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Samurai Jack: Season 1
To me (and to many, I suppose), Samurai Jack represents the epitome of Geek Paradise. The acclaimed Cartoon Network series, which debuted in the early fall of 2001 to both positive ratings and reviews, culls together diverse elements from a variety of genre favorites and, in doing so, has evolved into something that seems both fresh and exciting while, at the same time, thoroughly familiar and inviting.
But first, a recap: the tale of Samurai Jack begins in Feudal Japan. The evil demon Aku had been terrorizing the Earth for millennia, and only a young Emperor armed with an enchanted katana was able to defeat and imprison Aku. The years pass on, and the Emperor enjoys a time of peace and harmony, culminating with the birth of his young son. But Aku's evil was not so easily contained, and the arch-demon broke free from his imprisonment to wreak havoc and exact his revenge. As Aku attacked, the Emperor's wife and young son fled Japan. From that point on the young son went through a period of training, traveling the world and gathering knowledge and experience from Arabian horsemen, African bushmen, Chinese navigators, Greek wrestlers, Shaolin monks, Russian axemen, and even Sherwood archers, to become the fiercest and most skilled warrior on the planet.
As an adult, the young samurai returned to Japan to rid his homeland once and for all of Aku's evil and treachery. He finds the population enslaved and oppressed, crushed under the heel of Aku's brutal reign. Armed with his father's enchanted sword, the young samurai confronts Aku, battling and nearly defeating the black demon. In a state of panic, Aku opens a portal in time and flings the young samurai thousands of years into the future. Finding himself alone and stranded on an Earth that has been ruled by Aku for millennia, the samurai vows to find a way back home while, at the same time, fighting Aku and his minions in this future world.
This young Samurai has become a legend on this future Earth... the noble swordslinger known as Samurai Jack!
*cue heroic music*
Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky, who has had a directorial hand in a ton of Cartoon Network fare including Dexter's Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, and Star Wars: Clone Wars, has taken his love of Geek Genre films, television shows, animes, and comic books to a whole new level with Samurai Jack. Ostensibly this is a show about a samurai, and as such proudly shows its influence from such elements as Kurosawa (especially Seven Samurai and Yojimbo), the Zatoichi films, the legend of Miyamoto Musashi, and other classic tales of samurai honor and prowess. But by planting the series in the far-flung future, Tartakovsky is free to explore a multitude of different types of characters, genres, and environments. Samurai Jack often finds himself encountering Al Capone-styled gangsters, Scottish clansmen, Egyptian deities, Southern Sherriffs, Norse legends, or Arabian sheiks... and often he finds himself encountering beings that defy classification into simple archetypes. Samurai Jack is filled with action and adventure, yet many episodes are found to be hilariously funny, touching and heartfelt, or dark and gritty. It defies genre, jumping between science fiction, fantasy, westerns, and (sometimes) just good old, hack-n-slash fun. The fact that many of Jack's enemies are androids makes it easy justification for him to slash through them without compunction.
Androids... God bless 'em!
In the end, what make this show great are its two leading characters. Samurai Jack himself is nothing if not the classic, silent but strong hero with a deep sense of honor and self-sacrifice. Yet at times, he can be a bit of a schmo and perhaps a little silly. He's not above a playful grin or cheek-reddening embarrassment. Aku is pure darkness and evil, but at the same time he's almost a slightly endearing character. Here's this omnipotent figure who, like Jack, can be something of a schmo and an exasperated id'jit. We can thank the character animators, the writers, and the vocal talents of Phil LaMarr (the talented star of Mad TV, Free Enterprise, and probably best known as Marvin, the kid who got his face blown off by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, as well as a talented voice actor who gives life to Green Lantern in Justice League, Hermes Conrad in Futurama, and Static in Static Shock) as Samurai Jack, and Mako (a Japanese actor with an impressive and enormous filmography, but he's best known to Genre Geeks as The Wizard from Conan the Barbarian) as Aku.
In the liner notes to this DVD, Tartakovsky notes that some of his most profound influences included Conan the Barbarian, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Seven Samurai. Suffice to say, if this range of influences sounds good to you, chances are you will adore Samurai Jack. For those of you who are already fans, then I'm already preaching to the choir. While not all of the episodes are classic - I personally feel that the pilot is amazing up to the point where Jack decides to help those dog-creatures from the future - there's more imagination and compelling material in a single episode of Samurai Jack than there is in an entire season of most other animated series.
The following episodes are included on Samurai Jack: Season 1:
- Episode I - When Aku is reborn to set forth on his reign of terror, a young samurai attempts to slay him with a mighty sword, but Aku banishes the warrior to the future.
- Episode II - After landing in the future, the samurai, now named Jack, begins his quest for Aku.
- Episode III - Jack attempts to beat back Aku's army and save a race of canine archeologists.
- Episode IV - Jack helps free the Woolies from the tyrannical Chritchellites.
- Episode V - Jack and a group of scientists join forces to try to escape the wrath of Aku.
- Episode VI - A mysterious female warrior joins Jack in his quest, but is she really an ally?
- Episode VII - Jack must get past three mysterious archers to reach an all-powerful wishing well.
- Episode VIII - Jack must do battle with his darker self, Mad Jack.
- Episode IX - Jack has an underwater adventure while hunting for an ancient time portal.
- Episode X - Jack survives a cave full of challenges only to find an old warrior longing to reach Valhalla.
- Episode XI - When Jack and a Scotsman meet on a never-ending bridge, they end up shackled together and on the run from bounty hunters.
- Episode XII - Jack hooks up with some Chicago gangsters to try to get close to Aku.
- Episode XIII - Aku tells three fairy tales, with a decidedly skewed point of view.
Samurai Jack is presented in its original, made-for-television full-frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The series looks simply wonderful. Colors are beautifully rendered, and image detail is remarkably sharp. The backgrounds and hand-drawn animation are rendered in a beautifully pleasing manner. I was worried that, with seven episodes on Disc One, compression noise and pixellation would be an issue. Thankfully, this is not the case. My only real complaint, and it's one I've echoed in a lot of Warner Animation DVDs, is that the picture is perhaps a tad too sharp. Jaggies and line noise is definitely noticeable at times. Otherwise, I have almost nothing to complain about with this transfer.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 (there are optional audio tracks in both Spanish and French.) Samurai Jack features some of the best instrumentation and scoring on any show, animated or otherwise, and it comes across well with this audio presentation. Dynamic range is broad, with just enough separation in the front to add some immersion to the mix. Surrounds are monaural but aggressive, and dialog comes across as warm, bright, and natural-sounding without shrill or harshness.
Disc One contains a commentary track on Episode VII, featuring series creator Genndy Tartakovsky and storyboard artist Brian Andrews. The track is pretty short, as it only lasts the twenty-two minutes of the episode's length, but the two talk pretty enthusiastically throughout. The episode in question is one of their favorites, and they explain how the story evolved, the challenges in presenting a story visually with little to almost no dialog, and the influences involved in the creation of the episode (including an issue of the classic but little-known DC comic book series Manhunter .)
Also included on Disc One are trailers for The Jetsons: The Complete First Season, Justice League: Starcrossed (this looks amazing), and Jonny Quest: The Complete First Season .
Disc Two has some nice extras as well. The Making of Samurai Jack is a seven-minute featurette that looks at the development and creation of the show. It's a brief but informative look at the people who create Samurai Jack's adventures week after week. Also included is an Original Animation Test, running slightly over two minutes, which provides an early look at the development of the look and feel of Samurai Jack's universe. Even as a throwaway test sequence, it still provided for an amazingly entertaining piece. Finally, we have Original Artwork, which is an eight-minute video sequence which displays dozens of pages of original artwork used in the development and creation of the series, and includes some storyboard-to-screen comparisons as well.
For fans of the show, the argument over whether or not to purchase Samurai Jack: Season 1 is pretty much a no-brainer. But for those who are casually familiar or have never seen an episode, I can still strongly recommend this set. First off, the show is fantastic; while not every episode is a winner, even the weaker shows still have much to offer in terms of creativity and entertainment. The show looks and sounds terrific on DVD, making this Jack fan extremely satisfied with the presentation. The extras, while not in abundance, are interesting and value-adding. Samurai Jack fans have been waiting for seasonal box sets for almost three years, and at long last our prayers have been answered. Highly Recommended!