Monday, March 17, 2014

Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie

A few months ago, IDW began releasing comics based on various Cartoon Network properties they had acquired licenses for. One of these was for Samurai Jack, serving as a continuation of the popular animated series by Genndy Tartakovsky. As the first story arc of the comic has concluded at the time of this writing, I really like it so far and will continue to read it. However, what prompted this review was a Samurai Jack special issue IDW put out which reprinted a 2002 special that was essentially a comic adaptation of the show’s premiere movie. This got us interested in re-watching the movie, if only to see how close the comic adaptation was, and it turns out that the comic was very close in replicating the events of the movie. During this recent viewing of the movie though, I also remembered just how good a cartoon Samurai Jack really was.

The comic that inspired this viewing of the movie.

In Feudal Japan, a powerful demon wizard named Aku (Mako Iwamatsu) is awakened from his prison by the passing of a solar eclipse. As an act of revenge, he assaults the palace, capturing The Emperor (Keone Young), who had first imprisoned him years ago with a magic sword. As a contingency plan, The Emperor has his son (Phil LaMarr) leave the palace and travel around the world to hone his skills as a Samurai. When he returns years later, Aku has enslaved the empire and is giving particularly harsh treatment to The Emperor (now voiced by Sab Shimono). After the samurai rescues his father, he confronts Aku in his lair, nearly winning a fierce battle with the demon wizard. However, right before he can inflict the final blow, Aku opens a portal in time, sending the samurai into the far future, where Aku rules the earth with an iron fist. While trying to figure out exactly what has happened in the millennia since his displacement in time, the samurai adopts the name Jack and sets out on a quest to return to his own time and vanquish the evil Aku.

Samurai Jack’s premiere movie, as it is the first three episodes strung together, is mostly a means of setting up the series that would follow, but it does a very good job of doing so. We are introduced not only to the main conflict between the two main characters, Jack and Aku, but we are given a good demonstration of their abilities and personalities. The way this story is told though is very interesting, as there are long stretches without any dialogue, allowing the visuals to speak for themselves. This is most apparent during Jack’s extended training montage as well as the long fight sequences. Though this does make Samurai Jack a more visual affair, it is a very nice touch that you wouldn’t normally see in other cartoons from the same genre. There’s also an interesting mix of eastern and western storytelling elements, as we see heavy influences from Japanese mythology in the past before transitioning to the future, the first setting seen in this timeframe being something one would see in a dystopian sci-fi flick. This blending of styles is what helps set Samurai Jack apart, as it sets up the classic Good vs. Evil struggle but with the twist of a temporally displaced samurai who upholds his own code of honor. While it starts off pretty seriously, it also manages to throw in a fair amount of comedy to set up the tone of the rest of the series nicely. Dialogue is also very natural, revealing smaller details about the world through throwaway dialogue rather than a big exposition dump.

Another notable trait of Samurai Jack is the animation, namely the outlineless art style. Much like how there are no outlines in real life, not a single thing in Samurai Jack has an outline, which gives it a very iconic style that none have tried to replicate. This distinct visual flare is very good at drawing the viewer in, aided by the very fluid motions, particularly when martial arts are on display.

Apart from the fantastic musical score, there is also incredible voice acting. Phil LaMarr, known for such roles as Static from Static Shock and Vamp from Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4, has a very strong performance as Jack. Jack’s stoic personality comes across very clearly and his reactions feel very natural, even if he is able to take his new setting surprisingly well. The character’s deep voice isn’t off-putting and, in fact, is very fitting because there can still be a lot of compassion behind what he says and, in some cases, is very warm in its delivery. The late great Mako Iwamatsu, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Sand Pebbles and is otherwise well-known as Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender among other roles, also nails it as the evil demon wizard Aku. At times Aku sounds genuinely threatening, but his hammy and over-the-top voice also adds an element of comedy as a great balance of different extremes. Aku is a villain that everyone would like to see defeated, especially during the series to follow, and Mako’s voice is perfect for his personality.

The evil demon wizard Aku.

In the end, Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie can only really be seen as the start of a much larger work, but it is a very good one. The characters and motivations are all introduced very well and we get a good taste of what the rest of the series would bring. Fantastic voice acting, plus a good attention to animation and quietness, helps strengthen the film and elevates it to great heights. Fans who watched the series already have an idea of how good this movie is, but if you’ve never seen Samurai Jack and are curious to see what it’s like, then The Premiere Movie is the best possible place to start.

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