The beloved, if troubled, Japanese author Yukio Mishima once said “perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood”. Whether or not you think Blue Eye Samurai rises to the level of poetry, it definitely has the blood.
Before anything else, Blue Eye Samurai is – mostly – visually stunning. If not true Japanimation then it is at least part of the diaspora — it has to hold its own against all-time greats like Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre, and hold its own it does. The backgrounds are sublime throughout, all gorgeous vistas and snow-capped mountains like a scuzzier Tintin In Tibet.
Its apparent mix of drawn animation and 3Dish computer generated stuff works very well – again, mostly. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge any cartoon human for not looking quite right, but when the people of Blue Eye Samurai take their clothes off (which is quite often), suddenly the clearly lined faces are in contrast with borderless bodies in a way that’s too jarring not to notice.
The tone of it all seems to have a foot in two worlds as well. Despite being a proud 18-certificate, not flinching from graphic violence or explicit sex, Blue Eye Samurai presents us a bumbling man-child sidekick who wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney presentation. Even if these two strands of the show were kept at arm’s length, which they’re not, it would still be an uncomfortable juxtaposition of the juvenile and the decidedly not, the kind of thing Stuart Millard once described as being like “a milkshake with a used condom in it”.
And what also seems an off mix is the show’s gestures to what is crudely called ‘realism’ (a fairly grim medieval setting, that includes the sex trade) laid against some of the more stylised genre staples. Stylised Kurosawa-esque explosions of blood, magic katanas that can cut through basically anything, and the main character’s ability to shrug off serious, debilitating injuries by simply trying harder.
Of course, I’m talking about these ‘off mixes’ in regard to a show whose main character is mixed-race, and suffers a lot of pointed and nasty discrimination of it. Whether this is intentional or not, it’s thematically appropriate. If the presentation jars, then it’s in much the same way as the casual racism and sexism of Edo-period Japan does, as well it should.
From the title on down, Blue Eye Samurai is a tale of outcasts of various stripes, which has always been a helpful shortcut to audience sympathy. Most children, never mind audiences of over-eighteens, can quickly identify the simple injustice of prejudice. And so, if one of these outcasts is looking to seek violent, bloody revenge – well, jeez, maybe they’re going a bit far, but we can certainly vicariously enjoy it.
So when it comes to the unapologetic ultraviolence that is Blue Eye Samurai’s big draw, things all mesh together easily enough. Any quibbles with the art style suddenly don’t mean so much when limbs start flying around. I mentioned their use of traditional big splashes of blood earlier, but that’s just the start of it, it walks the fine balance of flying teeth and broken bones without needing to become wince-inducing.
(And for knowing use of incongruous mixes, look no further than the storming of a medieval castle set to a Japanese cover of Metallica’s ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’.)
Having taken the route of full-on popcorn action flick, Blue Eye Samurai needs something to stop it from being eight hours of 100% intensity, and often this takes the form of cutting back and forth to flashbacks. This can get a little much at times, but for the most part is used with enough skill that the sheer energy will carry you through.
What’s more, it’s taken one of the best stabs I’ve ever seen at proving Truffaut wrong and presenting scenes of war that are in no way glorious, and in fact quite offputting and unpleasant. Admittedly here it has the advantage of using the old rigged match: the katana (your elegant weapon for a more civilised age) versus the lamentable effectiveness of the gun.
But this is particularly impressive, because these grimmer scenes must sit in and around the blood-pumping sequences of our heroes kicking ass and taking names. When it’s the underdogs doing it, it does manage to be glorious, and here again we return to the idea of an incongruous mix that all somehow manages to hang together out of sheer craftsmanship.
It’s ironic that Blue Eye Samurai brings in the British as the big enemy (something which the history of colonialism, admittedly, does bear out) when its prevailing ethos so matches a lot of British imperial-era fiction: the underlying assumption that most people from the fussy tea-drinking island nation are basically good chaps underneath despite all the racism, with the real villains being those who’ve teamed up with the evil Johnny Foreigner.
But for all the unpleasant associations, this ties Blue Eye Samurai into a broader body of work that’s still a draw today. The Horatio Hornblower books still basically survive as Star Trek, Harry Potter’s whole thing was a recreation of ultra-elitist English schools. And if the Blue Eye Samurai themselves seems more like the spaghetti-western man with no name, well, that’s bringing that character archetype firmly back into its Japanese origins.
As I’ve said, though, if there’s one clear tradition in which Blue Eye Samurai follows it’s the popcorn action flick. But it’s not mindless violence – in fact, it’s perfectly well aware of how incredibly violent it is. This is really the only way to construct that kind of thing this well.
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Beautifully presented, epic in scale, and full of characters who never seem too stock (even with fully two different wise old men among them), Netflix’s go at making an anime of its very own comes to fine fruition in Blue Eye Samurai.
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