In one of the most famous lines from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1, Japanese mob boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) hurls a very pointed insult at the American assassin-protagonist Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman): “Silly little Caucasian girl, playing around with Samurai swords.” The fact that O-Ren herself has both Chinese and American blood makes this an ironic line. But it also underlines a common plot point in the jidaigeki (literally, “period drama”) films Tarantino was inspired by—an obsession with racial “purity”. The career of the half-white Japanese 1970s actress Sally Mae is also a case in point. In the 1973 TV series adaptation of the Lone Wolf And Cub manga, she played the mixed-blood concubine Okinu.
Netflix’s latest entrant in the “adult animation” segment, the action series Blue Eye Samurai, takes this obsession to its logical endpoint and wraps a delicious vendetta story around it. Blessed with good writing and some of the most lovingly crafted action scenes you will ever see in animation, Blue Eye Samurai is a winner for Netflix, whose animated originals have proven time and again to be superior to their live-action counterparts.
In late 17th century Japan, swordmaster and mixed-race rōnin (an independent samurai) Mizu (Maya Erskine) looks for her Caucasian father, the man who gave her blue eyes—and resigned her forever to a life of being called “impure”, “monstrous”, “mongrel” et al. In the time-honoured tradition of Japanese and Chinese/Hong Kong cinema, Mizu also dresses up like a man and has bandaged her chest since childhood.
At the time of her birth, there were exactly four white men in Japan, all smugglers operating in defiance of Japan’s closed-borders policy, sneaking in European goods, especially guns. When she zeroes in on the powerful, sadistic Anglo-Irish smuggler Abijah Fowler (Kenneth Branagh, playfully exaggerating his Irish accent here), she vows to kill him but realises it will be an uphill task. For he is in cahoots with the Shogun (the hereditary ruler of Japan) himself, and is tucked away on a heavily guarded island, surrounded by all manner of luxury.
Fowler is a strong and charismatic villain, a well-written, well-rounded character. And his engagement with racial/communal issues has been depicted in constantly surprising ways. It helps that Branagh clearly had a lot of fun voicing this flamboyant yet menacing villain, who says things like, “The guns are all ready. Already ready, ready for all.” In a chilling sequence, Fowler describes how his sister starved to death in front of his eyes during a famine (the implication being that the British were responsible), an event that transforms him into a creature of pure Darwinism.
When we first meet him, he displays a remarkable degree of skill in various forms of Japanese art—but as soon as he finishes painting the letters or drawing the warrior or making the ceramic bowl, he destroys his work altogether with contemptuous words about the “useless” art forms he has mastered in his seclusion. Despite being a proud Irishman, he admires the British for their ruthlessness and their war technology. And he doesn’t view himself as racist; he says, “I don’t hate the Shogun, I just want his chair.”
In perhaps his most impactful lines from the series, Fowler says: “No one makes a better blade than your people. No one invents better ways to kill people than mine. A gun will never be as beautiful as a sword. But with a gun, you can take any sword that you want.”
This sequence also connects Blue Eye Samurai to several other East-meets-West films and television stories set in Japan down the years. Yasuke, Netflix’s own animated series from 2021, told the story of an African samurai in 16th century Japan. In Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise plays a white American soldier who ends up fighting alongside the samurai against his own former compatriots in 19th century Japan. Here, too the two central preoccupations—guns vs swords and the “clash of civilisations”—are depicted beautifully.
In the poignant, blood-soaked climax of this movie, the heroic samurai warriors opt for a suicide cavalry march against the might of a new invention; Gatling guns, i.e., one of the first machine guns ever used on a battlefield. A modern-day version of this broad storyline (white “race traitor” joining forces with the Japanese) was attempted by the 2018 Jared Leto Netflix film The Outsider, a yakuza drama. But the screenplay here was too scattered and Leto looked bored through most of the action. A more confidently written depiction involving the American-in-Japan trope was the recent HBO series Tokyo Vice (2022), where Ansel Elgort played a journalist from Missouri who relocates to Tokyo and works as a staff writer at a large Japanese newspaper
A dorkier depiction happened on TV, in 2014. In ‘The Way Of The Ninja’, season 6, episode 18 of the hit police procedural/comedy-mystery Castle (2009-16), the Big Bad seems to be a Japanese individual, a mob enforcer who looks and fights like a ninja. Eventually, it turns out to be a white American businessman whose affinity for Japanese culture goes several steps too far. Castle says during the denouement: “That’s the perfect ninja disguise! A white American working as a yakuza enforcer. He’s hiding in plain sight!”
Blue Eye Samurai, however, is by far the most advanced and well-crafted story that involves these tropes—not to mention the one with the most thrilling action set-pieces. Director Jane Wu (who did storyboarding, animation and choreography work for the final battle in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, still the best Marvel movie) said in an interview recently that she had imposed a rule: Any action sequence in this animated series had to be planned and storyboarded with actual camera angles, and detailed instructions that pretended as though this were a live-action project. As a result, the action looks realistic (Wu is a wushu expert herself), brutal and there are no Dragonball Z-style displays of cartoonish strength.
With a suitably brutal, open-ended final act, the first season of Blue Eye Samurai keeps the door open for at least two more future seasons. Mizu’s allies have their individual story arcs at compelling junctions. She herself has quite a few confirmed enemies left to mow down. And on the evidence of these first eight episodes, it’ll be a sight to behold.