By Nathan Smith
Growing up, I by no means had a sheltered childhood, at least in the conventional sense of the term. Every moment of my early life, I seemed absorbed by some facet of pop culture. But I did perhaps have a sheltered childhood in that for me, the cultural landscape appeared drastically different than it did for most kids. My frames of reference were The Big Chill soundtrack and I Love Lucy, theirs’ might have been 50 Cent and The Amanda Show. I don’t say this to posit the story of my life in terms of “me vs. them,” or to say that what I liked and found myself surrounded by was superior to what interested my peers. Regardless, the fact that I dug different stuff as a yung’un has had a remarkable impact on the course of my life.
In fact, that’s something I’m constantly fascinated by. For the past couple years, when the mood strikes me, I’ll start talking to people about the cultural detritus of our childhood to see what we have in common. I feel a little sympathetic toward the plight of Abed Nadir on Community (pour one out), because culture is how I frame the world and communicate with people. Finding out that you and me both knew a certain schoolyard parody of a Smash Mouth song gives me an easy starting place for conversation.
And while I do have a lot in common childhood-wise with other people, there are still many things I can’t relate to. The other day I was talking to our music editor, Jack Evans, about our memories of children’s cartoons. I’ve never seen Courage the Cowardly Dog or The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy or The Fairly OddParents or even a full episode of SpongeBob. These are cultural landmarks for kids of my generation, but not for me.
So I’m about to embark on a quest, a quest to fill in as many of these gaps as I can. I’ll also be catching up with movies and television that I myself loved as a kid but haven’t seen in years, and movies I wanted to see but never did. Two emotions drive this quest. The first, empathy, goes hand in hand with criticism for me, because culture is the best way we have to understand other people, so I guess I’m attempting super-empathy or something. The second’s that all too common and all too dangerous emotion: nostalgia. Regardless of its potency, I’m addicted to it nonetheless and haven’t found my methadone. So maybe through this series, fittingly titled Kids’ Stuff, I’ll consume so much nostalgia that I exorcise it from my system. This series will probably get pretty personal, and you might find me going on at great lengths about incredibly specific incidents and episodes from my life, but hopefully my writing isn’t too bland and you cats will stick with me.
What’s up first? It’s actually a show that I’ve been watching for a hot minute but still didn’t grow up on: Samurai Jack. Every once in awhile when I had the remote in my hand my eyes would linger on Cartoon Network. I was never specifically told not to watch Cartoon Network, but for some reason I just didn’t feel like I should. I steered heavily toward PBS and TV Land, so commercials for Cheetos and Cherry Coke were a whole different language visually from the one I spoke. But sometimes Cartoon Network would grab me for a moment. I never actually watched Samurai Jack, just saw commercials and kids acting it out on the playground, but it gnawed away at my brain anyway.
Because I didn’t watch Cartoon Network as a kid, I find there’s an obvious jarring quality to the show once. A lot of people talk about how doctors “over-diagnose” kids with ADD and ADHD, but I don’t know. This show still seems ridiculous in its hyper-activity and intensity years after it originally aired. The show draws so heavily on Kurosawa that its frenetic pace has a strange affect since Jack, Mr. Typical Samurai, broods heavily in the silence he bears like a cross.
Visually, Samurai Jack is a masterpiece, blending The Seven Samurai and Dr. Seuss and a century’s worth of cartoons and comic books into a cel-frame smoothie. While I love it, there’s also something about this show that deeply troubles me. I know worrying about violence in the media is probably a little out of vogue in 2014, but I can’t help but wonder what type of impact a show like this has on children. The violence is not only relentless but without true consequence. Almost all of Jack’s foes are robots, so we only see a few sputtering sparks and some frayed wires. Even though I took in my fair share of violence as a child, there’s a part of me that’s glad I didn’t watch this. I would have enjoyed it, but it just moves so quickly and violently. I feel too that I have a greater appreciation for its references and visual themes at an older age. But I’m hesitant to make these criticisms, because I know so many people have watched these shows and are totally fine.
There’s a point in the second episode, after Jack falls into the future of Aku, where he gets into a fight. A few bystanders who witness the fight freak out over Jack’s combat skills, as they’ve never seen anything like them before, but as the praise him, he can’t understand what they’re saying. They speak so rapidly and with such variation in vernacular that the only thing he really picks up on is the new name they’ve given him- Jack. It’s a rebirth for our nameless protagonist, his first brush with the humanity that still lingers in a world where Aku has all but destroyed it. I feel like that’s a pretty good metaphor for the show, and I feel for Jack in this moment. There’s a whole lot going on in not this children’s show but in so many of them, a lot that I don’t yet understand, and despite the violence, there’s a sense of humanity here. Like Jack, I kind-of feel like a stranger taking on a new name, a seer glimpsing into an alternate world. But for me, that alternate world is not the future, but my own childhood. It’s a cultural re-christening.
I’ve taken my first steps into a larger world. Wish me luck.