We’ve all seen samurai movies and TV shows before. Some are classics of the genre, like Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant films including “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon.” Now you can add a new samurai series that isn’t like anything you’ve seen before, and is deserving of inclusion on a list of iconic samurai stories.
“Blue Eye Samurai” dropped its eight episodes on Netflix on Nov. 3, and not only does it tell a different kind of story, it tells it in unique new ways. The series follows Mizu, a biracial woman in isolationist Japan whose father was one of just four white men in Japan at the time, when its borders had been closed off to foreigners, and her blue eyes had made her a “monster” for being both mixed-race and a woman. Raised with shame and bullying, as an adult she wears amber glasses to hide her eye color. Her life’s mission is to track down and kill the four white men, and she apprentices with a master swordmaker and learns samurai fighting techniques before she goes on her journey of revenge.
The first and immediately obvious difference from samurai movies of the past is that “Blue Eye Samurai” is an animated series. Note that it’s not “anime.” There are anime films and series about the samurai era, but this treatment is drawn with much more realistic artistry, featuring both 2D painting and 3D filmmaking (especially for the very kinetic and intricately choreographed fight scenes) techniques.
And though violent and bloody scenes are de rigueur for chambara or sword-fighting films that were like cowboy movies for many Japanese Americans growing up, and especially with today’s standards of gore, the violence in “Blue Eye Samurai” is definitely notches beyond most Netflix fare. The animation allows for more vivid decapitations and limb-severing than live-action movies.
But even if anime has become more violent over the decades, audiences should be forewarned that this series is not a show for kids. There’s nudity and sexuality on the screen that some viewers may not be prepared for.
Another difference from typical samurai films is the story itself. The basic narrative arc is familiar to anyone who follows samurai stories, or generic warrior journeys. “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” are obvious templates of the hero’s search, helped along with a trusted sidekick. Mizu, whose voice is biracial actor Maya Erskine, has Ringo, played by Masi Oka, who’s an earnest but somewhat hapless soba noodle maker who decides he wants to be a samurai, as her trusty sidekick.
Although it’s not a live-action film, co-creators Amber Nozumi, herself a biracial Japanese American, and her Caucasian husband Michael Green — who was a co-writer on “Blade Runner 2049” and “Logan” — and supervising director and producer Jane Wu (“Mulan,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Game of Thrones”) made it a priority to cast Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in every role, except the one white bad guy in the film, who’s played by Kenneth Branagh. Familiar names spanning generations include veteran George Takei as a prominent character, Seki, who raises the female protagonist Princess Akemi, who’s played by Brenda Song. Darren Barnet is Akemi’s fiancé Taigen, a samurai who’s determined to fight Mizu to the death but ends up in an uneasy alliance with her. Other voices both familiar and unfamiliar include Ming-Na Wen, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Randall Park, Mark Dacascos, Gedde Watanabe (remember Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles?”) and more.
The production is as dedicated to historical and cultural detail as any feature film production, with exquisitely researched costumes and scenes set in architecturally accurate Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) of 1600s-1800s Japan, as the country was edging toward having western culture (and weapons) change its society. Some of the history is fictionalized but much of it accurately portrays Japan of the Edo era.
“Blue Eye Samurai” is a terrific series for any fan of chambara movies, action and fantasy films, hero journey myths and plain ol’ John Wicks-style violent movies. The animation is so crisp and action so realistic that viewers will not think of it as animated at all within a few minutes.
The series’ eight episodes ends with what is an obvious setup for more. Nozumi and Green’s storyline carries Mizu through four seasons, but a second season hasn’t been confirmed yet.
Let’s hope it gets the green light soon, and we can continue the binging before too long.
Nichi Bei News contributing writer Gil Asakawa is a journalist, blogger (www.nikkeiview.com) and author of “Being Japanese American” and “Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! The Tasty History of Japanese Food in America.”