Despite originating from medieval Japan, almost everyone knows about the samurai, thanks to their popularity in cinema. While Daisuke Itō and Masahiro Makino are understandably pivotal to bringing this particular sect of warriors to the big screen, Akira Kurosawa is seen as the one to truly make them go mainstream with The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, Sanjuro, The Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha, Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Ran, and Yojimbo. Zatoichi’s (a fictional character, BTW) long-lasting legacy has also helped cement the archetype of the samurai. If you take a gander through the animated landscape, you’ll come across Rurouni Kenshin (the live-action franchise based on it is amazing, too), Samurai Champloo, Blade of the Immortal (its live-action adaptation is fantastic), Afro Samurai, and more. And I’m a fan of all of this. So, naturally, I was excited for Blue Eye Samurai, and my expectations have been exceeded.
Amber Noizumi and Michael Green’s Blue Eye Samurai tell the story of the titular character, Mizu, who is going through Japan searching for the white men who are responsible for her appearance. She is what is known as biracial because she is the product of a white man’s relationship with a Japanese woman. But such people are looked down upon in the country because they aren’t poor-blooded. When Mizu was a child and she was being bullied by a group of children, a meteorite came hurtling through the skies and scared them away. The rock was picked up by a blind swordmaker, Master Eiji, for sword-making, and Mizu followed him and pestered him until he accepted her as his apprentice. That was where Mizu learned how to wield the sword and cemented her purpose, i.e., killing all the white men who could be her biological father. This quest for revenge brings her across Heiji Shindo and his Irish business partner, Abijah Fowler. Mizu gets an assistant in the form of Ringo, who wants to be someone great. On top of all that, there’s Akemi, the daughter of Lord Daichi of the Tokonobu clan, who wants to marry Taigen. When Taigen goes off to kill Mizu because of their personal rivalry, Daichi initiates her plan to get Akemi married, which is something that ties back to Shindo and Fowler.
Even though all that sounds very complicated, Blue Eye Samurai has a pretty straightforward narrative. There is point A, i.e., Mizu fuels her fire of revenge. There is a momentary point B, i.e., Heiji Shindo and Abijah Fowler. Mizu has to get from point A to point B, and in doing so, she’ll fulfill one part of her objective. But Shindo and Fowler aren’t readily available, and the road leading up to their castle is treacherous and twisted as hell. And it’s the “one step forward and several steps backward” nature of the storytelling that makes Mizu’s whole journey so compelling and interesting to watch. Mizu is incredibly skilled, but she isn’t invincible. She can take a beating and come back stronger, which is revenge quest 101. However, it’s what she learns during the recovery process that warrants the long running time of the show. Yes, there are long movies on samurai, but dedicating around 8 hours to a samurai story does sound weird. That said, as you go from one episode to another and you see that Mizu is unlike any other samurai (she says she isn’t even a samurai) we have seen before, the slow-burn process makes sense. The only missed opportunity here is the queer angle. You can’t have a woman live as a man all her life and do nothing with that in terms of her preferences. If the baseline is simply heterosexual, then that’s a little disappointing.
The supporting characters are well-written, and they complement Mizu in intriguing ways. Ringo’s purity is so adorable that you are constantly afraid he is going to get hurt during one of the many horrifying action sequences. I am aware that kung fu originates from China and the samurai’s origin is Japanese, but I have to say that Ringo feels like the human version of Po. Taigen is hilarious. He is so overconfident, and as soon as he is humbled by Mizu, he becomes a totally different person. Taigen is always on the cusp of being pitifully pathetic, but his skills keep him from being so. Akemi’s arc is quite fascinating because she goes from being the classic “damsel in distress” to someone who can bend the patriarchal world to her will. Shindo and Fowler are synonymous with colonialism and the entry of Christianity into Japan. They don’t have a lot of depth, and that’s purposeful because people who invade countries (or aid in the invasion of a country) just because they can do so do not need a lot of nuance to make them hateful. Those who use religion to incite genocide do not need complex backstories to turn the audience against them. It’s their nature, and I love the fact that the show doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining why Shindo and Fowler are doing what they’re doing. The contrast between them and Mizu is evident, and they trust the audience to get behind her when she goes in for the kill.
Talking about the kills, Blue Eye Samurai has some of the most exquisite action I have seen in a 3D-CGI animated property. Every single fight sequence is unique, and it fits the purpose of the scene. The first big battle is between Mizu and the Four Fangs, and it takes place on the wall of a cliff. The way the directors, animators, stunt directors, and animation directors use the verticality of the setting immediately made me love it because it shows that the team is trying to do something that will never be achievable in live-action. Yes, you can use copious amounts of CGI and VFX. But the composition has to be god-tiered to make it believable. In the case of a fully animated show, everything is consistent in terms of the visuals while being imaginative enough to truly push the horizons of the medium. By the way, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are several other wild and mind-boggling set pieces like that peppered all throughout the show that will definitely have your jaw on the floor. That said, the series never rushes from one action scene to another. There are long pauses where the narrative and the characters are allowed to breathe. Huge chunks of the show are devoid of dialogue, and that allows us to soak in the cinematography and the music (by Amie Doherty). The editing is exquisite, thereby making the viewing experience very pleasing, despite all the violence (which has a painterly quality to it) and the naughty business (which is hot but a little too heterosexual).
The entire voice cast of Blue Eye Samurai is brilliant, which is obviously accentuated by the animators through the characters’ design, physicality, and expressions. Maya Erskine exudes an unbelievable amount of swagger. She rarely gets to talk in a jovial fashion because she is haunted by her past and tormented by her present. So, it feels like her mental state is weighing down on her voice, thereby giving her whole performance a menacing tone. The legendary Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa essentially plays a version of Zatoichi. It’s a very restrained act. Tagawa shows how experienced Eiji is through his calm and composed demeanor. His chemistry with Erskine is excellent, and if this show were centered around long conversations between the two of them, I would’ve watched that, too. Masi Oka echoes Ringo’s adorable nature very well while expressing his righteousness in a relatable fashion. Brenda Song is perfect as the docile and yet resilient Akemi. Her vocal inflections change so much as Akemi evolves, and that’s wonderful to witness. George Takei’s supporting act is short and sweet. His chemistry with Song is great. Darren Barnet perfectly channels Taigen’s thick-headed nature. He made me laugh quite a lot, actually. Randall Park, who is known for playing comedic characters, is quite menacing as Shindo. And then there’s the amazing Kenneth Branagh, chewing his way through every single second of the show. Branagh is so cool!
Blue Eye Samurai is undoubtedly one of the best shows of the year. All of its action scenes had me hooting and hollering at the screen, while its quieter moments made me appreciate the character writing, the vibrant quality of the visuals, and the music. At the cost of sounding repetitive, I’ll say that the writers created the opportunity to introduce a lot of queerness into the story and then squandered it. Hopefully, Mizu will return for a second season, and the writers and directors will turn the queer dial all the way up to eleven because an enemies-to-lovers arc between Mizu and Taigen is going to be so cliche and boring. I am not a big fan of 3D-CGI animation, especially since 2D animation, with some 3D elements, is regaining popularity again. Also, the animation style of the show reminded me of Bright: Samurai Soul and Batman Ninja—two movies that I hate—and although I noticed a little flickering in character outlines, I’ll say that, overall, it’s expressive enough to be applauded. So, give Blue Eye Samurai a watch, and then feel free to go through every samurai movie and anime ever made, because that’s an itch you’ll feel compelled to scratch after binge-watching the show.