Samurai Jack: Cultural Collage At Its Finest

This article contains spoilers for the entire series of Samurai Jack.

Samurai Jack is a true melting pot of a show. Created by Genndy Tartakovsky, an animator/immigrant born from the Soviet Union, was clearly inspired by a multitude of influences. The world that Jack – our titular samurai warrior flung out of his  time into a future ruled by the evil Aku – inhabits is a mishmash of many cultural touchstones. This premise was born from limitations. Building a show around a sword wielding samurai had the obvious trouble of getting past killing humans on a program aimed at children. So, Tartakovsky decided upon the conceit of killing robots instead, eventually leading to the premise that sparked Samurai Jack into the show it is. This conceit not only got this concept past the Cartoon Network board of directors, but also allowed for the cultural mesh that enabled so much creativity to spring forth for the production staff behind Samurai Jack.

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Right from the first episode “The Beginning,” Jack is seen training under the guidance of an African tribe, Chinese Monks and even Robin Hood himself. This elaborate montage showing Jack crafting his fighting skills is not only meant to showcase the massive amount of skill Jack has obtained in order to vanquish his foe Aku. It also shows the major theme of the knowledge Jack learns across his travels. Presenting Jack as a man willing to learn and take the guidance of those around him manages to give him an endearing desire to learn, but also a varied set of skills to boost the legitimacy of his prowess as a fighter able to nearly defeat a demonic entity like Aku. The variety of influences that give a balance of the tone and much in this same way, Tartakovsky took a variety of influences from his youth through his career in animation up to that point.

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The easiest influences to spot are Japanese, given the titular character. Moments of quiet contemplation followed by extreme action having the pacing akin to the works of Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, Jack has the typical weakness of the more authentic heroes of those stories, in that he has a soft spot to help those in need. After all, his entire quest in spearheaded by a desire to help his father after he’s been captured by Aku in the opening moments of the show. The father who had a fight sequence that visually mirrors the iconic arrow death scene from Throne of Blood. There’s also some definite recall of grand scale anime like Akira, particularly during the future scenes of city leveling destruction. This type of influence helped Samurai Jack find a place on the Toonami block during its initial run. The subset of Cartoon Network known for playing anime programming like Dragonball Z or Big O. Yet, it also helped the show find an artistic identity with the use of red on black that mirrored Katushiro Otomo’s harsh dystopian layout. The combination of red, black and green serves as a motif for Aku’s presence, especially when considering episodes like Jack and the Warrior Woman where Aku’s manipulation haunts Jack into doubting many potential allies.

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Yet, those would be too obvious a turn for cultural tributes for Samurai Jack. The genius of Samurai Jack‘s premise is that it allows for so many different styles to take place in a world as uncertain and maddening as one ruled by Aku. Thematically, this fits the perception of Jack within the culture of Aku. Adults like the western themed bounty hunters of the episode The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful know that Jack is a force of much curiosity for the formidable ruler of this land. In The Princess and the Bounty Hunters, a wide variety of bounty hunters from different backgrounds – from a Russian brute to a southern gentleman to an intergalactic warrior princess – detail their alternate ways to defeat Jack. All of them present their individual concepts of Jack, giving the character further mystique in universe that helps mirror another clear influence on Tartakovsky’s: Sergio Leone. The Italian filmmaker’s love of quiet staredowns before sudden action and Man With No Name-style protagonist is clearly reflected upon with Jack’s various violent encounters. One can even hear a remix of the famous Ennio Morricone score track “Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good The Bad and the Ugly during the big fight that takes up so much of season 5’s second episode.

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There’s also a perception of doubt within this world, arousing the spirit of rebellion in those raised under Aku. The most notable example would probably John Dimaggio’s Scotsman character. A recurring tough brute who initially sees himself as the only great warrior of the land, his encounters with Samurai Jack transform from head butting confrontation into a mutual respect. This continues the trend of seemingly clashing cultures can come to a consideration of each other’s strengths. This continues into episodes where Jack helps to bring back the cultural reigns of a cursed people. Like saving a group of Frank Miller’s 300 type Spartans from an unending war against machines or rescuing a Bavarian, Germany-esque town’s children from the hypnotic influence of rave music. All these conflicts involve a conflict between older and newer styles of cultural influence, the latter usually the more sinister object based ideas of technology. They conflict with Jack’s anti-materialism stance in a way that constantly builds upon Jack’s desire to destroy the material wrongs of Aku’s robotic minions.

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Samurai Jack‘s consistent stance against these robots even seeps into the youths of this world. In the episode Aku’s Fairy Tales, Aku attempts to curry the favor of Jack-obsessed youths with stories based on the folk tales like Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Bears. Despite his rather phony and half hearted tales of propaganda against Jack, the children question his stories and Aku disappears in a puff of anger. This leaves the children to think up their own more grounded tale of the heroic Jack vanquishing Aku. This shows Jack’s multi-cultural influence spreading amongst children of all races and species in a beautifully mythological fashion, giving him even more importance than just a warrior. He’s a symbol of what could be beyond the world that has existed for hundreds of years. A foreign force for good against the evil establishment that rules over all. Jack even demonstrated this with the initial series finale Jack and the Baby as the samurai tends to an abandoned child while telling the tale of Momotarō, a boy born from a peach.

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With the recent revival, Samurai Jack has continued to mix pop cultural ideas with relish. One of the more blatant examples is the robotic assassin Scaramouche the Merciless. His name comes from a stock commedia dell’arte, Tom Kenny’s speech patterns denote a Sammy Davis Jr. style speech pattern and his musical style of combat has shades of a Pied Piper style character. He even has a blade that has the properties of a tuning fork. The other fights Jack has – mainly with the daughters of Aku – have shades of the recent epic fights from wuxia films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero. There’s a ballet style precision to the choreography that gives every step that makes the animation still feel seamless.

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Season 5 has some of Samurai Jack‘s best examples of cultural recontextualization. Jack and Ashi – the Aku daughter who survives and accompanies Jack – journey through the belly of a whale-like being, much in the vein of The Book of Jonah… with more monsters, obviously. Jack is haunted by a warrior on a horse, an illusion to the German spectre Nuckelavee and the Japanese God of Death Shinigami. We even see the return of Odin, Ra and Rama, the three gods who we saw forge the mythological sword from the earlier episode The Birth of Evil. All of the historical context of Jack in this world becomes abundant as we see all the various people he has touched since the start of the series. That Jack has helped to bind all these people in a world that Aku has manipulated to separate them. The fruits of those labors pay off in a big fashion during the series finale, where all these people unite to help Jack in his time of need.

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Then again, Samurai Jack has occasionally had uses of cultural homage that feel cloying. The main example would actually be during this recent season. Jack and Ashi had an interesting relationship that built over the course of the initial seven episodes. One that went from adversarial to respectful. A chemistry built, but one that seemed more based on mutual admiration of skills and independent gumption. Which means a lot in a world ruled by Aku. Unfortunately, the eighth episode of the season turns this into a much more romantic connection. Which in a better built up scenario wouldn’t be much of a problem. However, the entire episode that leads to their romance suddenly blossoming feels so sudden and more for the sake of Tartakovsky making his own little action romantic comedy plot rather than paying off something he failed to build up properly. It’s not a deal breaker for an otherwise brilliant season, but it’s an instance of Tartakovsky’s desire to splice genres getting in the way of making his story seem more effective.

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Since it’s return, Samurai Jack has been accused of cultural misappropriation. That is, the idea of taking from varying cultures in a way that can be seen as disrespectful. Given this is a show about a Japanese samurai created by a Russian man, one can see the initial hesitance. Yet, what makes Samurai Jack as engaging an artistic achievement as it is is a true respect for all the sources it homages. So many different cultures ingrained into its DNA that it stretches beyond what some may argue to be cultural misappropriation. Samurai Jack is an immigrant story from an immigrant’s perspective. A “stranger in a strange land” trying to find his place in the world. Jack as a character has such respect for the people who helped train him. He learns more from them than just how to fight. He learns how to respect others who are different and respect their traditions as much as his own. A concept he carries over into the future. As we all should.

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