Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shapeshifting Master of Darkness,
unleashed an unspeakable evil!
But a foolish Samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword, stepped forth to oppose me.
Before the final blow was struck,
I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law!
Now the fool seeks to return to the past,
and undo the future that is Aku!
Samurai Jack is a -- successful, I believe -- attempt at full-blown Western anime.
The TV show, created by Genndy Tartakovsky, the same guy who wrote Dexter's Laboratory1 and directed Hotel Transylvania2, has the main advantage of being conceived back in the day when one could still ignore the whole "gender issues" and "diversity" nonsense without drawing ire from the offended. Yes, in the Samurai Jack universe, the "regressive" past is infinitely more desirable than the future -- who could have thought!
The premise of the story, recounted in the first two episodes, is a mix between a Japanese fairy tale and a Gibson/Dick-esque dystopian science fiction thing. Emperor meets evil Aku, defeats it; evil comes back, however; thus Emperor sends his son into hiding3, to learn the cultures of the world and become a fierce warrior; son grows to be a powerful samurai, rescues his parents and battles evil; Aku, before being defeated, uses his powers to cast the samurai into a future where Aku rules the world. Thus the whole plot is centered around our Jack's attempt at returning to the past to undo all of Aku's evils.
A few comments on the main protagonist. The samurai, having just arrived to the so-called future, is a nameless creature, Jack being only an arbitrary slave name. In fact, Jack is the archetypal warrior-slave, very much reminding us of Spartacus. In contrast to his name, his abilities are unique: he has a knack for survival under the direst of circumstances, when and where all the odds are against him. His only inability (at least in the original four seasons) seems to remain that of returning "back to the past", which, we have to agree, is altogether a dubious idea.
Moreover, the links to the oh-so-desirable past are a recurring theme of Samurai Jack, many of the episodes being nostalgic memories of Jack's childhood. This is ultimately what keeps the samurai going, standing as a reminder that our perennial traditions are a necessary ingredient in the road to becoming human. This aspect, in spite of what the reader may think, is not at all a matter of choice, but of honour, life and death. As the scenes in season five illustrate, the warrior who fails to adhere to Bushidō must unite with his sword via seppuku.
That being said, I am more or less satisfied with the conclusion that Tartakovsky decided to add to the first four seasons: Jack finds himself then finds the necessary ingredient to defeat Aku, that being in a quite romantic fashion love. However, Jack doesn't know that by defeating Aku he would also lose his love, which puts the whole "gain some, lose some" karmic thing into balance.
To add to the list of disorganised thoughts about the show: don't be confused by the whole "absolute evil" mumbo-jumbo. Aku is in fact a fellow with a decent sense of humour, who doesn't give much of a fuck; and would you, were you wielding his power? To add to this layered cake of humour, we witness in this show that evil fails first and foremost because evil is stupid.
This being maybe the take-away idea4 of Samurai Jack: evil is stupid, and disintegrating it is any warrior's duty.
Surprisingly Christian this little bit, innit?↩
In case you've been wondering, this whole "take-away"/"in a nutshell" modern fashion, as applied to the world of ideas, is a preposterous anti-intellectual piece of shit thought pattern, and its proponents are more than welcome to rot in the depths of hell for suggesting it.
No, there is no "take-away idea" or "X in a nutshell". Simplicity as an inherent attribute is important, yes, but this attribute is pointedly distinct from simplisticism, i.e. overly simplifying ideas for the sake of keeping them -- or making them -- simple. The main advantage of Knowledge (with a Kapital K!) is that it can be deconstructed into simple, i.e. atomic bits, but those bits being simple does not a. make the whole simple and neither does it b. make the act of contemplation of said bits simple. Keep this in mind, lest I swing my magic sword at you, will you now?↩