The title character of Blue Eye Samurai is an expert at staying hidden when out in the open. Tinted glasses. Low-slung jingasa hat. Preternaturally silent, and speaking only in low tones when necessary. Mizu intends to blend in, unnoticed and unremembered, while venturing across the Japanese countryside in the year 1633. It’s easier to strike a lethal blow when one is unexpected or underestimated—but there are other reasons to be secretive.
Mizu is a woman at a time when women aren’t permitted to travel alone. She’s also biracial in an era when Japan closed its borders to foreigners and scorned anyone who wasn’t full-blooded native Japanese. Her azure irises are a giveaway to her partial European heritage, so she must keep them hidden, along with her gender, in order to fulfill her mission of revenge. The only hue the Blue Eye Samurai wants to be known for is scarlet red, splashed in hectic patterns around the bodies of her fallen foes.
Jane Wu, the supervising director of the Netflix animated series (which debuts on November 3), felt an intimate connection with the show’s warrior character. Growing up in Taiwan and then Southern California, she hid parts of who she was in order to explore other identities that might otherwise have been restricted to her: geek, jock, fighter. “For most of my childhood years, up until college, I really was a boy. I was a tomboy,” Wu tells Vanity Fair for this exclusive first look at the series. “All my friends were guys. Everything that I did was very masculine and male-based.”
Wu is renowned for her elaborate and emotional battle scenes and has been a storyboard artist for Marvel Studios movies such as The Avengers, Captain America, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy, among others. She has lately crafted conflicts for the Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon, and the live-action Mulan remake, and this summer was highlighted on 痴补谤颈别迟测’蝉 list of “10 Animators to Watch.” Her personal style is a mix of fairy tale and punk rock, with her long hair in a bright pink Elsa braid, draped down across the shoulder of a Metallica T-shirt.
Blue Eye Samurai is an unapologetically adults-only animated series, ranging in tone from tragic to poetic to barbaric and occasionally erotic. Maya Erskine, best known for the comedy series PEN15, voices Mizu, who honed her fighting skills while crafting the finest weapons available as the apprentice to an aging, master blacksmith, voiced by The Man in the High Castle star Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Mizu lives in a ruthless era of corrupt rulers, elite aristocrats, sleazy human traffickers and murderous crime bosses, among them Randall Park’s sniveling warlord Heiji Shindo and Kenneth Branagh’s Abijah Fowler, the sadistic European interloper who pulls strings from the shadows.?
When Wu read the scripts by show creators Amber Noizumi and Michael Green, she saw a version of herself in the warrior, just a few centuries removed—and with less dismemberment, perhaps. “The way Mizu had to navigate herself through her world was something I absolutely identified with being a kid, not having the world mess you up yet,” she says. “I was really into sports. When I grew up, I wanted to be a baseball player because I’m a really good shortstop. But then to be told that there are no women leagues, that there are no girls in the sport—which is weird—it already told me that women were not valued. So, I know how to fix this problem: I’ll just become a guy.”
She says she might have considered herself nonbinary back then, a term that’s common now but wasn’t prevalent during her childhood in the 1980s. She is glad that the world is a more accepting place today for people, including trans youth, who are able to be more self-determined about who they are. “We have to respect what they identify with because our generation never had the opportunity to do that,” Wu says.
“Mizu” is also the Japanese word for “water,” symbolically referencing the warrior’s fluidity. As the eight-episode series begins, the world of the Blue Eye Samurai is emotionally and physically cold. Like her namesake in such circumstances, she hardens. But the show’s creators say its overall theme is about Mizu learning to care about more than exacting vengeance.
“Mizu does not have the capacity for kindness at first,” Green says. “It is a very hard lesson for her to learn. We were careful balancing stories in the first half of the season and the second half of the season, that all of her moments of mercy, kindness, or just acceptance of other people end up having a negative consequence for her. And then, towards the end of the season, the lesson comes in that maybe being vulnerable is okay and pays its own dividends.”
The person who pushes Mizu’s sensitivities the furthest in this regard is a large, cheerful noodle chef named Ringo (voiced by Heroes actor Masi Oka), who becomes inspired by the anonymous samurai’s bravery and decides to shadow her despite her repeated demands that he go away. The character was also born without hands and is used to a life of cruelty and disregard. “We were very interested in that pairing of Ringo and Mizu because he was treated as lesser,” Green says. “The moment he sees someone who is also treated as an outcast by their community, he feels a kinship. He sees Mizu and wants to know everything: ‘How did you do it? I want that. I want to be like you.’”
Green, whose screenplays include Blade Runner 2049, Logan, and the Kenneth Branagh-directed Agatha Christie movies, came up with the idea of Blue Eye Samurai with his wife, Noizumi, whose first writing and producing credit is the project. The lead character was inspired by their daughter.
Like many infants, their little girl had bluish eyes when she was first born, but that color often changes as a child gets older. Noizumi expected the eyes to darken. “My father’s Japanese, and my mother is white,” she says. “I just assumed I would never have a child with blue eyes. It just didn’t seem in the cards for me.” Green is Jewish and says no known family members from his side carried that trait either.
“One day, her eyes caught the light, and they were bright, clear blue, and I was, like, ‘Oh, I think she has blue eyes for good,’” Noizumi recalls. “That was 15 years ago. And it dawned on me: Why do I care so much that she has blue eyes? What’s so prized about a pigment in her eyeballs? I realized it was a Western ideal of beauty and that, if it were reversed, if we were in Japan, it would be kind of strange. Thinking even further back in history, she would’ve been seen as ugly. I had to do a lot of soul-searching and just thinking about my own issues to work out.”
From that, the character of Mizu—navigating the prejudices and ideals of the 17th century—was born.
“After coming across the history of Edo Japan, when they took such great pains to seal the borders from Western influence, the very aesthetics that we now put on advertisements would’ve been considered problematic or monstrous,” Green says. “We talked about that for a good 10 years, thinking, What are we going to do with this story? Then, one day, the word ‘animation’ came up in conversation, and we realized there is a way to tell this story through an adult animated show.”
The project needed a supervising director who could bring a live-action sensibility to the anything-goes possibilities of animation. Netflix put them in touch with Wu. “Jane Wu was made in a lab to direct this show,” Green says. “There’s literally no one else who has the martial arts background, the attention to detail, the care for wardrobe, and was a comic book and genre fan. The number of people who have the skill set required to make this show a reality as a director was one. We did not have an animation background. Now we do, but it’s only because we remember things she taught us.”
“Getting her start in animation, ?she was a lot of times one of the few, if not the only woman in the room,” Noizumi says. “She talked a lot about that feeling of otherness as a woman and needing to ?try to blend in a little more, or always outperform the men, and some of the anger that comes with it—needing to just be better than any man in the room to prove yourself.”
When Wu was coming of age, she cut her hair short, wore puffy jackets and baggy overalls to cloak her body, and hoped her boyish appearance would convince would-be gatekeepers not to ostracize her from the things she adored—not only sports, but the martial arts discipline of wushu (appropriately, she studied sword mastery) and the superhero realms of comic books.?
“That’s what I had to do. I had to make it look like I’m not a threat because not being in the feminine form makes you guys feel like I’m not coming in to ruin your bro space,” Wu said. “I couldn’t go play sports with the boys if I didn’t look like them. And I didn’t want to do what the girls did. I was also watching media portray women as the damsel in distress all the time, and the guys had all the fun with shoot-‘em-ups, and riding horses, and driving fast cars.”
Wu was especially sensitive to the way the world perceived her because she emigrated with her family to the United States around the age of eight, which heightened her sense of being an outsider. “I didn’t speak the language when I came here and was essentially mute for three years,” Wu says.?
That was another kinship she felt with Mizu. “Her being biracial, me being bicultural, I can imagine her feeling disowned by her own people,” Wu says. “And then, to white people, she’s also not white because she has mixed blood. There’s a feeling of not knowing where she belongs that I absolutely identify because, here in the West, I’m the Chinese girl, but when I go home to Taiwan, I’m the American girl.”
Throughout her younger years, Wu found herself perpetually trying to fit into the worldview of others. Some of the strictest enforcers of gender norms were women, she said. “All my male friends started to get married, started to date. I couldn’t hang out with them any more, and it sucks because you start losing your friends—unless their girlfriends or wives are really comfortable in their relationship, or they get to know who you are and they know that you’re not a threat,” Wu says. “You kind of know, Okay, there goes that buddy. I won’t be seeing him for a while—until they get divorced or something.”
The more established Wu became, the less she tried to fit into other people’s expectations. She owned a comic book shop in the Pasadena, California, area and entered the world of animation in the 1990s, creating storyboards for Godzilla and Men in Black cartoons. At first, she says she tried to mimic the approach of the men in her field.?
“I saw how the guys were storyboarding, and they were doing all these cool angles and technically difficult drawings. It was a really a macho thing, trying to out-board each other,” Wu says. “One day I thought, Let me just try to storyboard what this character is going through. So, I didn’t put my camera in dynamic situations or anything. I just held with the character in the moments that were supposed to reveal the story. And ?I remember people coming back to me going, ‘Hey, I loved your boards.’”?
She found a way to hit harder by not trying to hit as hard. “I thought, That’s interesting. I didn’t try to do it like the boys. I did it like I would do it. And from that day on, I never storyboarded like a guy. I storyboarded like me. I really think that that’s when my skills took off.”
Now 55, Wu says she realizes that she internalized many of the harmful notions she grew up with, even while defying them. That’s another thing she believes she shares with the hero of Blue Eye Samurai. “What really drew me to this character was her self-hatred,” Wu says. “She hated herself for being different and also she hated her femininity. And I remember growing up hating my femininity, not really understanding why. And of course, now that I’m older, I see it’s because society tells me I’m weak and I’m not valuable as a woman. So I hated that.”
Her outlook is different now. “That is why my hair is pink and you’re seeing a Tiffany blue background,” she says, gesturing to the walls of her office. “Later on in my life, I’ve learned to embrace femininity as a strength and as a voice, as something not to run away from. And these are all the things that Mizu is running away from because she was taught there wasn’t any value being a woman.”
Amid the sword-fighting, skullduggery, and spilled blood of Blue Eye Samurai is a story about self-acceptance—while those who stand in the way soon find themselves not standing at all. “I think we’ve always seen her as so single-minded, so driven, so hungry for revenge, like an Olympic athlete,” Noizumi says. “There is nothing else but this and everything she needs to do, every action, every word is toward that goal. She will be who she needs to be.”
Hardest of all, the story makes clear, is simply accepting who she is.