By Rebecca Nicholson
November 3, 2023
Even if you are not usually a fan of animation, the cast of Blue Eye Samurai should make you look its way. Kenneth Branagh, George Takei, Randall Park and Disney star Brenda Song take their parts in a huge, starry ensemble cast. But Pen15’s Maya Erskine is the lead as Mizu, the blue-eyed samurai of the title, who carves a gruesome path through 17th-century Japan on a mission to avenge those responsible for the death of her mother.
This is Edo-era Japan, in which borders have been sealed and outsiders (and children born to outsiders) are considered to be “less than human”, “monsters” and “impure”. Mizu’s blue eyes give her away as the child of a “white devil”. There are only four white men in Japan at this time, and she sets out to kill all of them. In flashbacks to her childhood, we see her tormented by the local children. She is saved only by a blind sword maker who, believing her to be a boy – or perhaps simply pretending to – takes her in as his apprentice.
She becomes the powerful warrior Mizu who we are introduced to via a tense confrontation with a thuggish trader of flesh and guns. Mizu interrupts him in the business of trafficking women and slices off his trigger fingers. “You dead-eyed, half-blooded, demon bastard,” her opponent screams, when she has clearly got the upper – and most of his – hand.
One of the many pleasures of Blue Eye Samurai, and it is a real pleasure to watch, is its frequent fight scenes. Mizu is a legendary samurai, with seemingly superhuman powers, who is capable of taking on whole armies alone, slicing her way through trained guards and hired muscle with the ease of a hot knife sliding into warm butter. You know when the showcase battles are coming, and these are fantastically entertaining – can she really conquer four giant men known for their ruthlessness, on a narrow cliff edge while injured? – but it is also filled with sudden and violent shocks. A seemingly civil conversation goes south when, out of nowhere, an arm gets sliced off. Inevitably, this derails negotiations somewhat, and sends the story off into yet bloodier waters.
Mizu is so set on revenge that she is grave throughout, but there is a rich cast of characters to add the light and shade. Her apprentice Ringo, who knows he is destined for greatness, provides some much-needed warmth and humour, as does the preening Taigen, another samurai Mizu has known since childhood. She ends up owing Taigen a battle-to-the-death, but their quarrels hint at more than simple rivalry, and are rooted in mutual respect. On the other end of the scale, Branagh’s villainous white man Fowler, who imports weapons and opium and extorts money from the brothel owners, is a pure monster, prone to big, bad speeches that show just how evil he is. He is seemingly unstoppable, and, sequestered in an isolated island castle. For Mizu, this is a suitable challenge.
Creators Amber Noizumi and Michael Green have conjured a thrilling world that has more than a hint of Game of Thrones to it. Mizu is seen as male by almost everyone around her, which is the way it has to be, and also, you suspect, the way she likes it; Erskine delivers Mizu’s lines in a droll, deep rasp. In parallel, we also follow the story of Princess Akemi, whose powerful father is trying to sell her, in marriage, to other powerful men. Both women are fighting the patriarchal constraints of the world they are in, though each takes a different, and often conflicting, path to what might be considered freedom.
It takes itself seriously, then, but rarely gets bogged down by earnestness. In the end, Blue Eye Samurai knows that its main selling point is as an epic, violent tale of honour and revenge. Mizu is an outsider in many respects, making it easy to root for her in the seemingly endless series of fights that look, at first, to be unsurmountable. There are betrayals, double-crossings and plenty of moral compromises. This is smart, cinematic entertainment and it is an awful lot of fun.
Blue Eye Samurai is on Netflix now.