Behind Blue Eye

Behind Blue Eye

By Michael Pickard
February 13, 2024

The Writers Room

Blue Eye Samurai creators Amber Noizumi and Michael Green take DQ inside the making of this striking animated series, which blends action, adventure and emotion to tell a deadly tale of revenge set in Edo-period Japan.

If animation is a medium to tell stories, rather than a genre restricted to kids’ cartoons or comedy half-hours, Blue Eye Samurai stands up as an example of perfectly blending hour-long dramatic storytelling with artistic creativity.

A dazzlingly beautiful series set in 17th century Edo-era Japan, the show immerses viewers in a tale of revenge at a time when Japan’s borders are closed to the outside world so citizens will never see a face that isn’t Japanese.

It’s here we meet Mizu (voiced by Maya Erskine), a mixed-race master of the sword whose striking blue eyes, which she inherited from her father, leave her outcast as “less than human,” “monstrous” and a “creature of shame.” Disguising herself as a man, she sets out to seek justice by hunting down the only four white men in Japan at the time of her birth.

Filled with tender and emotional, character-driven moments, the series also features incredibly intense, action-packed scenes – and is often ultra-violent, as Mizu brings her sword down on those who stand in the way of her quest.

Debuting on Netflix last November, Blue Eye Samurai – “Kill Bill meets Yentl” – comes from creators Amber Noizumi and Michael Green, who also write and executive produce the show. And though the story isn’t based on a real-life figure, it has its origins in married duo Noizumi and Green’s own family.

Blue Eye Samurai follows Mizu, voiced by Maya Erskine

“We had the idea when our daughter, who’s now 15-and-a-half, was born with blue eyes and the unexpectedness of that for me, having always seen myself as very different, being very Asian and then having this very white looking child,” Noizumi tells DQ. “How would she have been seen in a time in Japan when being mixed race would have been horrific? We channelled that into the story a bit, like how somebody’s self-loathing might forge this path of wrath and, ultimately, it was fun to watch that. But for Mizu herself, I don’t think it’s really fun.”

Those early conversations developed over the years, adding new elements to the initial seed of the story until at a certain point they both agreed, “Let’s do this.” As luck would have it, Netflix was developing an ‘adult animation’ department around the same time Noizumi and Green were pitching the series.

“There’s a Microsoft Word document that was opened up, where we would just plunk our notes down over the course of time from the first idea of mixed-race swordsmen going after potential fathers, and what could happen from there,” Green says. “It changed many times over until it crystallised enough for us to say, ‘This is how to do it. This is the time to do it.’ And we’re lucky enough Netflix said yes and didn’t change their mind in the many years it took to make it.”

Importantly, the series was always conceived as an animated project and not live action, which Noizumi says never seemed like a “feasible” option.

“The ‘We should set this up now’ lightning-strike moment was realising it worked as an animated show, and then once we had that organising principle, we were able to look back at all the notes and all the ambitions and start playing goalie – ‘Let these ones in, knock these out,’” Green explains. “Because as an adult animated drama, you suddenly could do certain things you couldn’t have done [with live action]. We took it out as that. A few places definitely said, ‘Why don’t you do this live action?’ And we said, ‘Nope.’

The idea behind the show came from married showrunners Amber Noizumi and Michael Green

“We pitched the stories that are in the show. We didn’t pitch a different version and modify it. We pitched the show that we eventually made, and those episodes I don’t think could exist [in a different format]. If you were adapting those to live action, it would take probably an unconscionable amount of money.”

Of course, rather than limited by money, animation is bound only by the creator’s imagination, and the medium allowed Noizumi and Green to chart Mizu’s journey across Japan. “We’re definitely a road show, going to Edo and Kyoto. All of our sets, we didn’t have to build any of it,” Noizumi says.

“We traverse the Japanese archipelago. And also, to make it steeped in history yet interpretive, our colour palette borrowed from reality but also included extra pinks and purples in the sky so the whole thing didn’t have to feel documentary,” Green notes. “I’m sure some people are going, ‘Well, you got this detail wrong,’ and while we try to be historically accurate, at no point does it purport to be documentarian. The sense of tone wouldn’t have worked well in live action, not in the same way.”

But while making an animated series is clearly a very different process from a live-action show, Green says “writing is writing” and their own work on the scripts didn’t waver because of the way the show would eventually be brought to life.

In fact, Noizumi says the animation team from Blue Spirit leaned into their writing, rather than the writers taking the lead from early designs of what Blue Eye Samurai might look like.

“Animation can be script driven or board driven, and we were very clear this was going to be script driven,” says Green. “We didn’t modify much. We definitely just had a very clear, precise style. We called out shots we wanted, but also we worked with a team that we would be fools not to let enhance and bring their ideas and suggestions, which just made the whole thing better and sharper.”

Blue Eye Samurai was conceived as an animated project from the beginning

During scriptwriting, the couple were joined by staff writer Yana Bille, who penned episode seven. But they decided to keep the writing process “lean” largely due to the fact they were writing during the Covid pandemic. “The idea of a virtual room was not appealing,” Green says. “Many people did it and loved it. We were just hanging in there.”

Notably, the story does take a break from Mizu’s revenge mission, particularly in episode five, which serves as an extended flashback to reveal more of her background and the tragedy she has suffered. Episode six then sees Mizu enter a castle that turns into a sadistic funhouse, forcing her to find her way through a hallucinatory maze.

“There are certain things we left vague on purpose so people could interpret it,” Green says. “But every once in a while, people interpret things bizarrely. I enjoy it, and it infuriates Amber. Some people have taken the flashback of episode five to be her imagination, a hypoxia fantasy that didn’t exist.”

“We always knew that five and six were going to be a bit standalone in Mizu’s journey,” Noizumi says. “We were going to need to explain a lot about her life and we needed to do it in an interesting way. Then six was its own crazy thing.”

The project took a major step forward when Jane Wu came on board as supervising director after two scripts had been completed. Netflix introduced the showrunners to Wu and “it was love at first sight,” Noizumi recalls. “She had a very similar vision. She read it and said, ‘I know how to do this.’ We said, ‘Great.’”

“Netflix was ready to greenlight the show, but they said it was contingent on finding a director who could pull it off. She was clearly the person to do it,” Green says. “There was constant communication about what the scenes needed, and then she talked to us about how to accomplish it physically.”

The creative team deliberately steered away from anime tropes

Key to the look of the action scenes was Wu’s partnership with stunt choreographer Sunny Sun, who created live-action sequences that were performed by actors, filmed and storyboarded before they were animated into the series.

“She had the idea of working with Sunny, which we loved, and then it was him reading the scripts and having conversations with us about the goals of it, telling him what we needed for story and character purposes,” Green says. “But we knew his work. We said, ‘Please take that and run,’ and he sprinted. And then that [footage] would come back in and we would edit it together into the animatics.

“Jane built a pipeline for how to make this show, and that hadn’t existed before. There’s a reason there is not a long history of hour-long animated television shows. It’s because no one had cracked how to do it outside of an anime way of doing things, anime being its own incredible pipeline art form. And now a pipeline exists. It isn’t easy, but it can be done.”

To create the look of the show, Noizumi and Green drew from live-action aesthetics commonly associated with westerns, and old samurai movies and TV shows.

“If anything, we would have to caution our board artists to avoid the tropes of anime,” Green says about the artistic design of the series. “Oftentimes, especially as people were figuring out what we were doing, we would have to say, ‘This is beautiful, but we need you to do it again because that is in a vocabulary that we’re not in.’

“In anime, when you want to show someone having an emotion, you show their eyes wiggling. We’re like, ‘We’re not a ‘wiggling eyes’ show. We’re going to do a close-up and do character performance. To many animation board artists, that was a very new concept that, once everyone leaned into it, was terrific, but it meant a level of trust in the audience’s ability to attach to an animated character in a way that isn’t about exaggeration. We wanted to keep things grounded and human as much as possible.”

A second season of the Netflix show is currently in the works

Adult animation is now an ever-increasing genre, with Blue Eye Samurai joining shows such as Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, Arcane and Bojack Horseman on Netflix’s programming carousel. Green says they were daunted by the success of Arcane in particular, but perhaps their biggest hurdle in winning over audiences was the fact their series isn’t based on any existing IP.

“People like to blame studios and say they won’t make anything that’s not [based on] IP. But the reality is, and it is a shame to say, audiences don’t show up for original content in the same way,” Green says. “They just don’t. If Blue Eye Samurai had been based on a game that a billion people had played, our ratings would have been much higher. Nor would we have had to convince people to check us out.

“We are very fortunate people did check it out, but of the adult animated shows that have done very well on Netflix, we were the first non-IP-based thing. That just means it was a different challenge. It was largely a challenge for marketing, and they did a wonderful job getting the word out.”

Enough subscribers did tune into Blue Eye Samurai that Noizumi and Green are in the middle of making season two. But as television pros, they won’t be drawn on what awaits Mizu next on her journey for vengeance or when fans can expect to see new episodes. Wu, however, will be back.

Looking back on making the first season, “we spent a lot of time honing the look of our show and our vision and the pipeline, and I think we have it now,” Noizumi says. “We’re just hoping for it to all go more seamlessly [with season two].”

“And to keep surprising,” Green adds. “You can never surprise people at the same level because, especially with a show like this, people turned it on and literally didn’t know what it would look like. Once you crack open the window and look outside, you see the world, you know the sky is blue. You know trees look a certain way and leaves are green. We can’t shock them with the existence of the show anymore. But if they’re invested in the characters, we’ll reward their attention again.”

While the phrase ‘adult animation’ might be a clunky description of Blue Eye Samurai and other series now coming to air, it’s proof that animation is no longer the reserve of children’s cartoons or comedy shows.

“Tools are tools. You can make anything with anything,” Green says. “The audience is so sophisticated now that they get that, whether it’s stop-motion animation, traditional hand-drawn animation or 3D computer-generated animation. You can use any of those tools to tell any type of story. You just need to be the right artist.”

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