By Valerie Wu
November 3, 2023
For Jane Wu, the supervising director and producer of Netflix’s adult animated series “Blue Eye Samurai,” which premieres on Nov. 3, animation is “magical.” It’s not a genre, but a medium in which to tell a story. Most importantly, despite popular conceptions of it, animation shouldn’t be limited to children.
“We can tell very complicated, very adult drama with this medium,” Wu told Variety. “The feeling you get [when watching ‘Blue Eye Samurai’] should be the same feeling as when you watch ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘House of the Dragon’ and think, ‘Wow, that was epic,’ or ‘Wow, that was complicated,’ or ‘Wow, that was an experience.’ And you don’t think of it as animation. You just think of it as a really strong story.”
That’s the philosophy Wu wanted to bring to the action-packed eight-episode series, created by husband-wife duo Amber Noizumi and Michael Green. Set in isolationist Edo-period Japan (1603-1868), “Blue Eye Samurai” follows Mizu (Maya Erskine), a mixed-race samurai who’s been discriminated against all her life for her biracial identity. As a result, Mizu wears tinted glasses to cover up her blue eyes and therefore keep her whiteness a secret. Assuming the guise of a man in public, Mizu seeks revenge against the white men who made her into a self-described “monster.”
While Mizu journeys across Japan to find one of those white men, Abijah Fowler (Kenneth Branagh), she comes into contact with a cast of characters, including Akemi (Brenda Song), a princess who’s realizing her limited options as a woman; prideful samurai Taigen (Darren Barnet); Fowler’s power-hungry trading partner Heiji Shindo (Randall Park); stern brothel proprietor Madame Kaji (Ming-Na Wen) and noodle-maker Ringo (Masi Oka), who was born without hands.
In the series, Mizu’s decision to disguise herself as a man and be publicly perceived as one is rooted in the lack of respect for women during the time period. Being a man gives Mizu the freedom that she wouldn’t have as a woman, a crucial aspect to her journey.
The series explores themes like race, gender and power, all of which resonated with Wu going into the project.
“What made [‘Blue Eye Samurai’] special to me is Mizu’s self-hatred,” Wu said. “We all go through that. I know I certainly did growing up, not wanting to be female and understanding at a very young age that women had no value in society.”
As for her cultural connection to Mizu’s character arc, Wu was quick to stress that, like Mizu, it’s not so much a matter of one’s own beliefs than how others project their own beliefs onto her. Wu, for example, expresses that, as a member of the Asian diaspora, she doesn’t feel any different regarding her Asian and American identities. However, from a global perspective, others often perceive her as an outsider based on where she is.
“I don’t feel like I’m more Chinese because I’m here in America. I don’t feel more American when I’m back in Taiwan. I don’t feel like that — I just feel like me. But people tell me that, like when you’re here in America, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that Chinese girl.’ Or when you go back to Taiwan, you have ‘the American girl is home,’” Wu said. “So that’s the struggle, is that that’s the assigned label society gives you, but you don’t feel like that.”
It’s a conflict paralleling that of Mizu’s, who Wu assures “doesn’t feel any different” on the inside, but ends up leaning into the “demon” identity others portray her as because of her blue eyes and because she’s mixed-race.
Mizu is voiced by Maya Erskine, who herself is half-Japanese and half-white. Wu expressed her excitement at the casting of Asian talent for Asian actors, particularly George Takei, who voices Seki, Akemi’s loyal attendant.
“Every single cast member was a moment for me to fan out on them, and just be a geek girl. I told George Takei that I was a huge ‘Star Trek’ fan, and now that I’ve worked with him, I feel like I could die happy as a geek now,” Wu gushed. “Then, I had an opportunity to have dinner with him and really get to know him, and he is that awesome. And Randall Park. Who doesn’t love Randall Park?”
“Just watching all of them and being so proud of them — I was just so happy that we’re all representing,” she continued.
In addition to the Asian talent behind the scenes, the visuals of “Blue Eye Samurai” pay direct tribute to Asian culture. As a creative with a fashion and costuming background, Wu brought the ideas she learned from styling to designing “Blue Eye Samurai.”
“‘How do you style the look of a room? How do you style an image?’ is how I approached [designing the show],” Wu said, emphasizing that she wanted the series to have a “distinct” look.
Episode 5 of “Blue Eye Samurai” features a story about a ronin and his revenge. This framing narrative is told through the art form of Japanese bunraku puppet theater, which is then juxtaposed with the core storyline of Mizu’s past. Wu was influenced by bunraku puppets in stylizing the entire series, an inspiration that she says came from her childhood experiences and family history.
“I wanted to make sure that this [story] stayed very much in the Japanese culture,” Wu said.
Although Wu identifies as Chinese and Taiwanese, many of her family members were raised during the Japanese colonial occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), and she grew up surrounded by Japanese influences. When Wu started to design the series, she knew she wanted to bring in the memory of watching bunraku puppet theater on the Japanese television channel with her aunt.
“It was so mesmerizing the way the puppets moved, because it was sort of like animation, right? It was like suspending that belief of reality,” said Wu. “The puppets moved so smoothly, their movements were so realistic, but yet the way the puppets were designed [are] not realistic; it’s very stylized. And mixing both of those had this really effective, mysterious quality, and haunting quality to them, in the way they moved.”
Based on Wu’s inspiration for the character designs, Noizumi wrote scenes of bunraku puppet theater into the script for the fifth episode, a move that Wu describes as very “meta.”
“It was perfect,” Wu said. “All the things that I experienced in my lifetime [are] being used in the show.”
Wu hopes that in addition to the strength of the story, “Blue Eye Samurai” will appeal to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community for how it represents Asian history and culture.
“I would love for my fellow [Asian American Pacific Islander] community to catch all the little details that I’ve put in to show that our culture is important, that we are important — and we are part of the storytelling community as well,” Wu said.
Jane Wu is represented by manager Tarik Heitmann and attorney Rob Szymanski.