clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Blue Eye Samurai is one of the smartest Netflix shows in years

Netflix struggled for years to land a mainstream anime hit. Enter Blue Eye Samurai.

A fighter with their back to the sun faces a group of silhouetted sword wielders.
Lone warrior Mizu (Maya Erskine) faces off against a gang of assassins in Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The criteria for success on Netflix have always been slippery, particularly regarding the platform’s hit-and-miss efforts with anime. Yet in the month since its November 1 release, Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai has established itself as a bona fide hit, spending two weeks in the global top 10 and reaching the top 10 mark in 50 countries (according to Netflix’s stats site). It also got 4.8 million views over its eight taut episodes during its first two weeks and garnered a status, according to Netflix, as one of the most-liked shows on the platform. Critics are deeming it the best Netflix show and the best animated show of the year.

This roster of wins makes Blue Eye Samurai an outlier for anime on Netflix. In its early years, Netflix delivered a slate of solid Japanese imports, including its first exclusive series, Knights of Sidonia, in 2014. That was nearly a decade ago, and despite scoring some big hits with the anime crowd, like 2018’s Devilman Crybaby, and landing some premier titles, like the high-profile 2019 release of anime OG Neon Genesis Evangelion, mainstream success with anime titles has eluded the platform — until now.

What is it about this particular show — the relatively familiar tale of a solitary samurai seeking revenge — that drew in the views, where scores of other anime titles on the platform have faltered?

There are a few key elements. There’s the utterly gorgeous animation, for one thing, created by French Canadian animation house Blue Spirit. (That means it’s not technically an anime, since it wasn’t made in Japan, but given its anime aesthetic and Japanese setting, most fans are hailing it as one anyway.) There’s the tremendous social media buzz the show received in its first few weeks of release.

Yet Blue Eye Samurai, for all it’s a “typical” anime, contains a few elements that not only feel fresh but, crucially, like a bold and innovative step forward for Netflix, away from its usual rote, formulaic storytelling.

What does a Netflix series feel like, exactly, and what is Blue Eye Samurai doing that’s different? Over the course of the show, Blue Eye Samurai displays an artistic excellence and narrative innovation that most Netflix productions never attain. Let’s see if we can parse it out.

Netflix focused on building mainstream interest in the series before its premiere

In the months before its debut, Netflix positioned Blue Eye Samurai as a mainstream release rather than a niche one. In September, it gave an exclusive preview of the show, alongside a profile of series director Jane Wu, to Vanity Fair — an outlet not usually known for highlighting cartoons. The spread featured gorgeous production stills, giving readers a taste of the stylized artwork they could expect from the series.

One of the key things Netflix did to boost interest in Blue Eye Samurai is also something rare for the platform: It released the first episode of the show for free on its primary YouTube channel on November 1, where it has since been viewed over 3 million times. That’s two days before the full series officially dropped on Netflix — a tantalizing teaser to increase the show’s status as a binge fest.

It’s evident from the opening moments that Blue Eye Samurai is delicately animated, with an intriguing premise and a main character, Mizu (voiced by Maya Erskine) whose outcast status as a biracial loner in isolated Edo-era Japan immediately draws you in. Mizu, a female character who was raised as a boy, continues this performance into adulthood because it allows her to circumvent the strict gender roles imposed on women of the time.

Mizu battles childhood trauma as well as deep self-loathing — a powerful mix of internalized shame and internalized misogyny. As a samurai, she’s trained her whole life to become a lethal weapon, all in order to kill the handful of white men who were living in Japan at the time of her birth. Her goal through this eradication is to eliminate her biological father, who abandoned her and her mother and, she believes, left the two of them to a destitute fate. She’s so determined to pass as a Japanese man that she painfully binds her chest and wears tinted glasses to hide the true color of her eyes from the world. The series showrunners, husband and wife team Michael Green and Amber Noizumi, told Vanity Fair they were inspired by their own biracial daughter, whose eye color proved to be a surprise to the whole family.

The show preempts objections to “diverse” and foreign programming

Here we have one of the key traits of Blue Eye Samurai that makes it feel like a shift in the usual Netflix formula. Right-wing viewers often mock the platform because they argue it presents diverse storytelling as the default, in ways that conservative audiences view as superimposed or hamfisted. This “forced diversity” claim, although it’s absurd, has become associated on the right with Netflix particularly, in part due to Netflix’s efforts to make inroads in hiring and storytelling. (Those efforts, it should be noted, have also been undermined both by job cuts and frustrating programming decisions, including cancellations of lauded diverse offerings.)

The way Blue Eye Samurai handles its storytelling, however, notably sidesteps the typical trollish arguments that diversity has been injected into the story for its own sake — that is, at the expense of the story itself. That’s almost never true, but here it’s indisputably false. The show subverts the familiar trope of a minority character fighting for autonomy in a racist society by taking as its main character a biracial outcast whose whiteness makes them identifiably monstrous within their culture. Not only is the character’s racial identity the motivation for the entire plot, but the story cleverly deconstructs racism for a very broad audience by depicting a society that incorporates anti-white prejudice as part of its nationalist, xenophobic structure.

Two people on horseback in a snowy wood.
Darren Barnet as Taigen and Maya Erskine as Mizu in Blue Eye Samurai.

Once this groundwork has been laid, Blue Eye Samurai trots out one compelling trope after another. Mizu’s rival, Taigen (Never Have I Ever’s Darren Barnet) may not know his arch-frenemy is really a girl, but he’s overtly attracted to him anyway. Meanwhile, Taigen’s ostensible love interest, Akemi (Station 19’s Brenda Song), is less interested in love than she is in gaining her freedom, even gladly choosing work in a brothel over a cushy palace life. Our plucky sidekick, Ringo (Heroes’ Masi Oka), was born without hands but has learned to be a competent cook and tradesman despite his disability; when Mizu rebuffs his attempts to become her apprentice by insisting he couldn’t handle fighting, he holds up his arms and says simply, “My whole life has been a battle.”

While such a moment could easily feel maudlin, the show’s deep characterizations and consistently spare tone keep it rooted in naturalism and help to balance its over-the-top violence and conflict. It also helps that Netflix, heeding voice actors’ calls for accurate industry casting, has selected a roster of high-profile ethnically Asian actors, with only one fully white actor (Kenneth Branagh doing a baffling Welsh-Scottish-Irish-American accent) in the main cast. Crucially, because the roles were written in English, the English-language voice cast sounds more natural than overdubbed foreign works often can. That’s another major longstanding hurdle that Blue Eye Samurai overcomes easily: the reluctance of mainstream audiences to engage with media that’s either poorly dubbed or subtitled. Erskine particularly shines in her role as the deliberately low-key Mizu, but the cast also features standout performances from greats like George Takei, Ming-Na Wen, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

A Japanese anime-style face with shadows across it that look like blood.
Mizu in a darker moment.

In other words, the diverse and star-studded cast helps elevate the show and further sells it as a legitimate adult Netflix drama rather than reinforcing the false but persistent stereotype that anime is for children. It quickly becomes obvious that Blue Eye Samurai, like many of the samurai stories it’s following, isn’t remotely a children’s story. It’s ultra-violent, splattered with gore and creative horror-movie kills, and dripping with more stylized bloodshed than Kill Bill. Sex of all kinds, from the kinky to the violent and obscene, is all depicted presentationally, without any sense of shame. Women are consistently centered in the act, allowed to take charge and direct both their pleasure and their partner’s; in other words, the show offers us a truly mature depiction of sex that manages to never feel exploitative, even when it’s showing us extremely dark sexual acts.

It’s also stone-cold: A moment early in episode one quietly tells us what we’re in for when Mizu unflinchingly walks past a mother and child who later are revealed to have frozen to death while waiting for someone, anyone, to give them aid. It’s absolutely brutal — but by the time the audience has realized that its main character might be a traumatized sociopath assassin who’s fine with the death of children, we’re already invested in her revenge quest.

For once, Netflix gets out of the way of great storytelling

The secret to keeping that quest accessible and entertaining for audiences over the course of the show’s eight episodes lies in two elements that have traditionally not been Netflix’s forte: writing and animation.

Wu’s considerable background in storyboarding and fashion design helps tonally offset the choreographic fight animation, which involved real martial artists performing key fight scenes using motion-capture imaging. The result feels vibrant, with settings and scene details drawn from historic depictions of Japan and Japanese folklore, as well as references to other classic anime and samurai stories like Seven Samurai, Samurai Champloo, and Rurouni Kenshin.

A recent live-action trilogy adaptation of Kenshin proved to be a broad success for Netflix, followed by a wildly popular yet lackluster adaptation of One Piece. Writing for Vox sister site Polygon, Joshua Rivera smartly points out the ways in which Netflix’s mundane “house style” bogs down One Piece’s otherwise vibrant, well-cast anime-inspired production: flat colors, boring cinematography, and a narrative shortchanged by Netflix’s corporate culture and by a reluctance on the part of the writers to simply take time to savor the characters they’re serving us.

A huge tree in a wood full of fall colors, with two saddled horses and two humans standing in the fallen leaves.
If things start to feel tranquil and peaceful, that’s when it’s time to start worrying.

As an animated series helmed by a single creative team, Blue Eye Samurai faces few of those hang-ups. It’s full of highly stylized visual sequences and experimental camerawork. The characterizations and writing are consistent throughout, while also relying on a taut sensibility that never fully lets go — a tension, a slight release, and then a painful shift. The classic Japanese awareness of impermanence and loss, mono no aware, feels embedded throughout the storytelling structure. When it’s not trading in action tropes codified by Akira Kurosawa, the show has visual and thematic ties to the great filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, with carefully designed scenic tableaus intended to deepen our understanding of the society we’re in and the characters we’re accompanying.

While this aesthetic style and tone will be well-known to anime fans, it’s rare for anime that features this much understatement — again, mingled with scenes of ultraviolence that verge on splatterpunk — to make their way to mainstream viewers. Yet the rewards are plentiful. The experimental fifth episode overlays three separate narratives, using a Japanese puppet show to tie them all together through allegory and folklore. By the end of the episode, we’ve learned something crucial about our main character via a visual feast of storytelling: One layer reveals a beautiful, uniquely tragic love story that also serves as a heartbreaking commentary on toxic masculinity; another layer gives us a tremendously staged, edge-of-your-seat battle of life and death. At the close, we realize, those two stories are the same story — the story of a girl doing whatever she can to not only survive but keep her identity from destroying everything she touches in a society that isn’t ready for her.

That such a story wound up on Netflix is a marvel. That it found its audience is a relief. And if the final episode falls prey to what feels like superimposed corporate pressure from Netflix to deliver fan interest in a second season rather than a plot resolution — well, just this once, perhaps the corporate overlords have the right idea.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.