The past 3 episodes of Samurai Jack have taken the series into territory that’s been considerably darker and more brutal (in both a mental and physical sense) than the show’s original run. Moments of levity have been shown here and there, but for the most part, Jack’s adventures so far have been much more of a hellish nightmare for him on all fronts. This week’s episode offers the most levity seen this season while still holding on to the emotional complexity and harshness that’s been pushed to the forefront. “XCV” functions as a sort of Rosetta stone for the series as a whole, throwing in samples and nods to every kind of mood and storytelling idea that’s become essential staples of the Samurai Jack experience.
Picking up from last week, the aftermath of the conflict leaves Jack stranded in the forest at the bottom of the cliff, finding Ashi’s body as the only one of the Daughters remaining. He’s tormented by a murder of crows begging him to kill her, but Jack exercises some level of restraint… before she arises and attempts to kill him. He manages to tie her up in her weapon’s chain before the two are ambushed by a giant monster who swallows the two, leaving them trapped in the massive insides of… whatever kind of creature this was. Jack must now find his way outside of this giant hulking monstrosity while simultaneously trying to escort Ashi as well, dealing with her intense desire to see the samurai dead and often trying to sabotage his escape attempts.
As previously mentioned, this episode runs the full gamut of the entire Samurai Jack experience, and this is perhaps best conveyed through the dialogue between Jack and Ashi. This is definitely one of the more talk-heavy episodes of the series, with Jack constantly trying to negotiate and reason with Ashi (while also debating his own inner demons) as she begs for his death. The multitude of conversations between the two are often intensely dramatic, as Jack tries to convince Ashi to back off of her single-minded quest to murder him. He tries to pierce through her indoctrination and get her to understand the truth of Aku as the one who ruined the land and destroyed/purged all things beautiful within the world, but she’s too set in her ways to believe it. Given what we know of Ashi from the first episode, with how enamored she is with the glimpses of the world’s beauty during her training, it creates a deliberately ironic contrast, pointing at a redemption for her and an ally-ship between the two of them, as the ending of the episode clearly shows.
On the other side of the spectrum, many of the conversations between Jack and Ashi are incredibly comedic. For those wishing that the tone would lighten up more from the past episodes, the frequent back and forth between the two has more than its fair share of laughs, as Jack frequently finds himself exhausted by Ashi’s predictability. He takes most of what she says with a grain of salt, responding with a wonderfully funny dismissive deadpan much of the time. Ashi’s personality comes across as less threatening here and more childishly bratty, especially when he tries to reason with her while she swings back and forth from a tree branch that Jack’s trapped her on. This episode is a real showcase for Phil Lamarr’s own voiceover talents, as his excellent deadpan makes the humorous dialogue work fantastically when bounced off of Tara Strong’s more boisterous and over-the-top performance as Ashi, and of course his more intense digressions are fantastic as always. The funniest bit of the episode is when Jack tries to MacGuyver a suit out of whatever he finds inside the creature, and he finds it quite fashionable (Jack is no stranger to stylish outfits, after all), even taking Ashi’s venomous criticisms as a compliment to his outfit. Hearing him deliver the line “I like the back fur” is the funniest thing I’ve heard from Phil Lamarr since his tenure as Hermes on Futurama.
While the dialogue and character interactions are great as always, the visuals and art direction is equally top notch, showcasing a great deal of variety in landscapes and colors. The inside of this giant creatures stomach is a distinct world in its own right, with its own ecosystem and distinct locales, from massive deserts and mountainous cliffs to bright neon forest-like areas. It’s almost reminiscent of the insides of Jabu Jabu from Ocarina of Time, with how many natural phenomena and building-like structures are replicated using the inner organs of a massive aquatic creature in creative ways, and the vastness of the backgrounds has an almost Shadow of the Colossus feeling to it. The color schemes throughout are equally varied and vibrant, typically saturated with a persistent neon glow, creating an obvious otherworldliness to their adventure. There’s a strange hallucinatory cosmic vibe to the entire adventure, despite the events being contained to Earth, and there’s some cool editing tricks at times where the screen does a blinking effect, almost like the opening of the creature’s inner walls/biological structures.
The visual highlight is towards the end once Jack and Ashi find the exit, surrounded by bizarre aquatic entities that they can use for platforming/vehicle-like purposes. The only way out is through a pulsating hole in the larger creature’s skin, creating the only outer light source to cut through the blackness. The alternating uses of pitch-black darkness and pure white outer light create a striking visual dynamic for the escape sequence. The vivid neon colors of the aquatic creatures are accentuated by the dark backdrops, drawing attention to their odd biology and how they interact with each other. Whenever the outer sunlight breaks through, the colors desaturate and disappear, conveying the familiar black-against-white Frank Miller vibe that’s always been a signature influence on the series’ art direction. The actual sequence itself also has some creative choreography with how Jack and Ashi try to navigate the fish and exploit their traits in order to reach the exit. This is easily the best episode of season 5 so far, as it contains the complete package of every one of Samurai Jack’s strongest assets: excellent visual direction and vibrant backgrounds, great use of vivid color palettes, insightful/dramatic character interactions, and wonderfully humorous. I’m greatly looking forward to next week, especially as we’re going back to Aku’s lair and even seeing the return of The Scotsman!
Samurai Jack airs every Saturday at 11 PM only on Adult Swim. Episodes can also be steamed on Adult Swim’s website the day after they premiere.