The nineties was the breakthrough decade for television cartoons. While The Simpsons might have brought some long-overdue respect to prime-time animation, Cartoon Network and Comedy Network viewers are likely to be the only ones to truly realise the extent of the weird and wonderful stuff going on in television animation, since Ren And Stimpy brought gross-out gags, psychological torture and retro-styled artwork back into vogue two decades ago. Whilst the limited budgets and tight deadlines of television cartoons might often make them look like poor cousins to the big-screen animated fare from Pixar and Dreamworks, the phenomenal success of the (barely) animated South Park series and film proved that audiences don’t mind a bit – as long as the show has something more to offer. The shadowy, silhouetted world seen in the Batman animated series and its subsequent spin-offs, while mostly implemented as a labour-saving device, actually gives the series its unique look and forms a large part of its appeal.
A full decade into this animation renaissance appeared Samurai Jack, a similarly canny blend of the minimal and…um…maximal. That is to say, while the character designs sometimes border on South Park simplicity, the surreal settings and backgrounds are often astonishingly detailed and gorgeous.
Created by Genndy Tartakovsky, this stark but boldly animated series was a long-term pet project for Tartakovsky, and it shows in every scene. Given creative carte blanche after the success of Dexter’s Laboratory, Tartakovsky stated that regular cartoons never delivered as much action as he craved. Samurai Jack is an attempt to rectify this less-than-satisfactory situation. It certainly does this in spades, but what remains most impressive is the show’s visual style. Often dialogue-free (though actor Mako sounds like he’s having a ball as the voice of the deranged Aku), the look – a sort of cross between the jazzy artworks of Josh ‘Shag’ Agle and a Balinese shadow puppet show – is quite breathtaking. The distinctive style of Samurai Jack is what drew Lucasfilm to recruit Tartakovsky for the original Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. Much of the signature cinematic style of Samurai Jack lives on in Clone Wars, such as lightning-fast combat, extended sequences without dialogue, explosions, and epic vistas.
The premise? After a huge battle with the titular Samurai, the evil wizard Aku throws our stoic hero into the future via a time portal. He arrives in a time where Aku rules over everything. Jack (the name given to him by residents of this strange world) might have his work cut out for him but proves a more than worthy adversary when armed with his father’s magic sword and the benefit of having trained with every conceivable master, including African warriors, English bowmen, Shaolin Monks and Greek wrestlers.
Though the hour-long pilot episode is languidly paced, it’s always eye-popping and has a great old time utilising every manner of filmic device under the sun: Slow motion, split-screen and freeze-frames are commonly incorporated. The second half is when it really gets going, and is more representative of the rest of the series. The climax – a huge, somewhat relentless and bloody showdown between Samurai Jack and an army of giant killer bugs – is a crazy fusion of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1981) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1967), with a nod to The Powerpuff Girls and Bruce Lee. Occasionally uneven but ultimately sensational and satisfying.
Samurai Jack is voiced by Phil LaMarr, whose television credits include a starring role in the Justice League animated series as the Green Lantern, a major role as Hermes Conrad and various other characters in Futurama, Black Vulcan in Harvey Birdman Attorney At Law, and guest starring roles in Cold Case, Eve, Reno 911, Without A Trace, Invader Zim, The Bernie Mac Show, NYPD Blue, Living Single, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, Murphy Brown, Family Guy, and the original UK version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? He also voices Wilt and other recurring characters in Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends, Carver Descartes in The Weekenders, and several characters in the critically acclaimed Afro Samurai. He additionally voices Jazz, Omega Supreme, Jetstorm and Oil Slick in Transformers Animated. LaMarr’s most recent roles include voicing Gambit and Trask in the recent animated television show Wolverine And The X-Men, and provided the voice for Nautolan Jedi Master Kit Fisto in Star Wars: The Clone Wars on the Cartoon Network.
Mako, the manic voice of Aku, was a mainstay in American film and television for almost half a century. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Sand Pebbles (1966). Other roles include the Chinese labourer Mun Ki in the epic movie The Hawaiians (1970), Yuen Chung in The Killer Elite (1975) directed by Sam Peckinpah, the wizard Akiro in Conan The Barbarian (1982), the Japanese agent in the comedy Under The Rainbow (1981), Mister Lee in Sidekicks (1992), Kanemitsu in Robocop III (1993), the sorcerer Nakano in Highlander III The Sorcerer (1994), the end credits voice-over for Dexter’s Laboratory, Kungo Tsarong in Seven Years In Tibet (1997), and Admiral Yamamoto in Pearl Harbour (2001). Mako’s last leading role was in Cages (2005) written and directed by Graham Streeter.
Although production on Samurai Jack was halted in 2004, the show was never officially canceled. Tartakovsky has since been made creative president of Orphanage Animation Studios and, until recently, was to direct The Power Of The Dark Crystal, a prequel to the 1982 Jim Henson film. Additionally, he was a storyboard artist on Iron Man II (2010) for director Jon Favreau, and Cartoon Network announced in 2009 that a new show by Tartakovsky titled Sym-Bionic Man is also in production. Despite being so busy, Tartakovsky has also announced plans to direct a theatrical film of Samurai Jack, but whether or not this will be used to resolve the series has yet to be announced. The feature film is currently in pre-production, and is apparently being produced by J.J. Abram’s Bad Robot Productions.
And it’s on that thought-provoking note that I’ll ask you to please join me next time when I have the opportunity to present you with more unthinkable realities and unbelievable factoids of the darkest days of film and television, exposing the most daring shriek-and-shudder shock sensations ever to be found in the steaming cesspit known as…Horror News! Toodles!