I knew about Samurai Jack for a long time, but I never really got into it. It was just another cartoon that my brother and some friends were into that I just, at the time, didn’t get. It seemed silly: this seemingly Japanese character with such an English name slicing mutants, robots, and aliens apart with his sword, and a shape-shifting demon nemesis who came a hairsbreadth away from final death but always managed to get away at the end of the episode. I think it’s pretty safe to say that a running theme in the early aughts, and before, is that I made a lot of assumptions and I took things far too seriously.
It wasn’t until a year after the end of Samurai Jack’s fourth season, in 2005, that the show came back on my radar. I don’t remember the episode that I caught, but I do recall that I saw it with my brother at our stay at the Hyatt Hotel in Tel Aviv at the time, and that the animation, the sequences, and the sheer quiet and determination of Jack in the face of the demon lord Aku’s cackling and maniacal nature got me. But I still wasn’t feeling the jive of Genndy Tartakovsky’s elemental aesthetics and I lost track of the show by the time I came back to Canada. Yet the idea of it still stayed with me, and when I got to see a vastly superior Star Wars prequel story arc in the form of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars cartoons I got sold further on the animation and story pacing style.
Even so, it took me many more years to finally get the time and patience to sit down and watch Samurai Jack: and, if I am going to continue being honest, it actually took the news that Adult Swim was making the fifth and final season that finally convinced me to watch the journey of our samurai friend through the wondrous and fantastic dystopia that was the future after Aku came to power.
Suffice to say, I like the series a lot now. I like the little moments where the samurai called Jack rests in nature – those mono no aware moments of transitory sadness in the beauty of impermanence – the cinematic action scenes where he focuses and utterly destroys an enemy, the way he strategizes and outwits his foes, his continuing sense of humility, justice and compassion, and even his instances of subtle humour. For a supposed children’s cartoon to capture all of this is still, after all these years, incredible to witness. Any other hero, facing a future dominated by his arch-nemesis, might have become more callous, numb, violent, and even insane. I mean, I can imagine that back when Samurai Jack was first televised there was a limit to what kind of violence, physical and “moral” that could be shown on the Cartoon Network: even later in the night. So it’s possible that it might not have been acceptable for Jack to become some kind of antihero or, conversely, it just would have altered the story far too much. Whatever the case, it is fairly clear when you look at the continuing fifth season of Tartakovsky’s series that Jack has been, and is going to a darker place this time around.
The premise for the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack is that Jack has been trapped in the future, where Aku sent him, for fifty years but due to being a time traveller – or passing through a time portal – he has stopped aging. Jack’s sole goal, his quest, has been to find another temporal rift, return to his time, and kill Aku with his holy sword: to prevent Aku’s reign over the Earth and all of space from ever happening. But he has been failing to do that for over fifty years and you can see that it is getting to him. I know that, by the time this article is published, many more episodes of the fifth season will be released – if not all of them – and some of my musings here will be even more retrospective and possibly made irrelevant.
But there is one thing that really gets to me about Samurai Jack: and that is Aku.
Aku essentially won. That day, when he finally managed to break out of his prison in his deformed tree after Jack’s father defeated him so many years ago, he defeated his old enemy, took over his empire, enslaved him and his people, and began to summon demons and create soldiers to deal with the rest of the world he won. And when Jack tried to stop him, almost killing him with his father’s sword, Aku managed to open a temporal rift at the last moment to throw Jack “into the future that is Aku.”
However, Aku obviously hasn’t read The Evil Overlord List.
Let me elaborate. Aku is “a shape-shifting master of darkness” who has ruled over the world and various intergalactic powers for thousands of years. He’s used his influence to create generations of followers, loyal robots, and created a Social Darwinian order where the strong and ruthless survive – or at least that is what he thinks he’s done.
What has actually happened, at least until the fifth season of Samurai Jack, is that Aku rules haphazardly at best. It’s true that he has slaves mine a special red ore for the weapons of his minions – a material he can channel his powers more efficiently through – and he does force allies into indentured service and worship of himself, but he is not as omnipresent or as consistent as one would think a world dark lord might be. More often than not, he sits on his throne and lets his minions terrorize random pockets of people, or sends bounty hunters, assassins, demons, and occasionally himself after Jack: the latter of which almost always nearly gets him killed. Sometimes, Aku is played for straight-up comic relief which, given the bleak almost romantic beauty of the strange fragmented future he’s made is something that does become necessary to avoid audience depression.
But he doesn’t even rule consistently. There are plenty of people on Earth who live without even knowing who he is, or just consider him a constant like the nasty bout of weather that sometimes passes by if you’re not careful. It might also have a lot to do with the episodic, often self-contained nature of Samurai Jack. There is something very archetypal about the cat and mouse game that Jack and Aku play with each other: like Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam with Bugs Bunny, Sylvester and Tweety, Will E. Coyote, or Tom and Jerry. Hell, now that I think about it I even get a bit of a George Herriman Krazy Kat vibe with its strange, surreal twilight world and an endless cycle of almost naive idealism with some considerable violence.
Yet both opponents here outsmart and hurt each other. No, the problem with Aku – at least from 2001 to 2004 – is that he wastes many opportunities. I mean, think about it like this. The demon lord has ruled the world for thousands of years, dominating and shaping sentient life on the planet. In the two-part “The Birth of Evil,” we find out that Jack’s father the Emperor accidentally created Aku’s personality with an alchemical concoction made to destroy the piece of the Ultimate Evil which fell to earth after the gods destroyed most of it. In a way, Aku acknowledges the Emperor’s role in creating him, in freeing him, even as he detests the fact that the same man defeated and imprisoned him in the ground for ten more years.
And then, in “The Beginning,” the Emperor’s son, who is later called Jack, almost kills him. Don’t you think that, if you were Aku and you had the power to open a portal in space-time that you would have sent your mortal nemesis and his sword – the only weapon capable of killing you – into a period of early Earth when it was composed of molten magma? Of course, we wouldn’t have much of a show if the main villain threw the hero into a world of lava by the end of the first episode, but this lack of foresight goes much further than this.
As I said a few times already, Aku has had a lot of time to prepare for Jack. Let’s say, for the sake of argument and breaking at least a few of the rules of the Evil Overlord List, Aku likes to, shall we say, “play with his food.” He wants Jack to survive so he can show him a world ruled by him so that he can slowly break him down physically and spiritually over time. All right, that is all fine and dandy, but what can he do to really mess up Jack’s day?
Well, it’s all there really. Aku has a lot of reasons to hate Jack and his father. He also has much reason to hate the gods for attacking his previous larger inky self in space all those aeons ago: and for showing the monks how to make the sword that can genuinely hurt him. Think about it for a few moments. You are Aku. The future is you. So what can you do? Well, you have thousands of years to gather followers together. You can make cults dedicated to your name and your favour. I mean, we see that Aku has loyal spies and in the recent “XCII” there is a Daughters of Aku cult that has been training seven young girls from birth to destroy Jack. But why did it take fifty years for someone, like Aku if he is behind the Daughters, to figure this out?
The point I’m trying to hit home is that Aku had thousands of years to build a religion around himself. He had time to vilify Jack’s father and Jack himself. He could have said that the beings that attacked his previous self in space were “arrogant demons of light” that almost obliterated the gentle shadow that protected and cloaked humankind and that he has brought innovation and protection to the world and the galaxy: but an immortal, power-hungry samurai with a demonic sword continues to serve these other demons, and even leads them to subvert and corrupt villages under his rule. He could have been spreading the tales of the evil deathless samurai for aeons, blaming him or his image for “rebel insurrections,” and making Jack into the bogeyman that all children fear.
Fans of the series might remember “Aku’s Fairy Tales.” When I first saw this title, I thought I’d be seeing some pure evil at work: especially when Aku began gathering what seemed to be all the children of the world to hear “the truth about Samurai Jack.” Imagine if, instead of telling messed up and badly told versions of fairy tales with Jack as the antagonist and Aku as the hero, Aku told them that he brought prosperity, trade, and intergalactic travel to the Earth only for a power-hungry king that worships demons and his son that sold his soul for power – pretending to be a hero, even believing it – to continue threatening it. He blames their legacy for the ills of the world and begins to indoctrinate them. Now imagine Aku has been gathering children by his feet for thousands of years, telling them lies about Jack, and as adults alternatively handing out incentives to behave and punishments when they don’t.
And then there are the times when Aku’s nature gets the better of him and he wants to cause pain and suffering. We have seen Aku shape-shift into humanoid forms before. While his forms do have a greenish cast to their skin, with some red hair, what would anyone else – save maybe the isolated enlightened monks and scholars of that world – know or care? Aku could have been shape-shifting into a samurai once and a while over thousands of years and caused untold destruction. Perhaps, then that samurai would have been nameless as Jack hadn’t actually appeared yet and got named in, aptly enough, “The Samurai Called Jack,” but that would only make it even better Aku. Now he has an unnameable enemy, someone who can look like anyone, but still fit the description of an evil samurai. In addition, there is something about keeping your antagonist in a cult or religious tradition that gives the idea of their evil and the fear behind that evil even more power. “We do not say his name” goes a long way to creating an archetypal devil.
So think about poor Jack, materializing through a portal thousands of years later, to a world that has been trained for the most part to utterly despise and fear him. He would find little shelter and even the people who didn’t outright try to hunt him down might pretend to be allies, only to betray him. It would be like the genuine heartbreak in Jack’s eyes when he found out that his female friend and ally, who he had been forming feelings for, had actually been a shape-shifted Aku in “Jack and the Warrior Woman” only on a much grander scale.
It would wear Jack down physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. If you recall “Jack and the Zombies,” it was an episode that proved that Aku can take a fight seriously and strategize fairly well. He wore Jack down with those legions of undead, then utilized a spirit to take his sword from him, and began attacking Jack without his bane. If Aku had realized the sword couldn’t hurt Jack due to his ancestry and purity of heart, he could have killed him in that episode.
Then add to the fact that in addition to uncertain allies and Aku occasionally pretending to be one of them as the trickster demon sorcerer whose strengths he should play to, Aku could slowly poison Jack against trusting anyone. How long do you think it would take for Jack to either start killing human opponents, or ending his own life? This is apparently something that will be, or has already been, explored in this last season. Jack has destroyed robots, cyborgs, monsters, demons, and mutants for the most part. What happens to Jack’s purity of soul when he has to kill human beings: especially humans who genuinely think they are doing the right thing in attempting to fight him?
And we aren’t even talking about “The Aku Infection.” Remember how Aku refers to the future as “the future that is Aku?” Aside from the fact that the episode started off weirdly, with Aku somehow having gotten a cold, that piece of him that nearly corrupted Jack was a very real threat. We know that Aku can actually take pieces of himself and place them into objects such as the robots he commissioned in “Jack and the Ultra-robots,” and infect others such as with Jack. That corruption brought out Jack’s darkness and his doubts. He almost died, or worse when the infection spread. It is a throwback in a lot of ways to Aku’s origins as a piece of the Ultimate Evil.
So, consider this scenario. After making sure Jack’s very image inspires fear and hatred in an entire world and beyond, severing the samurai from most resources and forms of aid, Aku manages to take Jack’s sword from him – which he seems to have lost in the new season so far anyway – throw it in some lava, and then gradually wear him down with continuous undermining, betrayal, and false hopes over a way home: only to pretend to be long-term ally and infect him with his darkness: utterly destroying the warrior.
And after that? Well, Aku could just spread himself into everyone. He has turned the gods of the universe into the enemy. And the one person who could stop him is dead along with the tool that could hurt him. Aku wins. The future is now truly Aku.
The thing I am trying to get across here about Aku’s mistakes is that he isn’t consistent. He either tries to fight Jack or sends others to kill him. Sometimes he uses trickery, but not nearly as much as he should. The fact of the matter is that he could have killed Jack many times over, and many years ago if he had actually been serious about it.
Of course, this probably a case of truly over-thinking the case. Aku is a lazy, self-indulgent being whose first impulses are towards recklessness and being a force of destruction. He likes being the bad guy. He simply can’t get out of a stereotypical cartoon villain mindset. His voice is that of the late great Mako Iwamatsu and as someone who also played General Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender he can’t help but possess some of the warmth and humour, the depth, that the voice actor brought to him. And there is the fact that Samurai Jack is episodic and revolves in various cycles or tales that often don’t seem to have a linear sense of time. If Aku or Jack win, the show is ultimately over. So the tension continues, or more stories are told before that time.
There is also the fact that Jack isn’t stupid, nor weak. Jack could find allies somewhere. He could prove his true nature through his deeds, through the tales of his true deeds, and it would take a lot to actually break him down: even as he is now in the series. In fact, I actually thought that the world I’m describing now, where almost everyone is Jack’s enemy because of Aku, was actually the one he faces in the series. I believed that he had just one chance to kill Aku and ever since that time the demon lord has remained hidden and continued to try and undermine him from the shadows.
It would have definitely made for a much darker story and perhaps, from 2001 to 2004 there might not have been much place for a cartoon series like that. But now, in 2017, we are watching the new season occur. And, until episode “XCIII,” Aku hasn’t made a physical appearance. Usually, he is the one that narrates the introduction to each episode, and often appears to mockingly laugh and jeer at Jack. Even the Daughters of Aku notice that he hasn’t physically appeared in a while and Aku himself doesn’t seem to be aware of their existence. I wonder, sometimes, in much the same way fans observe Batman and the Joker, if the real reason Aku has not truly attempted to kill Jack has a lot to do with one other possibility. The fact is, I suspect that Aku is bored. I think that ruling over the world, after winning against his enemies, and dealing with foes that can’t ever truly hurt him genuinely wears him down. When Jack is around, however, there is always that danger: that sense that this samurai could genuinely kill him. Jack makes things interesting for Aku, makes him feel vulnerable, makes him feel mortal or even alive. Perhaps, without Jack, Aku’s existence – brought about more or less by Jack’s father – would become utterly meaningless.
But this is a dynamic can change very quickly and, either way, I will enjoy seeing where Samurai Jack goes with this age-old cat and mouse battle between the samurai and the demon lord: just as many of us look forward to seeing how this saga will finally end.