Samurai Jack: Season Four (DVD)

“He who runs with aggression walks without dignity.”

The fourth and final season of Samurai Jack arrives on DVD, featuring swordfights, gunfights, explosions, giant monsters, robot bounty hunters, insect-like aliens, super-stealthy ninjas, adventurous Scotsmen, diaper jokes, Star Wars references, and much, much more.

What animator Genndy Tartakovsky (Star Wars: Clone Wars) and his team have accomplished with Samurai Jack is remarkable. Each episode is a cinematic experience, with big action, big laughs, and a sense of size and scope not normally seen on a weekly cartoon TV show. That this happened with a small staff and some limited resources behind the scenes makes the show all the more amazing.

A lone samurai warrior, known only as Jack (Phil LaMarr, Justice League), wanders across the vast expanses and tangled cityscapes of the distant future. He has arrived in the future, courtesy of the demon Aku (Mako, TMNT). Jack is the only one with the power to stop Aku’s evil, but in the future, Aku has conquered the world. Now, Jack searches for a way home, while helping any of those he comes across in his ongoing battle against evil.

This episode list was found carved onto some ancient runes:

• “XL: Samurai Versus Ninja”
While protecting a seaside village from a deadly underwater threat, Jack is unaware (or is he?) that Aku has sent a ninja after him. When the ninja steps from the shadows to make his move, his confrontation with Jack becomes a battle between darkness and light—this time, literally.

This episode is an excellent example of the show’s creators making the most of what they have. This series did not have multi-million dollar CG animation or a five-year schedule to fuss over every little detail, but the animators’ creative spirit didn’t deter them. When Jack fights the ninja, the shapes on screen become either all black or all white, with white figures moving against a black background and vice versa. The animators could have created just another fight scene and gone home for the day, but they instead took the creative approach—and it works wonderfully, making this a standout episode.

• “XLI: Robo-Samurai Versus Mondo Bot”
When a population is under siege by a gigantic robot, a pair of scientists believes it is Jack’s destiny to save them. Jack believes it, too, once he sees the equally gigantic Samurai robot on the ocean’s floor, ready for him to inhabit and take to battle.

Influences for Samurai Jack come from all over the place, and this episode has one foot in anime waters. Giant robots have been a successful anime staple, with lumbering mechanical bipeds of all shapes and sizes causing epic property damage. This episode borrows from the best of them, reminding viewers why giant robots are awesome. What I especially enjoy about this one is how the robots’ movements are slow and deliberate, making it seem that they have a lot of weight. Too many other giant robot cartoons have bots doing back flips and other craziness, but when the bots’ size and weight is kept consistent, I find myself enjoying the action more.

• “XLII: Samurai Versus Samurai”
While seeking shelter at a small inn during a storm in the middle of nowhere, Jack encounters another samurai (named “Da Samurai” in the credits). This flashy, loudmouthed samurai challenges Jack to a duel, and Jack begrudgingly accepts. This newcomer might not be all that he seems, though.

This is one of my favorite comedy episodes. Da Samurai is voiced by David Allen Grier (Little Man), who plays up the newbie’s smooth trash talk for all it’s worth. His frustration with Jack is understandable. He wants a fight, but all Jack wants is, first, to be left alone, and, second, to teach this other samurai a valuable life lesson. It all wraps up in a way that is both exciting and funny. Add to this a great sense of mood inside the rained-out inn and some toe-tapping music by a robo-boom box, and this one’s another winner.

• “XLIII: The Aku Infection”
During a battle, Aku sneezes on Jack, infecting Jack with some of his evil. When Jack visits some old friends who might have the passageway home, he transforms into an unholy half good/half evil creature.

Jack is a stoic hero. He’s the type that always does the right thing, and never wavers in his pursuit of justice. Many writers call characters like this “boring” or “bland,” arguing that there’s no way to create tension or conflict with characters that are committed to the cause and who never go wrong. In this episode, though, the creators have come up with a way to get inside Jack’s head without taking the easy way out by piling on the personal tragedies and making him all dark and antihero-ish. Jack’s struggle is an internal one this time, and the creators not only find nice ways to illustrate this visually, but they also successfully explore who this character is while also keeping him on the straight and narrow.

• “XLIV: The Princess and the Bounty Hunters”
A group of colorful bounty hunters arrive in a small mountain, awaiting Jack’s arrival. An unlikely leader emerges, and the hunters decide to work together for the bounty instead of competing for it. The question, then, is what is the best way to slay Jack?

Several episodes of this series, including this one, have little or no appearance from the title character. It’s a testament to the writers and animators that they can pull this off, instead of relying on formula. This episode throws a bunch of quirky characters at the viewer, employing the tried-but-true Magnificent Seven formula. It’s fun and interesting getting to know them, so that we don’t miss Jack’s absence.

• “XLV: The Scotsman Saves Jack, Part One”
• “XLVI: The Scotsman Saves Jack, Part Two”
Fan-favorite character the Scotsman (John DiMaggio, Futurama) runs into a seafaring surfer dude who bears a striking resemblance to Jack. Believing Jack to have lost his memory, the Scotsman takes “Jack” on a wild yet strangely familiar adventure to find the truth.

This two-part tale provides tons of action and comedy, with pirates, treasure, fishmen, and a huge amount of references to a successful 1977 blockbuster. What it’s really about though, is friendship. The Scotsman and Jack are total opposites, yet they not only work together to battle evil, but they’ve become pals when doing so. The first two-thirds of this epic tale show the extreme lengths the Scotsman will go to help Jack. Then, once you think the story is over, there’s an entire act devoted to Jack and the Scotsman in a series of competitions against each other. It’s like a silly Warner Brothers cartoon got slapped onto the end of the tale, just for the heck of it. Oddball narrative structure notwithstanding, this ending section gives us a rare glimpse of Jack letting his guard down. He smiles, chats with the Scotsman, and he even laughs. His intense drive is temporarily shelved, and he gets to be an ordinary guy—if just for a little while.

Also, Robert Rodriguez and Rose McGowan totally ripped off the Scotsman’s gimmick. You know I’m right.

• “XLVII: Jack and the Flying Prince and Princess”
An insect-like prince and princess flee from enemies in space, only to have their ship crash land on Earth, where they face Aku’s wrath and turn to Jack for rescue.

Here are even more references to that successful 1977 blockbuster. OK, I’ll spill it: It’s Star Wars. Work on the Clone Wars cartoon was under way by this time, so it’s no wonder this episode and the one before it are riddled with so many nods to the Jedi/Ewok epic. But these episodes are more than just poking fun at some of SW’s famous lines. Instead, Tartakovsky and company create an adventure story that similar enough to Star Wars without being a total rip-off or parody. It’s easy to imagine the prince and princess showing up in some of those “expanded universe” Star Wars novels and games.

• “XLVIII: Jack Versus Aku”
Tired of seeing his minions fail against Jack over and over, Aku decides to end the conflict himself. He challenges Jack to a fight, mano-a-mano. Jack promises not to use his sword, and Aku promises to fight as a human, with no demonic shape-changing powers. Is this really their final battle?

Mako appeared in many notable roles over the years, arguably most famous as the wizard from Conan the Barbarian. He had that wonderful gravelly voice that gave dramatic heft to his every word. It’s as Aku, though, were he really brought his “A-game.” Some have called Aku Mako’s greatest role, and I’m tempted to agree. Sure, he plays up the dramatics with skill, really making Aku sound like the most evil thing in creation. But, strangely, Aku is also responsible for a lot of the show’s humor. I wasn’t sure about this the first time I saw him make with the funny. I’ve never been a fan of buffoon villains. I’ve always felt that when the bad guy becomes too clownish, the story loses its drive, even if it’s “just” a kids’ show. In Aku’s case, though, the writers and Mako found just the right balance for the character. As silly as Aku’s shtick is sometimes, there’s never any question how sinister he truly is or how high the stakes are.

• “XLIX: Four Seasons of Death”
This one has four mini-adventures in a single episode. In “Summer,” Jack faces some frightening mirages while crossing a burning hot desert. In “Fall,” a scientist extracts chemicals from color-changing leaves for a mysterious purpose. In “Winter,” a city of frost giants go about the lengthy process of crafting the perfect sword. And in “Spring,” a beautiful spirit offers Jack a reprieve from his burden.

Here’s another example of the creators stretching their storytelling abilities, with four complete tales in one episode. The standout is “Winter,” showing a definite Robert E. Howard influence. Like “The Princess and the Bounty Hunters,” the frost giants’ tale shows that the side characters Jack encounters on his travels have histories and lives of their own. “Spring,” meanwhile, recalls “The Aku Infection,” in that it offers another look at Jack’s thought process, and how he reacts when faced with great temptation.

• “L: Tale of X9”
A robot bounty hunter is drawn out of retirement to hunt down Jack. Cue the melancholy saxophone solo.

It might not be explicitly stated by the show’s creators, but Cowboy Bebop is an obvious influence on this one. The camera angles, the robot’s Spike-like voice and attitude, the explosive gunplay, the jazzy music, and the overall sense of style. Spike, Faye, and company aren’t spoofed directly, but the tone is all Bebop. I can imagine the creators watching Bebop—which aired on Cartoon Network along with Samurai Jack—and thinking, “This is cool. We should do something like this.” If the circumstances were different, I can almost see the X9 bounty hunter character starring in his own spin-off series.

• “LI: Young Jack in Africa”
If you remember the series pilot, then you remember that Jack traveled around the world learning various skills before confronting Aku and being thrown into the future. This episode recalls his first time away from home, in an African village, where the child Jack learns some new fighting techniques and some valuable lessons about family.

Child Jack isn’t too terribly different from adult Jack. He does look at his new surroundings with wide-eyed wonder, but beyond that, he maintains his sense of honor and his intense desire to do good for everyone. Even though this is “Lil’ Jack,” the episode isn’t disgustingly cutesy. Jack is still dealing with losing his family to Aku, and the episode wraps up with another nicely staged action scene. Now for the uncomfortable question: Are some people going to be upset with how the Africans look in this episode? I’m just guessing here, but it looks to me like the tribespeople are not based on how real people look, but on African art—sort of like how the archers in the first season episode “Jack and the Archers” were based on Egyptian hieroglyphics.

• “LII: Jack and the Baby”
Jack rescues a baby from three ruffians, and then becomes the kid’s foster parent as he searches the countryside for its long lost mother.

Yes, there will be diaper jokes. There are many influences on Samurai Jack, and a big one, of course, is the Lone Wolf and Cub series, also known as the “baby cart” films, in which a Samurai with an infant son travel around and have adventures. These are considered by many to be benchmarks in the Samurai genre, so it’s a natural that Samurai Jack borrows from them. Note that the second season episode, “Jack Remembers the Past,” also pays homage to Lone Wolf and Cub. In this episode, taking care of a baby is a challenge Jack isn’t fully prepared for, and he has to use his wits to provide milk and, yes, diapers for the kid. It’s another way to explore Jack’s character without losing what makes him a stoic hero.

Although there were numerous online complaints about the video quality on previous Samurai Jack DVDs, I didn’t see many flaws in the picture on this two-disc set. The movements are smooth and fluid and the colors are bright and eye-popping. I was stunned, stunned I tell you, to learn that the audio is a mere 2.0 track instead of a 5.1, because the sound is amazing. The swordfights and explosions are appropriately booming, but the audio really stands out during the atmospheric effects. When Jack walks through the forest, the sounds of birds and blowing leaves come from out of all speakers for a real “you are there” feeling.

The highlight of the extras is “Genndy’s Roundtable,” in which Tartakovsky reunites with his core team of artists and animators who produced the show, and they all share anecdotes and reminisces about their time on the series. This one’s packed with info on how the show was made, as well as plenty of humorous stories about what went on behind the scenes. “Genndy’s New Projects” is a featurette in which Tartakovsky takes viewers on a tour of his new production studio, which is inside a suburban house instead of a traditional office. Look closely, because there are brief glimpses of concept art for some of Tartakovsky’s current projects. The two “promos” are more like short music videos, capturing the mood of Samurai Jack, and the deleted scenes, both from “Tale of X9,” don’t add much to what’s already in the episode. The previous three season DVD sets all had commentary tracks, so why not this one?

The world of animation needs more Genndy Tartakovskys. Heck, the world needs more Genndy Tartakovskys. Samurai Jack: Season Four shows innovation in every episode, and is a must-see.

The Verdict

Go with honor.

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