Back to the Past:

Samurai Jack

So, this past while I’ve been ruminating over Samurai Jack. Originally, I focused on Aku and how ridiculous he is as a villain. However, like I said in my first article on the subject Aku is a demon trickster sorcerer and he seems to thrive off of chaos and suffering. A being like Aku wouldn’t want to rule a stratified realm but, as he does, he would rather play with and smash his “toys” — people and the world – like a child having a temper tantrum, or one that simply loves the fact of destruction.

But then, after Aku, I decided to try my hand and look at the character of Jack and where his last arc of season five could possibly lead him. That was in my second Samurai Jack article. I made a lot of points and referred to some of his original episodes from the 2001 to 2004 run before its incredibly lengthy, and possibly permanent, hiatus. I looked at a humble and heavily principled man who was being dragged through multiple hells in the future: his senses made into agony by a cinematic maya created by the being that took everything away from him. It’s no coincidence I reference Indian spirituality and philosophy. Aku’s future is a great illusion and lure of seduction and pain, and if you also think about the idea of Sasāra – of “wandering” and “the world” – you can see it applied to Jack and his actions throughout all of his adventures. For the longest time, “the future that is Aku” is a state that Jack seeks to leave: not so much to move on through a cycle of rebirth, but to escape by completing his task and releasing the karmic ties that bind him to the demon lord and what he has made.

Even then, Jack isn’t seeking ascension. He is no Buddha. He just wants the nightmare to end. He wants to save the people that he loves and cares for: his parents, his kingdom, and his friends. Jack just wants to go home.

I think this is something to which we can all relate. I know I can. I can definitely relate to the feeling that Jack has every time he struggles, every moment he falters, even the moments when victory or companionship is in his grasp only to have it snatched away by what can seem like cruel and arbitrary forces. It is definitely part of the hero’s journey, this element of his story, and something that he shares with all of humanity.

What I liked the most about season five is that we see Jack at his lowest point. It isn’t so much the devil tempting him thirsty and starving in desert, as it is the demons of his mind tearing him apart. He’s stuck and frustrated and full of despair: with seemingly no way out. The new introduction, where Jack tells his audience that he does not age and he is constantly suffering, with all hope being lost sets the stage for another kind of story using the same pieces that existed all the way back in 2004: and making their interactions even more mature. And that is a feat given the fact that despite some necessarily silly episodes and moments of levity, Samurai Jack has had some fairly serious content and even adult themes.

I’m not telling anyone who is a fan of the now-completed series anything they haven’t known already, or read before. I probably still won’t. But when it comes down to it, I think that what Genndy Tartakovksy attempted to do with episode “CI” was literally bring the series back to the past. How this ultimately turned out in a narrative sense, however, is a whole other story.

I originally posited that Samurai Jack could end with something of a two-part episode of an almost cinematic length: namely building up all tension to the climax that is the battle with Aku. However, the ten episode format that Tartakovsky and his team worked with probably only allowed for so much. And then there is another matter to consider as well, before I go on. Every story, especially a graphic or animated one, has a central theme or image. The premise has always been that Jack has a magical sword that he must use to destroy Aku, but he must go back to the past to eliminate Aku’s reign over the world. It is in the theme song of the original four seasons, and Jack’s words in the introduction of the fifth: “Back to the past, Samurai Jack.”

A premise is almost like a promise to the audience. It is almost the beginning and the end of the story even before it concludes. Of course, there are exceptions to this but then you also have to look at the pacing and the nature of the story and the world that you observe.

I have very mixed feelings over how Samurai Jack ended. Tartakovsky said that the ending to the series would be “bittersweet,” but at the time there was so much that could be interpreted from that statement and the subsequent series of animated events that came after. Let me see how I can best further express my thoughts on this matter.

For the first couple of episodes, we see that Jack’s real enemy isn’t even Aku anymore, but rather his own inner demons and complete bitterness in having failed his quest for fifty years. When the Daughters of Aku are hunting him in an excellently cinematic style across the land, it isn’t so much that they are formidable – which they are – it’s that Jack can’t fight them, and himself at the same time. Even the musical robot bounty hunter Scaramouche manages to slow Jack down for a time because Jack is bogged down with his sense of self.

Even Aku isn’t immune to this dichotomy. When we see him in the second episode, we find out that he is in a deep “malaise.” The demon lord doesn’t even seem to gain pleasure out of pain and suffering anymore. With Jack no longer directly fighting him and yet still alive after fifty years without aging, the two are at a stalemate: Jack has lost his sword and his sense of innocence and hope, while Aku never gets the closure of killing Jack and is always in his fortress, just waiting for him to come back.

It’s the character of Ashi that changes everything. She is the most talented and skilled Daughter of Aku who, unlike her sisters, actually thinks. In a lot of ways, she is Jack’s dark mirror. Like Jack she is trained from an early age in various fighting arts to destroy a greater enemy “to the world.” Unlike Jack, she is shaped merely as a tool to that end and much of the reality of the world is kept from her by her Priestess mother. It is actually miraculous and incredible to see Ashi – in her interactions with Jack – change from a brainwashed cultist, into the confused young girl she was, the formidable warrior that she really is, and the companion of which Aku’s shapeshifted rendition of Ikra from “Jack and The Warrior Woman” was only a pale shadow.

Ashi is curious about the world and she appreciates its wonder and his transitory nature. Jack saves her from indoctrination and a grudging, but quick bond forms between them. And she ends up saving him. I’m not just talking about her protecting him when he was in the process of meditating in search of his lost mystical sword, or what happens in the last episode of the series. Rather, I’m talking about beforehand: when the spectral Samurai horseman known as The Omen attempts to convince Jack to commit suicide due to his years long failure in his quest and the subsequent loss of innocent life occurring in his wake.

She convinces him that he has done good, and that he’s saved countless lives. It’s at that point that you realize Ashi has gone from more than just an assassin, or enemy, or someone to be saved. She has become Jack’s friend. Can you imagine that for a few moments? Jack has been practically alone for fifty years after losing his sword to Aku’s manipulations. He killed some innocent goat creatures that had only been trying to help him, before they had been mutated into horrors by Aku. Jack was so blinded with rage and frustration that he killed them without realizing what Aku had done after he destroyed the last time portal. I’ve talked about Jack’s anger and impatience before. It’s what brought him into Aku’s future to begin with: that moment where he was so distracted by killing the other that Aku was able to teleport him away into the place that would become his hell for fifty years.

I can only imagine how Jack must have felt in killing those goats with a sword that was never supposed to destroy innocent life. That was the day Jack lost his self-esteem and became afraid of himself and the damage he could do. The symbolism of the goats, scapegoats as innocent sacrifices often undertaken to appease deities or a ritual, is fairly blatant here. But Ashi, being there for him and fighting for him – actually believing in him – is what ultimately saves his life.

There were a lot of ways their relationship could have gone, or could have been depicted if Tartakovsky and his team so chose. I know other fans had issues, or could have had issues, with a new character like Ashi being inserted into a story about a man who – up until now – had undertaken his solitary hero’s quest to vanquish his demon lord foe. But there is nothing token about Ashi. She is a thinking, feeling, human being with moments of power and vulnerability.

The team could have made it so that Ashi was something of a surrogate daughter to Jack, or even a descendant of his. I mean, think about it: Jack has been in the future for fifty years. He must have been lonely the entire time, or some of the time when he didn’t meet some new friends. Wouldn’t it have been the height of bitter irony if the Daughters of Aku had been founded by a child of Jack’s or his lover, taken from him, or going to Aku’s forces when Jack inevitably had to leave as Aku was hunting him? For the Daughters of Aku to have been of Jack’s bloodline would have been an interesting twist. It would have also challenged Jack’s mission to go back to the past and change time. Even with the romantic route that Tartakovsky went with instead, those issues are still there.

I’ve talked about the moral implications of Jack’s mission before and I am more than certain that other articles and forums have done the same. Certainly, they have been doing so now.

The romance between Ashi and Jack is brief: like the lifespan of a firefly, or even less. After Jack succeeds in facing his ego, accepting it and rejecting his own self-entitlement – becoming “balanced” once more – the gods give him back his father’s sword and they transform him back into his pristine white gi, and sandals: restoring him swiftly with their power much in the same way they did with his father the Emperor back in “The Birth Of Evil” when they created the sword out of his sense of human nobility and justice.

There is some physical tension between Jack and Ashi played against the usual Samurai Jack backdrop of fighting and even dealing with a crashed alien ship. But then, after surviving death, the two kiss. This romance lasts from the end of that episode to the beginning of the second last episode of the series when everything starts to go wrong. It turns out, after Jack leaves Ashi in order to save her from “becoming a memory,” yet another person he cares for dead because of Aku and forgetting the fact that she can take care of herself, he finds himself in the ruins of the Guardian’s domain.

And in Part II of this article, we will be looking at the effectiveness of Genndy Tartakovsky’s ending to the series and whether or not Samurai Jack actually succeeds in getting “back to the past.”

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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  1. I’m going to be honest here. I think Ashi should have died after the third episode. The first three episodes of season 5 were near perfect, but the show suffered both in pacing and story by forcing in a redemption arc for Ashi. Similarly, it was a little ridiculous how Jack lost his sword. Wouldn’t it have been much more meaningful that he lost his sword after losing to that samurai (who should have not been merely a ghost) and because of that, he failed to save the children that he hallucinated? It’s easy to say that making a well-paced final season is difficult, but given Tartakovsky’s two decades of experience, one would expect better and it is truly disappointing that he failed to maintain the excellent quality of season 5′s first three episodes.

    • It’s funny you should mention the part where the goats were the reason why Jack lost his sword because, in the second part of this article, I have my own take on what could have been a different reason as to why he lost that sword. It’s predicated on the fact that when we saw all the original episodes, from Seasons One to Four, they weren’t all necessarily in chronological or temporal order. Almost each episode was its own self-contained story. But if Season 5 started making it more overtly chronological, well there was a really good way Tartakovsky could have had Jack lose his sword that would have definitely worked with the momentum and theme of the series.

      I do think they needed more than ten episodes. At least thirteen like the other ones. As for Ashi, I don’t know. I liked her. I know others haven’t, but I have my own views on that in the second part of this article as well.

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