Samurai Jack was an integral part of my childhood. At first glance, it appears to be a relatively simple action cartoon about a time-traveling samurai warrior in a battle against evil. However, beneath the base story there’s a thematic resonance. It’s a non-linear spiritual journey featuring a philosophical hero in an unfamiliar world. Aided by stellar cinematography and multicultural influences, this hero’s journey has staying power. Here, I will illustrate the core thesis of what makes Jack, and this work of art, important to me.
Who is Jack?
Jack trained his entire life to be a hero, essentially to be a weapon against evil. Thrust into the role as a child out of necessity, it’s all he knows. Thrown into the future, he has to continually adapt to impossible circumstances and best apply his own skill set to the brutal law of Aku’s modern hellscape. Despite the odds, he is exceptionally competent at being a hero. He *deserves* to win. But throughout the course of the show, he does not win. He doesn’t fulfill his lifelong quest; it is often of his own volition. Time and time again, he chooses to not travel back to the past, sacrificing his own purpose, in order to help others. He forgoes his own quest, his past and only purpose in life — for the sake of strangers in small-to-epic acts of courage, kindness, heroism. He becomes this legendary hero — all for strangers in a strange land. For him, these selfless acts of heroism and personal sacrifice seem to come naturally. Consistently, Jack puts others above himself, risking his own life to defend life. I believe this is what heroism is all about. Extraordinary or no, Jack’s course is something to emulate, to strive toward, to craft into our fictions.
Jack never gives up.
Ever. He always finds a way. No matter what puzzle or monstrosity or enigma that crosses him, he gets through, triumphs, and the world is better for it. Adapt or die. This is how humans, how all living beings must be. We are resilient, the survival instinct is nearly indestructible. And Jack combines this nature with his own hyper-competency — He always has a chance, even when the odds are stacked. This is how you create a consummate hero.
Let your actions speak
Jack is a man of few words. He is in an alien, harsh new world. Most of the entities he encounters want to fool him or kill him. Thusly, Jack is a man of action. He doesn’t have need for many words; he lets his actions do the talking. Inherently, actions speak louder than words. Actions constitute a more meaningful way of interacting in the world. Jack’s actions sing. The action sequences in the show provide a masterclass on simplistic/stylized visual storytelling. There are many iconic sequences, sometimes several in one episode, which require no spoken words yet convey genuine emotional resonance and deeper meanings than any exposition could.
There is peace in solitude.
Jack works alone. He spends much of his time on the bleak and corrupted landscapes of Aku’s future almost entirely by himself. Alone but not lonely (usually). And not just alone in terms of personal relationships, but alone in time, displaced from the reality he knew. Only the memory of his royal family, his people and his drive to change the wreckage of this future urge him on. They cause him to be the hero his past needs him to be. No flashback imagery needed. And in all of this, there are so many sequences where Jack is able to find peace in his solitude. He meditates on the top of mountains, relaxes in natural springs, takes in the beauty of the trees. Jack sincerely appreciates the tranquility of the natural landscapes and the creatures which inhabit it. Even in this wild world, surrounded by darkness and death, our warrior is able to find little slices of this peace amidst the chaos. It is imperative to maintaining his sanity. Ultimately, he respects the importance of this journey he is undertaking, practicing temperance and patience — even while he wants the nightmare to end so badly.
Heroes will fail.
Jack fails, repeatedly. This is what makes him so compelling. He has to come back from so much tragedy, so many near misses and fallen friends and foes. He has to continually rebound and recover. But he never gets down for that long, he gears up and heads towards the next mountain, the next forest, the next fortress. Most of all, he learns from every failure. He comes back at Aku with newfound knowledge and skills which make him that much harder to put down. And important to note, despite the high stakes he consistently finds himself embroiled in — Jack does not kill. Even against those that wish it upon him, he abides to never have another person or creature’s blood on his hands. Because this matters to him.
Never forget where you are from, but make your own mark.
Jack is bound to traditional values, his family comes before everything. In his own time, he is destined to become emperor. He knows he can undo the future that is Aku, and so he commits fully to finding a way back to the past. However, Jack’s immediate future resides in this nightmarish future. Death stalks his shadow and one misstep could be the end. The harshness of this world certainly influences his character over time; he is quick to action and slow to trust. However, he makes the most of it — traveling across the world, across reality — gaining powerful companions, saving entire cities and entire peoples. Many of his heroic pursuits aren’t related to his own personal designs. They are more examples of selflessness, righteousness. Jack is doing good for its own sake, not necessarily because he has anything to gain or to consciously build the legacy of his legendary warrior status everyone eventually knows him to be. Instead, Jack saves and protects the innocent, performs his acts of good simply because it’s the right thing to do. He takes the time and does it for a world he doesn’t have to give a damn about. Jack consistently puts communal duty ahead of personal consequences, on principle.
He does it because he is a hero.
Jack is the paragon of a hero’s journey.
His mission is never ending, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
His journey is the destination.~