One of the features of Netflix is that thing often just appear, without warning, and can be easily overlooked if you don’t happen to check your home page the day they’re released.
This almost happened to me with Blue Eye Samurai, an animated martial arts revenge thriller. I had heard nothing about this show before its release. If I hadn’t heard something about it on social media, I might have skipped it entirely. I’m not a big anime guy, but the reviews were so glowing that I decided to watch an episode.
And I am so glad I did. This is, unquestionably, the best animated show of the year, and the best animated show Netflix has put out since season one of Arcane. (Hey, speaking of Arcane, when is Season 2 coming out, Netflix?)
Created by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Green and Amber Noizumi, the story offers a twist on the revenge plot so popular in samurai and martial arts movies. There is a lot of weight given to what revenge costs and how it weighs on the soul. Green was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay to Logan, and you can see a bit of that DNA in the script.
The story is set in feudal Japan in the mid-1600s, after Japan has closed its borders to the outside world. Mizu (voiced by Maya Erskine) is the title character. The blue eyes come from from her mixed-race heritage. When she was born, there were only four white men in Japan. Mizu’s plan is to kill each one as revenge for making her a mixed-race bastard and an outcast. So she wears colored glasses to hide her eyes. And since revenge and swordplay are not paths open to women, she must disguise herself as a man as well.
On her quest, she meets a variety of characters, including the lovable Ringo (voiced by Masi Oka). Ringo sees Mizu dispatch some villains in his father’s noodle shop and immediately decides to become her apprentice, much to Mizu’s annoyance. Ringo has no hands, and he feels a kinship to Mizu because they’re both “deformed.” He can still make great noodles and medicinal brews, though. Ringo fills the archetype of the good-natured lummox with hidden depth splendidly. Ringo is fantastic. If Ringo is not your favorite character, we cannot be friends.
She also comes across Taigen (Darren Barnet), a samurai in a town she passes through. After defeating everyone in his dojo because they won’t give her the information she wants that will lead her to the first white man she wants to kill, she proceeds to humiliate him by lopping off his topknot. This enrages him so much that he follows after to demand a rematch. This in turn causes his fiancée, Princess Akemi (Brenda Song), to chase after him lest her father marry her off to the Shogun’s cruel son. Akemi is more than just a lovestruck girl, however, and over the series shows resilience and intelligence. Akemi is accompanied by her governor, Seki, voiced by George Takei, and George Takei gets to say some absolutely bad ass lines. Holding a sword to a bandit’s throat, he says “It’s been a long time since I killed a man. I wonder if I remember how…”
Believe me when I tell you that the animation is gorgeous It’s a combination 2D and 3D techniques, and it looks spectacular. Every frame is beautiful. There’s a fight on a beach at sunset, where the red waves are crashing as the two enemies fight, mimicking waves of blood.
And the action! These are beautifully choreographed fights, fluid and vicious. There’s a sequence where Mizu has to defend a brothel from about one hundred hoodlums, all armed with Wolverine-claw gauntlets. There’s another where she fights off four assassins called the Four Fangs while doing handsprings down a cliff face. It is spectacular. It’s amazing, yet it all feels realistic and grounded, and not at all weightless like it would if this was CGI in a live-action film.
This is very adult animation, and not just because of the violence and sex. (Though to be clear, the violence is very graphic, with limbs flying, blood spraying, and people being disemboweled. And so is the nudity and sex, as a couple of episodes take place almost entirely in brothels.) This also covers a lot of adult topics, like class, racism, and sexism. The show is very explicit about how badly people treat Mizu when they see her eyes, spitting insults like “half-breed,” and how limited the options are for women.
If you’ve been looking for a new show that’s great to look at, with memorable characters, and some great dialogue, get to your device of choice right now and start watching. Get those numbers up, because I want to see about 10 more seasons of Mizu’s revenge quest.