Mythology in Samurai Jack 14 February 2017

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This decade hasn’t been a bad one for nostalgia. In the last few years, we’ve had new Star Wars, Pokemon become a social phenomenon again, and even some fresh Harry Potter content (in the form of a play and a movie). The trend continues, for me at least, with the release of Season 5 of Samurai Jack.

For twenty somethings, Samurai Jack was a short animated series you would watch after coming home from school. It was usually on Cartoon Network, broadcast between 2001 and 2004. It seemed to tie in to a particular moment when anime was becoming popular in the West. Samurai Jack was commissioned during the height of anime love (Dragonball Z was becoming a huge hit), but somehow, rather than being a commericially minded cash-cow, it was something beautiful. Lush animation, simple story lines, rich imagery, a global view of mythology. I never really appreciated as a kid how layered it was. That was until as an undergraduate I was asked to present an analysis of the religious metaphors and imagery of a popular show or movie as part of assignment. While many went for Star Wars or the Matrix, I stumbled on the old episodes of Samurai Jack while browsing YouTube one night and remembered how much was layered into a simple children’s cartoon.

First, there is Aku, the Shapeshifting Master of Darkness.

Aku is the prime antagonist in the series, he is a demon who was awoken in feudal Japan. Jack rides off to the fight the demon. The intro speel of the show does a pretty good job of summarising it all…

Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape shifting 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.

In one episode, we see the origin of Aku. We are introduced to a great pre-historic cosmic battle. On one side, a great formless darkness – evoking accounts of Genesis “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2), but even more powerfully, Zoroastrian and Manichean dualism. This was satan, but not a fallen angel, instead a primordial darkness. The opposite of life.

In the tradition of Zoroastrianism, Ahriman is the destructive spirit of darkness and chaos. The Manicheans called the same spirit melech kheshokha – the King of Darkness. This cosmic being of evil is, in Samurai Jack, overcome and defeated. By who? Odin, of Norse mythology; Ra, of the Egyptian pantheon; and Vishnu, one of the three supreme beings in Hinduism. These Avengers of Gods ride out to meet the supreme darkness.

Odin, Ra and Vishnu defeat the darkness, or almost. A small remnant remains that flies through the cosmos until landing on earth (wiping out the dinosaurs). This remnant would go on to become Aku. This creation myth for Samurai Jack gives a flavour of the way in which the show melds together various mythologies, in an arguably careless but evocative way.

The dystopia Jack finds himself in, the future “created” by Aku, also pulls at the heart of the aforementioned Manichean religion. The Prophet Mani, like other gnostic prophets, taught that the world was imperfect and full of evil because it was created by a false diety. Shaped and fashioned not by the Great Good God, but a pretender to that throne. The Manicheans, it is said, experienced cosmic estrangement. They felt like strangers and wanderers in the only universe they had ever experienced. Things were wrong. The world was wrong.

Jack finds himself facing the same. Torn from his peaceful Japanese village, he encounters a world of corruption and chaos, of robotic villains and confusing landscapes. He, like the Manicheans, recognises this world he encounters is wrong, and sets himself to fix it.

The world Jack encounters is also one of contrasts, of Cartesian rationality combined with esoteric mysticism. Often his villains are revealed to be robots, such as when Samurai Jack faces off against an army of nameless of robots fighting alongside Spartans in a fitting tribute to Frank Miller’s 300.

But other times, his villains are more ethereal, such as Demongo the Soul Collector, who literally captures the spirits of fallen soldiers and warriors, trapping them to fight for him for eternity.

Of course both the robots and the demons presented a way to avoid Jack doing any real violence with his sword, and so kid friendly, but it was a workaround that added rather than detracted to the show.

Perhaps the best image in the show is Samurai Jack himself. He is presented as a character with a relentless moral code. We see him meditating, practising martial arts, and keeping the top knot associated with Samurai warriors and who maintain the bushido.  The Last Samurai came out around the same time as Samurai Jack (2003 for The Last Samurai). Both depictions are representations of a particular aspect of Japanese history filtered through Western consciousness, and so never innocent, but Samurai Jack did something interesting to balance the question of representation and stereotype. Throughout the show, we’re introduced to other warriors. The most popular was the Scotsman, a bagpipe playing giant of a man with a sword as magic as Jack’s. There are also the lion-like Imakandi, drawing on African artforms, and a host of other minor characters. The time, and even adoration, given to the global mythologies and art forms that make their way into Samurai Jack added to its richness, and in some small part offset the concerns of Orientalist misrepresentations.

Season 5 of Samurai Jack, out later this year, will hopefully keep up the tradition of a rich and complex world.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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