‘Samurai Jack’ 5.01 ‘XCII’ Review: Welcome Back, Jack!

Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack, one of the most acclaimed animated series of the early 2000s, has finally received the continuation it deserves, and the debut episode does not disappoint. (Spoilers ahead!)

For the uninitiated, Samurai Jack was a four-season animated series that followed the story of a samurai warrior (given the nickname of “Jack” later on) who sought to destroy Aku (Mako Iwamatsu), an evil daemonic wizard with unmatched power. Although the samurai (Phil LaMarr) managed to best the shapeshifter in a duel, Aku was able to send Jack into the future before he could be struck down. Jack, discovering a world where Aku’s unimpeded reign led to the suffering of many, vowed to return to his timeline and to kill Aku to prevent such a future from coming to pass, helping as many people as he could along the way. By the nature of the show being episodic and only occasionally experimenting with stories that slightly advanced the overall narrative, it was readily apparent that Jack wasn’t going to make it home as long as the creators felt they could continue exploring the future. That being said, a Season 3 episode teased that Jack would eventually make it back in time after spending years in the world that Aku created. The series was acclaimed by many outlets and gained a cult following over the years as an older audience was drawn into the samurai’s tale and the unique artistic direction that the series experimented with.

And then came… Nothing. The show was cancelled in 2004 with the intent to produce a feature-length film that would serve as the ending to Jack’s quest, but the disappointing performance of The Powerpuff Girls Movie, which was meant to kick off an entire line of big-screen adaptations of various Cartoon Network shows, instead led all of the planned projects being cancelled or refitted for television. Various other setbacks kept the project from coming to fruition, even after several pushes to get a movie made went through a handful of production studios like Bad Robot. Although a comic series published by IDW was made, series creator Genndy Tartakovsky claimed that it was a non-canonical account, and it seemed as though the show was going to be left without a real conclusion. That changed as of today, as the latest attempt (which officially began development in 2015) to continue Samurai Jack‘s story was a successful one. It was determined that the fifth and final season of the show would shift the series over to a having a narrative arc instead of just telling episodic stories, and it would finally resolve the question of whether or not Jack would return home – and if he was even capable of defeating Aku once and for all.

Set 50 years after Jack was trapped in Aku’s future, the ageless samurai has lost all hope of ever returning to the past and exclusively fights to save as many people from Aku’s dark reign as possible. Somewhere along the way, Jack lost his katana – itself one of the few things capable of killing Aku for good – which seems to have influenced his decision to live to make a better future instead of trying to change the past. Armed with futuristic weapons, riding a motorcycle with spiked wheels, and donning heavy armor over his light gi, the samurai continues his one-man war on Aku’s seemingly-infinite forces – but that’s not to say that his continued failure to find a way back home hasn’t taken a toll on his mental state. Whether he’s at rest or is in the midst of battle, post-traumatic stress causes Jack to hallucinate visions of the people that suffered under Aku’s reign in feudal Japan. While our hero is still as steadfast as ever when it comes to fighting Aku’s minions, it’s clear that he’s a damaged man looking for some fleeting hope that he can somehow still fix everything, especially since the memory of a mysterious new warrior framed in shadow has left the hero in a state of perpetual unease.

The premiere also gives us our first look at what appear to be a group of recurring antagonists – the Daughters of Aku – who are given a surprising amount of depth in a series well-known for having a monster-of-the-week format. The girls are raised from birth to be assassins that believe that Jack is some sort of Antichrist while Aku is a benevolent lord of all creation, which will surely lead to an interesting sort of conflict. While the episode has already taken Samurai Jack in a much darker direction than anything that’s come before, the show doesn’t lose sight of the original quirks that made the series such entertaining viewing in the first place. This is no more apparent than with the episode’s primary antagonist – a campy assassin robot who controls his weapons with the music he makes on a flute (and later, through singing, scatting, and beatboxing), which predictably leads to a fight that is as cleverly choreographed as it is inherently goofy. And the show’s ability to run with this nearly as well as it does – while managing to make the more common, serious moments hit hard – only continues to prove why people are still in love with it.

The series revival also takes advantage of the decade-plus of advancement in animation techniques, utilizing several digital programs to help recreate the original show’s style instead of keeping it completely hand-drawn. As a result, a series that was already well-known for having lush, beautifully-animated sequences now has even more stunning artwork than ever before, and said artwork is animated in a way that’s smoother than ever. These technological advances even manage to help implement elements of CGI that would have stuck out like a sore thumb in the original series, as the cel-shaded computer graphics mesh perfectly with the hand-drawn feel that the show still has. The art direction for the series continues to be brilliant as the show’s comic-book-esque animation techniques have been refined and expanded upon, resulting in action scenes that are more visually-engaging than ever. The story’s newfound emphasis on utilizing a non-linear format – something relatively unheard of with the show – displays Tartakovsky’s strength as a storyteller and leave me excited to see where we go from here. We’ve already been promised the return of the fan-favorite Scotsman, Jack getting his sword back, and a final confrontation with Aku that will collectively blow our minds. It has yet to be seen if the rest of the show’s revival can sustain the level of quality presented in this phenomenal first episode, but for now, it’s safe to say that the premiere episode of Samurai Jack got things started off the right way. Welcome back, Jack. We missed you.

Samurai Jack airs on Saturday evenings at 10:00 CST on Cartoon Network.