Jack (Phil LaMarr) is back baby . . . well, not to the past, it’s still the future, but we’re back to our past, 13 years later.
The Season 5 premiere is more than just the return of the beloved time displaced samurai. It’s a flexing of Genndy Tartakovsky’s artistic muscle.
The premiere episode has everything to be loved about Tartakovsky’s flat minimalism. There’s a ton of aesthetic callbacks from iconic past episodes. From the letterboxing of the Emmy-winning “Jack and the Spartans” to the striking contrast of black and white from “Samurai versus Ninja.”
But there’s certainly a new shiny coat of 2017 over the classic nostalgia. There’s an increased play on perspective and camera work, allowing for even a 30-minute, action focused episode to be incredibly eye-catching. Close-ups on Jack’s new ride reveal the introduction of CG work, but isn’t too overbearing and doesn’t distract from the 2D iconography that plunged the original run into fame.
The narrative is kept to a minimum, which may be a little discouraging to new audiences. However, there’s a enough exposition for old and new fans as a refresher. The plot isn’t complicated really. Jack is stuck in an even further dystopian future than when we last saw him in 2004. Now a broken man, and without his sword, Jack isn’t the same stoic, honorable samurai we’ve come to know and love. He has fully embraced his harsh world, resorting to guns and technology. Which may posit the tone of the rest of the season.
Its presence on Adult Swim rather than Cartoon Network allows for the exploration of darker themes; the undying Jack hallucinating a river of the dead, a vision of his father burning, or the band of child assassins beaten and bred for the sole purpose of hunting the samurai. But the season is not without its comedic elements. Jack encounters a jazz-scatting cyborg who has Aku on speed dial, particularly relieving as the series’ new home on Adult Swim doesn’t mean it’ll take itself too seriously. Some of the most memorable moments of Samurai Jack were the more frivolous episodes.
Despite quick and tidy exposition, there is a sense of progression in the series. Aku isn’t to be seen throughout the episode; he’s more of a godly presence than the comedic thug of prior seasons. Having been 50 years since the end of season 4, Aku’s world appears more barren, and Jack’s new rugged design hints back to IDW’s comic series that gave fans a glimpse of Jack’s future as an enthroned battle-worn king.
In the grand scheme of this season, its premiere episode will probably be skippable as it doesn’t progress much into the saga or explain heavily what either Jack or Aku have been up to the last 50 years. Overall, the series premiere is a visual feast of Tartakovsky’s style and is heavily action-oriented, primarily a service to dedicated fans, but gives enough exposition for new followers. The only shame is that the premiere isn’t longer. Were it an hour or even 45 minutes, there could have been better narrative bridging between season 4 and now. The rest of season 5 does seem to be queuing up a balance of old and new, from its continuation of the classic animation to much darker character depth.