The name Genndy Tartakovsky may seem unfamiliar to you, but I’m sure you know of his work. He started out as an assistant animator on Steven Spielberg’s Tiny Toon Adventures, before becoming a storyboard artist and animation director on the cartoon network show 2 Stupid Dogs. He then went on to create the highly popular and critically acclaimed CN mega-hit Dexter’s Laboratory, and since then he’s also directed his feature film debut, Hotel Transylvania, in 2012, as well as the forthcoming sequel. Oh yeah, and he also is the genius mastermind behind Samurai Jack, one of the greatest and most sophisticated cartoons to ever grace the television screen.
The series follows a nameless ronin warrior, a samurai without a master, who sees his father taken from him when he is just a little kid. He spends many years travelling all corners of the world, learning all there is to know about martial arts, so that one day he can return to his homeland and defeat Aku, the evil lord of darkness that has enslaved his father and the rest of feudal Japan. But just as he is about to strike, Aku opens a time portal and throws him into a distant, dystopian retro-steampunk future. Jack must now find a way to get back to the past and stop evil ones and for all.
The idea for the show first came about when Tartakovsky had the desire to move away from the dialogue-heavy slapstick comedy that was popular at the time. He felt there was too much talking and too little action in the world of animation, which led him to conceive the character of Jack; a good-hearted but tough fighter possessing the stealth of a ninja, and the technical skill of a samurai. In creating the universe for his protagonist, Tartakovsky drew from a wide range of influences, including the 1970’s martial arts series Kung Fu, classic Japanese anime, and the works of filmmakers Akira Kurosawa (“Seven Samurai”) and David Lean (“The Brigde on the River Kwai”).
The vision was to develop a show that was cinematic in scope, incorporating real choreography and little to no exchange of dialogue. Instead the narrative would have to rely mostly on visual components in order to tell the story and drive the plot. These include split-screens, multi-angle shots, quick editing, and long takes. The overall graphic tone was deliberately designed to look like a Japanese epic, with each individual episode taking on its own unique style and feel. The drawings were often very simple and sketchy, borrowing stylistic attributes from the art movement known as ukiyo-e, which is characterised by its minimalistic appearance and bold, flat lines. Some of the episodes would also pull inspiration directly from comic books, most noticeably Frank Miller’s Ronin and 300, and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro.
Samurai Jack is in many ways a profound piece of avant-garde television. The animation is unlike anything that came before and after it, the tonality is much darker than your average cartoon, and the themes are surprisingly adult-oriented. If you really take the time to examine it, you will find that it is far more mature and intricate in its art than anything else that was on cartoon network at the time. In fact, I’m astounded that it even got green-lit in the first place. It shouldn’t really be a show that kids would have the patience to spend 20 minutes on, but for some reason it just works. I can only assume the explanation lies in the insane amount of tension and suspense that the animators bring to the table. The fight scenes are so visceral and breathtaking, you almost forget you’re watching drawings on a paper. I guess that’s the magic of the imaginative mind. This is not just simple-minded pastime for children on a saturday morning. This is high-class art of great taste and vast ambition. It pushes the boundaries of what the genre is capable of, infusing new and exciting approaches. It weaves delightful humor and intense action together so effortlessly, to the point where it transcends entertainment and becomes a benchmark of its kind. I miss a time when cartoons were this riveting, well-made and graceful. Vessels for endless creativity.