Synopsis: After 13 years of being canceled, Samurai Jack is back with a vengeance.
I’m gonna be getting into some Spoilers, y’all. You have been warned.
During the late 90s to the early 2000’s, Cartoon Network churned out some of the most iconic series from tv animation’s greatest creators. One of those creators was the man, the myth, the legend: Genndy Tartakovsky. From his comedic work on shows like Dexter’s Laboratory to the action direction of the criminally underrated 2D Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The man is a true visionary in the world of animation. In 2001, Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack hit the airwaves. It brought with it gorgeous art design, diverse cultural awareness, cinematography unseen in tv animation, hilarious character dynamics, a dynamic score, brilliant action scenes, and one of the sickest opening themes ever.
This landmark of a series ran for four years on Cartoon Network until its abrupt cancellation. The series was left intentionally with its overarching plot unresolved. For years, there had speculation on a conclusion in the form of a full-length feature. Tartakovsky even stated his desire to conclude the series. After years of waiting, it was announced that Samurai Jack would get its finale… and it’s going to be on Adult Swim.
The stars had aligned and I was feeling all kinds of hype. It’s not every day that a series with a cult following goes back on the air, especially an animated one. Tartakovsky and most of the crew were set to return for the final season. Everything was looking great!
Let’s get the fun stuff out of the way first. This series is one of the most visually gorgeous pieces of animation ever put on screen, the kind of animation that must be studied for its brilliance. The colors, the lighting, the backgrounds, the character design, and the stylized cinematography are simply astounding. This creative team has picked up where they left off and pushed the boundaries of what can be done visually in an animated series. It bridges the gap between traditional animation and new digital techniques to create a spectacle for the eyes. However, it seems that most of the team’s visual creative energy was focused on the first half of the season. The latter isn’t bad at all, mind you- it just didn’t give me that sense of awe I felt in the beginning, That being said, Samurai Jack continues its legacy of being one of the most visually stunning animated series ever produced.
Not only is the series known for its brilliant visual aesthetic, but it has some pretty kick ass action. The final season does not disappoint in this category. The fight choreography feels frenetic and incredibly well shot. The action never feels dull or derivative and for the most part, has great passion behind it. Since the show is now on Adult Swim, the creators have the freedom to push the violence and blood so much that it would make Frank Miller blush. The extreme violence actually works very effectively with the themes touched upon in the series. The highlight of the final season is in the second episode during the fight with the Daughters of Aku. The creators take full advantage of the medium of animation to pull off breathtaking action sequences.
The final season decides to take a very meta approach in the setup for its conclusion. For the audience, it has been thirteen years. For our hero, it has been fifty long years. He can no longer age due to his displacement into the future and on top of that, he has lost his magic sword, the only weapon that can defeat the demon Aku. Jack has lost all sense of hope and is receiving nightmarish visions that remind him of his failures. He has given up on trying to defeat Aku. Jack is no longer the calm and heroic figure from our childhood. He is now a broken man, even to the point of contemplating suicide by Seppuku. I commend the creators for taking what was once a simple “monster/villain of the week” series and add some real consequence and depth to its main protagonist for the finale. It’s sort of funny that the final season premiered around the same time as when Logan came out. Two stories about aged warriors looking for a reason to hope again. (BRB crying) It is set up brilliantly and gives Jack a great arc over the course of the season.
The final season introduces a brand new character in Ashi, one of the Daughters of Aku, who is conditioned from childhood to kill the “evil” samurai in the name of Aku. After a brutal battle wherein Jack straight up kills the f*** out of her sisters, she defects to the side of good when she discovers that Aku is the real evil. (Kind of weird since he murdered her siblings, but ok) Her arc is just as well established from the beginning and leads to a very interesting dynamic between her and the samurai. At first she wants to kill him but eventually, his guidance gives her a new outlook on life.
Their bond is truly the heart of the season. I was truly engaged with their interactions and was rooting for them at each step of their journey. The thesis of this arc was two traumatized people learning to find hope in a decimated world. Through Jack, Ashi embraces the beauty of the world and fights in the name of protecting life. Through Ashi, Jack learns to hope again and take up the quest he has abandoned. It was super refreshing to see a mutual bond between a man and woman that wasn’t centered around a romantic subplot.
That is until, literally two episodes before the god damn series finale, the creators decide that it would be cool if Jack and Ashi would hook up. There was no setup, no previous romantic tension (as far as I could tell), and came right the f*** out of nowhere. It’s not even a small subplot- it takes up an entire episode in the last season of the show. Time that could have been spent rallying Jack’s allies for a final battle is instead spent on ripping off Ashi’s clothes during a fight scene for some fan service. Some might say I am being salty, but that’s when the show started to go a little downhill. I could live with them being romantically involved but not at the expense of wasting the little amount of time the show has before it is completely gone.
The penultimate episode has Aku finally confront Jack and Ashi and in a sick twist takes control over Ashi’s body. This is the “all is lost” moment before the climax and thirteen years of build up leading to the final showdown. I cannot stress how brilliant the setup was at the beginning of the season. The chess pieces were all in place for one hell of a grand finale. It was going to be the ending such an epic series deserved.
Instead, it was underwhelming as f***.
The final episode is one of the most rushed conclusions to a show I have ever seen. All dramatic build up is wasted because of things going a mile a minute. It’s as if someone perfectly sets up their pieces on a chess board, only to just flip the table. Characters set up way in the beginning of the season for an epic battle get very little attention in said epic battle. Jack fights Ashi for a bit only for it to be solved by the power of love! (Gag) Ashi gains Aku’s powers and opens up a time portal so that Jack can kill Aku in 2 seconds flat. Jack and Ashi almost get married but because time travel, she never existed. Jack feels sad but then looks at the sky, The End. All that in a thirty-minute episode. No final epic battle between Jack and Aku. Not even a “Hey friends who have fought for me and I have deep bonds with, is it cool if I go to the past and kill Aku leading to you to cease existing??? That’s cool right???” Maybe if they had two more episodes -cough- or didn’t waste one on a shoehorned romance -cough- we could have had a finale that matched the epic setup.
Some of the best series finales in animation give two hours to conclude all plot threads. Samurai Jack thought it could do it in 30 minutes. I’m honestly very disappointed in the handling of the actual ending here. This is a finale people have been waiting 13 years for and it is just so rushed. The time management was all out of whack.
That being said, the series is still one of the best-animated series ever produced. The animation is of the highest caliber. The action rivals that of most live action films. Jack as a character has been given an inspiring journey to conclude his story. Ashi was an amazing character to follow despite being led to a cliche romance. This season has some of the show’s greatest moments and some of its weakest. This isn’t the first great show with a lackluster finale and it won’t be the last. However, It was still one hell of a ride.