It’s been more than 12 years since the season 4 finale, but it’s been 50 years in the life of the titular hero, voiced again by Phil LaMarr. Jack, untouched by the aging effects of time, has been wandering the future as a tormented ronin, and his hope for a return home is waning. But he’s lost more than just faith.
As pointed out by the new Pied Piper villain, Scaramouche the Merciless, Jack lost his sword, the mystical heirloom capable of slaying the shape-shifting demon Aku. It’s not merely a loss of an object that has him rattled, but a loss of one’s self, as the signature weapon has become a symbol of Jack’s noble quest.
Balancing the cartoonish aspects of Samurai Jack with such serious material was one of Tartakovsky’s biggest challenges heading into the premiere, which sees Jack plagued by fiery visions of loved ones lost. Then there are the daughters of Aku, whose ritualistic birthing scene marked a stark change in tone from what fans are used to.
So, Tartakovsky introduced “Aku’s most favorite assassin” to cut the tension.
“It was something that I struggled with a lot in this first episode, and the second even, where [we wondered], ‘Have we walked the line?’” he tells EW of the Scaramouche encounter. “But everything was so intense coming upon that scene where he starts playing the flute, or once he starts talking, and I wanted to let the air out a little bit. I think drama plays best with comedy.”
He adds, “It was really more of an Aku-type feel. You know, Aku is super intense, but he’s silly also, and it was time to get a few laughs. So we put it in and it felt right and it’s still a pretty cool fight.”
Another change fans might have picked up on is the opening title sequence. While the first four seasons featured a cinematic opener of Aku recalling how he flung his foe through a time portal, Jack leads the season 5 intro.
“Even though it’s always been Jack’s story, we’re shifting it to — it’s almost like his look inside of himself, so he’s narrating himself and that thematically plays along with where we went in the first two episodes already, and I wanted to introduce a darker time. I wanted to introduce a darker tone,” Tartakovsky says. “The main title is kinda cartoony, even though I love it and I know a lot of people like it, it didn’t feel right coming into what we were doing — going from will.i.am singing to a baby being born, it didn’t feel quite right. So, this felt more on point with what we were trying to do.”
Samurai Jack season 5 will continue next Saturday at 11 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.
SAMURAI JACK: "XCII" REVIEW
Many thought it would never happen, but here we are with the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack that will finally end the story that began back in 2001. Fifty years have passed since we last saw Jack on his quest to vanquish Aku and return to his proper place in time, and those years have not been kind to Jack. A side effect of time travel means he can no longer age, but that doesn’t stop him from growing a mangy beard and dwelling on those he has failed to save from Aku’s wrath. The season premiere deftly establishes this new status quo with a pulse-pounding episode that feels like an action-packed horror movie.
Having moved to Adult Swim, the show has liberty to be darker and more violent, which is fitting because the people who watched as it aired are all grown up now. The premiere leans into the macabre as we see that even though Jack continues to fight, he’s tortured by the thoughts of those who have suffered under the rule of Aku. There's also an imposing, shadowy figure who appears in these nightmares, sparking an intriguing mystery -- Jack wasn't even frightened of Aku, so what makes this guy so scary?
Jack is no longer an optimistic samurai with pristine white robes but a world-weary warrior with a permanent scowl wearing armor that’s seen better days. That he now carries a pistol says volumes about how far he’s fallen from the man he used to be.
Still, the show maintains its penchant for finding humor in unexpected places. Things are grim, sure, but it’s not hard to find yourself amused by the quirky new assassin or simply wowed by one of Jack’s explosive combat takedowns.
Genndy Tartakovsky’s signature style, the selling point of the show for many, is on full display. Extended action scenes develop an intense rhythm as weapons clash and robotic husks are crushed, impaled and slashed. The music accentuates everything from the ghastly horrors of Jack’s mind to the wonderfully bizarre tactics of the episode’s final encounter. The show looks absolutely gorgeous, every frame an exquisite piece of art. Seriously, you could pause it nearly anywhere and you’d be looking at a masterpiece.
As Jack travels the landscape continuing his quest, we’re shown a surprisingly in-depth look at the daughters of Aku who are raised from birth with the sole mission of killing Jack. And I mean that literally, we’re there for the births. It’s an unsettling and uncomfortable scene, as are the ones that follow showing their brutal and unloving upbringing -- yet another element that wouldn’t have made it into the original, more kid-friendly show. While we don’t see Aku in the flesh (er… magic dark matter?), these hitwomen make for imposing new villains carrying out his will, simply because we’re so used to seeing Jack effortlessly slice-and-dice robots and these are flesh-and-blood people with focused fury aimed right at our favorite samurai.
The return of Samurai Jack is a slam dunk that shatters the glass. Everything that made the original show so great is back with more intensity and maturity. Tartakovsky has only gotten better with time, and he uses this first episode to set a grim tone and establish new villains while never forgetting to deliver on the mesmerizing action scenes and hyper-focused storytelling that earned the show leagues of fans who are now ready to see how this whole thing shakes out.
Samurai Jack: Season 5 premieres Saturday, March 11 at 11:00 pm EST on Adult Swim.
Samurai Jack Season 5 Premiere: Jack Is Back
It’s been over a decade since Samurai Jack was last on television, ending its fourth season with an episode that saw Jack continuing his quest to find the evil, shapeshifting master of darkness, Aku. Only Jack never got to finish that quest. The show was canceled and for years it seemed as if its creator, Genndy Tartakovsky, would never have the opportunity to finish his landmark series.
Fast-forward to now — the age in which many a celebrated series and franchise are earning second chances — and Samurai Jack is finally getting the proper ending it so deserves. Premiering tonight on Adult Swim, Samurai Jack season 5 promises not only a return of the titular samurai, but a more mature tone for the series — a decision that makes sense seeing as the audience that watched Samurai Jack when it was first airing on Cartoon Network has also grown up. Now when Jack slices and dices up his enemies, there will be blood.
But the choice to ditch the family-friendly vibe serves a purpose beyond upping the grit and gore: It will allow Samurai Jack to fully and more deeply explore its protagonist’s despair. It may have been years since we last saw Jack, but it’s been even longer for him — 50 years to be exact, though he hasn’t aged a day, a side effect of the time travel. And in that time, Jack is no closer to defeating Aku or returning to his original time. It would seem that the once righteous samurai, having suffered decades of failure, is without hope.
Feel free to begin discussing tonight’s premiere of Samurai Jack season 5 in the comments. We will have a full review for you soon.