If death is an art, as sword maker Eiji (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) tells his erstwhile assistant Mizu (Maya Erskine), it’s one Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai renders particularly beautiful. The adult animated series savors the peal of clashing swords like it’s music, frames blood spatters like brush strokes, twirls around battling warriors like they’re dancers.
This graphic, gorgeous violence is what grabs a viewer’s attention first, long before we understand who Mizu is or what she’s after; one of her first acts, a few minutes into the premiere, is slicing off the fingertips of a man with the deftness of a master chef. But what sustains the series in the long term is its knack for crafting compelling characters and engaging drama, even if the end results land as more fun than profound.
Blue Eye Samurai
The Bottom Line Engrossing despite its limitations.
Airdate: Friday, Nov. 3 (Netflix)
Cast: Maya Erskine, Masi Oka, Brenda Song, Darren Barnet, Kenneth Branagh, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Randall Park
Creators: Amber Noizumi, Michael Green
Blue Eye Samurai takes place in Edo-era Japan, two decades into an isolationist policy banning all foreigners from its borders. This hostility toward outsiders is evidently not without reason: The show’s sole white character, an Irish trader named Fowler (Kenneth Branagh), spends most of the season biding his time under the protection of a Japanese ally (Randall Park) until he’s amassed enough guns to seize control of the nation for himself.
In that rigidly homogenous society, Mizu cannot help but stand out. Try as she might to cover them with colored glasses or hide them beneath hats, her ice-blue eyes betray the mixed heritage that renders her an outcast, a freak, a monster. She also happens to be a woman, though she keeps that fact literally under wraps — binding her chest so that she can move freely about the country, in pursuit of vengeance against the four white men (and therefore potential fathers) who were in Japan at the time of her birth. The quest is her only driving motivation, or so she believes. “I have no interest in money or power,” she tells an enemy who tries to strike a deal with her. “I have no interest in being happy. Only satisfied.”
Blue Eye Samurai plays well as a remix of well-trod tropes. It’s not a fantasy series, unless you’re counting Mizu’s near-superhuman prowess with a sword, but it satisfies a similar itch as Game of Thrones or The Witcher: the thrill of crisscrossing a new-to-us world with characters who seem at once familiar and distinctive. Mizu is a strong, silent type a la Geralt of Rivia, complete with a chatty sidekick in the irrepressible Ringo (Masi Oka) — but the combination of intensity, nonchalance and badassery contained in Erskine’s rasp feels entirely her own. Her Mulan-ish sexual tension with her samurai rival Taigen (Darren Barnet) goes underexplored, but yields enough sparks to power a hundred fanfics. Sheltered princess Akemi (Brenda Song) undergoes a journey of gradual self-empowerment that plays a bit like Sansa Stark’s with more sex and less misery. The mentors are old and wise and given to speaking in metaphors. The villains alternate between growled threats and florid monologues.
To those, Blue Eye Samurai adds its own distinctive flourishes. Creators Amber Noizumi and Michael Green find the balance between admiring 17th-century Japan and over-exoticizing it by centering the perspectives of characters who’ve grown up within the culture. (In an offhand detail that’ll surely amuse dairy-loving Americans, the Japanese are thoroughly repulsed by Fowler’s consumption of curdled cow milk.) Its animation, courtesy of supervising director Jane Wu and studio Blue Spirit, is often striking. Although a bit of CG blandness peeks through now and then, much more of the show is comprised of nature vistas that look almost painted by hand, or action scenes choreographed with sharply stylized precision.
Yet Blue Eye Samurai falls short of its potential for delivering something truly fresh. Its political plots unfold straightforwardly and leisurely, with very few real surprises. It gestures at themes of feminism or anti-colonialism, but never digs deep enough to come up with anything particularly incisive or original to say about them. (Not that it isn’t still delicious to hear Ming-Na Wen, voicing a madam, advise Akemi on how easy it really is to control men: “Their pricks are fragile, exposed,” she sniffs.) Likewise, it remains unclear what we’re meant to make of Mizu’s revenge quest — whether it’s meant to appear corrosive or noble, whether we’re supposed to worry for her or cheer her on unreservedly.
Entertainment seems to be Blue Eye Samurai‘s first and foremost concern, and there it succeeds with flying colors. Its heroes are easy to love and its villains fun to hate. There are tragic backstories and steamy sex scenes and enough bits of humor and lightness — much of it courtesy of Ringo — to break up Mizu’s perpetual grimness. And of course there’s all that awesome, gasp-inducing bloodshed: teeth flying, bodies crumpling, heads sliced cleanly in half, a lone and exhausted fighter slashing her way through an entire hallway of brutish warriors. The season’s final minutes tease of even bigger, bolder adventures ahead for Mizu. The eight hours preceding them make the promise seem one worth fulfilling.