Samurai Jack has finished his journey. One of the top-drawer quality cartoons of the 2000’s was given its long-overdue wrap-up as of last Sunday, thanks to an opening in creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s schedule and the willingness of Adult Swim to spend the money. Minus a brief break on April Fool’s Day, ten new episodes of Samurai Jack ran consecutively — and told one solid tale.
Season 5 introduced something new to the series: continuity, and tight continuity at that. Looking back at the season as a whole, there is no scene that feels pointless or unnecessary to the story. To give one example, the scat-robot Scaramouche looked and felt like another one-episode throwaway villain, and was treated as such with his apparent destruction at the end of Episode XCII. A few half-hours later the revelation comes that his head survived and it’s playing a pivotal role in the plot by relaying some important news to Aku. By the time he’s abruptly blown up, we’ve gotten to know him enough to kind of miss him.
The largest and most prominent arc of the final ten episodes was the Daughters of Aku, specifically one of them. In Episode XCII we see ten ninja girls dressed in black, undergoing brutal training by a headmistress whom we later learn is their mother. Their presence in the opening episode doesn’t affect anything yet, but since they’re being trained to come after Jack, we know it will.
If the typical conventions of television storytelling had held, the Daughters would have been sent after Jack one or two at a time, and he would’ve dispatched one of them in each episode. This is what I was expecting and I probably wasn’t alone. Instead all the Daughters were sent after Jack at the same time, leading to an incredibly tense episode and one of the high points of the entire series.
Nothing came easy here. Nothing we normally see in cartoons worked in Jack’s favor. There was no sudden appearance from an ally character when Jack was cornered. There was no scene where a bunch of girls race after Jack from both ends and he jumps in the air right at the moment of impact causing them to crash into each other and knock themselves out. It was just one, long, tense battle with the protagonist way outnumbered and disadvantaged. This is the kind of scene Tartkavosky excels at, and his Hotel Transylvania job doesn’t provide enough opportunities for it.
The point when this episode aired was the point when fans started begging their non-cartoon-viewing friends to start watching. Jack was back and better than ever! Slowly, however, the tide of public opinion began to turn.
Nobody started outright hating the season, but they got something they hadn’t expected. During the first scenes with the Daughters, one particular member was called out by name — “Ashi” — likely indicating her importance later on. That theory proved correct when she became the sole survivor of the Daughters, and Jack, already shaken by being forced to take nine human lives, refused to kill one last time. Jack spent a visually inventive episode trapped in a monster’s belly dragging a tied-up Ashi around while she screamed and screeched about murdering Jack the second one of her hands got free.
Eventually Ashi sees enough evidence to become convinced Aku is the enemy, not Jack, and she becomes his ally. She sticks around and saves Jack from committing seppuku over his failures. She helps Jack retrieve his magic sword by fending off a gigantic army singlehandedly as he meditates. Ashi was practically becoming a main character in these last episodes, and the fandom wasn’t sure how to feel.
Then this happened and Tumblr erupted into civil war.
One crowd had been shipping Jack and Ashi already, and they were thrilled. The other side of the audience recoiled at what they felt was a creepy relationship — Ashi was too young! There was a third camp who didn’t feel it was the end of the world, but didn’t think it was necessary either. Jack and Ashi had a perfectly fine teacher-student relationship — was this “upgrade” really necessary?
We still hadn’t seen everything, and later episodes had cleared up events that made no sense early on. I was willing to give Tartakovsky the benefit of the doubt until we reached the point of this, if there was one. And…..there was. There was a reason for Jack to fall for Ashi that made perfect sense for his character arc. But we’ll get to that.
It turns out Ashi is literally the Daughter of Aku. Aku dumped some of his life essence into a bowl, Ashi’s mom drank it, and she gave birth to ten girls. Ashi finds out that even if she doesn’t want to kill Jack, her own DNA will force her to. She tries to hold back, but suddenly turns into a black figure with fiery eyes and arms that turn into knives, and comes after Jack.
Ashi pleads with Jack to kill her before she kills him, insisting she’s not worth it. But Jack vowed to never kill again in a previous episode, and fell in love with Ashi in another. Instead of taking a defensive stance, he kneels, puts his sword on the ground and declares “I CANNOT!” He’s captured and Aku relishes his victory, leading to the final episode.
Aku is so proud of this moment that he initiates a live televised broadcast across his entire empire dedicated to the execution of Jack. The start of this broadcast turns out to be the very opening sequence (also narrated by Aku) that we saw at the beginning of every episode of the previous four seasons, save the pilot. I’m not sure if getting Mako’s name in the credits one more time was the motive, but I did notice its presence there.
This is another example of how nothing was wasted — “every part of the cow.” Some viewers were annoyed by Ashi’s trek around the world in Episode XCVII because they didn’t see the point in catching up with old characters when there was a more immediate threat to deal with. But it turns out there was a reason for those scenes too…..because everyone Jack has helped in his entire post-warp life has arrived to save his own buns and return the favor!
A lot gets packed into these scenes. Tartakovsky takes advantage of the situation to cram as many cameos from throughout the series as possible, and while the reunion is nice, it means less of Genndy’s trademark timing skills — and they could have been used to great effect in the final episode. Jack is being attacked/absorbed by Ashi while she’s trying to fight Aku’s hold on her will, but any tension is dissolved by the fact that we keep getting cuts to whatever the Scotsman is doing.
Ultimately Ashi discovers that since she shares Aku’s genes, she also shares his superpowers — an immediate solution to everything, because she can just create a portal back to Jack’s time instantly. She does exactly this. This revelation is huge — it resolves the very core conflict of the entire series — and needed to be treated with more weight than it got. It just happens, quickly, and before anyone has time to process it, Jack has returned to his pivotal battle with the demon the moment after he left it.
Aku gets one last laugh in from me when he yells “WHAT, YOU’RE BACK ALREADY??” It has been a very long time for both Jack and the audience, and for a time neither one thought they would ever see this scene. Some call the actual slaying of Aku anticlimactic, but I would disagree for this reason: the fans have had a long time to fantasize about the last battle and no matter how spectacular it could have been, it would never measure up to what each viewer had in his or her own head. If someone were to watch Samurai Jack seasons 1 through 5 completely fresh, they might feel differently.
So Jack and Ashi escape the Demon’s Tower just before it explodes, and now that the Reign of Aku timeline has been erased….what is she still doing there? There’s a half-explanation where she falls to the ground and tells Jack, “I felt him leave me.”
Okay, fair enough, this episode has already reminded me that talking blue dogs exist in Jack’s world, who am I to question this? ….But then, as Ashi walks down the aisle later to officially marry Jack…..THAT’S when she fades away. It reminded some people of a certain anime that also ended with the love interest’s voided existence at the altar, but I wouldn’t call it a ripoff. I won’t name names in case some of you don’t know what I’m talking about, but it is an anime that has already aired on Toonami.
Consider this: at the time when Jack first confronted Aku, the demon had already conquered Jack’s kingdom and made a wreck of things. When we cut to Jack’s wedding, the palace has been spotlessly restored and so has the rest of the surrounding village. The damage couldn’t have been reversed by the demise of Aku since it happened in Jack’s past. So we have to assume that a significant amount of time has passed between the defeat of Aku and Jack’s wedding — they courted and dated for a few months, got engaged, picked out a wedding dress, arranged a caterer, and only THEN did Ashi fade because she couldn’t exist without Aku. Spacetime sure dawdled on correcting that anomaly.
It makes for one downer of a final scene as Jack trudges through the gray forest, alone and mateless. But then he sees a ladybug, and thinks “Okay, I’m over her.”
It isn’t just Ashi that’s been lost here. All the crazy creatures, all the friends Jack made during his time in the future — not only will he never see them again, some of them may never even be born. Torn between two worlds, Jack had to decide which one he valued and which population could be saved, because it couldn’t be both. That could have made for an even heavier scene — however, you don’t get the impression he thought very much about it. Throughout the entire series Jack’s singular goal was to get back home. He made his choice from the beginning and rarely ever wavered from that decision.
For this reason, the Ashi subplot needed to exist. It gave Jack a reason to value the world of the future as much as the past. It gave him more than an acquaintance or a town of furry things to rescue — he now had a loved one, whom he was attached to as much as his parents. It’s possible he would never know or feel the weight of the erasure of the future world, if he had not found love there.
We don’t know what Jack is thinking in this final scene. It’s up to us to interpret what we’re seeing here, in our own way. What do you think?