After a 12-year hiatus, the beloved animated series Samurai Jack returns for its fifth and final season on Adult Swim on March 11.
Samurai Jack’s road back to TV has been hampered by a number of false starts. The show ended in 2004 after 52 episodes on Cartoon Network, much to the chagrin of loyal viewers who were hoping for a showdown between the samurai prince hurtled into the future and the shape-shifting, power-mongering demon, Aku. Since its cancellation, series creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s has tried various avenues to wrap up Jack’s story and give the hero a proper send-off.
Proving that development hell is a very real place, even Tartakovsky, director of the Hotel Transylvania franchise and Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: Clone Wars, was unable to get a Samurai Jack feature film off the ground. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
“In 12 years, we’ve [gone to] five different studios to try and develop a movie, never really going anywhere,” Tartakovsky said during a recent Adult Swim press roundtable.
At one point, uber-producer J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) was attached to the film version; unfortunately, creative differences couldn’t be worked out. “One of the frustrating things was when I was working with J.J. on the movie, he [told me], ‘Well, it’s gotta have nine twists and turns.’ For him, that works really well. All his movies kind of have that, but that’s so not Jack. He can have one [twist] and then have the whole episode to really explore it,” Tartakovsky says.
After wrapping Hotel Transylvania 2, Tartakovsky took a break and mulled his next project. Sony had released the rights to the Samurai Jack movie, so he emailed his contacts at Cartoon Network.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just put it out there and see if there’s a bite from Cartoon Network to see if they’d be interested in doing [Samurai Jack].’” The network did more than bite: Tartakovsky says that within two weeks he had a deal in place for the 10-episode final season. “I guess the universe was ready for it,” he says.
Still set sometime in the future, the revival picks up 50 years since viewers last saw Samurai Jack. He’s been wandering the Earth, stuck in a sort of purgatory. Although he’s stopped aging (a side effect of time travel), the years have still taken their toll. With his mission a failure, Jack is in his own head, dwelling on his broken promises to his family. Not only has Aku destroyed every time portal that would allow Jack to return home, he also has at his disposal a cult of assassins who’ve been trained to kill Jack.
The show’s unhurried pacing, cinematic structure and the minimal use of dialogue were just some of the characteristics that drew a fervent audience to the original series in the first place. (Tartakovsky has mentioned director Akira Kurosawa and the Kung Fu TV show among its influences.) The new series once again features fantastic action sequences and beautifully illustrated characters and scenes. Despite their lighter moments, the first two episodes carry the heft of Jack’s burden and his despair. Even under prodding, though, Tartakovsky is careful not to divulge more details about the series conclusion. “I’ve had this ending in mind since 2008,” Tartakovsky says. “What’s great about these 10 episodes—since I’ve had this story for a long time—is to have Jack go through this ‘thing’ so that you’re really going to feel for him, and you’re going to feel for the situation.”
He does clarify, however, that Season Five will not follow the comic book series written by Jim Zub and illustrated by Andy Suriano, who was a character designer on the original Samurai Jack series. The comic books are non-canon, Tartakovsky says. “Sometimes the comics are their own alternate universe, and I think Andy did a lot of good art, but it’s not anything I would do. I want to make sure that this is clearly its own thing.”
“We get to really dive into Jack a lot more, where before, it was a little simpler. We didn’t really go into the huge weight of what his mission is, but now it’s all about that,” Tartakovsky says. “It’s 50 years. He hasn’t succeeded. So, if your sole mission is to do this one thing, and you can’t do it, and you can’t find a way to do it, where are you going? Figuring that out was really exciting for me.”
Actor Phil LaMarr, who voiced Jack in the original series, returns to play the samurai again in the revival. Unfortunately, the great Japanese actor Mako Iwamatsu, who was the voice of Aku, died in 2006. Stepping into the role for the final season is Greg Baldwin, a veteran actor who’s known for his voice work in the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, among others.
“Getting to cover new ground with a character that I really do love, and I have strong affection for, and getting to do more with it, is amazing,” LaMarr says during the roundtable about his reunion with Jack. “Before, I was playing the hero, and the almost invulnerable hero. It was to the point where you’d go into a comic book shop and [ask], ‘Who’d win in a fight?’ It’s pretty much always Jack. He would cut Iron Man’s armor completely off.”
Tartakovsky agrees that perfection can be boring, so Jack’s Season Five flaws add to a more dynamic storyline: “Now, he’s hurt, he’s wounded. He’s fucking losing his mind. It makes it all so much more interesting, and I think it makes him more human.”
In addition to the emotional changes, Jack’s also undergone a physical adjustment as well. During a walkthrough of the series’ artwork, Tartkovsky explains that in animation, character heights and proportions are measured in heads. Simple cartoon characters tend to be shorter, while superheroes and manga characters are typically eight heads high. “If you actually look at the old show, Jack is about five heads high,” Tartakovsky says. “So when we started drawing Jack again, I wasn’t drawing him like I did back then. He kind of got more stretched out, more elegant. Because the story’s darker, it felt weird to have it be so childlike. We elongated him.”
In this new season, we also find that Jack isn’t the only one with emotional issues. Demon Aku is now in therapy. (The show hasn’t totally forgotten its humor.)
“He is exactly in the same place that Jack is. He’s lost hope of Jack ever going away,” Tartakovsky says. “It’s this little gnat and he’s trying to ignore it, but he knows it’s out there…He’s kind of given up to a degree.”
The television landscape has changed dramatically since the original show ended in 2004. Audience tastes and styles have changed, and “binge-watch” has been added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. LaMarr says that with the old series, they had to make each episode a standalone and “come back to zero” at the end because of network mandates. “Nowadays, in the age of Netflix, stories are ongoing. People look at a whole season of a series,” he says.
“The audience is impatient,” Tartakovsky adds. “It’s like a drug, really. We gotta get to the next episode to see what happens… and it’s cool, as an audience, to watch that, but Jack is a little bit more about taking its time. We’re the opposite of that [binge trend].”
Tartakovsky admits that he’s changed a few things to adjust to the 2017 audience—but not much. “I think our filmmaking sped up a little bit, but it’s much calmer than anything else out there.” Samurai Jack still remains a stylized 2D animated show that that relishes its moments of Zen.
Tartakovsky does wonder, though, how today’s audience will react to the pacing of the new episodes. “When I do one of these really slow pans, and it’s just…” he whistles like a bird while “filming” the room. “I get nervous, but you know what, all I got is my instinct, and if I don’t trust it, that’s like going through the whole [Samurai Jack] feature process. That’s all I had in fighting.”
We’ll bet that audiences find Tartakovsky’s choices for Jack and Aku were worth the fight—and wait.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.