The Way Of The (Temporarily) Peaceful Warrior: Samurai Jack, in repose.
The Way Of The (Temporarily) Peaceful Warrior: Samurai Jack, in repose.
Back in 2004, as Cartoon Network's critically acclaimed series Samurai Jack neared the end of its fourth season, creator Genndy Tartakovsky felt burned out.
He'd enjoyed tremendous success at the network, creating its flagship series Dexter's Laboratory, producing The Powerpuff Girls, and finding himself tapped by George Lucas for a new project to be called Star Wars: Clone Wars. Tartakovsky thought it was time to take some time away from his highly stylized tale of a stoic, time-lost, katana-wielding warrior.
"The network was starting to go through some changes," he tells NPR. "All of my bosses were changed out, and a lot of my success at Cartoon Network was because of the freedom and the trust and the relationships we had. And all these people were either moving on or moving to different positions, and so it just felt like a very different place, and with Star Wars: Clone Wars looming, we didn't want to rush anything."
A Style Of Its Own
Anyone who watched Samurai Jack during its original 2001-04 run knows that rushing was never the show's style. The story of a samurai flung into a dystopian future ruled by an evil demon named Aku, Jack stuck out from chattier, more frenetic shows like Dragonball Z and Pokemon in its willingness to let long silences and spare visuals drive its storytelling. The show just seemed to breathe different air than other series on the cable grid — air that mingled influences from many different narrative genres and art styles.
Initially, Tartakovsky planned to step away only briefly to devote himself to Clone Wars, returning to Samurai Jack several months later. But between the accelerating pace of Tartakovsky's schedule and ongoing shifts taking place at the network, Samurai Jack fell through the cracks.
But it never went away. For years, Tartakovsky says, he couldn't leave a place like San Diego Comic-Con without answering a question about a Jack comeback. After he directed the Hotel Transylvania movies for Sony Pictures, there were talks of concluding the series as a feature film — talks Tartakovsky remembers as the "dark hole of an abyss."
A series of comics based on the show, published between 2013 to 2015, provided an ending of its own. But now, nearly thirteen years after the show's fourth season finale, Tartakovsky is wrapping up Jack's journey once and for all. The fifth and final season begins this Saturday at 11:00 p.m. on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block, and he has no qualms about the time and effort it's taken to get to this point.
"The way my career's gone, I'm a big believer in fate," he says. "I think it's all for the best, because really, the way to end Jack is the way we just did it."
Every Episode A Short Film
Tartakovsky believes the series' lingering cult status has a lot to do with his desire to make each episode "like a little movie, where you turn the lights off and crank the sound up and just let the experience draw you in." Because the show often depended more on images than dialogue, viewers had to sit up and actually pay attention.
"TV and movies nowadays, they explain everything to you upfront. And then ... you just want to shut it off, because you pretty much know where it's going," he says.
If Jack's viewers could never predict precisely where a given episode would end up, they also never knew what form the journey would take. Like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, Samurai Jack offers a sort of narrative and aesthetic gumbo stocked with Tartakovsky's favorite genres and films: Westerns, film noir, The French Connection, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, all set against a futuristic backdrop that combines Blade Runner with Akira Kurosawa films.
Actor Phil LaMarr, who returns to voice Jack in the new season, says it was Tartakovsky's love of Sergio Leone films that originally helped the actor find Jack's singular — if infrequently heard — voice.
"We narrowed it down to something we described as a young, Asian Clint Eastwood," LaMarr says with a laugh.
A Shift In Tone
To Tartakovsky, it's the tone that matters.
"There's a vibe, a feel," he says. "[With Jack], I really dove in and explored how I wanted people to feel."
One thing viewers will feel, in this new season, is a perceptible shift in that tone. The series' trademark humor and action remain (albeit with more bloodletting, as befits the move to Adult Swim), but the show harbors a darker, more mournful soul. In the show's timeline, 50 years have passed since we last saw Jack, and he's still stuck in Aku's dystopian future, unable to get back to the past.
"For your whole life to be this one quest, and you start to really realize that [getting home is] never gonna happen, what happens to your mind? That was our in-point for this story," Tartakovsky says.
"Do you give up? ... We really get to go inside Jack and see him transform or not transform ... This idea of him being lost was really attractive to me. It's limbo. It's like he's in Hell. He can't go back, he can't go forward. He's stuck."
Phil LaMarr notes that the Jack we meet in these new episodes bears more of a resemblance to the latter-day Clint Eastwood of Unforgiven. He talks a bit more, with an added pain and weariness in his voice.
"For me," he says, "the challenge was showing the audience this weight that Jack's been carrying, [which] we had never shown them before, but at the same time making sure it's the same guy. It's still Jack, it's the warrior that we know and respect and that we've come to depend on. But he's been through some stuff. It's been 50 years, and he's been lost, away from home, unable to get back. Unable to do the mission that defines him.
"And the question is, what impact does that have even on somebody that strong. It was a really tough challenge that Genndy threw at me."
New Techniques For A Digital Age
Tartakovsky and Bryan Andrews, a head writer from the original series' team, ended up storyboarding each episode themselves. Producing what had been a traditionally animated show in today's digital environment proved both liberating and troubling.
"All the backgrounds created in the first four seasons were done by hand," Tartakovsky says. "Today, our art director Scott Willis pretty much paints on the computer. And now he has to use this tool to try to mimic handcrafted, hand-painted environments. The computer is full of tricks. You can just press a button and all of a sudden you have this amazing and beautiful glow. But it feels digital."
Facing Up To Fans' Nostalgia
But for Tartakovsky, the biggest challenge proved to be living up to fans' expectations.
"We could never match what your idea of the show was as a kid. So that was the biggest thing to get over, how people see the show," he says. "I got lost in that for a little bit, but I decided, you know what, this is Jack, this feels right for us."
Fans will have the final say when the season starts this Saturday, but Tartakovsky feels proud of what he's accomplished. And even with all his past success at Cartoon Network, he's looking ahead.
"I feel like I'm on the precipice of something. I still feel young in my career, like it's just starting and it's gonna go somewhere more, hopefully not down," he says with a chuckle.
As for what he's most proud of in his career, Tartakovsky believes the ability to create a character that endures is an artist's greatest accomplishment.
"We all wanna do our own Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse that lasts forever," he says. "That's kind of the goal. You give birth to it, and it survives."
NPR editor Glen Weldon contributed to this report.