Blue Eye Samurai is a bone-smashing, limb-tearing, pulse-pounding, skull-pulverizing, eye-demolishing work of art and anyone who appreciates animation needs to sit down, fire up Netflix, and watch it right now.
And honestly, even if you are someone who has no particular affinity or affection for animation, you still owe it to yourself to sit down, fire up Netflix, and watch it right now.
Weaponizing all the creative and content freedom, while neatly sidestepping virtually every pitfall, of the streaming age Blue Eye Samurai is a primal scream of glorious revenge, as captivating in its beauty as it is stunning in its violence.
By the end of its eight-episode first season, it doesn’t so much entertain an audience as it does bludgeon them into submission under the sheer force of artistry, energy, and commitment to doing the absolute MOST at every opportunity. When the end credits rolled after the final episode, you may not know whether to applaud or collapse from exhaustion.
But either way, you’ll be demanding more.
(This article will avoid spoiling major events of the season, but if you’d like to go in completely blind, stop reading)
Created by the husband and wife team of Michael Green and Amber Noizumi, Blue Eye Samurai is set in 17th century Japan, when the country has adopted a strict policy of total disengagement from the outside world. No foreigners at all, ever.
That leaves Mizu (Maya Erskine) in a difficult spot, as her blue eyes betray that she is biracial and therefore considered little more than a demon by her countryfolk. As the show starts, Mizu is obsessively on the hunt for the four white men who previously lived in Japan, as one of the four is assuredly the bastard who sired her and condemned both Mizu and her mother to a life of misery and torment. Season 1 details Mizu’s specific pursuit of Fowler (Kenneth Branagh [yes, him]) a sadistic Irishman who continues to haunt the country that has made his existence illegal. As Mizu schemes to destroy Fowler, Fowler in turn schemes to take down the shogunate and claim Japan for himself, putting the two on a literally explosive collision course.
The path of revenge is never straight though, bringing Mizu into the orbit of a tangle of well-drawn (natch) supporting players who keep things lively from the sidelines. Ringo (Masi Oka) is a disabled cook who takes a shine to Mizu and dedicates himself to serving as her apprentice and keeping her secrets; Taigen (Darren Barnet) is a hot-headed swordsman determined to reclaim his honor in a duel against Mizu; and Akemi (Brenda Song) is Taigen’s fiancée, a princess desperate to escape the life of servitude that her gender and her station have relegated her to.
There’s more, and early on there is reason to worry that Netflix’s tradition of bloated runtimes and shapeless seasons will weigh down a show that seems like it would be best served as a lean and mean slice of unapologetic pulp. Sprawl is nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t mean that what at first glance appears to be a straightforward revenge story demands several hours to tell.
But there’s no reason to worry. Rather than feeling leaden with subplots and spinning wheels, Blue Eye Samurai moves at a breathless clip. Story beats that seem like they might drag along for a season get resolved in a matter of scenes, and the chain of causality from one episode to another remains strong and clear. When Mizu gets sidetracked on an errand, it doesn’t feel like the show is wasting time to avoid arriving at the fireworks factory. Instead, every tangent and diversion serves to bring us closer to Mizu and help us to grapple with the power dynamics that define and determine people’s lives in a brutally rigid society.
“Brutal” is a word that comes up a lot while watching and describing Blue Eye Samurai. I’m not sure if there’s a name yet for the house style of animation that Netflix developed over the last few years, but it combines the lush, expressive fluidity of traditional hand drawn with the depth and dimensionality of CG animation. With some projects, this can result in animation that is overly rigid, even downright unpleasant in those cases where the neither fish now fowl approach leaves characters and backgrounds feeling flat and even auto-populated at times.
Blue Eye Samurai has no such problem.
The only thing more visually stunning than the vistas and scenery are the bloodbaths, with fight scenes reveling in sprays of painted gore that never fail to impress. There’s one gag in the first episode that left me literally breathless with both its creativity and its audacity, and the show never surrenders that savage edge even when it downshifts from that early stunning high.
The choreography and execution of the multitude of battles and brawls is impressive even by the standards of similar live-action efforts, but when you marry that design with the freedom of animation, the resulting fights take on a kinetic immediacy that live-action can’t touch. The high water mark of the first season might be episode five, “The Tale of the Ronin and the Bride”, which intercuts an episode-length one vs. many duel with flashbacks throwing Mizu’s tragic backstory into even sharper detail. The bravura finale of the episode intercuts two separate massacres into a single emotional exclamation point of ecstatic action, pure cathartic release illustrated with gallons of red ink.
Taking a familiar story and telling it in a unique way with as much artistry as can be stuffed into every single frame, Blue Eye Samurai is among the very best things that Netflix has ever produced. If there’s one downside to the first season, it’s that it is only the first season of a planned larger work and as such virtually all of its myriad narrative threads are left dangling for a later resolution. That’s not a problem as such, presuming that Netflix doesn’t pull a Netflix and kill the show without giving it even a fighting chance, but ending with an ellipses rather than a period makes Blue Eye Samurai feel somewhat unfulfilling even as it’s stuffed with riches.
Even incomplete, there’s no doubt that Blue Eye Samurai is a total triumph for animation, for the possibilities of the streaming age, and for anyone eager for a new addition to the canon of delicious revenge, served extra bloody.
Head over to Netflix and get yourself a taste.