“Long ago in a distant land… I, Aku, the shapeshifting master of darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil. But, a foolish samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword, stepped forth to oppose me.”
“Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time, and flung him into the future- where my evil is LAW! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is AKU.”
-Aku, series villain
The story of the cartoon Samurai Jack is summarized in its entirety in the monologue above, read by the series’ villain, Aku.
It is the story of Samurai Jack, the son of an emperor, whose life changes when the shapeshifting embodiment of evil, Aku, returns and lays waste to his home. His father, the emperor, is captured but Jack is spirited away to safety by his mother, who places him in the care of warriors all around the world. They train him in all forms of martial arts, archery, knife-throwing, and sword fighting; his mother also gave him his father’s magical sword, the only weapon capable of harming Aku, his sworn nemesis. The Samurai then returns to his home, now a ravaged hellscape under the control of Aku, and challenges the shapeshifter to a duel to the death. Aku takes many forms—a bear, scorpion, tentacled monster, and even a ram—to defeat his mortal foe but fails, and is beaten badly.
Before Jack can strike his adversary down, Aku says something that does not make sense.
“You might have beaten me now…” Aku whispers, “But I will destroy you in the future.”
He lets out an unearthly shriek and a white ring appears above the Samurai, that opens into a spinning white-and-black portal. Jack is plunged through.
The Samurai is flung through the portal to a strange and futuristic city with flying cars and impossibly tall buildings, where Aku’s face is on every billboard, sign, and poster in the city like an Orwellian nightmare. He realizes that Aku sent him far into the future, where he is the ruler of Earth, and now he must return to the past so he can prevent this horrible outcome. However, Jack is a force for good, and he vows to help everyone he encounters as he goes about his search for a way back to the past.
In summary, the main themes of the show are good versus evil, light versus dark, absolute rebel versus absolute ruler: Jack versus Aku. In every episode of the series, Jack seeks to find a way back to the past, or help a group of people downtrodden by the rule of Aku, and in every episode Aku seeks to stop Jack from getting back.
Aku preventing Jack from jumping into a time portal.
However, what makes the series so unique is the character of Samurai Jack himself. He is the only one capable of standing up to an immortal shapeshifting demon, but he is far from a traditional masculine hero. He is reserved when other characters are aggressive; peaceful when others are violent; and respectful where others are boastful. And despite being a warrior, violence is always his last resort.
Feminist criticism is the analysis informed by feminist theory. As a framework, it asserts that male dominance is seen across all parts of the human experience, including literature and entertainment. Lisa Tuttle defines the six goals of feminist criticism as follows: “(1) To develop and uncover a female tradition of writing, (2) to interpret symbolism of women’s writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view, (3) to rediscover old texts, (4) to analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, (5) to resist sexism in literature, and (6) to increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style.”
Samurai Jack, as a character, is both feminist and an anti-masculine character. This is exemplified in the episode, “Samurai vs Samurai”, where Jack encounters his antithesis in a bar, in the form of another samurai. This samurai bursts into the bar, blaring music and dressed in bedazzled purple and gold robes. He uses his status as a warrior and a samurai to bully his way into getting free drinks from the bartender and intimidating the other bar attendees.
Meanwhile, Jack calmly sips tea by the fire. Later in the episode Jack is attacked by some robot mercenaries, and dispatches them with haste. Without wasting a moment, the purple-robed braggart (called the Sam-oo-rai) drops what he is doing, insists that the bar isn’t big enough for the both of them, and challenges Jack to a duel to prove he is the better warrior. Jack accepts, but only to get the Sam-oo-rai out of the bar.
When they finally square up to duel, Jack cuts down two branches of bamboo and insists they fight with them to avoid lethal violence. The Sam-oo-rai begrudgingly accepts and is taught a lesson when he is thrashed by the better warrior.
This episode demonstrates Jack’s anti-masculinity. The Sam-oo-rai represents the traditional masculine mindset of strength- a boastful, aggressive, alpha male type. Jack, in the episode, is presented as an opposite to the Sam-oo-rai, as a peaceful, quiet, respectful type, despite being the more powerful fighter. This departure from traditional aggressive masculinity makes Jack’s character so unique.
“Walter Truett Anderson described postmodernism as belonging to one of four typological world views, which he identifies as either (a) Postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed, (b) Scientific-rational, in which truth is found through methodical, disciplined inquiry, (c) Social-traditional, in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilization, or (d) Neo-Romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.”
In a nutshell, postmodern criticism is looking at modern concepts with skepticism and asking if the traditional ways to analyze those concepts are necessary or complete. In this way, concepts and ideas are diffused in ways that were previously unconsidered.
Samurai Jack, as a cartoon series, defies traditional cartoon ‘rules’, and combined three-panel action sequences from manga, extended periods of silence and nature, slower pacing and an emphasis on symbolism, and a visually striking, painted art style to create a completely unique viewer experience.
The comparable leading male characters on the other Cartoon Network shows at the time were Johnny Bravo, Ed Edd and Eddy (as a trio) and He-Man. These shows were comedy experiences based purely on 20 minutes of slapstick entertainment, and the lead characters were masculine and rude, and their rudeness got them in silly situations. Their entire show concepts hinged around those silly main characters and the silly experiences they have. Samurai Jack is the story of Jack but often times the show writers would have extended sequences without Jack, something that was not possible in He-Man or Ed Edd and Eddy, and the episode would still work.
The episode that exemplifies how Samurai Jack differed from the traditional cartoon structure of 2002-2004 and is a ‘postmodern’ work of art is “The Princess and the Bounty Hunter”.
The episode begins with six bounty hunters assembling in a snowed-in cabin, all for a common purpose: they had been told by a mysterious stranger that Samurai Jack was going to be passing by the cabin in a few days. They were all keen to collect Aku’s large bounty on his head. As they wait, they all introduce themselves and describe their individual plans to capture or kill Jack. Every bounty hunter shows their plan in the form of a mini cartoon, and each hunter’s plan is acted out with a different art style. The gentlemen wielding daggers tells his story like a 1920’s silent movie; the Mongol strongman shows his Crayola sketch of a plan; the African blow-darter shows his plan using a traditional Anansi art style; et cetera.
Needless to say, they are essentially bragging to one another and almost break out in a fight amongst themselves to prove who is the strongest bounty hunter. But one hunter among them ends the conflict- the mysterious stranger- who turns out to be the princess of a kingdom hit with hard times. She convinces them to create a collective plan, and work together to take the Samurai. In return, she would split the reward with them, and the kingdom would pay them riches beyond their imagination once it returns to its former glory.
The bounty hunters come up with a plan to ambush Jack that involves them all to bury themselves in the snow, and this scene follows. No picture does it justice, you have to watch it using the link.
Jack is only in the twenty-minute episode for three minutes, and he does not say a word. Yet he is the focus of the entire episode, so he is undoubtedly the frontrunner of the show. The episode is simultaneously serious, funny, creative, and completely unlike the other cartoons at the time. It combined many elements from different genres of entertainment to create a completely unique viewer experience…
…And that is why Samurai Jack is such a creative and culturally significant work of art, and why Jack is such an interesting hero. He was badass but not masculine; funny but not silly; calm but powerful. Samurai Jack quite different compared to the other cartoons shown at the time, and through Jack and his quest to return to the past, it was able to teach the viewers important lessons. As mentioned above, Jack was so different from the other cartoon heroes: despite being a powerful warrior, he always showed strangers respect and violence was always his last resort. There is no better scene to illustrate that reserved attitude than “Jack vs the Guardian“. Jack comes across the blue guardian of a time portal, or someone who is literally standing in between him and his goal of returning to the past. Jack’s first instinct is to reason with the guardian, and humbly request his permission to use the portal, and when that request was rejected, he continued to plead until he was absolutely sure the guardian would not budge. Only then did he challenge the guardian to a duel.
This makes Samurai Jack culturally significant because he was such a different kind of hero than most viewers were used to in a cartoon. The Samurai taught that problems can be solved with reason, meditation is important, and violence is a last resort. He was a warrior that defied traditional masculine principles, and a postmodern character with depth past his white robes and sword.