‘Blue Eye Samurai’ Is An Engaging Tale Of Blood-Soaked Vengeance – Review
Revenge stories are cool. Samurai are also cool. Perhaps that combination of coolness is what made the 2020 game Ghost of Tsushima, developed by the American company Sucker Punch Productions, such a hit. Now, the Westerners are at it again with Netflix’s newest animated series, Blue Eye Samurai.
Blue Eye Samurai, created by husband-wife duo Michael Green and Amber Noizumi, is set in 17th Century Japan when the country was closed off to foreigners, and the only non-Japanese residents were illegal traders. Wandering blacksmith-turned-warrior Mizu (Maya Erskine) sets out to slay the four white men hidden across the country as punishment for creating what the dominant culture considers a hideous, half-breed monstrosity in addition to the murder attempts that ruin their life. Adding to the complexities of being an outcast based upon race, Mizu must also contend with the misogynistic and patriarchal social structure that would prevent them from seeking this revenge by pretending to be a man.
Blue Eye Samurai’s commitment to representation and social commentary is evident from the get-go. Within the first three minutes of episode one, we meet the noodle-maker Ringo (Masi Oka), who was born without hands but is chipper and eager to prove his usefulness and self-sufficiency through the tools he uses. Mizu’s mentor holds the reputation as one of Japan’s most renowned sword makers despite being totally blind. Mizu is constantly racially discriminated against because of the roundness and color of their eyes. The plight of women presents itself in many facets throughout the story, from Mizu’s need to dress and behave as a man to Akemi’s (Brenda Song) struggle to claim power and agency in her own life and the need for many of the women characters to use sex as a tool for influence and survival in a man’s world.
Though the show is overt and consistent in its stance and presentation of these topics, it’s never in your face or shoe-horned in, rather the creative team creates a matter-of-fact and natural to the world and story. It’s always refreshing to see a positive representation of marginalized and historically oppressed communities and individuals, and Blue Eye Samurai handles these characters with poise, dignity, and grace.
Speaking of the characters and representation, it was important for series creators Amber Noizumi and Michael Green for the cast to accurately and authentically represent the characters, “We weren’t looking for people who had a ton of voice-over work experience,” Noizumi said. “I think most of them did, but we wanted to make sure that everybody was actually Asian. We didn’t want to cast anybody who wasn’t.”
And boy did they deliver, collecting a veritable who’s who of Asian actors, with the notable exception of Kenneth Branagh, who plays the Irish black market arms merchant Abijah Fowler. Maya Erskine’s voice acting shines in a very different role than what fans may be familiar with from her work on Pen15. She delivers Mizu’s lines with a gruff huskiness that successfully masks one of the series first reveals, layered with rage, sorrow, weariness, and resolve.
According to Noizumi, Erskine was the only choice for the role as a fellow mixed-race Japanese woman who grew up in Southern California, “Sometimes I would watch her and knew that she felt my pain,” Noizumi said. “She far exceeded our expectations as Mizu, and we hadn’t really seen her do anything this dramatic. But she really went above and beyond.”
Erskine isn’t the only one slaying her role. As the moral compass of the show, Masi Oka imbues Ringo with a bubbly optimism and charming naïveté that is balanced with the sense of melancholy and struggle lurking just below the surface. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa of Mortal Kombat fame plays the Swordsmith with a deadpan gravitas that left me clinging to his every wise word and relishing every one of his scenes. Brenda Song shows-off her range as Akemi, alternating from righteous indignation towards her social limitations to flattering and feminine when manipulating the men around her to breathless and romantic while laying with her lovers.
As impressive as the voice actors are, the show stumbles when it comes to its battle scenes. For a show with the word “samurai” right in the title, the action often fails to impress. Aside from the initial shock of the blood and gore of seeing countless henchmen getting cleanly sliced in half, there’s nothing that really sets one fight apart from another or makes them memorable. During a year when the newest Mortal Kombat game was just released to take gratuitous violence to new heights, this just isn’t enough. Villains are introduced and dispatched with shocking ease and with such little consequence that, at times, it doesn’t seem like they were worth introducing in the first place.
After the first few episodes, the pattern of the fight scenes became very noticeable: Mizu chops up some goons, gets badly injured, somehow shrugs off the injury, and then defeats the current target to continue on her merry, murderous way. There never really seem to be any stakes or any real danger to Mizu since stabbings and slash wounds are a minor inconvenience at worst. At some point, the fight scenes felt like a minor distraction and didn’t even offer anything stylistically unique or interesting, which is a shame and a missed opportunity. In a sea of excellent animation and shows with iconic fight sequences, Blue Eye Samurai really needed something to help it stand out from the crowd.
In terms of animation, Blue Eye Samurai isn’t an anime and isn’t trying to be. The show combines 2D and 3D animation styles for its look and achieves something similar to Netflix’s animated series, The Dragon Prince. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the backgrounds and scenery are gorgeous. From dark, frozen forests to crowded, bustling cities, each location felt vibrant and alive, and I found myself pausing the show often just to soak in the details. The character animation at times felt a little lifeless as undefined lines and borders sometimes looked blended into each other like an early 2000s computer-animated cartoon, and I found myself wishing that the creative team had instead opted for a more traditional, hand-drawn look. Maybe it’s a bit of the uncanny valley factor going on here, especially with how often characters get naked. There’s simply an ethereal “it factor” and style that seems to be missing with shows like Demon Slayer, Dragon Ball, and Avatar nailed down.
Thankfully, the show’s plot is strong enough that I could look past these issues. Mizu’s motivations are clear and relatable, and the story moves along efficiently and without any excess filler. Every character is given room to shine and develop, making it easy to become invested in their intertwining journeys and tenuous relationships. The show doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or novel. It relies heavily upon well-trodden tropes like enemies who become allies or the hero who seems to be losing a fight but pulls a Rock Lee and drops their training weights to move at full speed. But it’s still fun to watch, regardless. Sometimes, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel; just deliver a competent revenge tale.
While Blue Eye Samurai isn’t the most unique animated action show out there, there’s still plenty to enjoy. The diverse cast of characters is refreshing and nuanced, and the well-paced story keeps you engaged with the adventures of Mizu and company. Though the battle scenes aren’t anything to write home about, and the animation can, at times, feel lifeless, the show offers plenty of swordplay and gore galore to quench a healthy thirst for vengeance.