“Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai is an ultraviolent, awe-inspiring triumph — and the best animated TV show of the year.”
- Visually stunning animation throughout
- Shockingly sophisticated narrative risks in every episode
- Maya Erskine’s transformative lead performance
- A few concerning late-season creative decisions
- A blunt-force approach to storytelling that is, at times, disappointing
A lone warrior walks into a saloon. Slowly but surely, another loudmouth patron takes his belligerence so far that the warrior can no longer ignore it. There’s a standoff and a spray of blood and — stop me if you’ve heard all this before. Versions of this scene have been at the center of so many iconic Westerns and samurai films that there’s something admirable about how brazenly Blue Eye Samurai, Netflix’s new adult animated TV series from creators Amber Noizumi and Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, Logan), uses its own saloon face-off as the introduction to its tonally familiar, visually stunning world.
There’s something even more impressive about how confidently the scene is paced, edited, and stylistically rendered, but confidence is something Blue Eye Samurai has in spades. Throughout its frequently breathtaking 8-episode first season, the series pays endless homage to the works of Akira Kurosawa, Kihachi Okamoto, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and John Ford, and it does so without ever breaking a sweat. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, it’s an unbridled triumph of pastiche entertainment.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the samurai and Western genres has seen something like Blue Eye Samurai before, but that familiarity doesn’t lessen the show’s impact. On the contrary, it only heightens one’s admiration for how beautifully the series turns each of its recognizable beats and images into individual steps on a ceaseless, propulsive journey across 17th-century Japan. It’s a show that is, much like its protagonist, possessed by a violent, unholy drive that is simultaneously rousing, chilling, and — above all else — highly infectious.
Set during Japan’s Edo period and several decades after a strict isolationist policy banned all foreigners from crossing the nation’s borders, Blue Eye Samurai follows Mizu (Maya Erskine), a soft-spoken, biracial swordswoman who is dead set on killing the four white men who were in Japan at the time of her birth. Her striking blue eyes make her mixed-race origins clear to anyone who sees past her colored glasses, and Mizu seeks to kill whichever European man is responsible for her life, which has been marked by intense bigotry and racism ever since she was a child. As she explains to one of her enemies early in Blue Eye Samurai’s first season, Mizu isn’t seeking redemption, happiness, or peace — only satisfaction.
The unlikely student of a blind master swordmaker (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Mizu has spent her whole life preparing for her quest for revenge. Her hard work has made her practically unstoppable with a blade, and her decision to use bindings to physically hide her female features has made it easier for her to pass from Japanese village to village uninterrupted. As discreet as she may be, though, it isn’t long before Mizu has attracted the attention of an aspiring apprentice in the form of the handless chef, Ringo (Masi Oka), and made a rival out of a fellow swordsman named Taigen (Darren Barnet).
She also quickly puts herself on the radar of her latest quarry, a brutish Scotsman named Abijah Fowler (Kenneth Branagh), as well as his Japanese protector and benefactor, Heiji Shindo (Randall Park). As Mizu plans her eventual attack on their well-protected island fortress, she finds herself attacked by various assassins sent her way by Fowler and Shindo. The duo’s efforts give Blue Eye Samurai an excuse to fill each of its episodes with plenty of violence, and the series frequently renders each slash of Mizu’s blade as one well-executed brushstroke and the inevitable eruptions of blood that follow as nothing more than her paint of choice. In one centerpiece sequence, Mizu fights off an entire squad of mercenaries while scaling down the side of a cliff — their bisected bodies, chopped-off limbs, and blood swirling around her as she leaps from ledge to ledge.
The series is easily Netflix’s most ambitious animated production since 2021’s Arcane. As was the case in that unexpectedly great show, there’s clear care present in every frame of Blue Eye Samurai’s first season. Its animation style evokes everything from classic Japanese watercolor paintings to 1940s samurai thrillers and ‘60s Spaghetti Westerns. The sheer visual artistry of the show makes up for its occasionally blunt-force storytelling style, which has a habit of hammering certain points home more than they need to be. Subtlety, to be fair, isn’t what Blue Eye Samurai’s going for. The series is a maximalist action epic that succeeds, like many of its genre predecessors, when its exploration of its hero is as strong as its onscreen action.
As familiar as many of Blue Eye Samurai’s plot beats and characters are, the series mines a considerable amount of compelling, affecting drama out of its protagonist’s inner world. Mizu is, in many ways, a classic anti-hero: A lone swordswoman torn between her innate goodness and her all-consuming desire for revenge. Blue Eye Samurai gradually deepens its protagonist’s psychic landscape, though, offering glimpses into her past that reveal more emotional complexity than her archetypal silhouette suggests. The series casts many of its characters in an understandably one-note light, but it gives its eponymous lead the depth necessary to make her a formidable and intriguing anchor for its story.
Maya Erskine’s performance proves to be just as important to Blue Eye Samurai’s exploration of Mizu as its animators, too. The PEN15 co-creator leans all the way into Mizu’s unforgiving persona — giving her an uncharacteristically, clearly acquired grumbly voice that quietly crumbles away during the character’s rare moments of vulnerability and tenderness. Equipped with nothing more than her voice, Erskine offers viewers constant insight into Mizu’s psychological state — vocally reinforcing both the relentless brutality and core emotional chords of Blue Eye Samurai’s plot at every turn.
Nowhere are the nuances of Erskine’s performance, as well as the overall strength of Noizumi and Green’s storytelling, clearer than in the series’ standout fifth episode. A nesting-doll installment of television that splits its focus between multiple layers of reality and time, the episode uses an extended chapter from Mizu’s past, a performance of a well-known Japanese folktale, and a seemingly impossible battle in a brothel to create an intricate, bombastic portrait of its lead’s pain and rage that is as thrilling to watch unfold as it is devastating in its emotional potency. Written by Noizumi and directed by Green, it represents the perfect synthesis of all of Blue Eye Samurai’s various influences and ideas.
The episodes that follow never reach the highs of the series’ fifth, and its creative team makes a decision in Blue Eye Samurai’s season one finale that could easily tear its future installments apart. Generally speaking, though, Blue Eye Samurai’s missteps are few and far between. It’s a series that feels fully realized the second it begins, and it has more genuine thrills to offer than most other shows this year — animated or otherwise. As its title suggests, it’s a clear-eyed, impressively sharp drama, one that has a knack for knocking you off your feet and bludgeoning you with memorable moment after memorable moment.
Season one of Blue Eye Samurai is streaming now on Netflix.