After an eleven year absence, “Samurai Jack” returns to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim on March 11. In the story, the action resumes after fifty years, but the taciturn samurai and his demonic opponent Aku remain at odds. For creator Genndy Tartakovsky, it marks a return to television after helming his successful “Hotel Transylvania” animated features. It is also an occasion voice actor Phil LaMarr promises fans will relish.
“Fans always ask me if it’s coming back. And when I’d see Genndy, I’d ask him if it was coming back,” LaMarr said as he, along with Tartakovsky, spoke with CBR and other journalists recently about the return of the series for a fifth and final year.
The series, which originally ran from 2001-2004 told the tale of a timelost samurai who assumed the name Jack and vowed to make his way home in order to prevent a future rules by the shapeshifting demon Aku. Coming off “The Powerpuff Girls,” Tartakovsky’s action series was short on dialogue, but grand in style, a tradition that continues in the new season. “It’s everything I wanted – not a lot of dialogue, slow but fast [pacing]," he explained. "I wanted the same experience, amped up."
But even if the tone is consistent between the new season and the previous ones, some things are different. For one, the final season will tell one long story as Jack’s struggle is renewed after fifty years of wandering Aku’s domain. In its previous incarnation, “Jack” told episodic stories with some forward momentum in its ongoing storyline. Now, that storyline has room for exploration even as it moves toward its conclusion. “The storytelling is more interesting because we don’t have to rush," Tartakovsky explained. "It’s a huge arc and hopefully really satisfying." The arc is so huge, in fact, Tartakovsky once envisioned it as a tale for a “Samurai Jack” feature film.
“It’s a big idea,” he teased, adding that the real shape of the final storyline will become clear to viewers around the sixth episode. “I wanted to do in [TV] animation because it’s never been done right. Ideally, you’ll be more invested in Jack than you ever have before.”
After directing “Hotel Transylvania” and its sequel, Tartakovsky said he felt “an unlocking of myself” as he returned to “Jack” and television animation. “Features are beasts, especially doing the type of movies the ‘Hotels’ are,” he explained. “They’re fast, they’re silly. We tried not to take ourselves too seriously. Heart, humor and fun is really what I wanted from those.”
Though the “Hotel Transylvania” films tell light-hearted stories, they are major motion pictures, with the same concerns and pressures of their live-actions cousins. The features employed hundreds of artists and cost upwards of $80 Million to make. That amount of manpower and resources meant the creativity involved went through constant review and vetting. Jokingly comparing the process to the Bruce Lee movie “Game of Death,” Tartakovsky explained that in feature animation, “I have to get [an idea] past five people. You start with the first one, and if you make it past him, you move on to the next one.” Feature animation also has the tremendous monetary pressure of the opening weekend. “You get one weekend. If you don’t connect that weekend, you’re dead. It’s a lot of pressure and it’s a ton of money that they’re spending,” he said, adding that those pressures make the additional oversight and review process a necessity of the format.
On “Jack,” the production staff was essentially “just us” -- a crew of roughly five people making design, story and timing decisions. The smaller team meant a smaller initial investment, and greater creative freedom. Tartakovsky also had a free hand to tell his story thanks to Adult Swim senior vice president Mike Lazzo. “He has the most trust in filmmakers. Without Mike, I wouldn’t be here.” Wanting to work with Tartakovsky again, Lazzo agreed to revive the series without asking about the plot. In fact, he's waiting until work on the final episode is complete before learning anything about the conclusion.
Producing the show directly for Adult Swim means certain creative restrictions are less strict than previous seasons. “The violence is an obvious thing,” said Tartakovsky. But some controls still exist. “We drew a dog’s butt, and it came back [with a note]: ‘There are no dog anuses on Adult Swim.’ That’s the line.”
Overall, Tartakovsky feels he and his collaborators have created a “more mature” version of the show, with violence, when it appears, making a counterpoint to the stylized action. “It’s not like ‘Kill Bill.’”
LaMarr, meanwhile, was happy to return to series, saying Jack was one of the voices that “never went away from me.” When meeting fans, it is one of the top voices he is asked to perform. “This character I know. This voice, I know.”
At the same time, he acknowledges that his own voice has changed during the long hiatus. “As a performer, I’ve grown – thank God – because what they’re asking of me to do with this character now is so much greater,” he said. “He was so much more armored. Each episode was an exploration of a part of the world, but didn’t explore him. This story arc is an exploration of Jack. There’s so many sides of him we’ve never mined with him. It’s been amazing.”
“Whatever I’m doing on the mic has to match the visuals and the sound,” he added. “Before, it was three words and they did all the acting for me. Now, there’s more weight to carry.”
That weight was part of the reason to continue Jack's tale. "There was as story to finish,” Tartakovsky said. The fourth season ended without a permanent resolution, and he knew there was a widespread fan interest in seeing a true conclusion. “There was that interest, and I wanted to finish it,” he said, adding that he also felt guilty in leaving the story incomplete. “Once you get through these ten, it’s done. There are other things I want to do creatively, but ‘Jack’ has been put to bed.”
After a moment, he added, “Of course, there is a fifty year span [between seasons] if someone wants to go in [and tell more stories].”