Think back to 2001, when SpongeBob SquarePants reigned supreme on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network was deep in the age of Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo — clever, talky animated shows who trafficked in wackiness and often took their storytelling cues from live-action sitcoms. Then along came a samurai named Jack: a laconic lone-wolf hero who uttered fewer words in a whole season than most toon characters spoke in a single episode. The creation of animator (and Dex-Lab veteran) Genndy Tartakovsky, this feudal-era Japanese prince was sucked into a distant dystopian future by a villainous demonic figure named Aku; he’d spend four seasons trying to return to his own era, fighting a variety of robots, assassins, monsters, mobsters, flatulent dragons and one very ornery, persistent Scotsman. From the very beginning, Samurai Jack was different than the era’s typical sugar-rush animated programming – its Kurosawa-esque visuals and kick-ass action sequences were closer in style and tone to spaghetti Westerns and Japanese chanbara than Hanna-Barbera.
When it quietly shuffled off the airwaves in 2004, it left behind an unfinished storyline and a devoted cult following clamoring for more. Tartakovsky went on to create CGI TV series Star Wars: Clone Wars and to direct the Hotel Transylvania films; he had various development deals over the years to make a Samurai Jack movie, but nothing ever panned out. Meanwhile, DVD sets and streaming services kept introducing new viewers to this out-of-time ronin’s tale. “Anywhere that I spoke or wherever I made an appearance, the first question was always about Samurai Jack,” the animator says. “It’s like a pyramid scheme: People started to find it more and more, and it kept growing from word of mouth. It just wouldn’t die.”
It was only a matter of time before Jack would find his way back to television – and Tartakovsky’s hero has finally returned, with a limited “fifth season” miniseries that began airing on March 11th on Cartoon Network offshoot Adult Swim. (New episodes will air every Saturday.) This time, however, the show has returned with a much darker tone than the original. Fifty years have passed since we left our hero. He’s stopped aging as a side effect of time traveling, and is still roaming the land helping people. But he’s now a long-bearded cynic trapped in his own private hell and drained of any hope of ever returning home.
“He’s lost his way and he’s lost hope,” Tartakovsky explains. “And that’s one of the things that I’m really excited about the series, is that we can go this deep and really explore what Jack is feeling in this more existential way, where’s he’s trying to really justify his existence.”
The genesis for our wandering sword-wielder’s journey into murkier moral territory began in 2015, when the animator had wrapped work on Hotel Transylvania 2. Tartakovsky’s thoughts returned to Jack and where he might take the series if given another chance to revisit the character. He reached out to Cartoon Network head Rob Sorcher about the possibility of doing a small-screen follow-up; Sorcher then put Tartakovksy in touch with Adult Swim.
“Making the decision to bring it back was one of the easiest yes answers [we have ever] given a show creator,” says Jason DeMarco, the vice president and on-air creative director of Adult Swim. “A phone call from Genndy saying, ‘What if I finished the story of Samurai Jack?’ – followed by about five minutes of everyone nodding our heads enthusiastically. Genndy is a genius, and Jack was a great show. Bringing it back made all the sense in the world.”
“It’s a slam-bang action cartoon, like, ‘Woo! He’s getting a sword! He’s
cutting up a robot!’ But it’s also like watching a Monet come to life.” – Voice actor Phil LaMarr
Though 12 years have elapsed since the show wrapped, Tartakovsky was able to assemble much of the team from the original series, including storyboard artist Bryan Andrews and Phil LaMarr, the actor who voices Jack in his rare but memorable speaking moments. “He’s a young Asian Clint Eastwood – vocally, that’s what we decided early on,” LaMarr. says “He’s so steady and ready that nothing ever bothers him. Of course in the new series, that’s changed a bit. He’s not as unflappable as he used to be. Let’s be honest: Most reboots are coasting on nostalgia. But these episodes stand alone. I think there will be people who have never seen the original series who get their minds blown just from this.”
(Sadly, iconic Japanese actor Mako Iwamatsu, who voiced the mercurial Aku, died in 2006. His sizable shoes have been filled by Greg Baldwin, who previously replaced Mako in Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. “You can’t mimic his delivery and his timing, says Tartakovksy. “[But] Mako’s daughter and grandson came to one of the last recordings, and I think they were kind of crying a little when [Greg] was doing the voice.”)
One thing that hasn’t changed about Samurai Jack, in spite of the times, is Tartakovsky’s commitment to using hand-drawn animation. With the exception of digitally drawn backgrounds, all the character animation and storyboarding is still done the old-fashioned way.
“There’s nothing like the experience of watching something animated by hand,” he says. “It comes with a lot of mistakes the way we do it, but it also comes with greatness. It stands out, and has an organic, handmade quality that I think people still react to,” Tartakovsky explains. “I went to see The Jungle Book when I was 14, and when those first images came on, I was just in love. The draftsmanship and the storytelling and the joy of animation kind of hit me, and I never grew out of it.”
But there’s more to Samurai Jack’s staying power than just the style – lots of animated shows now have an equally impressive retro-angular aesthetic and several have aped the series’ visceral way of staging running/leaping/blade-swinging action sequences with an admirable fidelity. Rather, it’s the show’s take on the universal story of hero on a quest through a hostile world, combined with Tartakovsky’s kinetic visuals, that has kept expanding its fanbase … and kept the pump primed for an eventual comeback.
“It’s a perfect meld of high and low art,” says LaMarr. “It’s a slam-bang action cartoon, like, ‘Woo! He’s getting a sword! He’s cutting up a robot!’ But it’s also like watching a Monet come to life. And the theme is so solid: One man, on a quest, trying to get through the obstacles in his life to get that one goal. So a kid can watch it and a 70-year-old philosophy professor can watch it – and they can both get just as much out of it.”