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Rewatching Samurai Jack: Season 2, episode 2, The Samurai Called Jack

After 12 years away, one of the best, most critically acclaimed cartoon series of all time, Samurai Jack, returns to television later this year with original series creator Genndy Tartakovsky at the helm. To help you get ready, Geek.com’s Aubrey Sitterson is rewatching the entire series in order.

This week we turn our gaze to the second episode of Samurai Jack’s first season, but before we get into the weeds with it, it’s worth discussing how the episode was presented. Though it was later chopped up into a single 22 minute episode, “The Samurai Called Jack” was originally aired as part of Samurai Jack’s “Premiere Movie,” which also included “The Beginning” and “The First Fight,” which we’ll get to next week.

Seeing as “The Samurai Called Jack” was originally conceived as the middle portion of a larger, single story, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s tonally very different from the first episode. While “The Beginning” seemed mostly concerned with establishing the series’ titular hero and his abundant martial abilities, the series’ second episode is much more focused on building out the world that he will inhabit.

This second episode, like subsequent ones, begins with a monologue from Aku, which is, incidentally, very reminiscent of the speech that opens the 1982 Conan the Barbarian flick. This monologue establishes everything that a viewer might need to know from the previous episode before literally dropping Jack into the futuristic world where the rest of the series will take place.

And here we come to what is a rather sticky issue for some fans of Samurai Jack, one that we alluded to last week: The similarity between the premise of Samurai Jack and Frank Miller’s groundbreaking 1982 comic book series, Ronin. Both series feature a samurai protagonist who is transported into a futuristic wasteland where he must confront his demonic rival. On the surface, and to many who have watched the show, the two stories seem to have a distressing amount in common.

Tartakovsky himself has acknowledged the influence of Ronin, which should come as no surprise considering the cartoonist’s age and the frequency of other comic book references, influences and nods throughout his oeuvre. But truthfully, though the two share certain surface similarities, though Tartakovsky was almost certainly influenced by the earlier work, there are also an abundant amount of differences.

Among those differences are the fact that in Ronin, both the samurai and the demon are imprisoned together, while in Samurai Jack, Aku is free to conquer the entire world in Jack’s absence. Additionally, while you could argue that both utilize a dystopian, near-future science fiction setting, the two worlds are extraordinarily different, as evidenced by Samurai Jack’s heavy reliance upon humor. But of all the differences between the two works, the largest is this: Where the story goes next. While Ronin is set entirely in New York City, Samurai Jack follows its protagonist across the world, bringing to mind another heavy influence on the cartoon, the David Carradine starring television series, Kung Fu.

ronin

As we progress through our rewatch, we’ll talk more about the similarities to Kung Fu, but suffice to say that it’s an extremely different piece of work than Ronin, exploring vastly different themes and emotions. But to my mind, the most significant thing is that Samurai Jack isn’t just a take on Ronin or a take on Kung Fu, it’s a pastiche, a combination of those elements, plus a thousand, thousand more, all swirled together into something entirely new.

In addition to Ronin and Kung Fu, in this episode alone you can see the heavy influence of Star Wars, via the cantina-esque bar scene, a cameo appearance from “The Big Dog” from 2 Stupid Dogs (a series that Tartakovsky also worked on) and most spectacularly, an entrance into the future that, with its towering buildings, falling protagonist and flying cars tricked out with machine guns, is clearly inspired by The Fifth Element. Of course, The Fifth Element itself owes a heavy debt to previous works, specifically Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius’ Incal comic book series.

And this brings us to what I believe is the most crucial point. Yes, it’s true that Samurai Jack is a pastiche, that, especially this early in the run, it is an assemblage of parts, pieces and influences, a greatest hits collection of all the things that Tartakovsky loved and loves. But in the vast majority of cases, those things that he homaged and borrowed? They came from works that were themselves heavily pastiched.

fifth-element

As already discussed, The Fifth Element is very much indebted to The Incal, so much so that not only was Moebius hired to work on the film, but he and Jodorowsky later sued writer/director Luc Besson for plagiarism. This claim was dismissed by the court due to the small amounts of the comic that actually made it into the film, as well as the fact that Moebius had actually worked on it.

But Samurai Jack’s other influences are no less “pure” in terms of their origins. Star Wars was George Lucas’ attempt to bring back serialized science fiction, largely based upon other works including the writing of Joseph Campbell and Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Kung Fu was an attempt to meld the chop socky films of China with America’s Westerns. Ronin was clearly influenced by manga and French comics (such as those by Moebius) and throughout Miller’s body of work, he makes liberal use of preexisting stories, characters, tropes and themes.

It makes sense then, that Samurai Jack, being influenced by all of these works, operates within the same artistic milieu, one where creation is seen as an act of synthesis. There are a finite amount of stories to be told in the world, what matters is how they are presented to an audience, and the new twists placed on them by the storytellers. Like Frank Miller, Luc Besson, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino and others, Tartakovsky lifted elements from his favorite works, the pieces that worked the best and that resonated most strongly with him, then wove them together into the expert tapestry that is Samurai Jack.

This isn’t an uncommon tactic – it’s seen extraordinarily frequently, especially when it comes to high concept projects. “It’s this popular thing meets this popular thing!” But what makes Samurai Jack truly impressive is that it doesn’t succeed in spite of this approach – one that can often come across as crass, cynical and overly commercial – it’s that it succeeds because of it. By borrowing and homaging so many familiar elements, Tartakovsky & Co. get to once again engage in the type of shorthand that we discussed last week in the context of his caricature heavy portrayals. This shorthand allows the creators to introduce characters, themes and concepts in the most expedient way, packing each episode’s 22 minute run-time with a shocking amount of setting and character development, while allowing the audience to fill in the blanks courtesy of their experience with the tropes being utilized.

Next week, we’ll talk about part II of the Samurai Jack “Premiere Movie,” “The First Fight,” including discussion of one of the show’s absolute best features: Its phenomenal, unparalleled fight scenes.

Aubrey Sitterson is a Los Angeles-based writer whose most recent work is the Street Fighter x G.I. Joe series from IDW, available digitally on Comixology. Follow him on Twitter or check out his website for more information.

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