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Rewatching Samurai Jack: Episode 3, The First Fight

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.

Samurai Jack’s third episode, The First Fight, is like the two episodes preceding it, part of the series’ Premiere Movie. The folks in charge of such things must have rightly realized that what Tartakovsky & Co. were doing with Samurai Jack was somewhat different than the other shows on their roster. Instead of just tossing out a single pilot episode that struggled to set up an entire world and backstory while also telling a compelling story in a mere 22 minutes, the studio executives in their infinite wisdom allowed Samurai Jack to kick off with a movie-length episode that basically breaks down as…Episode 1: Backstory, Episode 2: Setting, Episode 3: Action.

But beyond giving the show a wide platform upon which to launch itself, this approach also served to highlight one of the show’s best features: its versatility. In that first Premiere Movie, and across the three episodes contained within it, Samurai Jack is shown to be capable of telling wordless, world-spanning coming-of-age stories, explosive tales of urban dystopias and, in The First Fight, Seven Samurai-esque defenses against impossible odds. And this is one of the things that first resonated with me about Samurai Jack and continues to impress me during this rewatch. The show is, quite frankly, in a league of its own when it comes to story and tonal shifts that never, ever, even for a moment, feel unnatural or out-of-step with the nature of the series.

In this third episode, our eponymous hero agrees to help a group of individuals cast off the oppressive yoke placed upon them by the nefarious Aku. As mentioned, it’s a very Seven Samurai premise, albeit with only a single samurai – a serious situation where Jack is tasked with preventing a group of mild-mannered peasants from being completely overrun by a monstrous horde. But as mentioned previously, while the series excels by borrowing elements from other works, it never leaves them completely intact. And this episode is no different, as evidenced by the tweaks that Tartakovsky & Co. made to Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai story (which also served as the basis for western The Magnificent Seven).

In The First Fight, the people Jack must defend aren’t peasants, in fact, they aren’t people at all, but rather, anthropomorphic dogs in pith helmets. And the incredible odds against which he must defend them? They’re a swarm of mechanical insects, natch.

On a lesser show, by a less talented group of creators, this would come across as an effort to take a serious plot and “kiddie” it up, to make it palatable to younger viewers, replacing sad villagers with goofy cartoon dogs, swapping out their slain enemies’ gushing arteries with broken valves spurting out oil. But The First Fight actually leans into this odd juxtaposition, not only forcing the serious to sit right next to the silly, but using those goofy, comedic moments as a kind of pressure release that also serves to highlight Jack’s man-out-of-time status, a stone-faced hero amongst a world given over to the absurd.

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One of my favorite instances of that in this episode – one of my favorite moments of the entire series thus far – comes when Jack is organizing his canine friends to repel Aku’s invading mechanical beetles. While using everything that he was taught back in The Beginning, Jack sits down to draw out plans for the dogs’ defense, at which point one of the pooches hands him a pen. But Jack, being from the past, has no idea how a clicking ballpoint pen works, and is unable to write with it. What comes next is the most interesting, however, as the show dedicates precious screen time – prime real estate on a show that only runs 22 minutes – to a visual gag of one of the dogs slowly taking the pen, and clicking it for Jack before handing it back to him. It’s a sublime moment of humor that juxtaposes perfectly with the intense preparations that both precede and follow it.

These humorous asides, these breaks in the tension instead of derailing things, only serve to heighten the viewer’s desire for pay off. There’s a misconception in storytelling that there must always be rising action. And while you certainly can do a story that way, it’s often not how the tale is best served. The First Fight recognizes that, as it ratchets the intensity up by three, only to dial it back a notch with a bit of humor. This pattern continues up until the fight actually starts, at which point audiences have been whipped into a lather, ready to see Jack after two and a half episodes of teases, truly cut loose against these mechanical entomological monsters.

At the same moment that audiences are primed to see it, Jack explodes into action. A glorious release of the pressure that had been building not just throughout this episode, but the entire Premiere Movie. And throughout the fight, throughout Jack’s slaughter of the bugs – actions that, if not for the fact that they’re mechanical, would be completely bloodthirsty and horrifying – the intensity only rises, until Jack has entered a complete berserker frenzy, covered in oil, his white kimono sullied and blackened, forbidding his enemies from retreating.

As The First Fight gives viewers exactly what they want, what they’ve been trained to desire, the series creators also do something else interesting, something that is a hallmark of the show. Instead of just showing all of the action with the standard aspect ratio, they widen and narrow the shots to better accommodate the action contained within. This technique, using aspect ratios to impact how viewer’s see scenes is something done every time a cartoonist chooses a shot, but it’s rarely done as well in film and television as in Samurai Jack.

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Beyond just widening the lens to show the scale of a horde, however, The First Fight does something even more fascinating. As Jack’s attacks on the insects become more intense, more frenzied, more chaotic, so too does the way they’re depicted. From multiple, angled shots of Jack leaping forward, screaming, to individual “panels” that look like they are slashed into existence by Jack’s katana, The First Fight takes an approach that is practically Bauhaus-inspired, with the form of the episode, the way that each frame is animated, following from the function that it is meant to serve.

The First Fight builds to a barbarous, violent crescendo, but one that has been previously lightened and tempered by the nature of the threat Jack faces. Instead of being bathed in blood, he’s simply covered in grease or oil. Following the battle, the action slows, giving way to a moment that is pure triumph for Jack. Having defeated impossible odds through the use of the skills taught to him as a child, he has proven that even in this new, strange world, the talents he has cultivated are still valuable and important. But just when this proud moment, with Jack situated atop a hill in a shot that’s practically Frazetta-esque, just when it might possibly veer into pomposity, that dramatic tension is released and juxtaposed…by the reappearance of one of those goofy dogs.

Join us next week, as we talk about Jack, the Woolies and the Chritchellites, the first episode that wasn’t written or storyboarded by series creator Genndy Tartakovsky. As always, if you’d like to join us in our rewatch, the entire Samurai Jack series is available on Hulu.

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

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