There are lots of reasons I love Netflix’s new animated series Blue Eye Samurai. Beautiful animation? Oh yes. Great soundtrack? That too. Intriguing character arcs? You betcha. The main characters—revenge-fueled swordfighter Mizu (voiced by Maya Erskine), spoiled princess Akemi (voiced by Brenda Song), prideful samurai Taigen (voiced by Darren Barnet), and noodle-cook/cinnamon roll/sidekick Ringo (voiced by Masi Oka)—all have interesting storylines and make choices that tweak and twist old tropes and genre expectations. On top of that there’s a grumpy old man who takes a lost kid under his wing, a truly unpredictable love triangle, and the show even keeps a sharp and very human sense of humor in the midst of strife and carnage.
Blue Eye Samurai also delves and dips into complex and profound issues surrounding race, gender, disability, identity, power, colonialism, and oppression, including one of my favorite subjects: how everyday people find ways to survive in a society where their rights and freedoms are severely curtailed, and where the ruling class cares little for their survival.
The show is the brainchild of wife and husband team Amber Noizumi and Michael Green who wrote the script together during the pandemic. Supervising director for the series is Jane Wu a longtime storyboard artist, director, and martial artist who has previously crafted fight scenes for, among other things, several Marvel movies, Game of Thrones, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Blue Eye Samurai is a revenge story set during the 17th century Edo period in Japan when the Tokugawa shogunate closed the country’s borders to all foreigners. It follows Mizu who is born to a Japanese mother and an unknown white father. Mizu is marked as an outcast from birth because of her mixed heritage. As an adult, she hides her blue eyes behind tinted glasses, and, from an early age, she also hides her gender by dressing and living as a boy. At first, she does it to elude the bad men who are hunting her down, but what starts as a disguise eventually becomes part of her identity as she trains as a swordsmith and swordfighter. Mizu grows up with a sole purpose: revenge. She has sworn to find and kill the four white men who were in Japan at the time she was conceived (“men trading guns, opium, and flesh”), and throughout eight episodes, she carves a bloody path through villages, dojos, and palaces to reach her goal.
It’s no surprise that a revenge story is filled with death and dismemberment (seriously: so much dismemberment). The body count is high, and so is the amount of blood and guts spilled in various artful, inventive, and brutal ways. I could write reams about various aspects of this show, but this review is told through six defining fight scenes. It was truly difficult to pick just six because all the fight scenes in Blue Eye Samurai stand out for me, not just because of the sheer visual artistry and brilliant choreography, but because they are such an integral part of the show’s storytelling.
Episode 1: “Hammerscale” — Mizu vs the Shindo Dojo and Taigen
The fight in the Shindo Dojo is the first real fight where we get to see what Mizu is capable of and it does not disappoint. She faces off against ten fighters—all rude and cocksure that their precious shindo-ryu fighting style is supreme—and proceeds to beat the crap out of them with nothing but her bare hands and a wooden sword. Mizu conveys more than her skill in this fight. By choosing not to use her precious sword, she also conveys her contempt for the dojo fighters who she does not deem as worthy of that weapon.
The speed and flow of the fight is matched by the visceral impact of each blow Mizu lands, each tooth she knocks out, each face and limb broken and bloodied. I’m not sure whether she kills anyone here, but she definitely maims and blinds several men.
This fight is followed by Mizu’s duel with Taigen in the snowy yard of the dojo. And if the first fight showcased Mizu’s physical skills, her confrontation with Taigen reveals more of her character and backstory (turns out, he was one of the village kids who bullied her as a child). It also allows us to see that there’s more emotion beneath the surface than Mizu would like anyone to believe. This fight between Mizu and Taigen shows us how different they are, pitting Taigen’s brash arrogance against Mizu’s steely, quiet determination. It also reveals that they have something in common: both of them are huge sword and sword-fighting nerds.
To me, this fight plays out like a conversation where every hit and cut says more than their taunts and gibes ever could, where every exchange of blows and every step and lunge and dodge are like words spoken by muscle and steel. This conversation will continue in their subsequent fights through the series.
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Episode 2: “An Unexpected Element” — Mizu vs. the Four Fangs
In this brutal fight, Mizu is attacked by a group of hired assassins called the Four Fangs. If the fight with Taigen at the dojo was a conversation, this fight is a scream of defiance. The confrontation takes place on the edge of a precipice, and it cuts close to the bone in more ways than one. Every injury is felt with bone-cracking, blood-soaked intensity and every death Mizu deals out is a narrowly won victory that buys her another few seconds of life. Mizu survives, of course, but it’s a close call and she is not unscathed.
I love how this harrowing battle plays out side-by-side with the escapades of Ringo, the noodle chef who has become Mizu’s self-proclaimed apprentice. While Mizu is fighting for her life, Ringo is taking part in a traditional wintry skinny-dipping contest in a nearby village, where the winner is assured that their fondest wish will come true. There’s a lot of darkness in this show, but Ringo always provides a bit of light and a human element that prevents the show from falling into a grimdark, self-important pit.
Episode 4: “Peculiarities” — Mizu vs [redacted]
There are a lot of loud and brutal deaths in this show, but the quiet death in this episode is, for me, the most gutting one of all. I kept waiting for a moment of grace, a moment when Mizu would waver and step back, but she does not. The story lays out all the reasons why Mizu commits this murder, but it’s still a moment of true, spiritual darkness for the character, a heinous act committed solely to bring her one step closer to her ultimate revenge. This death, more than anything else Mizu says or does, makes it clear that she really will stop at nothing to get her revenge.
Episode 5: “The Tale of the Ronin and the Bride” — Mizu vs. an Army of Henchmen
In every episode, Mizu’s quest in the present is interwoven with flashbacks to her childhood and adolescence. Episode 5 interweaves Mizu’s fights in the present with a surprising flashback to her recent past and adds a third element: a Bunraku puppet play, “The Tale of the Ronin and the Bride”. There’s an intricate and superbly crafted interplay between these three strands: Mizu’s desperate fight in the present against overwhelming odds, her memories of a time when things might have taken a different turn for her, and the puppet play where a ronin ends up so consumed by his vow of revenge that he commits a monstruous act which in turn spawns a new horror.
In the present, Mizu faces a small army of henchmen while protecting the sex workers at the brothel that is being attacked. What follows is a punishing series of fights and as the body count mounts, past, present, and puppet play bleed into each other. What I particularly love about the way this is done, is that the puppet play is no simple mirror of Mizu’s present or past. She is the ronin and the bride, victim and perpetrator, hero and monster, and the show doesn’t shy away from the complexity of her character.
(There’s a non-deadly fight scene in Mizu’s flashback that packs a heavy emotional punch, and that is perhaps one of the most devastating fights in Mizu’s life, but that confrontation is better left unspoiled.)
The episode’s final brutal showdown ends with an almost supernatural display of strength and determination by Mizu. As Ringo will later tell her, “You can’t die. You don’t know how.”
Episode 6: “All Evil Dreams and Angry Words” — Mizu vs. the castle
While I love Episode 5 because of its intricate complexity, and the way it plucks every string of Mizu’s character, I love Episode 6 because it is such a well-crafted, pedal-to-the-metal trip to the boss fight. Mizu has finally arrived at the forbidding castle where the all-out evil and thoroughly despicable Abijah Fowler—one of the white men she has been hunting—is hiding. To reach him, she must fight her way past an array of guards and outlandish, lethal (even hallucinogenic) traps. There are callbacks to Enter the Dragon here, but most of all, the episode is crafted like a videogame with Mizu battling her way through increasingly difficult levels to reach the top of the castle. I guess it goes without saying that the boss fight doesn’t quite go as planned.
Episode 7: “Nothing Broken” — Mizu vs the forge
After the events at the end of Episode 6, Mizu is injured, her sword is broken, and she ends up back at the forge where she grew up, back with the renowned blind (and superbly grumpy) bladesmith Master Eiji, AKA Swordfather (voiced by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the only father figure she has ever known. Through Mizu’s flashbacks, we’ve already come to know Swordfather as a reliable source of cranky, caring wisdom and that holds true in this episode as well.
A sword, he told Mizu when she was a child, is a line. “On one side of the line is life. The other, death. The edge we forge cuts the line between life and death.” Now, he tells her, he won’t help her make a new sword because he thinks she’s forgotten the meaning of a sword, and the meaning of that line separating life and death.
There are no sword fights for Mizu in this episode. Rather, she battles the forge where she tries and fails repeatedly to remake her broken sword. As Master Eiji tells her, the fire in her rages beyond control, but the fire of the forge still resists and thwarts her. (It’s an interesting sidenote, that while Mizu’s sword doesn’t have a name (Tolkien would be not approve), it has its own backstory and saved her life, once, before it was even forged.)
There is so much more to say about Blue Eye Samurai, about Taigen’s character arc, and especially, perhaps, about Akemi’s journey from spoiled princess to something else entirely, a journey that runs parallel to Mizu’s journey for revenge. But that’s for another essay. Here, I’ll give the last word to Master Eiji.
As Mizu continues to fight the forge, as the metal crumbles in her hands again and again, she is also fighting herself. Maybe, she tells Swordfather, she really is a monster, a demon just like everyone has told her since she was a child. And maybe a demon can’t make steel.
Master Eiji will have none of that nonsense, and gives what I consider the best speech in the whole series:
“I did not train you to be a demon or a human. I showed you how to be an artist… Swords, pots, noodles, death. It is all the same to an artist…. There may be a demon in you, but there is more. If you do not invite the whole, the demon takes two chairs, and your art will suffer.”
“Then what do I do?” Mizu asks.
“I only know how to make swords. Each morning, I start a fire. And begin again.”
Blue Eye Samurai is now playing on Netflix and has just been renewed for a second season.
For a great behind the scenes look at the making of the show, check out the video Blue Eye Samurai: Behind the Animation on YouTube.