Samurai Jack vs. the Social-Justice Warriors

Samurai Jack (Cartoon Network)
The P.C. police take on a brilliant, beloved cartoon.

Social-justice warriors have a new target: Samurai Jack. But he’s a warrior too — and he fights back.

Samurai Jack is the star of the cartoon that bears his name. Created by animation wunderkind Genndy Tartakovsky, the showoriginally ran on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2004, telling the story of a noble, stoic samurai warrior on a quest to defeat the malevolent demon Aku. Aku exiled Jack into a future he controlled when Jack was on the brink of defeating him. So Jack “seeks to return to the past,” as the introduction to the original series stated, “and undo the future that is Aku.” Earlier this year, the show returned to television, 13 years after its original run ended without a conclusion to Jack’s war on Aku. In this, its fifth and final season, creator Tartakovsky has promised viewers a proper ending.

Season five has portrayed Jack’s quest with narrative complexity and artistic prowess that elevate what is ostensibly a cartoon for kids to the status of transcendent art. To be fair, Samurai Jack was always more than a kids’ show, as its four Emmy awards and six Annie awards (the animation world’s Oscars) can attest. Its combination of beautiful, often-wordless animation with storytelling maturity had long made for something adults could also enjoy, even if the need to satisfy a younger audience always held it back somewhat. But in its return to Cartoon Network, it has aired in the night-time Adult Swim programming block, which caters to an older audience. The shift has enabled Tartakovsky and his team to show real (cartoon) blood and gore, increasing the drama, stakes, and viscerality of Samurai Jack’s action. And it has allowed the show to explore Jack’s character in greater depth, depicting a broken, even suicidal man who seems ready to abandon hope after years of disappointment. Two episodes of the final season remain, and if Samurai Jack continues in this vein, its ending will satisfy fans of the show and of good storytelling and animation more generally.

Of course, in the age of Internet outrage and political correctness run amok, you can never make everyone happy. So it was inevitable that the social-justice warriors would attack Samurai Jack. In April, Sam Kruyer, a writer for the Yale Herald, praised the “exquisite animation” of the show, but decided that “more than a handful of [its] creative choices . . . should be critically examined.”

What “creative choices” does Kruyer have in mind? Take a guess. A villain Jack faces early in season five, he writes, “with his flamboyant dress and mannerisms which include ending every sentence with ‘babe,’ reads as somewhat tone deaf and homophobic.” Moreover, “the portrayal of samurai seems to be rooted in a Wikipedia level understanding of the historical figure and feels appropriative at times.” The show’s sins don’t end there, either, for “Women’s bodies are often depicted as hyper-sexual” and “Da Samurai,” a character from the original series who reappears in season five, is “nothing more than a racist caricature.” Kruyer concludes that, “Samurai Jack is thus flawed in the many ways that most mass entertainment is flawed, and thus deserves the same critical eye. With this in mind, whether the show is still worth experiencing should be left to the discretion of the individual viewer.”

The discretion of this individual viewer is that Kruyer is wrong. Scaramouche, the musical assassin Jack faces in season five’s first episode, could be described as flamboyant. But he’s also a robot, and never depicted as having any sexual dimension whatsoever. The same goes for “Da Samurai,” who is not a caricature of anything, but rather one of a diverse array of proud and mighty figures humbled by Jack’s noble example, including many aliens and robots, a Scotsman, and people from many other nations.

In the age of Internet outrage and political correctness run amok, you can never make everyone happy.

It’s not surprising, given Kruyer’s determination to take offense at the show, that he would deem Jack’s samurai status “appropriative.” In his limited worldview, we are prisoners of identity, unable to understand or tell stories that reference or draw upon other cultures. Does it bother Kruyer that Jack himself is voiced by voice actor extraordinaire (and Yale alumnus) Phil LeMarr, an African-American? By his own logic, it should.

Kruyer’s final complaint, about the animators’ depiction of women, is also misguided. Until last week, when Jack displayed true romantic affection for the first time, love had barely entered into the show at all. In that episode, when Jack kissed Ashi, an enemy-turned-ally-turned-lover, some erstwhile fans became enraged that the kiss had ruined their fantasy of an Ashi lesbian romance. Forget that Ashi was never even remotely implied to be a lesbian, that there are no other characters in the show with whom such a relationship would be narratively credible or natural, and that a Jack-Ashi romance both deepens Ashi’s own character and shows us an aspect of Jack we had never seen before. Samurai Jack must sacrifice logic, character, and storytelling to satisfy the social-justice warriors.

It is easy enough to rebut such complaints about Samurai Jack case-by-case. But the underlying attitude from which they derive is much more pernicious, and much harder to combat. It is a vision of art that is fundamentally rooted in identity and context. All art will, to some extent, reflect the identity of the artist and the context in which it was created. But the best art rises above that context, using the particular to reveal something universal about the human experience. The best art can entertain, enlighten, ennoble, and inspire us, regardless of who we are and who created it. The ultimate tragedy of the social-justice warriors is that they deny the possibility of such transcendence in favor of endless political nitpicking and problematizing. The rest of us shouldn’t let their misgivings ruin our appreciation of Samurai Jack’s beauty.

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