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Fifty years have passed, but I do not age. Time has lost its effect on me. Yet the suffering continues. Aku's grasp chokes the past, present, and future. Hope is lost. Got to get back, back to the past – Samurai Jack.

 Samurai Jack: Season Five
For just over a decade (about 13 years, to be exact), fans of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack have endured rumours, false starts, and undelivered promises in hopes that their favourite hyper-expressionistic cartoon would return and deliver closure, following the fourth season’s open ending. Personally, I’d given up hope on fifth seasons, 2D animated films, 3D animated films, and live-action versions, and had resigned myself to revisiting the old episodes on occasion. But, in this age of nostalgia, no cult following is too small to constitute a glorious, late-in-the-game revival, so Cartoon Network’s ‘grown-up’ wing (technically a separate company at this point, so I understand), Adult Swim, picked up the reins and produced the finale we’d all been longing for in the form of a 10 episode miniseries. Against all odds, it’s actually better than expected.

Season five brings back most of the creative leads, including Tartakovsky (who directed every episode), storyboard artist Bryan Andrews, character/prop designer Craig Kellman, sound designers/editors Timothy J. Borquez and Joel Valentine, color stylist Roger Webb, and, of course, the voice of Jack himself, Phil LaMarr, but also establishes its own look and feel with new artists and writers. The scope of the show has been broadened with new technologies that make it easier and faster to achieve the crisp, precise, and deceptively simple animation that defined the series over its four seasons; all with the added benefit of high-definition and 16x9 widescreen. The results are breathtaking. In short, season five is everything we’ve come to love about Samurai Jack without devolving into a tired, placating retread (unlike the revivial of a certain, unnamed recent theatrical franchise…).

 Samurai Jack: Season Five
The Cartoon Network version of Jack was aimed at children and younger teens. Though it certainly appealed to adults, it was censored and softened, specifically where it pertained to Jack’s enemies; namely, he wasn’t allowed to kill humans or humanoid aliens/creatures. He mostly slaughtered robots and particularly animalistic critters. The shift to Adult Swim implied a more ‘adult’ version of the show, which many took to mean it would be bloodier and that Jack’s victims would be human/humanoid. After all, the kid-friendly version rarely shied away from carnage – all one has to do is watch the pilot episode(s) and witness Jack bathing in streams of oil and computer parts as they spew from robot carcasses. What I didn’t expect was for that human-on-human violence to be a central theme – one that actually drives the entire season arc. Yes, there is more blood and the enemies are largely human(ish), but that violence comes saddled with mature consequences for the characters (Jack repeats a mantra of “they’re just nuts and bolts” in order to morally separate himself from the carnage, just before realizing he’s actually fighting living beings). The writers and animators don’t forget to include some of the absurd, comedic action the series is also known for, they just make sure to remind us of the ramifications of violence between jokes.

Oh, and let’s not neglect the fact that there’s a season arc. The original series was almost exclusively made up of stand-alone adventures with occasional callbacks to establish a loose continuity. This storytelling approach was tied to the fact that each episode was designed to look and feel different from the last. Some were comedies, some were melodramas, some were suspenseful, some were surrealistic, some were cartoonish, and some were dead serious. Furthermore, each story was dictated by these styles more so than their themes or character progressions. Jack had doubts and learned new skills, but he remained the steadfast hero and the status quo was maintained throughout all four seasons. Cynical minds might insist that season five’s adherence to continuity is merely a side effect of current television’s preference for serialization (the original series aired its final episode mere days after Lost premiered and permanently changed the television landscape) and they may be correct. Fortunately, even if the new season’s approach is simply opportunistic, it still serves this new, ‘mature’ continuation of the franchise. It’s also not contrary to the stylish parable spirit of the previous seasons – they’ve just extended the lesson plan a bit.

 Samurai Jack: Season Five

Video


As I mentioned in the feature portion of the review, this is the first time Samurai Jack has been produced in HD and designed for 1.78:1 framing (though changing the aspect ratio to shift focus is one of the series’ favourite visual gags). Warner Bros. and Adult Swim have also remastered the original 1.33:1, SD seasons for HD, but this review pertains specifically to this latest season. The animators/storyboard artists/designers continue to embrace the two-dimensional ‘cell’ style set against more textured, painted backgrounds, while also building up the overall detail in order to get their money’s worth out of the HD format. Harsh contrasts are tight with minimal halo artefacts and smoother/graded elements, particularly the pastel/gouache-like painted backgrounds, show only the slightest signs of banding. Colours are vivid and enormously eclectic from episode to episode.

Audio


Warner Bros. has once again failed to fit one of their animated series Blu-ray releases with an uncompressed audio track, which is especially disappointing, since Adult Swim’s Venture Bros. Blu-rays featured Dolby TrueHD options. Anyway, the only choice here is a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 English track. The lack of language options isn’t a huge deal, since dialogue is rarely a vital storytelling element, but the compression keeps volume levels pretty low and robs the mix of the strong dynamic range baked into the sound design (since the beginning, Samurai Jack has been all about contrasting explosive noise with utter silence). This one obvious issue aside, the track is still quite lively, including loads of directional support and immersive movement. For whatever reason, original composer James L. Venable did not return for the fifth season and was replaced by Tyler Bates ( Guardians of the Galaxy, John Wick) and frequent collaborators Dieter Hartmann & Joanne Higginbottom. The new team does a great job of building upon Venable’s themes and styles, while also delivering some Ennio Morricone and Danny Elfman-esque moments.

 Samurai Jack: Season Five

Extras


  • The Evolution of Jack! (13:45, HD) – A somewhat fluffy, relatively informative, and mostly spoiler-free pre-release featurette on the struggle to complete the Samurai Jack story and what fans could expect from the fifth season.
  • Storyboarded and narrated ‘pitch movies’ for episodes XCIV (28:34, HD), XCVI (35:38, HD), XCVIII (35:27, SD), XCIX (27:17, SD), and C (24:25, HD).


Overall


The fifth season of Samurai Jack is just about everything fans could want in terms of closure. It makes some changes to the series’ formula, but maintains its important balance of style, morality, humour, action, and sweetness. I suppose my only problem is that there isn’t more of it to watch. I hope this success offers creator Genndy Tartakovsky to make something better than Hotel Transylvania sequels in the future. This Blu-ray release looks particularly great, though the experience is limited by a compressed audio track and mediocre extras.

 Samurai Jack: Season Five

 Samurai Jack: Season Five

 Samurai Jack: Season Five
*Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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