When Netflix first announced an anime spinoff of its 2017 Will Smith urban fantasy Bright, fans of the streaming service reacted with a mixture of bafflement and cautious optimism. Critics savaged the original Bright, a dour, misshapen movie that invents an intriguing modern fantasy world full of orcs and elves, then wastes it on a mash-up of a rote mismatched-partners cop movie and a rote “find the magical McGuffin” fantasy story. For people who found the world more promising than the story, the anime revamp represented a chance to do something more interesting with the property than writer Max Landis and director David Ayer did with the live-action feature.
Director Kyōhei Ishiguro and writer Michiko Yokote do take advantage of the world’s potential in Bright: Samurai Soul, but the tone is still grim and heavy. The story is set at the beginning of Japan’s Meiji Restoration, the mid-1800s era when Western powers entered Japan and the country shifted away from a feudal basis under the Tokugawa Shogunate, restoring imperial rule and beginning an era of rapid modernization. The era’s political tensions and cultural shifts — particularly the disempowerment of samurai — have made it an extremely romanticized period and a popular setting for Japanese fiction, including in anime like Rurouni Kenshin. In Bright: Samurai Soul, it makes for a setting where the main characters are disenfranchised, abused, and exhausted.
Ishiguro, who spoke to Polygon through a translator via video chat from Japan, says the decision to set the new Bright story in that era was made at Netflix, and was one of the few things decided about the project before he came on board. The streaming studio originally reached out to the 3D animation studio ARECT about creating the project, Ishiguro says, and the studio producer contacted him about coming on board.
“At that time, [the story] was in a very premature stage,” Ishiguro says. “There was only a skeleton of the idea: The fact that the film would be based on the original film, and set in Japan in the end of the Edo era and the beginning of the Meiji era, and that the script writer would be Michiko Yokote. That was it.”
Ishiguro hadn’t seen Bright at the time. “In order to decide whether to accept the offer, I watched the original version,” he says. “I liked the story, as well as the acting of Will Smith. It was awesome. So I became a fan, and accepted the offer immediately.”
Landis and Ayer aren’t credited in the anime spinoff, and don’t appear to have been involved with it. Asked if he spoke with them, Ishiguro says, “What I can tell you is that the team of the original work gave us a lot of freedom. They guaranteed that we were able to come up with our own story, while respecting the intent of the original.”
In addition to keeping the somber tone of the original movie, Bright: Samurai Soul mirrors some of its plot, while reshaping it for a different country and era, and heightening the supernatural aspects. The anime story features goblins, fairies, and centaurs, alongside the elves and orcs. The plot centers on a former samurai named Izou (voiced by Yuki Nomura in the Japanese original, and Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings star Simu Liu in the English dub) who reluctantly partners with an orc warrior named Raiden (Daisuke Hirakawa/Fred Mancuso). As in the original Bright, there’s a young elf woman who has control of a powerful magical Wand, and is being pursued by an extremist group serving a mythical Dark Lord.
But the visual style of Bright: Samurai Soul stands out. The action was digitally animated over motion-captured actors, giving the story a floaty fantasy look that’s not too far off from the traditional rotoscoping in older films like Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. The soft pastel palette contrasts sharply with vivid spatters of blood whenever things get violent. And the very fine, thin lines and lack of shadows makes the animation even more surreal.
It’s a style Ishiguro has never used before. His past anime projects, including the films Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop and Your Lie In April (both available on American Netflix), were traditional hand-drawn cel projects, while Samurai Soul is a 3D digital project.
“I have always wanted to direct a 3D film,” Ishiguro says. “What I tried to do with this particular film was control the shadows, both for the characters and the background. I eliminated all the shadows and tried to depict the characters only with contours and silhouettes. I was inspired by the woodblock print art of artists such as Hiroshi Yoshida of the Taishō. He depicted objects with contours only, but his work was very lively.”
Ishiguro says the goal was to combine that liveliness with moving textures, “to come up with a new type of 3D expression.” The result feels miles away from Bright’s attempt at gritty urban realism. It’s a softer, more melancholy fantasy world. The regretful tone comes in spite of the grimness of the setting and the action, which largely centers on powerful men abusing and murdering the less powerful, from forcing women into service in brothels to murdering anyone between them and the Wand.
That theme of corruption and dominance, and of society’s downtrodden elements using magic to regain some control, comes directly from the original Bright. Ishiguro says that while he wasn’t involved in the choice to set the story in the Meiji Restoration period, he thinks the theme of “restoration” connects both works, and explains why Netflix’s representatives picked it: “I imagine that they chose that background out of respect to the original work.”
In spite of the theme and story connections between them, Ishiguro says the new film isn’t exactly a remake, and wasn’t designed around lessons learned from the first Bright: “There was never an intention to compensate for or fix what didn’t work with the original,” he says. “Whether we’ve gone beyond the original’s success or not is up to the viewers. I’m not in a position to decide, but I’m quite happy with the results.”
He’s happy enough with them, in fact, that he’d be excited to tell more stories in this world. He visibly brightens when asked about the possibility of a sequel. “I want to try! I’d need the sign-off from Netflix to do that,” he says. “But I think there are opportunities to do this story in different time frames of Japanese history, such as the Japanese Civil War period, where there were many different feudal lords and samurai families facing off, and they were using ninjas as part of their workforces. So if I was to do another spinoff, I would be interested in something like Bright: Ninja Soul. I’d definitely want to do it if there is an opportunity.”
Bright: Samurai Soul debuts on Netflix on Oct. 12.