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Courtesy Cartoon Network

Samurai Jack is back — with a darker take and a ‘traumatized’ samurai

“I sent over the final episode and he didn't call. He didn't call for a long time.”

"I get accosted wherever I go," Genndy Tartakovsky says. "In America, or abroad, everywhere I've gone in the last decade, people just grab me and demand to know if I'm going to finish Jack's story and if it's going to be a movie."

Phil LaMarr, the voice of Samurai Jack, nods in agreement. "There are a lot of characters that you let go. People will come up and ask me to voices for shows I barely remember doing. That's not Jack. Jack has always stayed with me."

And Jack has always stayed with us, too.

The foolish samurai was last seen in September of 2004, protecting a baby from being eaten by robot monsters in a cave. Then Jack was gone. Just as the character himself, the show was suddenly lost to time with no resolution to one of the most episodic, well-plotted stories in the history of animation.

Now, twelve years later, Jack is back.

Samurai Jack Courtesy Cartoon Network

50 years into the future, time has not been kind to Jack. Aku has destroyed all of the time portals, thwarting the journey to travel back in time and stop him. Now, Jack is immortal (as a side effect of the time travel), but broken and lost. Aku, similarly, has everything he could ever want and is equally miserable. It's a dark vision, not just in terms of the world, but in the personal despair.

We're in the conference room at Cartoon Network, gathered around show creator Genndy Tartakovsky, voice actor Phil LaMarr, and art director Scott Wills. There's a new season coming out next month and we have been assured that it is the final season — with increasingly ominous phrasing on this message. But more importantly, we're the first few people to have seen episodes from season five, and Tartakovsky is anxious to hear if we like it.

"I feel good," he says, "but I'm waiting to see how people react. It makes you more nervous when you really believe in it. When we watch it and get big reactions — we want people to love it or hate it, but the "it's fine" in the middle is terrible. I want the story to be interesting enough and I worry about what mistake I'll make as a storyteller. TV goes fast and that creates a nervousness because there's not a lot of checks and balances. It went from being easy to make this show to very difficult."

Tartakovsky stands in front of a small gallery, featuring hand-painted backgrounds from the world of Samurai Jack. In the last decade, animation has made huge technological leaps, but this show is sticking to what defined it as special. Every frame makes a statement, and every frame sticks to some baseline rules in order to prove that it is undeniably from a bizarre future: There is always a disconnect between nature and technology. Nothing can be as expected; the sky can never be blue sky and there can never be green grass.

Courtesy Cartoon Network

The original background of Aku's lair, flames and all, is framed and hanging to Tartakovsky's right. I really want to take it with me when I go, but placate that criminal tendency by biting into a cookie with Aku's face on it.

Bringing back 2D animation done by hand in a world of 3D CGI is an artistic choice that borders on retro in 2017. And Tartakovsky, himself returning from doing CGI features like Hotel Transylvania, knows what he's asking for. Luckily, he built the foundation for it during the original run.

"Quality is difficult to keep up in TV," Tartakovsky says. "When we do this animation, we send over this art to Rough Draft in Korea, and the animators there have to make a show out of what we send them. You give up a lot of control and throw things in a box and hope they get it right. I didn't want to do our show that way, so early on I formed relationships with directors and others at Rough Draft, and offered them up front credit. It gave them an ownership of this and it made a big difference."

Courtesy Cartoon Network

I ask Tartakovsky how you go darker thematically on a show that was already this dark. "In my perception of the show,” he says, “the darkness was surface. It was dark because the show was sad, but it didn't go down into the soul. Here, we get to go all the way to the bottom. The haunting of the past and the self, is a pressure that you either need to forget or grieve. He's traumatized and he cannot let go."

It is not the last foreboding answer Tartakovsky will give throughout the day.

He's excited to have returned to the story of Jack, whose journey was continued in a series of comic books that have now been declared non-canon. There've been a number of attempts to adapt Jack to a feature film over the years, and all have included Tartakovsky, but he insists he never had the ending planned out until now.

"Every time I started developing it as a movie, I had ideas for what would go in. But you never give 110% when you don't know if it is going to get made. There's a big difference when you find out this is actually happening."

There's also been a shift in music, with Tyler Bates (Watchmen, John Wick) replacing James L. Venable from the original series run. Bates and Tartakovsky worked together on 2010’s Sym-Bionic Titan, and Bates jumped at the chance to come back a darker soundscape for a more broken Jack.

The production also came up against a bleak bump in the road to returning — the death of Aku's voice actor, Mako Iwamatsu (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Seven Years in Tibet).

Courtesy Cartoon Network

"Ever since seeing Conan the Barbarian in 1982, Mako's voice has just been instrumental in my life," Tartakovsky says. "When he passed away — he was that character — he was a classical actor doing this monster and that was the magic. I thought for a while, what if I didn't replace him at all? And that was too much. So Greg Baldwin stepped in. Phil's amazing, but Mako did something, and the mimicking of that is hard."

Phil LaMarr is excited to talk about voicing Jack again, even though the character often went entire episodes in the original series without saying a word. LaMarr jokes about this: "Here's a whole episode:” he pauses. Then: “I will go find it."

I ask about that time he was turned into a chicken for the entire episode, but do not get any acting insight on this. But there are some takeaways from comparing the original seasons to this closing chapter. As modern Jack is haunted by his past, LaMarr did have to find ways to differentiate the two characters, and often turned to "Jack vs. Mad Jack" (season one, episode 8) as a jumping-off point. Tartakovsky also points to that episode as a catalyst for much of the personal dread invoked in the new series.

As happens when any creator's project gets a second chance, people are now rushing to ask which of Tartakovsky's other projects might see a new season or a wrap-it-up feature film ... especially his hit show Dexter's Laboratory.

Sym-Bionic Titan was given a 20-episode order in 2010, but not renewed.

"If someone offered me money to finish up Titan, I'd do it. We had a John Hughes-type teenage comedy with action and it was ... When you have babies, sometimes they grow up and have a life of their own and sometimes they don't find their footing. Jack grew up and moved on, and he needed an ending. I think my movie for Titan would be like ... what was the name of it? Pacific Rim. Like that but without all the humor removed. Sometimes things don't connect. Maybe it's the kind of stories I want to tell? I don't know."

I reassure him that I absolutely want to see the kind of stories that he tells. Then we get into the oversight at Adult Swim. Now that Jack isn't on Cartoon Network directly, there's a lot of freedom. Especially since the original run had to go out of its way to prove that all violence was against robots, and that any blood was then replaced with oil. What did the shift to Adult Swim open up for the show?

"It opened us up to violence, but that wasn't interesting to us. It really opened us up to storytelling opportunities. There is a death at one point, where Jack realizes that he's killed his first human. And that's an important thing early on. By episode five, I think people will see what we're doing with the story this season — and it is a full, single arc that tells a story — I think people will be surprised. It's not something anyone has ever tried to do in animation before."

"As for Adult Swim, when we came back we'd all agreed that if they wanted to give us notes, we would ..." There's some cross-chatter here as Wills and Tartakovsky discuss what is an appropriate quote to offer, but we all get the meaning.

"In the end, I would turn over these large packets of images to [Adult Swim head] Mike Lazzo,” Tartakovsky continued, “but a Samurai Jack book is like 500 pages? Punch, punch, punch, punch, here's a new location. So what I started doing for each episode was making recordings of myself pitching the episode. I'd make a video of me explaining it to Lazzo and send it over to him and he'd call me right back and say ‘Okay.’ But then I sent over the final episode and he didn't call. He didn't call for a long time, so I called him. And he said he wasn't going to watch it because he wanted to watch it on TV with everyone else; he didn't want it spoiled. No one believes more in a filmmaker's vision than Mike Lazzo."

So Genndy Tartakovsky is done now, and so is Jack. This journey is complete and there's only one final step.

"I want to see people's reactions," he says. “There's so many great episodes, and some nostalgia, but people will be saying ‘holy shit’ and looking forward to the following week ... then they get to watch the entire thing as one movie."

Even if you weren't a devotee back in the day, celebrating an animation hero who is still making weird complicated animation in 2D — and for adults — is well worth your time. Mark your calendars for Samurai Jack’s fifth and final season, starting on March 11.


Brock Wilbur is a standup comedian and writer from Los Angeles. Polygon readers know him best from reading his overwhelmingly positive weekly recaps of The Flash. You can follow him on Twitter at @brockwilbur