Even if animation is not typically your preference, the talented cast of Blue Eye Samurai will surely catch your attention. With big names like Kenneth Branagh, George Takei, Randall Park, and Disney star Brenda Song, the ensemble is impressive. However, it is Maya Erskine from Pen15 who takes on the lead role as Mizu, the blue-eyed samurai seeking vengeance for her mother’s murder in 17th-century Japan.
In the historical setting of Edo-era Japan, the borders have been closed and those who are not native to the country, including children born to outsiders, are deemed inferior and ostracized as “monsters” or “impure”. Mizu’s distinct blue eyes mark her as a descendant of a “white devil”. With only four white men residing in Japan during this time, Mizu embarks on a mission to eliminate them all. Through flashbacks, we witness her troubled upbringing, facing discrimination from the local children. She finds solace when a blind swordsmith takes her in as an apprentice, mistaking her for a boy or perhaps pretending to do so.
Mizu transforms into a formidable warrior whom we meet during a tense altercation with a brutish dealer of human and weapon trade. She interrupts his illegal business of trafficking women and cuts off his fingers used for pulling triggers. In the midst of her victory, her adversary yells insults at her, calling her a lifeless, half-blooded, demonic scoundrel.
The frequent fight scenes in Blue Eye Samurai are a true pleasure to watch. Mizu, a renowned samurai with seemingly superhuman abilities, effortlessly takes on entire armies, cutting through trained guards and hired muscle like a hot knife through butter. These showcase battles are both highly entertaining and filled with surprising and violent moments. For example, a seemingly civil conversation can quickly turn bloody when an arm is unexpectedly sliced off. This often derails any negotiations and leads the story down even bloodier paths.
The scene is filled with extreme violence, with teeth being extracted and used as ammunition. Body parts are frequently dismembered, causing blood to spray and spurt without restraint. The bodies do not simply accumulate, but rather form immense mountain ranges. Additionally, the setting is visually stunning, not only due to its snow-covered terrain, but also because of the artistic touches throughout: a frosty forest, a street lined with brothels and pink lights.
Mizu remains consumed by her thirst for revenge, but the story is enriched by a diverse range of characters. Her apprentice, Ringo, who possesses great potential, brings much-needed warmth and humor to the narrative. The boastful Taigen, a samurai Mizu has known since childhood, also adds levity. Mizu ultimately finds herself indebted to Taigen in a battle-to-the-death, yet their conflicts hint at a deeper connection and mutual respect. On the opposite end, Branagh’s character Fowler, a malicious white man who traffics weapons and drugs and extorts money from brothel owners, is a vile creature known for his menacing monologues that highlight his depravity. He appears invincible, holed up in a remote island fortress. For Mizu, he presents a suitable challenge.
Amber Noizumi and Michael Green have created an exciting world reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Mizu is perceived as male by most people, a necessary facade that she seems to enjoy; Erskine portrays Mizu with a dry, deep voice. Alongside, we witness the struggles of Princess Akemi, whose father is attempting to arrange her marriage to influential men. Both women are battling against the limitations of a patriarchal society, though their journeys towards liberation are distinct and at times at odds with each other.
The film takes itself seriously, but avoids being overly earnest. Ultimately, Blue Eye Samurai recognizes that its main appeal is its epic and violent story of honor and revenge. Mizu, as an outsider, is easy to cheer for as she faces seemingly insurmountable challenges in her many fights. The plot also includes betrayals, double-crossings, and moral dilemmas. Overall, this is clever and engaging entertainment that is incredibly enjoyable.