Samurai Jack: A Parallel
A few years ago, we posted a complementary pair of essays (viewable as the first two posts on this forum-archive page) on the related aesthetic topics of the Sublime and the Beautiful.
In brief, we noted how the arch-Romantic aesthetic of the Sublime is distinguished by visuals that are powerful, terrible, awe-inspiring, even frightening. Imposing mountains, savage storms, towering forests at night, these are Sublime. This is the quintessentially masculine aesthetic, the aesthetic of war, and of solitude, so ably illustrated by John Martin's painting, Pandemonium (1841), showing Milton's Satan before the colossal edifice of the capital city of hell.
The more neoclassical aesthetic of the Beautiful, on the other hand, is distinguished by visuals that are lyrical, enchanting, delicate and soothing. Flower-strewn meadows, tranquil vistas, elegant gardens, these are Beautiful. This is the quintessentially feminine aesthetic, the aesthetic of peace, and of love. is. In his dreamlike painting Summer (1807), Caspar David Friedrich (usually considered a master of the Sublime) provides a marvellous depiction of the Beautiful.
This aesthetic dichotomy is so intriguing, and so central to the themes of this Web site (which examines expressions of ideal femininity and beauty) that we thought it worth revisiting--this time, by way of illustrations from contemporary animation, which may be more accessible to younger readers than literary excerpts and 19th-century paintings.
Samurai Jack (2001-4) was an award-winning animated series that chronicled the battle of the eponymous samurai against Aku, an all-powerful demon. The premise was quite original: the title character was a samurai in ancient Japan, who fought Aku to a standstill and was about to destroy him, when the demon cast him into the future--into a time when Aku had become all-powerful, and had spread his evil throughout the world, achieving total cultural dominion.
What makes that premise so intriguing is the fact that by presenting the modern, degenerate world as an extension of the demon's own evil, and the past as a natural, organic time of good, the show precisely mirrors the theme of our site. In seeking to return to the noble past to destroy the demonic present, the samurai is, in effect, pursuing an aesthetic restoration. The show rejects the modern mantra of "progress," and demonstrates how the world of the evil Aku, a world that is so much like our own, is in fact a world of ugliness,
whereas the past was a halcyon age of beauty.
Anyone wishing to get a sense of the series before viewing the clip that we primarily have in mind for the purposes of this essay can watch the following typical 22-minute episode, which is entertaining and somewhat eerie. It illustrates the overall tone of the program and gives a sense of the main character. Following the idea of the "real man" as outlined in the new Dockers campaign, the samurai is not a macho lout, but an elegant, cultured warrior--a gentleman hero.
But now on to the video that prompted us to write this post. The following 6-minute clip is an excerpt from an Emmy-award-winning episode called "The Four Seasons of Death"--which, as the title implies, has the samurai confronting challenges in four different seasonal environments. This segment is titled "Spring," and it is as fine a depiction of the aesthetic of the Beautiful, and of quintessential femininity, as anything we have ever seen.
It begins with the samurai walking through an arid terrain filled with a thicket of brambles. The ground is desolate; the light a sickly yellow.
The samurai resembles the eponymous wanderer of Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," roaming through a forsaken landscape that mirrors the desolation of his own lonely soul.
One can even attribute to the landscape a gendered quality, certainly masculine in character, in its harshness, edginess, and angularity. But suddenly, the samurai notices something.
A bud blossoms on a bramble, like the lone, first flower that blooms on the withered White Tree of Gondor in the Return of the King.
Then, suddenly, every spiky thorn emits a blossom of its own.
A carpet of greenery, with flowers of every colour, flows over the landscape, transforming the arid wasteland into a verdant paradise.
But what's this? Something utterly unexpected catches the samurai's notice.
A tall, beautiful blue flower stands before him--a flower, the very symbol of femininity.
The flower opens,
and within is the Botticelli-like Goddess of Springtime.
The samurai is utterly enraptured.
She is, in every way, the "eternal feminine"--in her voice, her movements, her long tresses, her diaphanous raiment.
She is fair as the driven snow, with big, doll-like blue eyes. Her long lashes are bewitching, her pink lips adorable. She seems soft and gentle; somehow both innocent and childlike, yet mature and all-knowing.
The samurai is entranced. The warrior of countless duels with an all-powerful demonic adversary seems, for the first time in his life, to be apprehensive, awed by her supernatural beauty.
She steps forth from the flower, and as she approaches the samurai, her feet do not touch the ground.
Yes, she is thin, in the style of all Japanese iconography, but notice how the animators have emphasized her womanly hips, and given her sloping shoulders. It is a vividly feminine body-shape--anything but androgynous. Her flowing hair and round facial features add to the impression of girlish womanliness.
Notice how intimate the scene is. In all this world, only these two beings appear to exist. It is a secluded, private paradise, just for this pair of entities.
As he feels the delicate touch of her hand, the samurai senses an electricity coursing through him that has nothing to do with her supernatural state.
She promises him respite from his long journey, a moment of relaxation and comfort.
Her words are soothing; her looks coquettish, her caresses flirtatious. But the samurai doesn't spurn her. Nervously, he accepts the physical contact.
How could he resist? She is utterly captivating.
At first, he is hesitant to accept her offer to bide with her for a time--so driven has he been by his mission, like a knight on a holy quest.
But as she entreats him to replenish his energies, he reflects on his own weariness, on the loneliness of his task, on the tedium of his wanderings.
Her gentle caress reinvigorates him in an instant, giving him butterflies in his stomach, like an inexperienced youth.
As she tells him, there is food to eat, and water to drink.
This detail connects her explicitly with Venus, around whom copious amounts of food are always depicted in illustrations of Classical mythology, in tune with the saying, "Without Ceres and Bacchus [the deities of food and drink], Venus freezes."
The samurai still expresses reluctance to stay, owing to the urgency of his mission, but his fascination with the spring goddess is evident.
She appeals to him in two identities; at once earnest, friendly, innocent and without guile,
and at the same time, seductive, bewitching, alluring.
He relents, and in a scene of the tenderest intimacy, reclines in her arms, as she holds him in a loving manner.
One can almost hear the music of the "Scene by the Brook" from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony as we witness this rare moment of tranquility in the samurai's beleaguered, warrior existence.
Notice the subliminal elements in the animation--how the woods around the brook resemble flowing female tresses.
But then--the samurai has a terrible split-second vision that awakens him from his reverie.
He is unnerved, and starts.
Before him, all seems lush and green and tranquil, as before.
Did he merely imagine it--this brief glimpse of his adversary, the demon Aku?
The tender entreaties of the spring goddess persuade him to put aside his cares and enjoy this moment of peace.
Again, the samurai is jolted awake by a vision of Aku, more ominous and threatening than before.
Now the samurai's warrior instincts take over, and he pulls away from the goddess's grasp.
Her expression is enigmatic, displaying a degree of calculation not seen before.
For the reasons shown in the video, the samurai sees her as the source of the threat, and lunges to attack her, as he has so often combated his demonic foe, Aku.
She seems . . . not angry, nor even malicious, so much as disappointed. As the video shows, the connection between the spring goddess and the demon, Aku, is never clearly established. She merely attempted to keep the samurai in her bower of bliss.
The samurai attacks, and the dreamscape vanishes, leaving him in the world of bleak desolation that he inhabited beforehand.
But as the samurai runs off,
we see one final image of the spring goddess in the midst of the brambles. This is highly significant, for not only does it mean that she has not been destroyed, but also that her beauty was never an illusion. She was not Aku in disguise, nor a witch with a fair visage. This vision of femininity is her true appearance. Her expression is intriguingly satisfied, as if she knows that she has stolen the samurai's heart, and that now he will forever be drawn to her, even if they are momentarily parted. Her ultimate orientation as a force for good or evil remains enigmatic--but likely, she transcends such polarities.
The screencaps provide only one dimension of the experience. To see how vividly the spring goddess embodies every ideal feminine characteristic, watch the video of the segment (posted here). Notice that her voice is a soft, gentle soprano, the voice of a young girl with an old soul. Observe her graceful, balletic movements.
We have featured this write-up as a way to examine the interesting aesthetic dichotomy between the archetypally masculine and the feminine, between the Sublime and the Beautiful, in a way that is hopefully widely accessible.
Re: Samurai Jack: A Parallel
Thank you for showcasing Samurai Jack. It illustrates how effective animation can be at portraying philosophical and artistic concepts.
Also, I'd like to point out that the blue flower was an important symbol during the 19th-century Romantic movement in Germany, found in literary works such as Heinrich von Ofterdingen by Novalis. The flower symbolized the search for both the Beautiful and the Sublime.
Re: Samurai Jack: A Parallel
Very true! In fact, the presentation of the blue flower in Novalis's novel is so similar in nature to the scene between the samurai and the goddess of the spring that it must surely have been the inspiration for the episode.
In the novel, the title character has the following dream:
He found himself on soft turf by the edge of a fountain . . . The daylight round about him was brighter and milder than ordinary daylight, and the sky was dark blue and wholly clear. But what attracted him with great force was a tall, pale blue flower, which stood beside the spring and touched him with its broad glistening leaves. Around this flower were countless others of every hue, and the most delicious fragrance filled the air. He saw nothing but the blue flower and gazed upon it long with inexpressible tenderness. Finally, when he wanted to approach the flower, it all at once began to move and change; the leaves became more glistening and cuddled up to the growing stem; the flower leaned towards him and its petals displayed an expanded blue corolla wherein a delicate face hovered. (17)
Just as the spring goddess emerges from inside the blue flower in the Samurai Jack clip, so does a beautiful face "incline to" Novalis's protagonist out of a similarly "tall, pale blue flower."
Do I not feel as I did in that dream when I saw the blue flower? What strange connection is there between Mathilda and that flower? The face which inclined to me out of the flowery calyx, that was Mathilda's heavenly face . . . She will be my innermost soul, the vestal priestess of my sacred fire. What an eternity of loyalty I feel within myself! I was born only to adore her, to serve her forever, to think and be aware of her. Is not a special undivided existence required for contemplating and adoring her? And am I the happy one whose existence is permitted to be the echo and mirror of hers? It was no accident that I saw her at the end of my journey (104-5)
One imagines her as a timeless beauty of the first order, to have inspired such ardour.
A number of people have opined as to who the ideal plus-size model would be (among currently working models) to embody the goddess of springtime, as depicted in the above video. With her big, doll-like blue eyes, gentle expressions, and quintessentially feminine figure, most readers' choice is Kelsey Olson (Dorothy Combs/Heffner). Her Torrid bridal video also demonstrated that she can walk every bit as gracefully as does the spring goddess.
If the Samurai Jack animators had depicted their enchantress with Kelsey's shapely figure, she would have been even more irresistible--so much so that the samurai would have been unable to part from her, irrespective of any demonic apprehensions.
Given that the spring-goddess video is such a fine presentation of the aesthetic of the Beautiful, several readers have inquired what an equivalent animation of the Sublime might look like. For that, we have the perfect answer--and possibly the greatest work of animation ever conceived: the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment from Walt Disney's immortal masterpiece, Fantasia (1940).
In many ways, these two videos perfectly complement one another. Just as the samurai's idyll in the world of the Beautiful is curtailed by the intrusion of Evil (his visions of Aku), so Chernybog's world of the Sublime is destroyed by the introduction of Good (the tolling of the church bells). And just as the warrior samurai embodies the Masculine principle and and the spring goddess (in her human traits) the Feminine, so, in a heightened manner, do Chernybog and the goddess (in her supernatural qualities) personify the same complementary principles, much as they represent the Sublime and the Beautiful.
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