Old Friends

22 Years Ago, Nobody Had Seen a Cartoon Like Samurai Jack — And There Hasn’t Been One Since

It’s time to introduce your kids to a modern classic.

Samurai Jack
Cartoon Newtork/Adult Swim

From the moment Cartoon Network viewers first heard the thunderous voice of Mako during the opening of Samurai Jack on August 10, 2001, we knew this was something special. For five seasons, Samurai Jack mastered the art of Zen cartooning; it stripped away the inessential to craft stories rich in drama, action, humor, and a slow-burn method never seen before in an animated series for kids. It’s heralded to this day as one of the best cartoons of all time, remaining as unrivaled in animation as Jack was in battle. Why is this show still so good, over two decades later? And should you watch it with your kids?

Keep that sword sheathed, and meditate with us on both questions, as we uncover how Samurai Jack challenged cartoons to be something more, and why it’s great for families to revisit today.

The Inspiration for Samurai Jack

Genndy Tartakosky in his studio.


After the success of Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls, animator Genndy Tartakovsky was ready for his next big project with Cartoon Network. And what he came up with was bold, inventive, and against the grain of anything seen in American kids’ entertainment. Tartakovsky’s idea centered around a samurai from feudal Japan, trained from childhood with the sole purpose to defeat the most powerful evil entity in the universe, the shapeshifter Aku. Armed with his enchanted Katana, adult Jack confronts Aku and nearly slays the being, until the demon tears a hole in time. Jack is flung into a distant future where Aku reigns across the globe, and the wandering samurai sets out to right the wrong this villain left during his absence. Whether liberating the enslaved or cutting down merciless robots after his head, Jack steels himself for his eventual final confrontation with Aku, in hopes of returning to the past.

Samurai Jack was an amalgamation of many disparate elements that seamlessly came together under Tartakovsky’s vision. It was pitched under the guise of a cartoonized version of the TV series Kung Fu — made famous by David Carradine — but it was so much more than that. Cinematic inspirations ranged from spaghetti Westerns to “Chanbara” samurai films from Japan, mixed with classic epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus. Hardcore comic book fans will recognize the concept of Samurai Jack also seems inspired by Frank Miller’s Ronin mini-series from the ‘80s, which also featured a similar Japanese warrior battling against a dystopic future. Both Ronin and Samurai Jack took heavy stylistic influence from a 1970s manga, turned-movie series, called Lone Wolf and Cub. The point is: There’s a lot going on in the basic DNA of Samurai Jack, and nothing this ambitious and layered had been tried on Cartoon Network before.

Luckily, their gamble paid off. Samurai Jack immediately gained momentum and was praised for its storytelling, design, and cinematic feel. Split-screen and widescreen effects were often employed to add more drama to a situation, a completely innovative concept in cartoons, and a powerful narrative tool. By the time the premiere finished, viewers were hooked on what this strange new show would do next.

The Minimalist Brilliance of Samurai Jack

An example of the artistic brilliance of Samurai Jack.

Cartoon Network/Adult Swim

The key to Samurai Jack’s aesthetic was minimalism. Less was always more, which is why Tartakovsky’s art style featured flat characters who look like they were cut out from colored paper and then laid atop abstract backgrounds. This turned individual frames of Samurai Jack into pieces that resembled modern art, which is one argument right there for showing the show to kids: It primes them for all modern art post-1960s. While the 90s X-Men or Batman cartoons featured two-toned characters with shading effects, Samurai Jack was stark and confident with a singular palette. An impressive example is the climactic fight from episode 40, where Jack faces off against a ninja, and uses light instead of shadows to win.

Like a skilled martial artist in a fight, there’s no wasted movement in Samurai Jack. Every frame of animation matters. Genndy is a master of the economy of animation, using minimum effort for maximum effect. This philosophy is still seen today in his work, like Hotel Transylvania and the prehistoric masterpiece, Primal. Characters in Samurai Jack were drawn using a sparse amount of movement, intensifying the emotion of a scene just like a Sergio Leone film would use extreme close-ups in his Western films. Tartakovsky wasn’t afraid of building tension to the point where the viewer was on the edge of their seat — and practically falling off it — before an action finally happened. This style not only explains why Samurai Jack was so great, but it also is why kids today could benefit from watching it. Specific, and minimal art decisions create story beats in Samurai Jack, which is a refreshing alternative to the sometimes overstuffed animated programming of kids TV today.

Arguably, this snails-pace build-up challenges the norms of cartoons for an audience notorious for a short attention span. In 2001, Adult Swim was still in its infancy and mature anime was just beginning to be more readily available, meaning, Samurai Jack, was, specifically, targeted for children. Then and now, most shows for this age range were a constant barrage of in-your-face slapdash antics. Could a show which required a vast degree of patience be successful on a kids’ network? Turner Entertainment Networks President Brad Siegel was very skeptical of Samurai Jack before its premiere. According to an anecdote from Cartoon Network’s head of programming Mike Lazzo: “The first thing he said was, ‘It’s a little slow, isn’t it?’ Then he showed it to his kids. He walked in the next day and said, ‘Never mind.”

A Samurai’s Honor

After four seasons, the show abruptly ended in 2004. Thirteen years later in 2017, Samurai Jack returned to Cartoon Network with a proper series finale. Now under the Adult Swim banner, the series upped the ante with more mature elements, meaning, it was designed for kids that had grown up. Even with this freedom, Jack was never gratuitous about its sword-swinging action or adult themes. Among all the chaos, the show was always about one thing the creators never lost sight of – Jack’s need to stop Aku, and his desire to go home.

Samurai Jack is the sum of all its parts, a brave meditation on the winding road a samurai warrior walked not merely to fight a boss, but to achieve peace. First-timers who watch the show will be drawn in by the adept storytelling, but a rewatch reveals the Zen aspects of Samurai Jack, transforming the experience into something even more different than it already was.

Samurai Jack is streaming on Max and Hulu, or available on-demand and Blu-Ray from Amazon.