Samurai Jack is a cartoon that ran from 2001-2004. I never saw it on the air, and only discovered it recently, but it instantaneously rose to stand in my top favorite cartoons list. Honestly, everything about this show is perfect. The characters, the story, the animation, and oh holy fish cakes, that art style are all fabulous.
I'm not always a fan of future dystopia, and other cartoons like Adventure Time deal with dystopia, but don't have the kind of punch that Samurai Jack has. Samurai Jack is so focused and so direct, yet so strange. Adventure Time is strange ...like... REALLY strange, but so is Samurai Jack. The difference is in the focus of the characters. Whereas Finn and Jake focus on being free and not letting trouble get you down (yes, very vague, I'm sorry), Jack is focused on taking trouble head-on, and instead of simply obliterating the problem, he usually solves it... which often means defeating a form of evil to save the innocent. Adventure Time does deal with heavy issues, but in a self-discovery sort of way. Jack just lays all the cards on the table. He knows what he's all about, and he knows what he needs to do. He's driven, stubborn as an ox, and filled to the brim with pure, honest nobility.
The great thing is that he never, ever deviates from from those main character traits. I usually look for character development in a show, like in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which probably has the best display of character development in any cartoon ever. Usually, cartoons provide a stable environment: a world with a set of rules that all beings in that world live by, and have characters that change and learn. Samurai Jack does the opposite! The main characters are stable, with their own sets of rules, while the environment changes dramatically, and anything is possible. I've heard criticism for Samurai Jack on this point: that he's a flat character. I would have to argue this. In the show, Jack doesn't just slash things with his magic sword. He gets frustrated ("Jack and the Monks"), he learns from his weakness ("Jack vs Mad Jack"), and he's got a subtle sense of humor and sarcasm, which usually comes out most around his main ally and friend, The Scotsman. Jack is also naive about the topsy-turvy wold he's stuck in. For as much vigilance and duty as he has, it's often Jack's overly-trusting nature that gets him in trouble. To me, it's all very endearing, and I find myself feeling really sorry for Jack when things just don't go his way, which happens quite often, but it only makes Jack's determination appear that much stronger. And even as the show is so action-packed, the creators added humor in quick, small packets that are juxtaposed just so perfectly.
I mentioned before that the setting drives the show. What Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of the show, did is genius: he produced a universe in which literally anything was possible, and then ran with it. The places in this show are huge. The show gets across a physical scale that I've never seen before in a cartoon. Not only is it big, its beautiful...and haunting. The background paintings are one of my favorite aspects of the show. They create a large portion of atmosphere that drives each episode. Take a look at some of these!
These are all hand-painted with what looks like watercolor, gouache, and acrylic. The art style is highly stylized, but you know this. The important thing is that it's so raw and painterly, (even with the chunky shapes), which gives it an other-worldly feel that I haven't seen in a cartoon since, and yet it's all so simple. All of the places are made of basic, yet striking, shapes. Paired with closely-knit color schemes, they achieve something that I rarely see in cartoons.
The eye candy doesn't stop at the environments, though. The character design is just as nice. Like all good character design, the character's shape [usually] correlates with their moral alignment in the show. Both Jack and Aku have a basic triangle design: broad shoulders and chest with a slim torso: the basic design for a character that is supposed to be strong. Not many other characters have this build. Even the Scotsman is built up out of circles, (his strength comes from his loud personality). It tells us that Jack and Aku are the two most important characters. Even though their native shape is relatively the same, Aku is pitch black accented with red and green, whereas Jack is dressed in white with black hair and sword's sheath being the main accents. Aku can also shapeshift into different forms, making Jack the undisputed hero archetype of the show. But it doesn't mean Jack doesn't physically change, too. In fact, the show does a good job at making things destructible. Jack himself is rather invincible (I believe the character trope associated with this is "Made of Iron"), but his robes often get destroyed during battles, and his hair comes undone from its ponytail. Sometimes jack is left to do battle in his undies! In fact, now that I think about it, Jack's robes, or at least the top half, get destroyed quite a bit. Actually, there's quite a bit of fanservice, (showing off a character's body) after season one. After a little research, I found that it's even on the list of being one of Jack's character tropes (Find the full list here). I mean, I don't blame them, but there's even an episode called "Jack is Naked" where Jack is literally naked for a good portion of the episode.
In any case, this show has much more going for it than just a shirtless samurai. The animation is perhaps the most important thing, especially since the cartoon is primarily of the action genre. I don't know much about ancient forms of Samurai combat or China's martial arts, but the animation of the fight scenes feel solid. It's not choppy, minimal animation like in Jonny Test. I know that TV animation has less frames per second than film, (it's only necessary for the budget and time), but Samurai Jack has strong poses, fluid follow-though, and timing that is allowed to breath. The animation is one of the main supporting pillars of the show, due to the lack of dialogue, and it was successful in supporting so much weight.
The other big pillar is the sound design; from the effects to the music. Jack hardly speaks, and in general, dialogue is not used when it isn't needed. That's something not often seen in cartoons anymore. Usually dialogue is used to push the story forward, but this is not so in Samurai Jack. Consequently, there is much more space for other sounds. While the stock sound effects do get a little repetitive, it's the show's musical score that I think deserves some attention. The composer, James L. Venable, did a lovely job with pulling the visuals together with strong music that is unique for every episode. Often it matches the theme of the episode, but there's always a distinct theme, and usually the music, (or lack of it), plays a powerful role in the episode. Other times, it's used as diegetic sound as a part of a set, (like in "Jack and the Rave"). James, if you are out there, and if you happen to see this, take note that I would pay good money to get my hands on the soundtracks for each of the episodes.
Samurai Jack is unique, and I appreciate it not only for everything I've mentioned above, but because it took risks. The show is intensely visual, and if it weren't for a quick palette change to keep it PG, it'd be pretty gory. The score is extremely diverse, even to each individual episode, and the story is classic. The world is open to any creative thing that you can imagine, and often the writers chose to take lofty journeys with ethereal themes. And yet, sometimes they wrote dark stories, or calm stories, or complete bizarre stories. There's just so much creativity being put out through this show; so many good designs and characters and scale, it's amazing. I love it, and so should you.