Those who join in the work of animation are people who dream more than others and who wish to convey these dreams to others. After a while they realize how incredibly difficult it is to entertain others. Anyone who has tried to describe the wonderful or bittersweet qualities of his dreams should be able to understand how hard this is.Hayao Miyazaki
A offhand comment in some article by Matt Zoller Seitz piqued my curiosity about Samurai Jack, an animated TV show that aired on Cartoon Network in the early aughts. I cast into the Youtube pond, and the first episode I reeled in was the one Seitz mentioned. (I’m sure there’s some eldritch internet cause-and-effect at work there.)
In the episode, Jack is hunted by the Shinobi, warrior of the night, who uses the shadows to sneak up on his quarry. The first half of the episode is forgettable – Jack defends a defenseless village from giant robotic lobsters – but once the Shinobi catches up with him, the two square off in a tall building that is sort of like a mix between a lighthouse and a warehouse. As the sun sets outside and the shadows lengthen inside, it becomes apparent that this is a battle between light and darkness. The Shinobi keeps to the blackness, while Jack hides in the (rapidly diminishing) areas of sunlight. The sequence even switches to black-and-white at one point to emphasize the contrast.
As Seitz says, the amazing part of the fight scene is that it believably portrays what it’s like to fight someone whom you can’t see. The Shinobi becomes visible in the dark for a split-second when Jack’s sword strikes his. The sound of the blades making contact gives Jack (and the audience) a moment’s glimpse of the villain’s whereabouts.
I also love the way the sunset raises the stakes of the fight. Jack knows that the Shinobi will gain the advantage as night draws on, so he must finish off the ninja before the building goes completely dark. And all this is communicated through animation, mind you. There’s scarcely a line of dialogue in the whole episode. Ah, animation. You never fail to amaze me.
Watch the episode on the tube here.