I only watched a handful of Samurai Jack episodes as a child, but I couldn’t miss its conclusive return on Adult Swim this year. It gave me hope that creative, artistic shows cancelled prematurely could come back to life. (I’ll wait for you forever, Motorcity.) The fifth season finds Jack 50 years later directionless without his sword, the only weapon that can defeat Aku and restore peace to the world. A pack of Aku-worshipping septuplets come to murder him, though only one named Ashi survives. The early episodes were impressive, but my excitement dimmed after the direction Ashi’s arc took in the eighth episode.
Warning: this post contains spoilers for Samurai Jack season five, Princess Mononoke, and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.
When Ashi and Jack were left alone after the death of her sisters, it did occur to me that this could lead to romance. When Jack went on to babysit her like a rowdy child–as other fans agreed–it seemed more like a relationship between father and daughter. Ashi left her life as a “daughter of Aku” behind with room for a caring father, after all. I forgot about the possibility of romance as I watched Ashi unlearn her hatred for Jack and left her abusive upbringing behind. Intended murder leading to romance isn’t impossible (such as Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars expanded universe), but in this case there was little build up to speak of. When an audience interprets a budding romance as familial, there’s been a problem. Instead during the eighth episode they suddenly act embarrassed around each other, wracked by sexual tension that culminates in kissing as “Everybody Loves Somebody” by Dean Martin plays.
It became clear that a worldly man like Jack explaining to Ashi her lie is a lie wasn’t meant to be her finding a new father figure, but the same old science fiction trope of “born sexy yesterday” as coined by Pop Culture Detective Agency. The abrupt romantic development was made all the more awkward by airing about a week after the “born sexy yesterday” video went viral. Samurai Jack hits all the qualifications: a nonhuman woman, conventionally beautiful, isolated her entire young life, clueless about society but highly skilled in combat, learning about the world from the first man she meets, and falling in love with that older man. As Pop Culture Detective Agency explains, Ashi’s fantastical origin as a daughter of Aku crafts her into the ideal “pure” sexual partner despite her original intent to kill him. The ambiguous time travel mechanics of the Samurai Jack universe makes it unclear how the 50 years Jack spent not physically aging affects his mental age, but even hand-waving that their relationship includes an uncomfortable imbalance. Even though (as Jack acknowledges) he hasn’t been in a relationship before either, he has social knowledge she lacks. This imbalance leads to cringe-worthy moments like Jack being distracted from a battle by Ashi in the nude, while she’s unaware she should be ashamed. The show objectifies Ashi to take full advantage of what it can “get away with” on Adult Swim and titillate straight men watching.
The term “born sexy yesterday” is new, but what it describes has existed for decades. I’ve been conscious of this pattern since I find myself identifying with these fictional women in their obliviousness to social cues, history of isolation, and existence as outsiders… only to end up uncomfortable and disappointed. Ashi particularly resonates with me as she was manipulated to admire a force of oppression and hate the person actually rebelling against tyranny. It’s not comforting to witness these women find acceptance and love when they’re simply sexual objects for men, not only for the character that becomes her partner but the audience as well. These are parts of me I’m working to improve, not fodder for misogynistic and frankly pedophilic fantasies. Pop Culture Detective’s suggestion of “experience is sexy” isn’t much better because it just creates an alternative sex appeal to men, rather than developing characters that could fall into “born sexy yesterday” as individuals.
It’s frustrating that a 2017 revival can’t get with the times, especially when older titles have managed more satisfying romances. Like Ashi, Mara Jade was commanded by a villain to kill her future husband, but it helps she wasn’t originally conceived as a love interest in the Thrawn trilogy and became one years later in sequel novels. A more apt comparison would be San and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, whose antagonism develops into romance over the course of one film. This includes unique intimacy such as when San puts a knife to Ashitaka’s throat and he gasps, “You’re beautiful,” establishing chemistry despite their friction. Although San has been raised by wolves, Princess Mononoke diminishes the social imbalance between them with Ashitaka as an Emishi prince in Yamato society. Ashitaka doesn’t need to teach San her distrust of humans is wrong, because he’s well aware they can be awful. San may be ignorant about humans, but so is every human about the forest gods. They enter the conflict between the Yamato and forest gods as complex outsiders and come together as equals. As director Hayao Miyazaki explains , “I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live.” He writes for the characters, not heteronormativity.
As for Samurai Jack, making a Ashi a love interest feels like a contrived way to raise the stakes for when Aku takes control of her and she begs Jack to kill her. The same circumstances that make her sexually “pure” now pose a threat to Jack’s life and her own for maximum horror. It’s not just about how Ashi could die, but more what a blow that would be to Jack. Of course relationships between characters make a story more emotional, but the audience was invested enough in the seemingly familial bond. The scene when Jack reaches to Ashi under Aku’s control in the final episode starkly resembles when Ashitaka reaches for San engulfed by the cursed boar god, but it feels like a cheap imitation. If that scene was meant to be an homage, it fails by missing the appeal of San and Ashitaka’s relationship.
Ashi takes Jack to his past to defeat Aku, but she doesn’t get to live out the rest of her life with what she’s learned. As she dies on their wedding day, she explains she can’t exist now that Aku doesn’t and fades away. The mechanics of time travel in Samurai Jack are vague enough that there’s no justification she had to die. Wouldn’t Jack’s memories of the erased future timeline disappear too? Why didn’t Ashi vanish immediately after Aku was killed? Instead once again her existence as a daughter of Aku heights the tragedy of Jack losing her, a perfect partner with sexual “purity,” to create a bittersweet ending. At least when Nia faded from existence at her wedding to Simon in the final episode of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (another scene Samurai Jack feels like a cheap imitation of) it was the end of a story built on the death of a Kamina, an icon of masculinity, and other women outlive her.
Of course it helps Nia and Simon are the same age, just like Mara Jade and Luke and Ashitaka and San. Princess Mononoke accomplishes a bittersweet ending because the forest has been saved for now, but tension between humans and gods remains. San loves Ashitaka but can’t forgive humans, so stays with her wolf siblings rather than give up her way of life to be with him. As with many other fans, the “bittersweet” end of Samurai Jack left me cold, but I can’t relate to those whose disappointment was unrelated to Ashi. Jack defeating Aku and living in the past may be predictable, but it’s not predictable in the way his relationship with Ashi is that upholds misogyny.