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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Back to the Past: Why Samurai Jack Season 5 Was Great; Why The Ending Failed

Samurai Jack finally got back to the past. But why has the ending left so many feeling let down, and what does the show's brilliant animation reveal about the narrative's fatal flaws?

On Tumblr I was offered a penny for my thoughts on Samurai Jack's ending and I guess the penny version of this article is "Wow that sure was disappointing as hell." Luckily, I've got Patreon subscribers who pay me several pennies for more detailed thoughts, thoughts like: the show seems to want to grapple with time and history and its own place within those things... right up until it drops all that grappling, at which point it just becomes disappointing as hell.

You can only be disappointed if you have some existing expectations, and there was plenty of reason to get our hopes up. Resurrecting Samurai Jack years after its initial cancellation in order to finish the story once and for all was always a risky proposition, but man, it seemed like creator Genndy Tarkovsky was primed to hit this conclusion out of the park. The early episodes of Season 5 were visually and narratively fascinating, updating the visual style of the show without losing its abstract charm, and telling a story that, judging by social media, drew audiences ever deeper into Jack's struggle each week. Tarkovsky seemed to be poised to create a truly remarkable conclusion to his legendary series.

Moreover, it seemed like Tarkovsky was primed to do so with a deep, self-conscious understanding of just what it meant for Samurai Jack to come back in 2017. To get this, look no further than season 5's opening. Now, the original series opened each episode with narration by the series villain, Aku, explaining how in the distant past a "foolish Samurai Warrior with a magic sword" nearly defeated him, but in the last moment of the battle the shapeshifting demon summoned a portal to the future and cast the samurai deep into time. The series thus announces its premise in the voice of its villain: Samurai Jack has got to get back, back to the past, and Aku will continually stand in his way.

The opening of the new season is now in the voice of Jack himself, as he describes wandering the world for 50 years without aging, unable to find a way to the past, unable to defeat Aku, bereft of both sword and hope.

It's brilliant. I mean what a hell of a way to open the return of your series: with the main character literally saying this has gone on too long.

The series recognizes that for all that the exploits of the Samurai Warrior and his Magic Sword are awesome to us, as viewers, for Jack himself they're a colossal drag, a horrific punishment that slowly but surely drives him mad. The new season actively mines the past in order to achieve this effect, resurrecting an early episode's "evil Jack" as a representation of Jack's self-hate, the delusion constantly urging him to give up completely, to surrender to despair. Just by crossing over the distance between that past and the present of the series, we're offered some sense of the weight of Jack's predicament. Something he seemed to vanquish early in his quest is now a ubiquitous part of his experience, constantly screaming in his skull.

It's imperative that Jack get back to the past in part because the past just keeps on accumulating, the time pile doesn't stop from getting taller. He seems to see only the possibility of wiping out all his mistakes through a return to fix his mistakes, but simultaneously lacks a way to achieve that return. Paradoxically, though, Jack can't actually move forward with his quest without making peace with the endlessly accumulating history. The recriminating voice in his head, punishing him for his perceived unworthiness, is tied to the loss of his sword, and the apparent loss of the last portal to the past. In a sense, then, it almost seems like what Jack must overcome is the continuity and continuation of the series itself, the weight of episode after episode of failure, failure for our amusement.

I want to compare Jack here to Walter Benjamin's Angel of History, because I think it's interesting, and also because I think it's funny, and also because, again, these kinds of goofy shenanigans are exactly what people pay me for. The Angel of History, says Benjamin, "sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet," and that must be pretty much how Jack experiences things. Certainly the ghosts of the past increasingly well up in front of him--sometimes in the literal form of the ghostly samurai that stalks him in early episodes, waiting for the moment when he finally admits defeat and kills himself.

Yeah season 5 is grim stuff!

Anyway here's Benjamin again:

"The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

If anything is "progress" as we commonly conceive it, it's probably Aku, with his endless armies of robots ("always more robots" Jack intones at one point), but Benjamin doesn't really mean progress in that sense, but in the sense of the angel's perceived catastrophic accumulation of events, the inability to reverse time or even halt it for a second. The future keeps happening to us, and all the more so to Jack, cursed to keep living on in suspended animation, watching catastrophe pile up. So, Aku might still be progress in the sense that he is the force propelling Jack endlessly into the future.

Not that Aku is that much better off, of course. Any pleasure Aku might get from his wanton destruction seems to have long ago dried up, and even if he's the cause of the "storm blowing from paradise" that buffets Jack ever onward, he's also buffeted himself and in response has holed up in his tower, endlessly rehearsing for and to himself (in one both hilarious and disturbing scene he splits his body in two to psychoanalyze himself) the fact that he hates Samurai Jack.

So we're happy as viewers with Samurai Jack's journey continuing but no one on the show itself is very happy, and both Aku and Jack seem to clearly direct their fury at the unseen audience--Aku staring out at the viewer and intoning "wouldn't it be nice" if someone would finally kill Jack for him, and Jack's narration at the beginning repeating the line from the original themesong--"gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack"--as a kind of mantra against the creeping madness and despair of his position.

All of which is to say that the show goes well out of its way formally and thematically to grapple with the whole IDEA of the past, taking it up as a burden for the characters, something to be sought, and also something tied to larger concepts of history, the future, the nature of the present, hope, despair, and so on and so on. I think it's so complete that we might even extend it to the very nature of the show's medium and storytelling: a 2d animated series with a style that helped characterize the 90s being produced somewhat anachronistically in 2017, full of genre references and touchstones.

Samurai Jack does a ton of hearkening really. Hearkening back to stuff is its bread and butter. I'm not going to focus too much on the genre references, just for time's sake, but they're all over the show. Obviously Samurai Jack harkens back to martial arts films, for example. And early in the season we get a stunning fight between Jack and the Daughters of Aku in an ancient tomb that is absolutely, undeniably the Ecstasy of Gold scene from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. But it's not those genre notes I want to focus on.

Rather, I'm interested in the way it looks to the past of 2d animation. Take the fight in the snow between Jack and the surviving Daughters of Aku. The scene is a brilliant reprise of an earlier scene from the original series where Jack, garbed all in white, fought a ninja, garbed all in black, within a starkly lit tower. Here, as there, the landscape is defined by the few spots of light, shadow, and color. The zero-outline style Tarkovsky embraces allows the shapes to merge into each other, and makes intuitive the moments when character movements reveal the hidden geography of the snowy forest.

It's a stunning scene and it's something I, at least, strongly associate with past experiments in 2d animation. We can look to some of the strange formal tricks in everything from the often fluid and strange worlds of Betty Boop to the elastic experiments of Looney Toons to the perspective trickery of individual works like Alice in Wonderland.

The thing I most associate these techniques with, though, is the fragmentary, incomplete masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler. That's, I think, the film that most relates to Tarkovsky's experiments here. The lengthy chase scene early in the film between the titular thief and cobbler, through the optical illusion geometry of the royal palace, is a fantastic example of the kind of totally off the wall formal tricks director Richard Williams was capable of. (And also why the film took so long to make that the studio kicked him off the project and released it in butchered form).

What really stands out to me here is the way that there's this constant movement between the abstraction of animation and the diegetic space that we're supposed to believe in. While other animation strives to treat the space as legible, both Williams and Tarkovsky are deliberately fucking with that legibility in the extreme. Williams does this by introducing tiled patterns in the environment that can be read either as flat 2d decoration, or as 3d perspective, often deliberately having different visual elements operate the same way in the same shot. Tarkovsky achieves similar effects by ratcheting up the contrast to the point where forms merge into each other.

The end result for both is this constant frission, this constant sense of thrilled bewilderment as our notion of the space is rewritten, moment to moment. It demands an incredible active viewing as we rewrite for ourselves our whole reading of what's on the screen.

And it's not something you can do with 3d CGI.

I don't want to suggest here that CGI is inherently debased compared to 2d animation, or that it inherently lends itself to a lack of formal experimentation. David OReilly, for instance, keeps putting out games and short films that take the weirdest potential of basic 3D and center it, using object clipping, graphical distortion, rapid snapping between states, and so on for a variety of weird and brilliant effects. And if you want to go more popular, holy hell have you been watching The Amazing World of Gumball? The show is a delightful and bewildering mishmash of animation styles but still manages to blur together 2d and 3d formats in a way that feels incredibly intuitive... while also managing periodically to take each individual style and medium and explore gags that ONLY work in that format, often only for that individual character.

But to so specifically zero in on 2d animation's potential... that feels, well, nostalgic, like a last love letter to the specific potential of this mode of storytelling.

It also feels like a little bit of a last gasp, for that matter. While we still occasionally get things like Gravity Falls, even Disney for the most part has ditched 2d animation as a centerpiece of its production (gotta keep reusing those CGI princess models I guess). At the very least 2d animation is dead enough to warrant a kind of postmortem by Movies with Mikey in the form of a tribute to one of the last truly great Disney films, The Emperor's New Groove.

All of which is to say that I think if we're talking about Samurai Jack and the past, we gotta talk about the fact that it's using a form of visual storytelling that has a contemporary polish to it, to be sure, but at heart feels not like a renaissance but a final tribute.

The interesting thing about the animation, then, is that it's both forward and backward looking at once: it both anticipates the deep experimental potential of 2d animation, while offering that potential after it's already been overtaken by other technologies. It's almost like looking into an alternate timeline where 2d remained king, almost nostalgic for an alternate present. (or maybe that's my own nostalgia for the form clouding my reading!)

Samurai Jack taken as a whole is constantly in a forward/backward tension. Jack's greatest allies are often (though certainly not exclusively!) coded as being from the distant past--the Scotsman, the Spartans, the primitive tribe of jumping apes... Jack is as strongly coded with the past as Aku is with the future, with his endless armies of robots juxtaposed with Jack's gentle love of the natural world (even at its most alien).

...Which is to say, I guess, not THAT strongly, not without complexity. The Scotsman has a machine gun leg, after all. Aku's empire meanwhile may depend on space commerce to function, but it depends just as much on his shapeshifting evil, ability to pour pieces of himself into his robots, and alliance with mystical beings like Demongo the Soul Collector.

It's also worth noting that, even if it often relies on pretty broadly painted stereotypes (more on that in a second), the show's fascination with the past is still in some sense progressive. We constantly see Jack finding ways to make common cause with a variety of cultures and even alien beings. At its best, the show is (ugh) "globalist" if we want to use that word, and perhaps even beyond "global" as Jack so often finds himself defending the alien refugees that have dramatically altered the earth not because they set out to invade it but because Aku's empire pillaged their home worlds, forcing them to immigrate to our world. It's globalist not in the sense that neoliberals use it, of everyone being part of global free trade bullshit, but in the sense of all these different cultures (and species) finding commonality across difference.

Of course as much as it looks to the past to look to the future, it also often feels bogged down in 90s cartoon storytelling. It's hard not to cringe a little at moments when the show embraces orientalism or broad stereotypes about black culture. What should come off as inclusivity often ends up coming off as lazy exoticism, the treatment of cultures as tropes. But then, like, the whole show is about a Samurai prince who fights a shapeshifting demon with a magic sword. So, some of that's probably to be expected?

Nevertheless the reliance of Samurai Jack on the kind of trope-based storytelling that the best cartoons have now left far behind ultimately sinks it. I mean I don't think there's anything particularly controversial about saying that the romance-arc-and-subsequent-fridging that season 5's arc became kinda sucked. I honestly couldn't believe it while I was watching it. Were they really going to do something so... expected? (Yes.) Were they really going to pin so much on Ashi NOT being Aku, while also sentencing her to death because she can only exist due to Aku? (Yep.) It wasn't like I was mad, I just couldn't believe how... perfunctory it all seemed, how poorly thought out.

It's not that I don't get what they were going for, and I think there are reparative readings possible. Ashi's disappearance stands, perhaps, as a representation of what Jack loses when he erases all that history, not just bad but good as well, by going back in time to defeat Aku at the beginning. God knows something needs to stand for it. Otherwise the season essentially builds up the idea that Jack has touched countless lives and made countless allies without realizing how significant he was to these people... and then casually endorses him erasing all these people from reality itself. Whoops.

We're supposed to simultaneously care deeply about these characters while also shrugging when they're all turned into nonbeings and that just doesn't quite sit right with me. Perhaps the angel of history would like to stop the wind from paradise, bring back the dead, but there's a difference between bringing back the dead and making them unbeings, declaring that they never shall have existed. Jack's allies may be willing to defeat Aku even at the price of death, but there's no real sense that they wish to defeat him at the price of oblivion.

Ashi helps somewhat to close that gap, seeming to make that calculation of oblivion if it means the defeat of her father... er, not her father... but yes still her father I guess? Hm. And I think if you're going for a reparative reading, there's much to be drawn from Jack's final scene, mirroring countless scenes throughout the series, where he takes solace in simple nature, nature that seems to endure despite Aku's endless plundering of the world. There is a grace in this finale--Jack at peace with the fact that in defeating Aku he has lost all those he shared a bond with but ultimately preserved much of the world until the industrial revolution hurls us forward into global climate catastrophe I guess but don't think about that too hard.

But I feel like we should acknowledge that this is a reading you have to MAKE work. Melanie McFarland on Salon for example defends the season as saying profound things about grief and depression but can't help but note the fact that "The finale resolves the adventure haphazardly, jamming a glut of action into too small a space." There's just no getting around it: the ending simply doesn't hang together the way it should. I'd go a step further than criticizing the pacing though and say that using your sole major female character as purely a symbolic representation of the hero's need to accept the hopeless contradiction of his situation, the tragic choice that his victory requires, is kind of a dick move.

This is where, I think, the looking back of Samurai Jack becomes an actual move backwards from contemporary storytelling and by extension the kind of progressive politics the show otherwise seems to suggest. There's nothing inherently regressive in looking to the past for inspiration in the context of a force that "chokes the past, the present, and the future." Sometimes resurrecting the ghosts of the past is the only way to move forward! (For more on this see my slowly being completed Let's Read Theory series on Hauntology, which is all about the ghosts of the past coming back to challenge the domination of the present.) 

To actually try to just recreate the past though IS kinda reactionary and that's not just in some abstract philosophical sense but in the very real sense that the narrative looks backward to a kind of sexist storytelling way better suited to the 90s than to 2017. Moreover it comes at the cost of sort of blithely taking all the incredible productive ambiguity of the show's treatment of history and just sorta... ignoring it? Blowing past it for the most part?

As I say, disappointing.

In the end Samurai Jack seems to be a show that constantly struggled with the past, its meaning, and its value, only to be swamped by the questions. The last episode seems to throw its hands up and accept that getting back to the past really is the one thing that we want most of all, both for Jack himself and in terms of the narrative methods the show uses. Maybe there's something fitting about that. We've gotten so much pleasure out of Jack's irresolvable suffering, maybe it's only fair that we should have to deal with a resolution for Jack that leaves lots to be desired from our own perspective.

Ultimately, though, the angel pausing its rush and returning to make whole what has been smashed ultimately feels somewhat hollow. Because in the end, Jack may go back to the past, but we cannot, and some of the weaknesses of this finale show that maybe, ultimately, we don't actually want to.


  1. This is a very good article that said a lot of my own thoughts and feelings about Samurai Jack in a much better way then I could've phrased it and also noted me of some other things, but I'm really bothered by that whole bit about 2D animation
    Because while it's true 2D animation is basically dead as a mainstream tool in feature-lenght animation, it's still basically the thing to use in serial TV animation, which is what Samurai Jack is. I can buy "Requiems for 2D" reads for if this was about a movie, or something at least feature-legnth OR AT THE VERY LEAST standalone, but not for serial animation airing on a network that still does 2D for much of it's programming (Looking through [Adult Swim]'s current airing shows it seems to be mostly either live action or 2D, and CN seems to only run two CGI shows and one flash show currently)
    Treating Samurai Jack like it's looking to the past and championing a bygone medium, when this medium is still THE thing to use on the small screen, is... well... it sets off my animation nerd alarms. You brought up Gravity Falls and Gumball in your article, you must've noticed that CGI TV cartoons are still pretty rare even nowadays?
    When you started bringing up animation styles, I thought it was more about Samurai Jack spesifically bringing up spesific styles of 2D. There is something about Samurai Jack's artstyle that feel distinctively "late 90's-early 2000's cartoon network" and makes it stands out between other current 2D shows. I think there was somewhere to go there in terms of analayzing's SJ's medium and style

  2. I think what bothers me most about this ending is just how simple it would have been to fix. If Tartakovsky hadn't been so focused on crafting a nostalgic 90s throwback, he might have noticed that the solution was already right there in contemporary cartoon storytelling: just copy Over the Garden Wall.

    Both shows share a central issue in that the bulk of their action ends up not actually having happened, in one sense or another, according to their final episodes – Samurai Jack when its events are erased by time travel, and OTGW when Wirt and Greg's adventure is revealed as essentially having been a coma fantasy. OTGW, though, manages to avoid the flattening effect of the "all just a dream" twist by indicating that that dream was still a meaningful event in the lives of its protagonists, and perhaps more importantly by making it clear that the colourful cast of characters they met on their journey still live on in some form (regardless of whether they're "real", as such). There's an open-ended ambiguity that makes it work.

    So that's what Samurai Jack is really missing, I think: a one-minute montage during the end credits, showing the various characters Jack has crossed paths with over the years beginning to heal and get on with their new lives after the revolution. (And really, if you're playing so fast and loose with time travel that Ashi can nonsensically evaporate at the wedding altar, you might as well just tie things up by having future!Aku drop dead when past!Aku is killed – no need to destroy the rest of the universe with him.)


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