One of my favorite shows of the early aughts was Samurai Jack, the gorgeous, richly eccentric Cartoon Network series that aired from 2001 to 2004. Now Jack is back, in a new 10-episode season that starts airing on Adult Swim on March 11. Having watched the first two episodes, I’m happy to report that this cartoon created by Genndy Tartakovsky is as exciting, beautiful, and multilayered as it ever was.
A quick primer for anyone who’s never seen the show: The title character is a renegade Japanese samurai prince whose immortal enemy is Aku, a demonic wizard, a godlike monster with crackling flames for eyebrows who controls armies of robots. Jack has been fighting Aku not just for years, but across space and time: The series opens time portals that have sent Jack into the past and the future.
It’s the animation art that gives Samurai Jack its distinctive greatness. Tartakovsky deploys the minimalist animation style that reached an artistic height half a century ago with the animators John and Faith Hubley and does painterly, cinematic things with it. He’ll use close-ups of eyes so tight, they look like a Robert Motherwell abstract canvas. He’ll pull back to reveal a forest that consists of slashes of green, with a swipe of blue color indicating a narrow river. You can watch the show and speculate on Tartakovsky’s movie influences — Akira Kurosawa? Sergio Leone? — but by now, he’s just pure Tartakovsky, and the new episodes are frequently hit-pause stunning.
The new Samurai Jack series finds our hero at near-defeat. In a voiceover, he intones, “Fifty years have passed, yet I do not age.” Coulda fooled me: The Jack we now see roams the world haggard and weary, his hair long, his beard scraggly. Jack now carries a pistol and even picks up a machine gun. Rather than suggest an escalation in his destructive power, however, these weapons signal the opposite: that Jack must resort to lowly human ways of fending off attacks.
And attacked Jack is. The first two episodes introduce us to a garrulous dandy of a foe who jabbers in jive-talk, with a voice similar to that of Sammy Davis Jr., as well as the scary seven daughters of Aku, trained since birth to destroy Jack.
The move to Adult Swim allows for a more bleak and violent Samurai Jack, but the show never cranks up the violence for the sake of mere shock value. Indeed, there is one moment of lethal force in one of the two episodes made available for review that shakes Jack — and probably the viewer — to his core.
To be sure, there are fine comic moments here — Aku is nothing if not a fussy old despot, cranky and creaky — and the new episodes are also characterized by that rare thing in cartoons these days: long stretches of silence, in which the story is told through the visuals; no explanatory words or chattering jokes necessary.
The new episodes are being promoted as the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack. If that’s so, I hope Tartakovsky has used that deadline of finality to bring the Samurai Jack epic to a proper conclusion. I’m not saying I want Jack to die (although that would be mind-blowingly excellent), but I hope the series ends in a way that gives Jack and Aku a fitting climax to their titanic tussle.
Samurai Jack premieres on March 11 at 11 p.m. on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
Read more from Yahoo TV: