'Samurai Jack' Cartoon To Air Final Season, 12 Years Later Samurai Jack was a popular TV cartoon in the early 2000s. Despite acclaim, it ended unresolved in 2004. Now its creators aim to bring the story to a close.
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'Samurai Jack' Cartoon To Air Final Season, 12 Years Later

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'Samurai Jack' Cartoon To Air Final Season, 12 Years Later

'Samurai Jack' Cartoon To Air Final Season, 12 Years Later

'Samurai Jack' Cartoon To Air Final Season, 12 Years Later

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/519807686/519807687" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Samurai Jack was a popular TV cartoon in the early 2000s. Despite acclaim, it ended unresolved in 2004. Now its creators aim to bring the story to a close.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Samurai Jack" is back. "Samurai Jack" was a popular animated series that ran in the early 2000s. It won four Primetime Emmys. It built an intensely devoted fan base. And now a little more than 12 years later, a new and final season is set to premiere tonight. NPR's Stephan Bisaha reports on the original show's magic and the attempt to recapture it.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Sara Kipin was around 9 when "Samurai Jack" first aired. She used to sneak behind her parents' backs to watch the cartoon.

SARA KIPIN: My parents wouldn't let me watch it because it was too violent (laughter).

BISAHA: Today, Kipin is working on storyboards for "Samurai Jack's" new season, and she's just as excited as any fan to see what happens to the warrior fighting an ancient evil.

KIPIN: I can speak for everyone, we're finally ready to see what happens to Jack (laughter). I mean, it's been like over a decade, and we just wanted to make sure that he's OK (laughter).

BISAHA: Jack was tricked by his nemesis and exiled to the distant future. He spent four seasons trying to return to the past. While there's plenty of action along the way, the show is also noteworthy for its quietness.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SAMURAI JACK" TV SHOW)

BISAHA: Many episodes start with little more than the title character's wooden sandals for minutes.

SCOTT WILLS: As slow as it can be at times, it's all about setting up the mood. And then when the action kicks in, it's insane.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SAMURAI JACK" TV SHOW)

BISAHA: Scott Wills was the show's original art director and is returning in the same role for the new season. His team took advantage of new technology at the time to remove the thick black lines that were usually drawn around cartoon characters. Instead, "Samurai Jack's" figures were made up of only colors and shapes.

WILLS: Once we took the outline off, it took on a whole different look. The characters really sat in the environment better, and it gave it a completely unique look that it didn't have before - any show had until then.

THIEN PHAM: You have a feel that this art belongs with this story.

BISAHA: Thien Pham is a Vietnamese-American cartoonist. His own graphic novel "Sumo" takes inspiration from "Samurai Jack." Pham acknowledges that most of the TV show's creators were white, but he doesn't see that as a problem. He likens it to cooking.

PHAM: There could be somebody that is an amazing Japanese chef that is not Japanese that is not creating the food because people are telling them they can't do it. If you want to create art that is based on culture that's not yours, you just have to have the respect for that culture and just not make it a caricature.

BISAHA: Despite the acclaim, "Samurai Jack" ended in 2004 without answering its central question - will the Samurai return to the past and vanquish the evil that exiled him? The new season brings with it another question - can it recapture the old magic, especially considering that it's lost one of its main attractions, says art director Scott Wills. It's no longer hand drawn but all done digitally.

WILLS: Unfortunately. I mean, there's good things about it. But I love hand-painted shows because there's a certain sort of charm and a look to them.

BISAHA: But Wills thinks his team was able to capture the old show's look and maybe even set an example for how to do a revival right.

WILLS: I hope people see it, and say this is how animation should be. It shouldn't be generic. It could actually be something beautiful and timeless and something with heart and mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SAMURAI JACK")

PHIL LAMARR: (As Samurai Jack) Fifty years have passed, but I do not age.

How much longer can you keep this up?

Time has lost its affect on me.

BISAHA: The new season will wrap up the story with 10 final episodes and may even answer the question, can Samurai Jack and his creators successfully reclaim the past? Stephan Bisaha, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SAMURAI JACK")

WILL.I.AM: (Singing) Samurai Jack. Got to get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack.

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Jack Is Back: After A 13-Year Hiatus, 'Samurai Jack' Returns For A Final Season

The Way Of The (Temporarily) Peaceful Warrior: Samurai Jack, in repose. Turner hide caption

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The Way Of The (Temporarily) Peaceful Warrior: Samurai Jack, in repose.

Turner

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.