Much hullabaloo has been made about season five of Samurai Jack’s serialized nature. And why not? Serialization is the mantra of our time, the de rigueur shorthand for maturity in the televised world and the essence of respectability for a culture almost hermetically obsessed with the lexicon of long-form storytelling. The prestige TV glut of the past twenty years has almost uniformly been filtered through the quasi-hegemonic logic of the linear story, of spreading out storylines in the name of events causing events causing more events. More time means more conflict, more space to accrue information, more room to define everything and leave nothing ambiguous or uncertain. It conjures a wider cavern to fill in causes, effects, consequences, obstructions, and solutions. It feeds into a cultural desire to trace increasingly complex, labyrinthine plots and prove ourselves as viewers by untangling the thorns of a narrative.
Inevitably, though, obstructing the pathway of the narrative so that solution is harder to reach only validates that emphasis on narrative solution by testing it. The more shows bend their narratives so that the inevitable solution must overcome more and must take longer, the more resistant to actually being broken these norms of set-up, climax, and conclusion actually become. We make our demand for conclusion earn its place by stacking the deck against happy endings and the likelihood of conclusiveness, but we’re still controlling the game so that conclusion and solution inevitably do survive without interference. This definition of depth is non-committal, interested only in pretending to disturb narrative conventions only to shore them up by galvanizing them in confrontation. The supremacy of “solution” proves itself eternal by defeating whatever we throw its way.
The strengths of Genndy Tartakovsky’s original four seasons of Samurai Jack run antithetically to this spirit. Rather than accruing information about Jack and his quest, the discreet episodes – essentially unlinked in narrative, but akin in spirit and artistic animus – suggest his fractured persona and the essentially tragic, un-actualizing nature of his quest. Nothing moves forward narratively; his life exists as stasis – an unending, circular movement toward no conclusion – rather than kinesis – a phallic piston of motion in one direction. And the minimalism of the show’s style existed not to fill-in detail but to remove it, concocting an addition by subtraction, a potent corrective to the demand for more and the compulsion to engorge the proceedings with event. Samurai Jack, while much more mature than the average animated children’s show, was mature not because it distanced itself from a cartoon narrative’s essentially changeless demeanor. Jack was more mature because it understood the value of that unmoving, non-goal-oriented conception of time and utilized it in service of its most mature, fully blossomed self.
In this spirit, the first two-thirds of Samurai Jack Season 5 are a marvel of minimalistic brio and experimentation, a paragon of primordial beauty and thoughtful introspection. It boasts, as always, a deliberately spare plot: Samurai Jack (Phil Lamarr), once flung to the future by evil overlord Aku (Greg Baldwin, replacing the late Mako Iwamatsu), now wanders the land in search of a path back to the past, only to be confronted by seven daughters of Aku who have been bred specifically to kill Jack. But Jack uses this framework to explore its own iconoclasm, to reconfigure itself in various genre-hopping riffs on classical mythological idioms, and, above all, to leak from its deep and unabating wells of anger and sorrow beneath its motile and mutable exterior.
Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky emancipates himself from the set-up-pay-off scaffolding of most pop-fiction and lingers on the lasting emotional moments that perpetuate in Jack’s world, domineering over his life. The dialogue-scarce aesthetic is itself a statement to Jack’s experience, wracked-with-loneliness and still too alienated from the future to fully disclose himself to the characters he meets. He keeps things close to the vest, basically, and we can empathize: the alterity of the future is such that the world seems to prismatically decode itself as a different, internally incoherent universe wherever Jack wanders, as though the future can’t truly decide what it wants to be. The unhinged nature of the style in the early episodes suggests a mutating hell-beast of a world capable of taking the form of a futurist fever dream one minute, echoing a red-hot Gothic-Guignol cultist temple another, and meditating in a pastoral expanse of unbroken seriousness the next. Formally, every look operates to signal both the broken, non-cohesive nature of this future world and the frayed mental architecture of Jack’s mind. The stylistic liquidity of the show is also a hint to the possibility this brokenness affords for. Disparate communities may not flourish, but they introduce their own vision of future-life into their particular experiences, trying to recollect life in their individual idioms.
So the vacillating aesthetic coheres around the cracked impermanence of the world around it, shivering with the thought of potential disintegration in each moment. Even the leaping, vaulting elegance of the action reverberates with a sense of ephemerality. And the minimalism – one early fight unfolds in a white limbo that is both serene and hauntingly vacant – interprets a world that is no longer fully filled in. It is loneliness in motion, the eternal paradox applicable not only to the wandering Japanese Ronin but the distinctly American figure of Chaplin’s Tramp that also has traction with Tartakovsky: always going somewhere but never getting anywhere.
While allowing for interpretation, though, many of the images defy or defeat explanation, speaking to the primal potency of images that are, perhaps by nature, humming with an ambivalence that does not please more narrative or literary-minded critics and viewers because the scenes lack the crystalline, punchy, semi-definite clarity of a word. But the impressions the images leave on the mind are nonetheless indelible. Early on, blood spreads in fractal angles around Jack’s body, drawing all the energy from the rest of him, an exsanguination literally signaled by a loss of color and shading to the rest of Jack’s body. Later, we see a pitch-black limbo that suddenly effuses magenta vibes and floating creatures humming like a technicolor-day-dream. Samurai Jack gives us Tartakovsky as Tarkovsky one minute and pays homage to the swirling psychedelic tilt-a-whirl Yellow Submarine the next.
That, and every bone in my body is currently being mustered to withhold me from appending the adjective “Malick-esque” to the show. How wonderful that the “Malick” thought even comes up for an American animation, but comparing it to any one director almost seems like restraining the show or boxing it in, unfathomably reductive for a show whose eye is so multifaceted and hand so loose and fluid. All of this is to say: the digressive, monochromatic, sometimes unfocused style of Jack is not a relic of a fuller, more maximalist style, a failure to more fully explain or describe this world in total. This minimalism is a tone all its own: in search of stability, a man displaced from his own center. As with many of the aesthetically radical short films produced by UPA in the mid- 20th century, we see a world with the depth sucked out of it but also one that feels gloriously un-sedimented, always capable of being rewritten.
My own effusions out of the way, I have to admit that the serialized structure – those literary pretensions again – ultimately hinders Tartakovsky’s vision as much as it helps him. The molten stylistic core of the early episodes – always repurposable, diaphanous, capable of being remolded to the needs of the moment – ossifies into a gossamer laminate spread out over the effective but rudimentary machinations of the plot. Which is not bad per-se – by the standards of modern television animation, Samurai Jack is never less than a compelling portrait of an estranged man staggering through an world in search of a semblance of self once again. But by turning it into a serialized story and neutering the relatively free-form eccentricity of the first half of the season, neutering some of its more adventurous escapades, the concluding chapters of Samurai Jack settle for using animation to enhance a tale that is, essentially, relatively transplantable to any other medium. And a tale that, in its broad strokes, has been seen in a panoply of forms and styles before. Samurai Jack begs for traction with the bigger kids in the respectable TV playground, but it caps its own teeth by trying not to upset the narrative-first apple cart of most television.
Which is fine, I suppose. The dynamic relationship between Jack and the unstable youth Ashi (somewhat uncomfortably moving from father-daughter to tentative lovers) as well as the fatigued, tragicomic boredom of Aku are enough to push Samurai Jack over the edge. Aku, especially; a new voice actor wisely necessitated that the character be reimagined, now seething with the tepidness of an endless, eternal focus on killing Jack, who does not age. But the season’s earlier sections, before it submits to the need for conclusion and catharsis creeping up and breathing behind its neck, are truly something to behold. These episodes do not find animation grasping at the straws of other mediums. Instead, they boldly explore the crevices of their own medium in an attempt not only to conclude a much beloved cult show but to massage a Spartan aesthetic of manly, but not macho, minimalism into refracting a wandering samurai’s loneliness in a world that does not allow him the solidity of his own mind. Each image – when the show is operating at its best – does not shuttle us toward oncoming cessation or termination so much as stand at the precipice of eternity. There, the options are many but all are ungraspable, and they may not lead anywhere except the divine ephemerality of standalone moments.
Score: 9/10 (10/10 for the first half, 7.5 for the second half, and I rounded-up the average of 8.75 because I wanted to be nice to my childhood).