Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of the wondrous Samurai Jack, now entering its second vibrant season on Cartoon Network, recently remarked in an interview in DRAW! magazine, ”We don’t draw like this for kids.” Well, he does and he doesn’t. No way would Jack have the following it does if it didn’t appeal to both children and adults with an eye for art and an appreciation of the way pop culture can accommodate different cultural philosophies.
Jack, a time-traveling samurai warrior straight out of an Akira Kurosawa epic, is in perpetual battle with Aku, a godlike monster with crackling flames for eyebrows. The plots are simple, elemental — in one of the new season’s episodes, for instance, Jack must conquer a tribe of half-human, half-animal hunters who have been promised a ”rain of priceless jewels” if they capture him. The half hour is one long, relentless pursuit, one that ultimately results in the tribe honoring Jack for his bravery and pluck (the series is suffused with notions of Buddhist honor and respect for honorable actions and thoughts).
Tartakovsky oversees an animation style that at first seems crudely simple: static backgrounds and simply drawn figures with a minimum of movement, much like old Hanna-Barbera-studio cartoons like ”Yogi Bear.” But where ”Yogi” and ”Huckleberry Hound” looked cheerfully cheap, ”Jack” is artful to the point of witty abstraction. One of Tartakovsky’s most arresting strategies is to begin a scene with a single slash of color that cuts diagonally across the screen — initially, you have no idea what you’re looking at. Then, he pulls back to reveal that the slash is, say, a close-up of Jack’s mighty sword, and as the slash of metal now glides out of its scabbard, and Tartakovsky pulls back even farther, it reveals Jack’s hand withdrawing the weapon in preparation for battle. Combine this with the lovely watercolor-style backgrounds and the show’s minimal use of dialogue (much of the time the soundtrack consists merely of the whistling forest wind or the soft chime of musical bells), and ”Samurai Jack” becomes a beautiful, sometimes devilishly scary, dream of a cartoon.