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Exclusive: Genndy Tartakovsky talks Samurai Jack Season 5 and beyond

Contributed by
Oct 31, 2017

No one expected the Cartoon Network animated series, Samurai Jack, to get an ending. Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky completed Season 4 in 2004 and then shifted his creative attentions to other projects like Star Wars: Clone Wars and his theatrical directorial debut, Hotel Transylvania and its sequel. Despite a global fan base incessantly asking Tartakovsky if Jack would ever vanquish evil Aku, it took 13 years for him to decide it was time to formally end Jack's journey.

Cartoon Network announced in December 2015 that Jack would return in an Adult Swim version of the series that would be considerably more gritty and dark than the previous seasons. Tartakovsky and many of his creative team would return for an epic run of 10-episodes that would push the envelope of Jack's world and their storytelling prowess. The final season dropped in March of 2017 to much acclaim, including winning four Emmy awards.

Now Samurai Jack: The Complete Series is available on Blu-ray, including all 62 remastered episodes for fans to go back and watch the progression of arguably one of the best animated shows ever. Tartakovsky agreed to break down the Season 5 episodes with us, as well as reflect on how it was to return to the series after such a long break, his reservations about completing the story and if Jack will ever come back again in series form.

First off, were you nervous to return to Samurai Jack after such an extended break from the world and its storytelling?

One of the biggest challenges that I was worried about initially is because this show existed now for 13 years, people have their own perception of it. So then I was worried that the way you remember something isn't the way that it actually is, especially when you watch it as a kid. I had this experience when I first started working at Hanna-Barbera. There was a show I loved as a kid: The Blue Falcon & Dynomutt. So when I started working there, I went through their vault and found all the 3/4 inch tape of the original episodes. I thought it was going to be awesome. I put it on and the quality was horrible. (Laughs) It started to ruin my childhood so I stopped watching it. Fast forward to doing Jack again, I got that anxiety initially of, "What if people remember it so much better and we screw it up? And now we're making it more adult, blah, blah, blah." But then I released all those things and I go, "Look, this is what we want to be now. Everybody's matured. I'm matured. This is the story that needs to be told.” I’ve had the story in my head for eight years. It’s the right thing to do instinctively and that’s always what I’ve gone back to.

Was there always a clarity of what you wanted Jack to experience in this season?

From the inception of the arc, it's wasn't just about Jack (Phil LaMarr) going home. The story that I really was telling is love; going through the ups and downs. People not knowing that's where we were heading was great. I know some people were frustrated [with the romance] but that was the whole thing. We were going to have Jack fall in love, for good or for bad. He's never done it to this level. The challenge to us as filmmakers and storytellers was to see if we could make people feel something if we do it right.

The look of this season is stellar yet it's all done digitally now, unlike the first four seasons. Was there a mandate for the look you wanted to achieve in Season 5?

Handcrafted. The best thing about the original show was that all the paintings were done by hand. We didn’t want it to look like a digital show. A lot of animation today is done in Flash or Harmony so there are a lot of cheats that happen digitally. Scott Willis, our production designer and director, painted in a computer but went out of his way not to rely on digital tricks in the backgrounds to make it feel handcrafted. It’s that aesthetic that makes it standout more. And I think our compositions, because we had a smaller crew doing it, was more focused. We’re all hopefully better th

Let's get your thoughts on each Season 5 episode...

"XCII"

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"The thing that was really going to sell [the return] was Jack having PTSD and talking to himself and seeing visions. Those were the ideas we were most excited about because you get to really see inside Jack. You could project what he’s thinking and stuff, but now we can have him have a conversation about it. The thing that really worked the strongest and the best was the intention to do something we’ve never done before."

"XCIII"

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"[The action sequences] came together pretty fast. It wasn’t labored over. We try to do these mini features so it feels like you are watching a movie, but we are doing it on the same schedule as like a SpongeBob episode for a lesser budget. It's not like we're looking for people to pat us on the back but the biggest accomplishment is to have this level this complexity and storytelling and art on a TV budget and schedule. It's grueling but that's what we're after...to elevate television. We want them to be epic in scale and you feel you are getting more than just television."

"XCIV"

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"We're obviously doing a parallel here between the wolf and Jack. The ending of the second episode was about him killing a human. It was a big idea that we wanted to play up, so it's not just a robot. That surprises him and he has an argument with himself. We do two flashbacks here about choosing paths in life and what destiny is, and how sometimes you can't avoid it. The conversation with himself is done with him healing himself and coming to terms with, "I'm going to kill more humans if that's what it needs to be." And the snow is a perfect landscape to do something very graphic. To me, the best of Jack is when we have a very good, but small idea, executed to the nines. All that happened in this episode."

"XCV"

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"So this episode was the introduction of Ashi (Tara Strong) really hanging on with Jack. He doesn't want to kill her so it's can Jack show her how to let go of this hate? The concept for this episode was we want her to go through a normal Jack adventure, as now she's stuck with Jack. We had him go inside this creature and navigate his way out. For him, this is like "a day in the life" and it's not a big deal. But artistically, we wanted to make it different and take it away from the normal nature that the first three episodes are about and make it more surreal and fantastic."

"XCVI"

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"We introduced The Scotsman (John DiMaggio) again, and made him a ghost, which was fun. We also have his daughters which we really enjoyed. This episode was very challenging because we had about five more minutes with The Scotsman that we would have to cut out. He's obviously such a character but we had to restrain ourselves because we only had a limited number of episodes. But this was also about the visual representation of how bad Aku is, and to show Ashi that it's not just Jack's word. She was raised in the opposite where Jack is evil and Aku brought all the good unto the land. Now we're switching the table and Jack shows everything Aku does with the children being hypnotized. She sees it for herself."

"XCVII"

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"This is a little bit of a fan service episode. All the people that we love that Jack changed their lives, it was nice to see them return. Through Ashi visiting them, she could see how much Jack means to this world. He's really the savior and the one trying to help it. Also Jack is at his low point and because it's an Adult Swim show, we could go all the way there. Jack's going to finish it. He can't go on anymore after he thought all those children were killed. It's the breaking point for him because he thinks everything is his fault. If he wasn't around, maybe Aku wouldn't be doing all these things. We set it in the Great Warrior's Graveyard. We want more conversation and more insight into the character so we created The Omen character. From the very first episode, he foreshadows Jack's coming death. What's great is that this is more avant-garde and experimental filmmaking, and we never explained it, so it was amazing that the people really picked up on it and it was so clear. It was so satisfying that you could have this idea where you could explain it different ways. And also Ashi defends Jack and gives him the hope that he so needs."

"XCVIII"  

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"This episode shows Jack came here to settle down his demons and why did he lose the sword? What we wanted to tell the story of was that he didn't really physically lose it, but he wasn't deserving of the sword. At the moment where the little creatures were killed, he went to this angry, uncontrolled side of himself and he lost himself. By doing so he lost the honor of using the sword, and the sword left him. Once he realized that, now he has to take a spiritual journey to prove to the sword that he's worthy again. He finally let go of the hate, defeated the anger in him, found a balance and was rewarded with the sword. At the same time, it was also take the very systematic, formal ceremony of making tea set against Ashi against an army of idiots. (Laughs)"

"XCIX"

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"This is the transitional episode where maybe Jack can let himself maybe feel something about her that he never could let himself feel anymore. We call it "The First Date" episode. It's awkward. They share some really nice moments. I set it up on the camel bus ride where they're really close to each other and uncomfortable. Then it becomes the horror of this creature hunting them. And then under the most horrible conditions, you bond. There's humor to it when she gets naked, and then they fight through it and the reward of dealing with this thing is the surprise cut to the kiss. I wanted to earn it, and not have it be cheesy. A lot of shows and movies go to very traditional, look into each other's eyes and we know what's coming. I wanted it to not be coming. Jack and Ashi are both rewarded with a kiss and we're off! (Laughs)"

"C" and "CI"

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I think episode nine told the story pretty well and it didn't feel rushed at all. By the time we got to [episode] ten, we edited so much out. We had a joke of Aku being a sports announcer interviewing himself about how he feels finally killing Jack. It was a much bigger deal and people all over the world are watching but it got to be too much. At the end of the day, we realized it should have been an hour and a half movie. We still like the episode and how it turned out but it's one of those things where you realize to get the final, final, final satisfaction to make the battle as epic as you want it to be - as I said earlier, the best of Jack is a simple idea executed greatly - and this was really three episodes in one. It felt a little rushed in places and we kept opening it up in the end to take a breath. 

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The ending for Jack is rather tragic yet still hopeful. How do you feel about the response?

I know there was some criticism from those who wanted a happy ending but there was no way in my mind it could be purely happy because that's not a samurai's lot in life. It's bittersweet. We still learn something every day about storytelling, but I saw quite a few people cry at the end. (Laugh)

In this time where everything is getting resurrected or rebooted, do you see Samurai Jack as a completed piece, or maybe still open-ended?

I was very done after I finished it but as I reflect on it, it was amazing that it survived 13 years after I finished it. Who knows in five years if it's still as popular and people still fondly remember it, and there's the right reason to bring it back...perhaps. I know better than to say never say never. I watching this Disney documentary, and I'm not Disney, but I was thinking about Mickey Mouse and he became an icon. Walt moved onto other things but he made him exist. I was thinking, "Wow, is Samurai Jack my Mickey Mouse? Am I stupid to stop working on it?" Yet at the same there was a good story told with Jack, so who knows in the future...

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Samurai Jack: The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray from Cartoon Network and the Samurai Jack Season 5 soundtrack featuring Tyler Bates is available on all music platforms.