Will he ever get back to 'Samurai Jack' and other burning questions answered by creator Genndy Tartakovsky

Photo: Adult Swim
Photo: Adult Swim

Last month, Adult Swim brought Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie to theaters all over the U.S. In L.A. — steps from where the Lakers, the Clippers, and the Kings play — diehard fans of Jack got a special surprise: Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky hosted a Q&A, giving an honest and intimate look inside the head of the animator reflecting on the legacy of his creation.

We sat down afterwards with Tartakovsky to talk about what he’s learned in the 16 years since the show first saw the light of day, what he loves, what he’s embarrassed by, and why maybe being an outsider isn’t all that bad.

FAVORITE EPISODES

Any artist will tell you that picking a favorite of their works is like a parent picking a favorite child — they love them all equally — but Tartakovsky did list a few episodes for the audience that stood out to him for different reasons. “‘Birth of Evil’ was great. Everything clicked in that one: the storytelling, the drama of it all. ‘Three Blind Archers’ — that’s the first episode where we all felt that we have something special,” he said.

Two more episodes that stood out for him because they were out of the ordinary: “Tale of X-49” and “Jack Remembers the Past.” “The little vignettes of him as a kid. It was really simple and very different than all these other ones,” he said. “There’s something about it. It wasn’t executed perfectly, but it resonated.”

CONTINUING ON

The return of Jack for a fifth season after more than a dozen years away, of course, keeps fan hopes alive that Tartakovsky may return to the character someday. While he won’t rule it out, he sees another, better way to preserve his creation’s legacy. “I like the idea of Jack living outside of me,” he said. When the publisher IDW approached him about the possibility of doing a comic book, he declined. “What you want to do is get a great writer and a great artist and have them do their own version without my approval,” he explained. “That’s how you make a property live on. If you think about how many people did Batman and Superman — each fresh take made it feel bigger than its initial inception.”

REVISING HISTORY

Could we see a return to Jack the way George Lucas came back to Star Wars — going back to clean up old mistakes or adding things that he didn’t have the time or budget for years ago? Tartakovsky said no to that, too: “It’s gotta exist the way it is.” Going back and fixing things never even crossed his mind. “I’m very in the now; I don’t like to look back a lot. I worked very hard early on because I never wanted to look back and have regrets. ‘Ohhh! I wish I could have done more here!’ Literally, I did 120% of what I can do; it’s just impossible to do anything more, mentally or physically,” he said. “It’s as good as I was at the time, and I can accept that.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF SOUND

Samurai Jack sounds like a Japanese watercolor painting: In some places it’s vibrant and full of life; in others filled it’s with the silence of tension or relief. It’s unlike anything else in television animation, and that singular style was almost an accident. Tartakovsky explained:

It kind of stems from one of the difficulties of television, especially back in the day. Sometimes, it was mono — some people don’t even remember what mono sounded like! So, I would have this sound effects design, I would have dialogue, and I would have music. And all three elements would sound amazing during playback. Then in the mix — woooop! — it was completely crushed. I didn’t have enough audio room to have all three elements. Then I decided: You know what? I’m going to design a sequence that’s just going to be all music. And that way, I can just crank the music and not worry about losing stuff. Or, if I have a sound-effect sequence, I have just sound effects so they’re not getting drowned out. It was hard to get a balance. So it initially started from that.”

FAVORITE ALIENS

Samurai Jack featured dozens of alien species and glimpses of worlds and cultures that could easily be spun off into their own series. Tartakovsky’s favorite? “There was one called the Imakandi, which were basically lions from an alien world where they were the best hunters,” he said. They’re forced to come to Earth to kill Jack but, “They were good people and they realized Jack was good, so they changed their ways.” The recurring motif of Jack turning enemies into friends is one of the strongest threads in the series.

Photo: Adult Swim
Photo: Adult Swim

INSTINCTS AND ACCIDENTS

Tartakovsky’s quality control is instinctual. “You watch it and you know right away. I don’t think about it, I don’t analyze it. It’s completely guttural,” he said. “There are so many moving parts when you’re trying to tell a story. If you get into your head, it’ll kill you.”

Of course, getting to that point requires being in your head a lot. “What I would do, when I see something I react to, [is] I try to figure out: ‘Oh, why am I reacting to this? Why do I like this so much?’ And I start to break it down and try to analyze it,” he said.

But that only gets you so far: “To me, storytelling is a mystery. Especially when you’re directing,” he said. Even the great directors bomb sometimes, and there aren’t always clear reasons why. “No matter what an amazing craftsperson you are or storyteller, there’s always that element of accident or mystery, and sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don’t,” he said.

HOT DOG VENDORS?!

Sometimes, limitations can result in innovation; often though, they’re just another hurdle. “The biggest challenge was consistency,” Tartakovsky said. “We had two directors overseas who were really good: Every episode we gave them came out great. Everybody else was completely subpar.”

Their frustration mounted because that entire aspect of the process was out of their hands. “We used to hear stories that some of the artists were hot dog vendors. Literally, they just needed to fill bodies. Then, the more we traveled to Korea, the more we realized that, oh yeah, the director was redrawing 70% of the cartoon,” he said.

The difference in quality is noticeable, even to the layman. “The level was sometimes this high,” he said, indicating a spot above his head. “Like the ‘Birth of Evil’ episode? And then you get the farting dragon.”

BACK TO TELEVISION

Though few people return to TV after making the leap to features, Tartakovsky has, and is likely to do so again. “In features, there’s a limitation because there’s so much money at stake and so much pressure,” he said. Studios do everything they can to eliminate risk in that situation. “But now, television is all about risk,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “I can really start pushing myself, and be even more out of the box than I ever have been before. It feels like a new beginning.”

ON NOT FITTING IN

“Years and years ago, there was some interview that I did where this woman psychoanalyzed me. She basically said, ‘In all the things you’ve done, somebody’s an outsider.’” Tartakovsky came to the U.S. when he was 9, so it makes sense that that would leave a lasting impression on his work.

“I was an immigrant when I came, and one of my biggest things was I really wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be, ‘Oh, look at that guy’; I wanted to be part of the crowd. Which is a weird thing, because the more successful I got, the more out of the crowd I became,” he said.

And while he denies basing Jack, the character, on himself, it’s clear that their story arcs are similar. Jack is an outsider — lost in space and time — but he couldn’t blend in even if he wanted to. Instead, he pushes forward, creating a legacy that culminates in the finale’s collision of worlds: hundreds of people and aliens whose lives Jack has changed for the better rallying to his side. Like Jack, Tartakovsky is a part of the crowd — only now, he’s at the front of it.

The Season Five soundtrack and Samurai Jack: The Complete Series are both available for download. The Blu-Ray box set includes special features and a metal art print.

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