Samurai Jack is ostensibly a children's cartoon. This might seem redundant saying a cartoon is for children even though shows like The Simpsons and Japanese anime have become mainstream, cartoons are still considered "childish". This is fine just fine. I suppose for most people of my age being a late twenties pseudo-gen X type there is both a nostalgic whimsy for cartoons of old and a ironic appreciation for those cartoons when viewed through the post modern lens. I'll admit that in my unapologetic arrested development I have been know to hum The Go-Bots theme or try to recall what the hell was up with Tiger Sharks?
As I transitioned from from being a kid to being a kid with more hair and mass and scars I also gained an insight about humanity that could be confused by some with a sense of maturity. Any cursory reader of Sartre or Camus can tell you about the Existential principle that "hell is other people." That really being mature has more to do with negotiating a standing a place of respect, power, and authority in the world. For what it's worth? I'm not sure. I would say that to borrow a line from Daniel Plainfield in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking ... all I want to do is make enough money to not have to be around people." So there we have it.
What does this have to do with cartoons? Well I think it has something to do with what might be an ever increasing sense of people confusing maturity with an uncompromising sense of winning on their own terms. Much like Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' iconic Citizen Kane I cannot see how a person can have love in his life without it being on his own terms. But perhaps before I became 'mature" before I became a curmudgeon at the age of 27 I could see more to life? And perhaps I see more when I allow myself to see as a child with this old heart of mine (you know like the song).
It is this seemingly irreconcilable confluence between myself as a child in arrested development and myself as an adult in a ironic maturity fueled by post modern Existential angst and consumerism that drives me to watch these childish cartoons and appreciate them not as a naive child but rather as a bitter old man that desperately wants to hold onto the romantic notions of bravery and rugged individual heroism that I had as a child. For it is these concepts that allow me to push forward not a mature rye sense of humor and obsession for power. I'm not so different from Brad Wesley in Road House but then again maybe I am?
So Samurai Jack is an example of a show that for the most part tickles me because it is fun. It is a colorful and beautifully designed world. The plot is simple: The five year old son of a Japanese Lord is taken from his home upon the return of an ancient evil entity called Aku (Japanese for evil). On his journey the boy is instructed in the ways of the world and various forms of combat and tactics so that he might return to defeat the forces of Aku. Twenty years pass and Jack returns to face Aku. He is tricked as Aku uses his magic to send Jack into a future where Aku's evil reigns supreme. It is a world unlike anything (because it's pretend and imaginative ... you know imagination land); populated by alien cyborg bounty hunters, Scottish warriors, gangsters, Medieval villagers, and talking dogs. Upon Jack's arrival in this new world he immediately resumes his battle with the forces of Aku which are now much more numerous and refined. His quest for the show is to find a way to return to his own time to undo the tyranny of Aku.
I know what you're thinking it's pretty freakin' ridiculous. This isn't the sort of story that adults care about this isn't a tale of woeful unrequited love in Edwardian England or a story about a reclusive self destructive artist in New York's upper East Side. Or a character study about some perverted music teacher or a fourth wall breaking satire about American violence. Okay you got me. Simple plot: warrior needs to get back to the past to defeat a bad guy. So outright I'll give you that 60% of the show is rubbish, it's for kids it was a Cartoon Network show. Prime time airing or not it's no Gray's Anatomy or E.R. of any of those other hospital dramas or hip comedies about people in coffee shops trading sexual partners.
However, the remaining part of the show, a hefty 40% sprinkled among the 52 episodes, is fantastic. At the heart of Samurai Jack is a theme that is analagous to the Myth of Sisyphus (see that Hybrid car commercial that was on during the Superbowl XLII (which was it's own little tale of fighting that which could not be beaten)).
Nowhere in the show is this more apparent than episodes XIX and XX. These episodes come at you out of left field. After a handful of fun action episodes with some brutality that is common to children's cartoons and some harsh lessons about failure that is also what I'm sure you remember from any good episode of The Muppet Babies you get these two episodes that have seem to have absolutely no appeal to children.
Episode XIX finds Jack forced to face the artifacts of his failure to beat the evil. In a rare occasion we see a side of him that is not informed by his training but rather from his own memories as a child. Through a flashback Jack's current loneliness and loss become fully realized. He comes back to reality only to find a new battle waiting for him over the horizon. With no end in sight there is no peace for him.
Episode XX finds Jack wandering a cold tundra his hat is blows off and playfully evades him in the wind. He does not find it amusing he is losing his patience with this seemingly unattainable task. At his wit's end Jack capitulates into the cold empty wind. The hat lands at the feet of one of 3 monks. These 3 characters have been featured in the show before and are not fully elucidated until the Birth of Evil episodes in the later part of the third season. The monks tell Jack that they are seeking great power which is to be found at the top of a nearby mountain. So in one final effort to complete his task before quitting and letting Aku win, Jack decides to follow the monks to the summit of this mountain. At first he is subjected to extremes of weather and then he loses his weapon and falls many feet losing valuable progress and his monk guides. As he reaches the top beaten and tired he encounters a snow yeti (I know this is really not for kids but it is but it isn't). The violence that ensues is beyond anything I've seen in a children's cartoon. Beaten and defeated Jack is left with no recourse but to scream, to sound out the pain of his body and spirit. It's all he can do and in the end it saves him. So then he can go help out a dragon with a flatulence problem in episdoe XXI.
In the journey of these two episodes Jack is reminded of the answer to the Existential riddle about how you live. It is something that I feel very few children would fully appreciate. But you have to earn it and you have to be open to thinking like a child to really understand it also. The message is trite to a "mature" adult. And I feel that this is sad because these lessons that we first get in our youth are most important as we get older and our responsibilities become greater. To lose a child's capacity for wonder and romance can yield a banal existence at best and a miserable one at worst. Sure you have to live on your own terms and hell is other people but damn it you get up and you do it again. You keep pushing the rock up the hill because what the hell else can you do? And I find that when I get frustrated a good cartoon revives my spirit and reminds me that life though tough can have adventure and wonder in it if you aren't too "mature".