Photos courtesy of Samurai Jack
A Lesson In Grace and Control, Courtesy of My Favorite Childhood Cartoon
You know what I’ve been struggling with the most in quarantine? My emotions -- specifically, anger and frustration. I don’t know why; maybe it’s the Midwestern summer heat that’s getting to me, or the continuous, spiralling hopelessness I feel as I read the news, or simply a disastrous concoction of homesickness, anxiety, and restlessness. All I know is that I’ve snapped at my flatmate more than I would ever like to, and that I’ve kicked innocent inanimate objects several times in the past few months.
Of course, I’m all for embracing my emotions instead of repressing them. If I’m angry about something, that’s totally okay and I have every right to feel that way. But I can’t help but wish that I could avoid that twinge of regret I feel after I let what’s bubbling within me overflow. Now more than ever, I need to learn how to handle less-than-pleasant situations in not-so inflammatory ways. I feel like spending nearly every waking second plastered to my screen has propelled me towards growing rapidly out of touch with human-to-human connection. And as I thought about how to approach this whole thing, I was reminded of an important lesson bestowed upon me by one of my most frequent sources of wisdom: a cartoon.
The world of cartoons was a familiar, comforting one. Like many kids, my weekends were spent sitting way too close to the television, transfixed by the animated whimsy unfolding before my curious eyes. My parents ran about the house, making plans for the night’s dinner, talking of cashing cheques and picking up the dry-cleaning, while I jetted through outer space and the ocean, all while sporting pink elephant print pyjamas and the ever-trendy bowl haircut. In many ways, the cartoons I watched were also my teachers. I learned about teamwork, friendship, sportsmanship, and that mayonnaise is not an instrument (thanks, Spongebob!). But one of the most important lessons came from my journey following a samurai on his trek through time.
Photo courtesy of HBOMax
Samurai Jack was a show on the Cartoon Network that I started watching when I was about seven. It told the story of the terror reigned upon a Japanese kingdom by an evil shape-shifting demon, Aku. Samurai Jack almost defeats the demon, but right before he lands a final finishing blow, Aku creates a time portal that sends the samurai into the distant dystopian future. Samurai Jack embarks on a quest to travel back to his own time to finally defeat Aku and undo the evil he had spread. The series is action-packed, hilarious, moving, and above all, it taught me many things. To me, Jack represented the honorable human being I strived to be.
As a child who grew up with barely any cartoons set in her native Asia, the visuals of this show were a breathtaking, beautiful treat for me. Jack is a kind-hearted badass who often found his way into many of my notebook doodles: an oblong, angular face with a stoic expression; not one of anger, but a quiet, reserved determination. His black hair is up in a traditional samurai bun, he dons a sleek white samurai robe and on his feet are his geta: Japanese wooden sandals.
Meanwhile, his nemesis Aku is a towering black humanoid creature with bulging eyes, a scowling green mouth entrapping comically sharp teeth, a red beard and six horns extended from his head. His eyebrows are made of red, flickering flame and he is typically shown standing several stories tall. He can shift his form into virtually anything, from a scorpion to a rain cloud.
Throughout the show, Jack faces many obstacles on his journey to return to the past. Aku takes every opportunity to thwart him, whether it’s by sending minion armies, using mystical weapons or hiring bounty hunters. Jack battles rabid robots, magic worms and a flute-playing skeleton. He overpowers them with ease and grace. However, in the eighth episode of the first season, he is met with a foe that is equal parts formidable and familiar: himself.
Mad Jack is a character who appears in front of Jack in the middle of a forest clearing. He looks like Jack in every way, except that his robe is black and red, his eyes are an eerie crimson, and he hurls insults in a gruff voice, unlike our hero who speaks with poise and politeness. It turns out Mad Jack is a manifestation of Jack’s inner hatred, given physical form by Aku. He is an embodiment of Jack’s rage, frustration and negativity. Aku created Mad Jack with the hopes of defeating Jack by using his own abilities against him. The battle that ensues proves that the two of them are evenly matched, and as the fighting grows intense to the point of the entire forest around them lighting aflame, it becomes clear that neither can best the other.
For a split second during the struggle, Jack catches a glimpse of his reflection in his sword, and realizes with absolute horror that he has come to bear a great resemblance with his dark half.
I’ll never forget watching that for the first time. Seeing Jack undergo that metamorphosis while battling his dark self was more frightening than any face-off I’d seen of him against Aku’s demonic forms. The more the samurai duo traded blows, the more they drew blood and crossed swords, it became harder to tell the difference between the two. The show did this ingeniously by having the scene be void of color, save for the crackling red flames engulfing their surroundings. Destruction has ravaged the forest but the samurais, their hair wild and unkempt, their eyes burning with hatred, their faces twisted into scowls, are left standing. There’s no way to tell the good-natured and pure Jack apart from his raging, violent doppelganger.
Sitting there hypnotized in front of the screen, I wondered what my sensei was trying to teach me this time. The reserved, oblong-faced warrior I’d always longed to be like wasn’t as calm and collected as he seemed. Do I have my very own Mad Jack too?
At seven years old I hadn’t been pissed off very much. Sure, I’d thrown a tantrum or two when we had to leave the playground, and I knew how to make a statement by slamming the door to my room. But still, I understood that I had indeed experienced those feelings of darkness from within. I could recall moments where they consumed me and all I wanted to do was fight and fight. But I saw what was happening to Jack, how he’d transformed, and I understood that by fighting in a blind rage, fire with fire, he was just letting himself be swallowed by the darkness characteristic of Aku, the greatest manifestation of evil. The demon was winning. I understood that I couldn’t let that happen.
Now, looking back on that episode, whenever I’m simmering in indignation I’ll get a glimpse of myself in the mirror and remind myself that anger is not a good look on me. Like how Jack must’ve felt seeing himself in his sword.
In a gloriously satisfying conclusion, Jack defeats Mad Jack by doing what seems simple, but is usually the hardest favor to fulfill: calming down. He said the fight was over. He didn’t want to fight anymore. When Mad Jack charged towards him to strike a final blow, he stood with his eyes closed and arms open, defenseless but in control. There was a flash of yellow light, and Mad Jack ceased to exist.
A real badass samurai embraces her darker side instead of fighting it. She acknowledges it and allows it, but does not entertain it, no matter how much those crimson eyes beckon her.
This morning, during what must have been my 4000th Zoom call this summer, my trusty old Mac started acting up and I kept having issues with audio. The other party was understanding of course, but my building frustration grew immense. It’s always rather embarrassing when you’re awkwardly trying to fumble with technology that by now everyone is expected to master, and someone is on the other side of the screen just watching you struggle. Needless to say, I was getting pretty pissed off -- “ready to throw my laptop against my wall” pissed off.
I felt heat and redness rush to my face, and I noticed in my camera how flustered I looked. And for what? For something that happens to literally everyone? Mad Jack wasn’t going to come out to play, not today. I just needed to take a breath and have a little mercy on my poor old computer. It was a beautiful day outside, with brilliant sunshine and some wind, so what was I doing ready to erupt all over a piece of metal? Eventually, of course, the call started working again; I just needed to relax and wait it out. I’ve learned that everything seems like it’s going wrong a mile a minute when we’re angry, and in those deceptively fleeting, flying moments, we just have to stop and take a good look at ourselves in the sword we’re about to fall on.