters and side stories that occur can be quite out there and zany and won’t appeal to everyone.
The home release set contains all 5 seasons across 10 discs for an absolute bargain price. The first 4 seasons are presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio with the final season being 16:9. If all 62 episodes wasn’t already enough value, there’s also a heap of special features included on the set that are well worth checking out once you’re done with the series.
There’s an Evolution of Jack special, the original pitch movies, the making of, a look at Genndy Tartakovsky’s scrapbook, the original series pitch, a feature on the various martial arts used in Samurai Jack, artwork galleries and commentary tracks. You’ll be entertained for hours.
This Samurai Jack collection is an absolute must have for existing fans of Samurai Jack or anyone looking to get invested in the series for the first time. Containing all 62 episodes plus a plethora of special features for a bargain price. While it may not be appropriate for all ages and may not tell stories in ways people are used to, those that do enjoy the show will end up loving this collection.
A DVD review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment for our Samurai Jack Collection review.