Blue Eye Samurai’s Mizu, the mixed-race swordmaster at the center of the show, wants to kill the four white men who were in Japan at the time of her birth.
The story takes place in 17th-century Edo Japan, a time of isolationism for the country, which meant no foreigners. Because of that, Mizu’s white features — particularly her striking blue eyes — alienate her. She hides her eyes behind yellow-tinted glasses and does her best to pass as fully Japanese, lest she be called a half-breed or a demon. It’s a compelling character motivation, and also a neat subversion of how we typically see biracial characters portrayed: namely, Mizu is a biracial character grappling with her identity in a setting that’s not primarily white or European.
Even though there are more multiracial characters on screen than ever before, they’re still overwhelmingly portrayed through a white lens. Often, the characters will be half-white and struggle to connect to their white family in predominantly white settings. This is especially true when it comes to biracial characters in historical movies and TV shows (or even fantasy settings inspired by history). Both 2013’s Belle and 2023’s Chevalier focused on the true stories of half-Black, half-white individuals proving themselves to their white peers — admirable and inspiring stories, but we rarely see how the opposite situation might play out. If biracial characters are depicted at all, it is usually in a majority-white-populated setting, be it Europe, North America, or some Euro-inspired fantasy world.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Blue Eye Samurai.]
That’s where Blue Eye Samurai subverts expectations. Unlike in what we typically see, Mizu disguises her white features. It’s her Japanese peers she must prove her skills to. And, oh, the reason she wants to murder the four white men is to kill whichever one could possibly be her father.
Amber Noizumi, who co-created the show with her husband, Michael Green, tells Polygon that she drew on her own experience as a mixed-race person when making the show. And she specifically chose to avoid a Western setting.
“I think so many mixed-race people feel caught between two worlds,” she explains. “Just to imagine living in the world that I’m not in and what it would be like to have people look at my white features and be shocked. It’s just an exploration of that, an exploration of identity.”
Multiracial people (myself included) are all too familiar with the constant interrogations from others about our physical appearances. Strangers, friends, and family alike all point out which features “belong” to which part of our identities, like our faces and bodies are a collage instead of one cohesive picture.
For multiracial people who are part white, it is unfortunately a common “compliment” for our white features to be praised at the expense of our other ones. Noizumi cites her excitement at her daughter’s blue eyes — and her subsequent reflection of just why she was pleased to see white features on her daughter — as one of the driving forces of inspiration for the show. So, she and the creators behind Blue Eye Samurai unpacked that, trying to find a version of Mizu that worked for the story.
“There were many, many, many, many conversations about [how Mizu would look],” explains Noizumi. “Various members of our team were also mixed-race and everybody was on board with trying to find this perfect version of her that read Asian, that read white, that read feminine, but also a little masculine.”
Mizu’s final design ends up ambiguous on many levels: She’s Japanese-passing, till she isn’t; she looks like a man, till she doesn’t. No matter where she tries to fit in — as Japanese, as white, as a man, as a woman — she cannot ever quite belong. Mizu’s thirst for revenge and her desire to kill the white men who might be her father represents her own self-hatred, the loathing she feels toward the part of herself that makes her stick out. She’s not outwardly self-deprecating or despairing, but it’s evident that years and years of being called a monster and half-breed, of living in a society where no one looks like her at all, have taken a toll. She cuts herself off from any meaningful human connection and turns that internalized resentment into her only mission in life.
But the overarching themes of the show seem to be pointing Mizu away from her revenge and self-loathing, even if she staunchly denies it. There are the characters she meets who seem willing to hold out a hand to her even though she pushes it away. And the more metaphorical plot elements only further guide Mizu to acceptance: From the blind sword maker who takes her in, she learns that the strongest sword is a blend of metals. Mizu’s fighting style is eclectic, a hodgepodge of different techniques that she’s learned by observing. Supervising director and producer Jane Wu says that it’s a style that’s deliberately untrained — yet there’s a flexibility and strength in that, one that enables Mizu to surprise her opponents. In that, Mizu’s own gradual journey of accepting who she is — even if she’d rather throw herself into revenge — feels clearly laid out.
Mizu’s biraciality also helped inform the look of the series, beyond just her character design. The entire series blends visual elements. There is the hybrid 2D-3D style, of course, but even though the show was animated, the producers followed live-action sensibilities for many of the creative elements, such as the costume design and fight choreography.
“It’s what I call animation with a live-action attitude,” says Wu. “So anything looked through the lens had to be considered in a live-action point of view, but the execution is 100% in animation. That’s where you’re kind of getting the blended mix.
“I wanted this production — and when you’re looking at it — to feel like it’s a great blend of both animation and live action. I wanted to show that there is strength in that diversity.”
Blue Eye Samurai is streaming on Netflix now.