By Dan Sarto
November 3, 2023
Debuting today, November 3, on Netflix, Blue Eye Samurai takes viewers on an epic journey to Edo-period Japan for a story of a mixed-race sword master, Mizu, living a life in disguise and shame – hiding her eyes behind amber-tinged glasses – while seeking revenge against the country’s four white men, one of whom must be her father.
The show is created by husband-and-wife team Amber Noizumi and Michael Green, who also serve as executive producers and writers. Erwin Stoff also serves as executive producer; Jane Wu serves as supervising director and producer. The show is animated by Blue Spirit. The stellar voice cast includes Maya Erskine (Mizu), George Takei (Seki), Masi Oka (Ringo), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (The Swordmaker), Brenda Song (Akemi), Darren Barnet (Taigen), Randall Park (Heiji Shindo), and Kenneth Branagh (Abijah Fowler). The supporting voice cast includes Stephanie Hsu (Ise), Ming-Na Wen (Madame Kaji), Harry Shum Jr. (Takayoshi) and Mark Dacascos (Chiaki).
The series traces its roots to the birth of Noizumi and Green’s now 15-year-old daughter. Half Japanese – half white, Noizumi was excited to have a baby with big blue eyes. But why? And why was she excited that her baby looked more white? “What’s the big deal about that,” Noizumi shared of her thinking at the time. She and Green contemplated the idea that in 17th-century Japan, it would have been illegal to be white. They called their daughter “our blue-eyed Samurai,” which eventually resonated as a great idea – and name – for a show. She continues, “We grappled with why do we revere blue eyes? Why do I revere blue eyes? And just kind of going on that journey and turning that blue-eyed baby into this badass swordsmith killing machine.”
Development continued: how would somebody become mixed-race at a time when the only white people in Japan would’ve been there illegally? Noizumi explains, “Mizu would make assumptions about how she was born, about what a woman would’ve had to have gone through, most likely as a prostitute, to give birth to a child like that. So, the child would see her father, whom she’s never met, as a monster. So, she’s going to go on that journey essentially to exercise her own demons.”
“The more we read about that time period, the more the story asserted itself to us,” Green adds. “The borders were closed, it was a homogenous society, if you weren’t a certain type of person, you were looked down on. That would make someone angry. And what do you do with that anger? We also found that the roles of women were so limited, even in the best of circumstances. We have a character, Princess Akemi, who arguably has the best set of options available to women at the time, and they are not enough for her, certainly seen through a modern lens. So, all our characters would go on a journey that pushed against the expectations of society at the time. It was a fascinating period that’s full of so much restriction yet so much artistic beauty. We talked about this story on and off for a good 10 years until one day we realized that adult animation would give us the right level of artistry and scope to tell this story as wildly as we wanted to.”
Coming from live-action, Noizumi and Green both relied heavily on their key animation production and design creatives to help bring the “best of both worlds” to the show. “Our supervising director, Jane Wu, has an animation background but also an extensive live-action background. She has been a storyboard artist on some of the biggest movies and TV shows made, like Game of Thrones and The Avengers. We wanted to benefit from her expertise in both worlds. We knew we wanted breathtaking choreography for the fight sequences rather than just devising it on the page and in storyboards. So, we worked with an incredible stunt choreographer, Sunny Sun. We wanted the most beautiful wardrobe that could be animated. So, we worked with Suttirat Larlarb, one of the greatest costume designers in film and television today. I had the pleasure of working with her on American Gods and begged her to come and hang out with us, and she did. When you look at what Princess Akime, Madame Kaji, or any of the characters are wearing, or even Mizu for that matter, those incredibly beautiful bespoke outfits and patterns all come from us building into our pipeline elements from the live-action world. Madame Kaji’s beautiful peacock-inspired kimono, that actually comes from a pattern Suttirat found in a museum that hasn’t been seen in about 250 years. And then everything is brought into the animation pipeline, where we worked with just the best.”
In 2019, Wu was coming off Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings when Netflix approached her about an interesting animation project. She told the streamer, “Oh, I don’t do animation anymore.” But after finding out it was an adult animation project, her interest was piqued. And after meeting with Noizumi and Green, she was sold. “I really connected with the story,” she said. “I connected with the character. I knew what it was supposed to be as soon as I read it.”
The show’s stunning, highly stylized animation, which the creative pair describe as “not anime,” was produced by Blue Spirit, a 300+ artist studio with facilities in Paris, Angoulême, and Montréal. “The first thing people should know is, this is not anime,” Green explains. “As much as we are fans of anime, it’s a very different aesthetic. It is a 2D/3D hybrid – even when we use 3D, we wanted it to have a 2D handcrafted feel. We did use a lot of filmmaking techniques that don’t always show up in animated television, including a previsualization department, a stuntvis department, and a wardrobe department.”
“When I started thinking about the visuals, I knew I couldn’t do anime – not because I’m not a fan, but because there has been such great samurai animation out there, that I was just going to get lost in that voice and I couldn’t do better,” Wu shares. “I didn’t want this to look like a game. I knew that I didn’t want this to look like a Pixar or a Disney-animated story.”
According to Green, “Our studio, Blue Spirit, our production designer, Toby Wilson, and character designer, Brian Kesinger, they are the rockstar pantheon of the animation world, sort of like our cast. But we were so fortunate they all flocked to this show because they wanted to do something different that they hadn’t had a chance to play with before. Plus, we also had incredible producers. People don’t think about it, but producing is an art form. And in animation, it is doubly so because it includes air traffic control, a three-ring circus, personality management… so many things that people have to go through to run a show. We were so lucky to have partners that gifted and that game to tell this crazy story.”
He goes on to note that “Jane is a once-in-a-generation talent who can see a story visually, put it down on paper, and then teach everyone around her how to make that vision a reality. She’s an artist, she’s a director, she’s a producer, and she’s a teacher. She not only assembled the team that made this show, but she also then patiently taught everyone how to make a show like this.”
“Including us,” Noizumi chimes in. “We knew nothing about animation, and she was so generous with her time and her gifts to educate us about every step of the way.”
Wu’s patience, according to Noizumi and Green, was a critical component of the production. “Sure, I brought live-action skills to the production, but mostly, I brought naivete,” Green laughs. “So, we also got to ask stupid questions. We would go to these wonderful meetings where everyone there is an expert in this field except us, and we’d say, “Hey, you’ve got to add 15 minutes of time to each meeting because we have to ask you what things mean and be the dumb dumbs. And everyone was very patient with us.”
“We thought when we changed the locations, we’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s easy,” Amber adds. “They just have to draw it. That’s so easy.” Michael then shares, “The amount of sighing… you had to add five minutes after every meeting for people to talk shit about us. And be like, ‘Can you believe these idiots?’ We were so clueless.”
And with the inaugural season debuting today, what did Noizumi and Green learn that they’ll bring to a second season, given the chance? “Keep our geniuses close,” Green says without hesitation. “The show only exists because of the geniuses we got to work with, who are just the Seal Team, rock stars who are just so very good at their jobs. We told everyone, ‘Hey, don’t go too far.’ There’s a thick umbilical cord that takes you right back here for Season 2 because they’re now friends; they’re now family. We love them, and we couldn’t make the show without the people who brought it to life.”
Blue Eye Samurai is now streaming on Netflix.
Wu is represented by manager Tarik Heitmann and attorney Rob Szymanski.