Samurai Jack:

Can He Go Back?

It’s always a challenge writing about a series in progress, especially when you know that by the time your article comes out, it may already be a fairly moot point or some development occurs that you weren’t aware of that retroactively complicates what you were writing. I am writing about Samurai Jack again, and in particular on its titular protagonist, the warrior called Jack, and his goal: to go back to the past, his timeline, and destroy Aku once and for all.

By the time this article is seen, it will be in May: perhaps about the point where the eighth episode of season five is seen. It shouldn’t actually be the final episode of Samurai Jack in its entirety, as Adult Swim had apparently ordered ten episodes of the series and not only eight. I’m hoping that what will happen is that, like “The Origin of Evil” in season three, the last two episodes will be an as of yet unannounced two-part story that is the equivalent of a movie: which would be even more fitting given how Genndy Tartakovsky originally wanted to end Samurai Jack with an animated film giving us the final battle between the warrior and the demon lord Aku.

But a lot of the above is pure speculation and supposition, and I am not afraid to tell you that the rest of this article will be along those lines as well. What I have been thinking about in my crash-course through the Samurai Jack series and watching the fifth and final season unfold is not only how it will end, but also whether or not Jack can actually go back to his own time. The following might not be an original argument on the matter, but if you’ve read this far hear me out.

My question gained further impetus with the introduction to the Daughters of Aku and their mandate. And then, thinking about their mandate and their indoctrination, I began to think about the motivations in the rest of Aku’s minions and hired bounty hunters and warriors to destroy Jack. You don’t think about these elements much when you are a child, or younger and just take it as a given that the reason Aku’s servants, or those dedicated to Aku want to destroy Jack is because they want riches, rewards, or are doing it purely out of devotion to a deity or a higher power than themselves.

But what if I were to tell you that some of Aku’s servants might be attempting to kill Jack in order to save the world?

This one question is greatly reminiscent of questions you would find in fan forums or even speculative YouTube Theory videos, but it is something that I began to consider when watching episode three of Samurai Jack season five: or more specifically “XCV.” It is Ashi, the last surviving sister of the seven Daughters, that claims Aku created a diverse and wondrous world that Jack is attempting to destroy by killing its originator. This claim, on the surface, seems laughable given how horrifying and destructive Aku truly is. However, you have to consider another question: would the world, such as its portrayed in Samurai Jack, be the same if Aku had never ruled it?

It is a difficult question to answer. Jack’s own timeline is a fairly interesting period as well along with its cosmology and mythos. You can see this in the first episode of the entire series, along with some of his flashbacks and especially in “The Origin of Evil.” Jack seems to have lived in feudal Japan, or during a period in Japan where there were many city-states. However, his father is called the Emperor and he does seem to rule a sizable kingdom in his own right. What might make this clearer is the cameo appearance of what seems to be Ogami Ittō and his young son Daigorō from Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub manga series in “Jack Remembers the Past”: which would put the time period in the 1500s onward. However, this would mean that there would be no way that Jack could have met and learned wrestling from what seem to be the ancient Greeks or Romans along with spending time with the ancient Egyptians as they existed thousands of years prior to this period. Likewise, if we went by cameos and references, then we might as well consider Star Wars to exist in the same world as Samurai Jack and therefore it is, like this article can become, a moot point. The two characters aren’t necessarily from Lone Wolf and Cub, but they are based off of them. In any case, they are interesting homages or small flash-fiction love letters between Tartakovsky, the creators that influenced some of his storytelling, and the viewers of the series.

And if you look at the Norse Odin, the Egyptian Ra, the Hindu Vishnu, and others as coexisting and even possessing their own pantheon, or alliance, against the Great Evil that Aku was created from due to their actions in destroying it, you can see that Tartakovsky has created his own condensed elemental world based off of mythological and literary influences from our own. But my point is that if you look at Jack’s time spent in places that resemble Africa, Egypt, Arabia, England where he meets Robin Hood, Russia, and Mongolia you can still a diverse and even mystical world of anachronisms and wonder even then.

But it is still different from the world we see in “the future that is Aku.” In the time period that Aku sends Jack into, we see futuristic Scotsmen and Spartans, Vikings, the continuing order of the Shaolin monks, the Lizard Monks, as well as dog-people, independent sentient robots of various kinds that Aku, the aquatic Triseraquins, the Woolies, and so many other orders and sentient species. Some of them immigrated and settled from other worlds, others might have been engineered by the humans under Aku, may have been jump-started into existence from human designs for Aku, and still more may well have developed their cultures and technologies in a particular way due to the interaction between worlds, and the rule of Aku himself.

It is, of course, possible that a lot of these developments could have happened without Aku. Certainly, there are mystical spots and beings in the world that might have had influence whether Aku existed in the future or not, but it is hard to argue that even those beings and phenomena have profited, or at least gained a lot of the influence they have due to Aku’s presence over the universe.

So here we have the Daughters of Aku. On the surface, they seem to have developed away from Aku’s very awareness if his state in “XCIII” can be believed. We don’t know when they cropped up at the time of this writing, though the fact that the seven sister assassins are moving after Jack now seems to indicate that they haven’t been active long: certainly not for aeons or centuries, but perhaps more recently in the past fifty years or less if you take the ages of the sisters into account. Certainly, the High Priestess, who is their mother, and the other acolytes of the Daughters cult could be about fifty years old or so – conveniently, if true, the same amount of time it’s been that Jack has been trapped in the future and ageless – but whatever the case they have been planning this attack on Jack for a long time.

The Daughters have spared their plan no expense. They waited or engineered the births of seven daughters from the High Priestess herself, including Ashi, then proceeded to train them in the fighting arts, survival tactics, ninjitsu, and harsh detachment for perhaps anywhere from sixteen to twenty or so years. They are a dark mirror of the relatively youthful training that Jack himself received in learning how to combat Aku: being taught that Aku created the wonders of the world and that Jack wants to kill him and destroy all of it.

This indoctrination has its flaws however. While Jack’s parents and his teachers and friends all over the world of the past did teach him survival and combat skills, they also taught him literacy, philosophy, comradery, and a respect and knowledge of nature. They showed him the world and they encouraged his sense of wonder and exploration along with the ability to grow and continuously adapt. The Daughters of Aku, however, are trained to be tools for one purpose only: to destroy Samurai Jack. As such, they aren’t prepared to deal with the outside world beyond it being an obstacle and this gives Jack far more leeway and knowledge over his opponents.

Nevertheless, you can almost see why the cult trained them to this extent. They have the discipline of many machines that Jack has dealt with, but they do have the sense of improvisation and combat adaptability. In addition, they have been trained as both individually gifted warriors and as a team: with emphasis on agility, dexterity, and skill. Their single, ruthless mindset, with the added psychological advantage of them being flesh and blood human beings against a man who has only had to fight non-human or non-living opponents cannot be overstated enough: if only as a form of psychological warfare.

And they are going after Jack, after years of conditioning, training, indoctrination, and teamwork to basically keep Jack from not only destroying Aku, but saving the world: their own world.

Think about it like this. Let’s say, back in “Jack and the Travelling Creatures” Jack somehow managed to defeat the powerful blue-skinned Guardian and went back in time. Let’s also say that he got back to his homeland, fought Aku, and utterly destroyed him with his family’s holy blade. That sounds great, right? Jack has prevented a whole era of pain and suffering from happening to the Earth, has saved his family and his kingdom, let the universe continue in relative freedom, and made sure that no one like the Daughters of Aku ever had to exist.

But…. the Daughters of Aku would never have existed. The High Priestess and her acolytes would never have been trained. The robots that Aku influenced humanity to create were never made, or at least not in the same way. Perhaps the other species from other worlds had no reason to come to Earth. Civilizations that died in the current timeline continued on, or changed. Perhaps the dog people never evolved or had not been genetically engineered. Maybe humankind continued ruling Earth and no other new sentient species ever cropped up.

All right, but let’s say this is not necessarily true. Let’s imagine that all of these different orders, species, and civilizations managed to happen in the future regardless of whether or not Aku is around. I mean, it is fairly clear that Aku personally is a lacklustre, frivolous overlord at best and life does somehow manage to go on around him. But Aku has also killed people. His minions have destroyed others and altered various environments that led to the growth of other species and factions.

I will make this even easier by using another geek analogy. In Classic Doctor Who’s “Genesis of the Daleks,” the Fourth Doctor is given the opportunity to go back in time and destroy the Dalek race – the destroyers of countless lives in the universe – before they ever become a power. However, what The Doctor explains to his Companions is that because of the Daleks, many lives were not only lost, but their threat brought countless other species and civilizations together in trade and alliances to protect themselves against them: and even triumph at times. If The Doctor had erased the Daleks from history, all of these developments would retroactively cease to exist, and lives that could have happened might not or at least not in the same way as they had done so before.

So think about Jack. Jack has been tutored in many different areas of combat, philosophy, art, literacy, and life. But more than that, through his understanding of Bushido and other codes he has a strict form of honour. Now think about him back in “Jack and the Travelling Creatures” and how the Guardian told him that he was not the one to use the portal – and later amended it to say that he wasn’t ready. It wasn’t the fact that Jack lacked combat skill, intention, will, or power. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of intelligence, but he has suffered from a lack of patience.

It is this flaw, at least in the past, that cost him his victory over Aku in the very first episode of the series and sometimes it has gotten the better of him even in the future. When it comes down to it, Jack isn’t unlike the Daughters of Aku in that while their sole quest is to kill him, his one mission in life is to obliterate Aku and make sure his reign never occurs. Yet I don’t believe that once, during his entire run in the series, that Jack ever sat down and wondered what victory over Aku might actually mean…. and what its consequences might ultimately be towards others.

Jack has been in the future for fifty years. He has fought a multitude of different opponents, but he has also made many friends and saved countless lives. All he has seen during this time is if he eliminates Aku at the start of the temporal cycle, then he saves all of those lives: including those of his family. Yet he also has ties to this world, even if by season five his mind is being to fray and he has to fight against the threat of losing himself.

So what happens if someone were to confront Jack with the terrible truth, or possibility: that destroying Aku in the past might negate the existences of the Scotsman, the Lizard Monks, the rabbit family at the beginning of season five, the dog people, the robot civilizations, and even the humans that have managed to eke out a living in the metropolises that Aku had created? And this is not even going into the beings that Aku has had created or, again, influenced. At this moment, Jack has been working with Ashi to get his destiny back on track. The way those two have interacted with each other now is not unlike Lone Wolf and Cub, except while Jack is obviously associated with the wolf, for all of her ferocity Ashi is a lot like a cub: possessing potential but still needing to grow up and have a proper mentor. You can see it in the way that Jack picks the needles out of her and himself in “XCV” or carries her strapped on his shoulders.

Whatever their actual relationship is, Ashi is important to Jack. So how would Jack deal with it if his travel back through time and confrontation with Aku doesn’t just cost Ashi her life, but her very existence? Would the obliteration of that future be like a mono no aware moment: a sad, transitory memory of beauty that is quickly erased from Jack’s mind as he goes on with the life he had in the past? Somehow, I doubt it. I think that Jack would have to look at his principles, at his actions, at what his family genuinely wanted him to do and taught him to do, and think about his friends and loved ones that he made in this timeline. There are many things that can happen in five decades. Yet one thing that I am pondering about is whether or not Jack can go back to the past and fulfill his mission. I think, that if the lives of others, the countless people he’s saved are threatened by this action, then the answer is simple.

He won’t go back.

Now that is a complicated conclusion as those time portals were obviously placed there for something, and especially the one under the protection of the Guardian. Maybe they are a test of some kind? But let’s say Jack can’t go back to the past, or that it is all a test of his patience and integrity against Aku. What can he do?

I think that what Jack would do is that he would destroy Aku now, in the future. It would be the only honourable and ethical thing to do. He can’t let the demon lord continue to live as he and his minions and hunters threaten other lives, but he also doesn’t want to cost any more people their lives either. At the same time, I did mention that the time portals are there, or were there, for a reason. There is another moral quandary to consider: the fact that if Jack doesn’t take his opportunity to change the past, many people he knew and loved back that time would suffer and die because of it.

Either way, Jack has to make a powerful choice, and it won’t be easy. Genndy Tartakovsky is already illustrating the fact that season five is the most philosophical and psychological run of the series. In some ways, this is more real than all the sword fighting, and death-dealing we’ve been privy to see. But I think that Jack has, in fact – if such a scenario is on the table – already demonstrated what kind of choice he would make. In the episode where he meets the Shaolin in “Jack, The Monks, and The Ancient Master’s Son,” he has the choice to go for the portal opened for a limited duration and leave his monk escorts to fight off the guardian statues, or abandon the portal to save his allies. And Jack makes the obvious choice as the series continues long after that episode.

So while it’s not certain how Samurai Jack will end, if Jack will go back in time, die heroically like a kingly Spartan and make Ashi the new Samurai Jack – adopting the name that he earned – or stay behind and make a new life after vanquishing Aku, it is fairly clear that whatever Jack is allowed to do, he will always do the right thing.

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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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