Mizu (Maya Erskine) is very good at fighting. So good that she can cleave trees in half with a single swipe of her sword and cut down entire armies single-handedly. So good that no matter how outnumbered or overpowered she seems to be, victory is never out of reach. So good that even if some of Blue Eye Samurai’s storytelling is a bit shallow, Mizu’s skills provide enough pure spectacle to make the series exhilarating to watch.
Blue Eye Samurai takes place in 17th-century Japan, just as the country has closed its borders off to the rest of the world. As a result of this isolationism, mixed-race people are written off as “white devils” and rejected from society. This is the fate that Mizu has suffered since childhood thanks to her brilliant blue eyes, and she’s vowed to enact vengeance on the white man she believes cursed her with them: her father, Abijah Fowler (Kenneth Branagh).
The story is infused with ideas about cultural identity and inherited trauma, but it’s one that Blue Eye Samurai plays mostly as a straightforward revenge tale. Fowler is a perfect pantomime villain: He’s an Irish arms dealer who’s part hedonist, part psychopath, and all evil, providing Branagh with a number of delicious bad-guy monologues. The character is exuberantly awful, as are the various other, lesser villains—from Fowler’s conniving advisor, Heiji Shindo (Randall Park), to a brutish brothel owner, Boss Hamata (Clyde Kusatsu), with an army of wolverine-clawed minions at his disposal—that Mizu will have to chop her way through to get to him.
Like many a video game, it always feels like Mizu is inching closer to a final boss encounter as she carves her way past yet another villain, and this structure works well for a series that’s primarily concerned with providing spectacular action. By blending painterly backgrounds with 3D character models, Blue Eye Samurai gives each fight sequence a kinetic quality that’s similar to the explosive athleticism of Inoue Takehiko’s The First Slam Dunk.
Blue Eye Samurai takes full advantage of its designation as an “adult” animation whenever a blade is drawn, filling each fight with geysers of blood, snapped bones, and severed limbs. You can almost feel the weight behind every swing of a blade. This physicality imbues the fight scenes with a true sense of danger as Mizu is continually backed into a corner and finds gruesomely creative ways to find a path out of it.
Blue Eye Samurai’s scenery is quite stunning. From snow-covered forests to quaint villages and elaborate palaces, every corner of this world is gorgeously rendered. The art style, though, isn’t always quite as successful when it comes to capturing its characters in their less combative moments. The 3D character models look smooth and digital in a way that sometimes falls into the uncanny valley. This also leaves the show’s many sex scenes feeling profoundly, well, unsexy.
As a character, Mizu is defined by a singularity of purpose. She’s devoted her entire life to revenge, and this sense of resolution is matched both by Erskine’s performance and the decisive way in which Mizu slices through her enemies. But when her sword is sheathed, this sense of purpose seems a lot less clear. Sometimes she’s utterly ruthless, but at others she’s oddly compassionate. She’s occasionally swayed by the idea of acting “honorably” but mostly rejects it, and there never seems to be a clear arc to the way her feelings change over time.
Mizu is perhaps too complex for the series to fully figure out in just one season. It’s revealed early on that Fowler is only one of four men who could be Mizu’s father, so Blue Eye Samurai has clearly been designed to unfold gradually over time. That means there may be plenty of time for the series to hone its dramatic aspects to match the sharpness and beauty of its fight scenes.
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