In the late 1990s, Genndy Tartakovsky could do no wrong. He was the creator of the wildly successful shows #DextersLaboratory and #ThePowerpuffGirls. Then in the summer of 2001, he created his opus. It would be a historical sci-fi mashup that blended east and west. It was called #SamuraiJack, and it still ranks as one of the most creative and beautiful things to ever grace a television screen.
There is, however, a darker side to the stunning illustration and creative storytelling that permeates this series. Let us, for a moment, set aside the fact that Samurai Jack is a cartoon about a warrior from feudal Japan hacking his way through a dystopian future controlled by a green-faced embodiment of pure evil. The show is, at its heart, intended to be enjoyed by children. So, it’s a bit jarring when you catch a glimpse of something truly disturbing lurking in the background of a given episode. These are the moments that you probably never noticed in Samurai Jack, but will never be able to unsee.
1. Punished Puppies
In part two of the three-part introduction to the series Samurai Jack finds himself flung into a dystopian future where Aku is the supreme ruler of Earth. He visits a futuristic strip club (yes this is still a children's show) and meets a group of hyper-intelligent dogs in desperate need of assistance. Having agreed to help them free themselves from the tyranny of Aku, they travel to an archaeological dig. Once there, the pups give Jack the grand tour of torture and torment that Aku has been inflicting upon them. As depressing as a forced labor camp full of defenseless puppies is, there is one image that surpasses all the rest. As Jack realizes the full horror of the situation we get a glimpse of several dogs strung up by their arms. These dogs are literally being crucified as an example to the rest, probably for not groveling hard enough.
2. Murder Mountain
This episode begins (as many do) with Jack wandering through a foreboding landscape. His travels take him to a mountain that contains a powerful foe. Upon entering the mountain, Samurai Jack encounters a multitude of spiked walls, sinking floors and obstacles that would make even Indiana Jones think twice. Beyond the terrible traps and perilous pitfalls, Jack finds an enemy that can control the molten rock of the mountain itself. In the midst of this epic battle to the death, both combatants pause for a bit of story time.
The lava man explains that he was once a loving father and husband until Aku destroyed his village and imprisoned him in the mountain. He designed the aforementioned obstacle course to ensure that only the greatest warriors could reach him, hoping to one day attain an honorable death. This could sound quite noble if it weren't for the festering corpses Jack witnessed on his way in. Though he was once an honorable Viking, at some point he changed. This devoted family man has become a serial killer, luring unsuspecting victims to a gruesome death inside his maze of horrors.
3. The Cannibal family
This disturbed family appears in a rare three-part episode. The first half is about a pair of riddle-spewing worms and the third involves a fairy and a gargoyle with a cockney accent. Nestled between these two quaint tales is something much, much darker. As Jack’s travels lead him through a forest, he encounters a truly pitiful-looking family. The samurai graciously offers the family some of his supper, but they hunger for something a bit more metallic. This eerie family attacks Jack and attempts to devour his precious katana!
As he attempts to defend his weapon from these metal-munching monsters, the mother's face is torn from her head to reveal a gruesome robot skull. They suddenly realize that they are each constructed of the very metal for which they hunger. The group immediately turns cannibal, seeking to tear the synthetic flesh and gnaw on the titanium bones of those they once called family.
4. Zombie Land
This entry is less of a subtle moment hidden in the background, and more of a full episode dedicated to haunting your nightmares. The episode begins with Aku surreptitiously guiding Jack to a spooky old graveyard. As we follow him through the fog-shrouded forest of headstones we are fully immersed in the ominous tone of the scene. What happens next would give The Walking Dead a run for its money. Decomposing husks of undead warriors, depicted in gruesome detail, emerge from their graves and attack our hero. The episode gets progressively more disturbing, with wailing spirits and cackling witches joining the fray. I don’t know what would possess the writers to include such a gruesome depiction in a program for children, but the result is stunning.
5. The Creature
Samurai Jack's quest for time travel has lead him to meet some very strange individuals, but none quite so strange as “the creature.” This fuzzy blue ball of frustration is introduced early in Episode 33 as Jack is attempting to cross a vast desert. The creature immediately becomes obsessed with the samurai and refuses to leave his side for the rest of the episode. Through thick and thin Jack must tolerate this annoying beast, whose unconditional affection quickly becomes a hindrance at every turn. Jack eventually comes to terms with the fact that this beast is here to stay and even finds ways to make use of its fantastic abilities.
The episode ends with Jack and his seemingly inseparable companion walking off into the sunset and the creature is never seen again. The logical explanation is that it perished somewhere in between episodes, but who could have killed this magical ball of fluff? The creature was willing to do anything to remain by Jack's side, defying the very laws of physics to do so, and transforms into an unstoppable monster to save Jack's life. We are left with one horrifying conclusion: The only person who could possibly get close enough to end this creature's life is Samurai Jack himself.
6. The Haunted Tea Party
One dark and spooky night Jack encounters an innocent little girl. She lures him into an old house that holds a dark secret. The majority of the episode plays out like a classic — and quite unnerving — haunted house story. Moving walls, vanishing doors, and paintings that cause startling visions all lead to an epic battle between the Samurai and a beautifully rendered ink demon.
The tone and plot are very effective at keeping you on edge, but there is one moment that elevates this house from generally creepy to downright disturbing. Samurai Jack seems to find a short respite when he is invited to sit down for a lovely cup of tea with a seemingly harmless family. As it becomes more apparent that this is no ordinary tea party, the entire family goes into some sort of seizure. Their eyes roll back in their heads and foam pours from their mouths. The contrast is quite jarring and turns the weird factor up to eleven.
7. The Scissor Smith
At first, the 21st episode seems to be one of the more family-friendly of Samurai Jack's adventures — with a quaint mountainside village covered in toxic smog, a dragon in digestive distress, and plenty of semi-witty banter thrown about. This episode has all the hallmarks of a Disney fairytale, but, like most fairy tales, there is a dark underbelly. One character in particular stands in stark contrast to the pleasant simplicity of this story. The “scissors smith” is a generally unpleasant little man whom Jack must deal with to complete his quest. With a cloud of stink covering the town, the scissor smith is the only one not affected. His cunning plan seems to have been the total removal of the offending appendage, amputating his own nose and crudely stapled the wound shut. There is a brief acknowledgment of his gruesome method for remaining lucid, but then the plot moves forward and we are meant to forget this disturbing example of self-mutilation.
8. Man-Eating Rats
Even Aku is not immune to the political fumbles that come with ruling over an entire planet. In an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic, he decides it is a good idea to herd children into a large stadium so that they can sit and listen to an old man yell at them condescendingly (which is always a good idea). His cunning plan is to alter traditional fairy tales to make himself seem like the hero, and it works about as well as you'd expect.
As his misguided musings begin to fail, his tales devolve into an incoherent jumble of mismatched plot lines. Cinderella lives in the candy house, the prince is eaten by the frog, and the Pied Piper is devoured alive by rats. That’s right, hidden amidst this mashup of fractured fables is a glimpse of rats covering a fife-playing samurai and leaving only a bare skeleton. Classic fairy tales can be quite dark, but it is difficult to imagine mother goose saying anything about flesh-eating rats devouring someone's flesh.
9. The Tragedy Of X-9
When an experimental robot falls in love with a puppy dog named Lulu, what follows is a tale of love, loss and brutal homicide. Told through a haze of sci-fi noir worthy of a Blade Runner, spinoff Episode 50 gives us a rare look at the life of someone other than Jack. Built as a kill bot for Aku, X-9 is given the power of emotions by his mad scientist creator. When he loses all of his comrades in a vicious gun battle, he falls into a pit of despair. His spirits are lifted when he meets a dog named Lulu, only to fall into another depression when she is stolen.
Using the defenseless dog as collateral, Aku sends X-9 on one last mission: to kill a meddling samurai. He tracks his prey to an abandoned factory for a frantic final showdown. Given that the entire show is named after his foe, there is no way the protagonist of this particular tale can win, and he is eventually cut down by Samurai Jack. The true tragedy is revealed when you realize that the show's hero has just killed a sentient being whose only crime was that he wanted to be left alone.
10. The Hero Paradox
With copious amounts of gunfights, swordplay, explosions and magic, one could be forgiven for thinking that Samurai Jack is a violent show. The action does tend to give that impression, but its creators were careful to ensure that not a drop of actual blood is spilled on screen. Samurai Jack goes to extremes to spare the lives of anyone with a pulse, but does that mean that no one is ever killed? Though biological lifeforms are safe from the wrath of the samurai, the same cannot be said of their metallic counterparts.
In almost every episode we see Jack slash his way through countless robotic minions. There are a number of examples — several on this very list — of robotic characters that are fully sentient beings. Knowing this, can we really be sure that none of the hundreds of battle bots Jack has destroyed weren't just as intelligent? Showing complete disregard for their artificial intelligence, the “heroic” samurai hacks through them with reckless abandon. The true horror of this show is that, in his quest to destroy the mighty Aku, the samurai called Jack is waging a one-man genocide.
Samurai Jack has become an icon for many millennials. The opening monologue invokes immediate feelings of nostalgia for an entire generation of cartoon enthusiasts. One of the reasons for the show's lasting impact is its complexity. Every episode has hidden meanings, some of which seem to be at odds with the colorful and hopeful tone of the show. Samurai Jack proves that, even in the noblest of tales, there is always a bit of darkness.
Check out the trailer for the upcoming reboot of Samurai Jack below:
- Jack And Aku's Battle Jumps Into The Future In A Bloody Trailer For 'Samurai Jack' Season 5
- 4 Reasons Why Samurai Jack's Long-Awaited Return Is So Important To Fans
What are your best memories from the original Samurai Jack series?