Jack is back – March 11

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.



disliking Avatar

I think that part of the reason some otaku get so fervent about shoving their favorite series on other otaku is because at some level, we want to share our experience of joy and discovery. This is a simple human impulse but it gets somewhat twisted by the enthusiasm (an overabundance of which is a defining characteristic of otaku). It can also be a validation of sorts when others acknowledge the greatness of a given series that you have been evangelizing – ego is also a defining characteristic, it seems 🙂 However, we must simply accept that not all of us like the same things. This is why Steven’s decision to drop Avatar is not particularly bothersome to me; I am disappointed I wont see any TMW essays on it, because those are invariably enlightening and stimulating, but it would be pretty foolish to argue that Steven is missing out on something or is somehow making a mistake in not choosing to push forward. He didn’t like it. That’s fine by me.

One of Steven’s commenters makes a good point about Avatar’s overall season dynamic:

If season one feels like filler, its probably because, on a certain level, it is. As near as I can tell, the writers were mainly aiming to produce a reasonably fun, but not great, story for season one. . . with plot threads to be developed later, if the show didn’t get cancelled. Their goals, and targets, thus rose at that point.

Honestly, if you had asked prior to checking the show out, and bearing in mind what I know of your tastes? I would have suggested something along the lines of “Watch the two part intro, watch the Northern Water Tribe sub-arc, then skip to Season 2.” As otherwise? Its a series that’s not going to sell itself to you, because the first part you’ll watch is the part that’s selling it to someone else. Given that, honestly, *I* wouldn’t have have given it more than a passing glance based on season 1 either, not shocking this outcome.

I heartily agree (and subsequent dissenters who argue that every single thing that happens in season 1 was utterly critical to the overall story are both missing the point, as well as simply factually wrong). The bulk of what Steven casts as filler is really character development that really rewards the second viewing of Avatar, rather than driving the plot forwards on the first. In fact this is why I think that I am cautiously optimistic about the live action movie, because they won’t be under the same constraints as the series was (on Nickolodeon, etc).

On another level, though, I think a meta critique of Steven’s argument for dropping Avatar is warranted. Given how much otakusphere complaining exists about how little good material there is to watch nowadays, dropping series too easily seems counter-productive. I’m not arguing that we should force feed ourselves but rather than we do need to recognize the creative environment and real-world constraints that operate on the anime industry – especially the american animation variant (which I called Amerime). It is no coincidence that Samurai Jack – the best Amerime series ever produced – is unfinished. Had Jack been produced for Nick instead of Cartoon Network, there might have been an annoying sidekick character or a lot of filler episodes too – but it also might have actually been seen through to completion. Artistic purity is great but doesn’t always suffice for simple survival. Whether such a scenario would have been worse or better depends on implementation, as well as viewer preferences, so its at best an open question. Arguing that all series must meet specific standards of plot advancement and being too stringent about filler sets a certain bar which may be impossible to meet.

UPDATE – J makes a related point (though not in response to Steven’s post) about the patience of the Japanese consumer:

Anime is often like this as well. It’s not unusual for a series to spend most of a season meandering towards the plot, with a sudden burst of (usually rushed, over-compressed) activity towards the end. In many cases, there’s an obvious production or financial reason, but my point is that the target audience doesn’t seem to mind.

Samurai Jack in the end

This is a great mashup of the song “In the End” from Linkin Park. Really puts a tragic spin on Jack’s quest:

In many ways it is a kind of pessimistic story – after all, Jack routinely fails to return to the past, despite epic heroism. He really does try hard, but in the end it doesn’t seem to matter, at least not to the billions enslaved by Aku throughout time. However Jack is making a difference to the people in the future who he liberates from Aku’s reign, so perhaps that is the true measure of his destiny.

Samurai Ranma

I just finished the Three Urns arc and had a total blast. Why am i enjoying this? Steven meanwhile is having buyer’s remorse, arguing that there just isn’t enough plot to fill a series of this length. However, i think that the plot staples of hair matches and treasure hunts works well enough. What was great about the Urn arc was that a lot of characters made a return, we got to see Ryoga interact with Kuno, for example, and Kodachi square off against Mousse (who played fowl). Brief, to be sure, but still fun. I also think there’s a lot of ground to cover in fleshing out Ryoga, who is clearly destined to be Ranma’s ally and friend. The arc of how he gets there is a long one no doubt. The ensemble cast is large enough that all the characters might end up with a role to play. I certainly hadn’t expected Shampoo to stick around this long. And of course with N characters there are N^2 possible pairings in terms of conflict or alliance. 2*N^2 if you allow for both.

As far as the treasure hunts go, I’m cool with knowing they are destined to fail. The suspense is not if, but how. The ending to the Urn arc was awesome, it had that whole meta, Douglas Adams vibe to it. And I also speculate that there’s no way that Ranma will ever lift his curse (I may be wrong, don’t spoil me). So the purpose of the treasure hunts are more for Ranma’s acceptance of his fate, than for my need for plot resolution. And they provide just wonderful backdrops for all the minor characters to shine, and interact.

For some reason I am reminded of Samurai Jack. Here too is a series where the basic plot is recycled: treasure hunts, or liberation of group/race X from Aku’s clutches. And here too I have my doubts as to whether samurai Jack will ever succeed – his goal of going back in time to stop Aku would just be too much of a reset. All the suffering that Aku has inflicted on Earth is real. Can it be washed away? I don’t see how that squares with the idea central to the series that one man makes a difference. If Jack resets the world, then all of his own efforts in the future also become meaningless.

Ranma plays the hero for laughs, whereas Jack plays it for drama. But in the end, the two of them have the same general problem. In trying to solve it, they drag reality along, and it’s in their wake that the real stories are told.

Samurai Jack

The story of Samurai Jack is summarized by his nemesis, Aku, in the voiceover that precedes every episode:

Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!

It is very, very difficult to convey just what makes this series so incredibly compelling. Part of the reason for this is because it transcends a single “style” of animation. The artwork is clean, simple, and direct. The action unfolds almost like a manga, with multiple panels on screen and different viewpoints; at others. At times, the landscapes are gritty and dysfunctional and crowded; at others, it’s like classical Chinese paintings, especially when Jack journeys across the wilderness. At one moment, the characters are lean and stylized, at others incredibly detailed. There are entire episodes with minimal dialouge, and almost every episode has it’s own musical score.

And yet, for all the artistic complexity, the story is refreshingly simple: Aku is evil (incarnate). Jack must destroy him, by finding a portal to return to his own time and preventing Aku’s domination of the world. As Jack journeys across the enslaved Earth, he frees groups and entire races from Aku’s tyranny, inspires hope amongst the oppressed masses, and fights off a never-ending stream of robots, monsters, bounty hunters, and mystical creatures. Throughout every trial, he adheres to his code of honor and triumphs with the (literal, as we come to see) power of righteousness.

Below the fold are some screenshots from the first episode, which covers the events of Aku’s narration. Continue reading “Samurai Jack”