Blue Eye Samurai review: why you should make time for a potential masterpiece of animation

A visually stunning marriage of brutal spectacle and wonderfully nuanced storytelling.

by Justin Choo

Let’s cut to the chase: Blue Eye Samurai (BES) is a rarity. For one, it’s stylistically one of the best-looking this year. The choreography and facial expressions are sophisticated and integral to telling the story beneath the story. And the good thing is, there’s plenty of meat there. When it comes to action sequences, you’ll be floored by some of the elaborate, flowing sequences that look more like a live-action set piece. Just ignore the occasional ‘hey, we outnumber her ten to one, but how about we just go in one at a time anyway’ moments.

For those among us who are tired of shows that seem to prioritise virtue signalling over a well-written story, BES might be a little worrying at first glance. In many ways, it looks and feels like yet another ‘woke’ production, as it checks all the requisite boxes. But the difference here is that the underlying motivations of the characters, as well as the dynamics, are perfectly intertwined with ‘the message’. 

Many modern productions, especially in Hollywood, feature themes that address racial and gender imbalances, but often, the messaging feels shoehorned in. BES is one positive example of how these issues can be alluded to without taking attention away from the plot.

The world of Blue Eye Samurai is lavish and visually gorgeous.

BES is loosely set in the Edo period, where foreigners were ostracised while Christianity was forbidden. Mizu (Maya Erskine) is the daughter of a foreign father and Japanese mother (hence the blue eyes) and grows up an outcast, forced to dress and act like a boy to avoid detection and harm. The harsh conditions lead to the death of her mother, and she grows up seeking revenge on her father and his ilk.

The Edo period was also characterised by a Confucian influence, where women were effectively subservient to men. However, they wield considerable influence within the house, and it’s a theme that BES uses to show inequality and yet tease the tremendous soft power that the women held at their fingertips if they were so inclined to use it. The result is a fantastical world that’s relatable and grounded in reality. 

Mizu is a fantastically written character

Mizu starts her journey on the other end of the gender spectrum, and no one suspects she is female. She plays the part of the ‘traditional’ male anti-hero to a tee and demonstrates, for all intents and purposes, male characteristics that have been forced upon her by circumstances. She’s more than that, of course–Mizu wishes for a simpler time where she can be vulnerable, feminine, and accepted. Happiness is something she has accepted to be beyond her grasp, and she is willing to go to hell and back to satiate her thirst for revenge.

Throughout the season, BES does an excellent job of slowly peeling away the layers to reveal the core of her hatred. Despite the callous nature with which she achieves her means, the audience is inclined to feel sympathetic towards her cause. You can attribute that partly to the writing and the excellent animation in bringing her emotion to life, creating a character who hates herself for what she is doing but is trapped into thinking she has no choice.

Mizu’s thirst for revenge turns her metaphorically into a living, breathing, onryo.

In terms of physicality, Mizu is believable as a monstrous swordsman. She may be a woman, but she has European stock and is possibly physically stronger than the average Japanese person with the appropriate training; it’s perfectly plausible (it’s supposed to be a fantasy world, anyway). She learns her craft from the best, absorbing the forging secrets of Eiji (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a highly revered swordsmith, and copying the techniques of elite swordsmen who approach him for a katana. When not working on swords, she spends every waking moment honing her sword techniques.

And in true bullshitdo fashion (I don’t know enough to talk about actual bushido), Mizu does not fear death (samurai ethos and all that jazz), which gives her an edge in all her encounters. And as good as Mizu is, it’s not like she finishes every fight with a full life bar. She’s often quite messed up by the end, which gives BES a more realistic tone–she’s formidable, but it’s a numbers game,  and she is undoubtedly pushing her luck.

Believable strong women

The women who are not physical warriors like Mizu, who is a rarity in itself, do what they do best–psychological warriors who prey on men’s weaknesses and control them with their feminine wiles. It’s a realistic depiction of leverage and playing to your strengths. This is personified by Madame Kaji (Wen Ming Na), a brothel madam in complete control of her world; she looks after her girls as best she can while keeping her clientele under control. As much as she cares for them, they are ultimately her tools in walking a lifelong tightrope, and she expects them to do the same.

Kaji is also instrumental in shaping Princess Akemi’s (Brenda Song) journey to independence. Akemi, who early on longs to marry the samurai Taigen (Darren Barnet) despite his lower stature, learns that she is not willing to toe the line that society has decided for her. She refuses to play the makeweight, and her path with Taigen diverges. Her journey, it seems, runs parallel with Mizu’s. They both seemingly forsake happiness to pursue their goals.

The men are not sidelined

A typical ‘woke’ trope is that the men lack redeeming qualities and offer few positives. But in the case of BES, it’s quite telling that the three men closest to Mizu are most instrumental in shaping her worldview, which is slowly but surely maturing. Eiji, her first father figure, keeps Mizu grounded as much as he can, and for a time, she is happy in his company. Ringo (Masi Oka) is a loyal, romantic optimist who recognises Mizu’s nobility despite her cruel facade and refusal to let him be her apprentice. Ringo is her perfect foil; he, too, was born an outcast but chose not to be bitter. He is fearless in his devotion to her, saving her on several occasions and is not afraid to call her out in her face. 

Kenneth Branagh’s Abijah Fowler is the consummate comic book baddie.

But it is Taigen (Darren Barnet) who will most likely bring the best out of her: a childhood tormentor who became a rival and is likely to turn into a love interest (who am I kidding? It’s probably going to happen). Despite Teigen’s flaws, his commitment to a higher purpose, especially for her benefit (and at his expense), gives her pause to think.

Princess Akemi also has a father figure in the form of Seki (George Takei), who makes it a point to teach her life lessons in a way her father could not, hoping she can be better prepared to deal with a harsh, unforgiving world.

It’s incredibly nuanced

There’s plenty of subtext hidden for an animation if you take the time to watch, and admittedly, there’s probably plenty I missed the first time around. This is most apparent in Kaji’s interactions with her girls, which reveal a lot about her character and the dynamics of their relationship. Leverage is her metaphorical katana, and it’s fascinating to watch her soft power play to stay on top (pun unintended) and how she reacts when she eventually loses it unexpectedly.

Kaji’s relationship with her former protege, Kinuyo, is of particular interest because of the symbolism and deliberate ambiguity in which the Madame helps her out, and the only certainty from the entire sequence is that it shows how far Mizu is willing to go to achieve her goals, despite the apparent internal conflict.

It’s striking that Mizu explicitly expresses that she does not seek happiness. Yet, we’re given a flashback that strongly suggests that it is far from what she truly desires–we see moments where she is genuinely happy and content despite the burden that she bears on her shoulders. Her desire for vengeance is, in fact, a cry for help. Mizu believes that her path has been written, even if the reality is that she has denied herself the possibility of a choice.

  • 8/10
    Blue Eye Samurai - 8/10

Blue Eye Samurai

Tales of vengeance never fail to satisfy, and in the case of Blue Eye Samurai, it gives you that and a whole lot more: a gorgeous art style, stunning choreography, compelling characters and incredible relationship dynamics.