The Kitsch of Samurai Jack

Genndy Tartakovsky is a treasure to the world of animation. The Russian born kid turned giant American nerd and animation legend in the making has been involved in some of Cartoon Network’s greatest shows, and gave Adam Sandler good movies to be in, which has become a bizarre, alien concept these days. While Dexter’s Lab was his big hit, it was Samurai Jack that stands out as his masterwork. It’s a truly strange series that combines all sorts of kitsch elements together into a surprisingly mature framework that allowed for tons of experimentation in narrative and tone, using an episodic format to build up to all sorts of wild endings with constantly shifting genres and premises. With the series Adult Swim season finished, I felt it was a good time to take a look back and examine what makes the series stand out so much. Ultimately, it comes back to that use of kitsch I mentioned, in how the show defines itself by making it impossible to actually define it in any concrete way.

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When I say kitsch, I mean embracing things thought as cheap or disposable, either in a knowingly ironic way, or in a sincere way. Tartakovsky’s original works all adore kitsch and include it in some fashion, like Sym-Bionic Titan combining silly kaiju battles with a cliched high school drama, or Dexter’s Lab having constant side-stories revolving around very gimmicky, almost golden age to 70s style comic characters, including a monkey spy with a psychic sidekick, and a team of Avengers knockoffs put in the context of a Real World style series of house shenanigans. Samurai Jack sticks out because it uses so many kitsch elements that it basically changes genre every episode, creating a storm of creative chaos that somehow allows a corrupt alligator southern sheriff and generic 1920s mobsters to exist alongside Sparta warriors and a bee-boppin’ robot assassin who points out that some alien’s head looks exactly like a penis. You have absolutely no idea what you’re going to get every episode, including every episode in the final season’s story arc.

The series accomplishes this with the set-up. Sometime in Japan, during the age of the samurai, a lord sent his son away to be trained as a great warrior when he realized an evil god named Aku had broken free from his sealed state. The samurai comes back and nearly beats the god with a magic katana that can harm it, but he’s tricked at the last moment and gets flung into the far future, where Aku controls the planet and aliens and monsters have become more common than the natural populace. After talking to some random guys on the street who refer to the samurai as “jack” (probably the only element of this show that has not aged well in any way), the samurai starts being known as Samurai Jack, a warrior who travels the land to find a way to return to the past and destroy Aku in his time.

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The original series and final season differ in terms of structure, but pretty much do the same sort of stuff in terms of episode by episode settings and situations. Jack winds up somewhere very alien and weird, then has some sort of adventure or experience there. Sometimes it’s as simple as learning to trust his other senses to fight against highly skilled archers, or he may somehow wind up wearing a pretty dress and go through some twisted version of Wonderland. Actual thing that has happened in this award winning animated action show that inspired the likes of the Dreamworks animator staff during the production of Kung-Fu Panda. Key thing is that you always end up with something different, and probably as goofy as humanly possible. Sometimes, the situation is serious, but Jack is also used as a straight man for the sake of comedy in absurd situations. This shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the series finds a way by how it characterizes Jack.

He’s portrayed effectively in two different ways. He’s either the badass, ultra serious samurai warrior, or a goofy dork that likes cute animals and is terrible at reading the social cues of foreign cultures that now surround every part of the world. Every episode has Jack usually in one state or the other for the run-time, sometimes showing both modes (especially in the final Adult Swim season). Need him to be the out of place loner who helps some people planning to escape to space for a bit of laughs that doesn’t break the tension and shows his heroic nature? No prob. Want him to get trolled by a sea monster and have a comical reaction where he’s smiling like an idiot in the monster’s stomach until he realizes there’s no time portal and has a perfectly timed mood change? That works too!

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Pictured: A Good Boy

Jack is such a simple but likable character that you can easily put him in any situation and it works. He can be both a hero and a fool, a tortured soul and a doof who smiles when he sees a lizard on a tree like :D). They say a good character can work in any situation, and Samurai Jack is a show that takes that idea and runs with it as far as it can. The series final episode really shows this off, with a ton of old friends returning and showing radically different tones and concepts, including a series of robots that pilot a mecha, a dog that acts like a British man riding around a comical 50s sci-fi flying machine, and just flat out Spartans, shields and helmets all. Even with the inclusion of the Scottman, who is basically Jack’s opposite in every way imaginable, all of these characters feel in place with the universe this show establishes. But that’s not just because of Jack.

Jack can work in any situation, and his world can too. One of the most striking elements of the series since day one has been the art style, mainly due to how it doesn’t use outlines. That was a huge, mind-blowing concept for animation in general at the time, and a massive divergence from Tartakovsky’s past work. It creates a subtle effect where it lets colors contrast and pop against each other. As Gumball is porn to animators, Samurai Jack is color theory erotica. Every single frame in every episode is a masterwork of letting colors speak and express without the need for basic signifiers of form. Lines are implied, but almost never shown. It creates a vibrant, eye-catching look I’ve not seen outside The Secret of Kells. The show even shows this off in a few episodes, including one with a fight scene all done in black and white, one shade each, with heavy use of minimalist shadow. Even without the usual form of traditional animation techniques, you can follow the flow and rhythm of the fight almost perfectly. It’s absurdly impressive, and the feat is repeated in a snow fight in the final season’s third episode, one of it’s most memorable and striking scenes.

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The contrast heavy, borderless style also makes the vast array of genre based designs less jarring, because they exist in a similar way as Jack and Aku. Genndy’s genius here is that he does have a subtle, unified minimalist art style, one that is subtlety modified based on the culture or genre style being drawn. It sort of takes the style of an old 50s era sci-fi cartoon, then adds bits of other design styles related to the current subject. This results in a heavy use of simple shapes and a huge variety of body types that can exist within this loose style with no massive contrast in tone or mood. The goal is not to emulate familiar art styles, it’s to try and take elements of minimalism, cubism, art deco and retro-futurism, and then put different styles within that frame work. It’s why the first and last episodes show the people Jack trains with as exaggerated versions of their cultural style, sort of like Greek vase paintings. It’s all about solidifying a concept in its most stereotypical form, and making it work with a bunch of other concepts portrayed the same way.

Think of it this way. This is a show where a scene can include a Japanese samurai with a topknot, a girl dressed entirely in leaves, and a walrus man selling alien food that turns the samurai’s head into a fish, and it’s not out of place or jarring in any way. Gumball and Samurai Jack really stick out in this regard as the only cartoons out there that have mastered mashing together genres and styles, but they each take the opposite approach. One uses every trick in the book to make a world where variety in animation is the foundation, while the other uses a unified style that allows an endless stream of stuff to exist and feel at home, solely because the style is so simple and able to apply elements of different stereotypical designs into its structure. I have seen other shows try this sort of thing in the past, like Kappa Mikey (which is so worth a discussion) and Courage the Cowardly Dog, but they’re far more interested in making contrast, not unity.

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And this is what makes the ending of Samurai Jack so frustrating, because it gives a predictable, flaccid ending to a show based on unpredictability and variety. A big final battle with cameos from the series past, the all is lost moment, a weak romance, an obvious and sudden last minute solution to a problem Jack had spent fifty years in continuity trying to fix, and even a last minute sad note so the ending doesn’t feel too neat and tidy that involves fridging a woman. The callbacks are fun, but that’s the only part that really works. This isn’t a case where you don’t know how to bring this to a satisfying end, either. The pieces were all there. Jack can’t go back, but he can help the world he’s begun to call home, one he has arguably spent even more time in than the one he came from. He moves on, and truly accepts the ridiculous place he now calls home. This would also allow new character Ashi to have a more satisfying conclusion to her arc, finally able to help fix the world Aku has ravaged. Honestly, it felt like the show was building to that, and then it decided to go in the more predictable, disappointing direction.

But Samurai Jack was never a show that was building up to an ending until this last season, so it’s really just a gripe when compared to the sheer creativity and artistry this show contains. It takes so many silly, outdated ideas, usually ripped directly from other sources, and makes them feel both new and artistic in ways you probably couldn’t see before. It’s a long series of Genndy going “but what if we did it like THIS” and making it work on an almost perfect batting average. It’s a show that perfectly encapsulates the idea of “kitsch.” It celebrates what culture decided was garbage or lesser – including cartoons themselves.

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The biggest trick of Samurai Jack is that it makes you think it’s going to be a serious action epic, and in many ways, it is. But between moments where Jack is talking to the voices in his head about taking a human life and remembering how his father slaughtered a group of bandits, we also have moments where Jack has an adventure with a caveman who jumps good and saves a race of Dr. Seuss hippo people from ugly nerds with stun rods. It accepts all of animation history, and then tries to do something new and fresh with it all, succeeding in ways nobody could have ever comprehended back in 2001. Despite the flawed (and kinda sexist) ending, Samurai Jack is one of the finest animated works in history, because it shows us things we love from every single moment in our lives, from multiple generations, and makes them special again.

Also seriously look at how happy he is to see that lizard

HE’S SO HAPPY

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A GOOD BOY
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