[WARNING - This review contains SPOILERS for Samurai Jack season 5, episode 1.]
It's been over a decade since Samurai Jack was last on television, ending its fourth season with an episode that saw Jack continuing his quest to find the evil, shapeshifting master of darkness, Aku. Only Jack never got to finish that quest. The show was canceled and for years it seemed as if its creator, Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Laboratory, Hotel Transylvania), would never have the opportunity to finish his landmark series.
Fast-forward to now -- the age in which many a celebrated series and franchise are earning second chances -- and Samurai Jack is finally getting the proper ending it so deserves. Premiering tonight on Adult Swim, Samurai Jack season 5 promises not only a return of the titular samurai, but a more mature tone for the series -- a decision that makes sense seeing as the audience that watched Samurai Jack when it was first airing on Cartoon Network has also grown up.
But the choice to ditch the family-friendly vibe serves a purpose beyond upping the grit and gore: It will allow Samurai Jack to fully and more deeply explore its protagonist's despair. It may have been years since we last saw Jack, but it's been even longer for him -- 50 years to be exact, though he hasn't aged a day, a side effect of the time travel. And in that time, Jack is no closer to defeating Aku or returning to his original time. It would seem that the once righteous samurai, having suffered decades of failure, is without hope.
Samurai Jack's season 5 premiere jumps back and forth between two tales: Jack's new life as a disillusioned wanderer and the birth of the Daughters of Aku, elite assassins with one purpose -- kill the samurai. Their creation is a strong parallel to Jack's current state of mind, which sees him haunted by visions of his own parents telling him that he has "forgotten his purpose". He has also lost his sword -- only another reminder of his forgotten purpose and something he must reclaim if he ever hopes to defeat Aku.
Clearly, much has happened in these past 50 years, and this episode hints at a few big mysteries that this season will uncover. One is, of course, explaining how it is Jack came to lose his sword. Another will be identifying the mysterious figure on horseback who Jack keeps seeing in his hallucinatory visions. The ominous rider with the horned helmet frightens Jack, more than anyone has before, which is unsettling. Not even Aku frightened Jack that much.
And speaking of, where is the shapeshifter? In the past, Aku's presence was a large part of the show, with him regularly appearing to tangle with Jack. But in this season 5 premiere he is noticeably absent. There may be logistical reasons for this due to Aku's voice actor, Mako Iwamatsu, having since passed away -- which may also explain the decision to introduce Aku's Daughters as new antagonists -- but it's not clear what happened to him. At one point, the assassin, Scaramouch speaks with Aku on the phone, but earlier, the priestess raising his daughters remark how they're hoping to see him again. Obviously, what happened to Aku is as much a mystery as what happened to Jack, and unraveling these mysteries will be a large part of season 5.
Samurai Jack was a beautifully animated cartoon, and in this latest iteration, it continues to be so. Tartakovsky's style has never looked more polished, with sleek designs and vibrant colors. Characters pop against soft backgrounds and every frame is a gorgeous painting, evoking emotions and creating intrigue. The action, too, is beautiful to behold, and Jack's fight with Scaramouch is a fun twist on the series' usual swordplay. A new design for Jack -- no longer appearing in a pristine white robe, but bulky black armor -- also inverts our expectations, signalling visually how Jack is a changed man.
The visual storytelling has always taken precedent over the dialogue on Samurai Jack, but that doesn't mean the series didn't boast some wonderful performances. Returning to voice Jack is Phil LaMarr, bringing again a quiet dignity to the character, only now tinged with sadness and regret. Jack may not have physically aged, but his spirit sure has, and LaMarr demonstrates this weariness in his speech. The only other real talker in this episode is Aku's number one assassin, Scaramouch, gleefully voiced by Tom Kenny. Scaramouch's speech pattern mimics that of fast-talking, scat-singing Rat Pack-er and it is delightful. He is just the sort of oddball, outlandish character Jack always comes across, striking a stark contrast to his own quiet demeanor.
Jack is back and better than ever. The years may not have been kind to the samurai, but his suffering makes for good television, promising a contemplative and compelling season. Though this episode still only saw Jack battling the usual robots Aku sends his way, with oil for blood and nuts and bolts instead of guts, the threat from the Daughters of Aku implies there's real carnage ahead. But leave it to the Tartakovsky and his talented team to find the beauty in that brutality, ensuring Samurai Jack remains first and foremost a stunning piece of art.
Samurai Jack season 5 airs Saturdays at 11pm on Adult Swim.