Jane Wu understood the journey of a young warrior slashing her way through a male-dominated hierarchy of power. Though Amber Noizumi and Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) co-created the new Netflix series Blue Eye Samurai, they found the hard-R animated epic’s soul in Wu, a storyboard artist, director, and martial artist whose unsung role in blockbuster action over the last 20 years made her an obvious choice to oversee the series’ direction. Blue Eye Samurai follows Mizu, a young woman of mixed race in 17th-century Japan, who masquerades as a male samurai to find four white men hiding out in the country — and the one who’s likely her father. Wu’s ascent in the action and animation industries wasn’t as bloody as Blue Eye Samurai, but it was as rigorous.
“It was so eerily relatable how Mizu felt as a woman going through Edo Japan, when women were really seen as decorative things,” Wu tells Polygon. “I absolutely related to the anger she felt. I was able to channel that anger. And it was very cathartic.”
Wu’s frustration with the “bro club” of Hollywood action work comes out in full force in Blue Eye Samurai, which rewires razor-sharp swordplay for the John Wick era. Mizu slices arms, bounces across mountains, and tears herself apart on her quest to find answers. It’s genuinely astonishing, and when Wu’s name pops up in the credits as supervising director, it’s obvious why. Wu’s CV is littered with milestone projects, having storyboarded for the better-than-anyone-would’ve-expected animated series Jackie Chan Adventures and Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot to Game of Thrones and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The filmmaker hit my personal radar when I discovered she choreographed all the best moments in The Avengers’ Battle of New York. Marvel knew it had to be in the Jane Wu business, recruiting her eye for Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Age of Ultron. Her style — which combines a knowledge of physics and fluidity, a wry comic timing, and her training in the martial art wushu — nearly got her jobs directing Chinese blockbusters, although COVID-19 threw a wrench in those plans. She doesn’t have any regrets, though — she’s exactly where she wants to be.
While Wu’s fingerprints are all over modern action, Blue Eye Samurai finally puts her name in the spotlight in a major way. She didn’t waste the opportunity. Wu says she funneled two decades of dealing with workplace microaggressions right into the show’s action, which hits hard.
“And the hits have to hit hard,” she says. “That’s part of my martial arts background and having watched so much action in my upbringing, from Hong Kong cinema. I appreciate a good hit. I want you to feel it. That’s the whole idea of what we do when we tell stories — I want you to feel it.”
Wu had an immediate, clear vision of how she would approach Noizumi and Green’s personal-yet-classic samurai saga. During her time on Marvel movies and Game of Thrones, she saw live-action filmmaking lean so hard on special effects that it almost became a form of animation. So with Blue Eye Samurai, Wu wanted to work in reverse and create “animation with a live-action attitude.” While live-action references and rotoscoping have been part of the animation methodology since the early days of Walt Disney, Wu aimed to create a pipeline that hewed closer to how she approached work on a giant movie like The Avengers.
The result was a “manifesto” for Blue Eye Samurai: Any shot or sequence in the series would be considered from a live-action point of view, from camera lenses to set construction and “actor” choreography. Much like how Roger Deakins elevated the Pixar filmmaking style with WALL-E, Wu wanted the entire production to feel prepped to shoot in live action. That required extensive pre-visualization of the entire series and the creation of digital proxy sets, which allowed Wu and the creative team to “location scout” for the various set-pieces.
“I got this idea through Mizu’s character. She is biracial. So I wanted this production, and when you’re looking at it, to feel like it’s a great blend of both animation and live action. I wanted to show that there is strength in that diversity,” she says.
With all of the shoot mapped out, Wu then teamed with action choreographer Sunny Sun to stage each of Blue Eye Samurai’s battles in practical environments. During the more demanding days of COVID, Sun bubbled with a team of stunt performers at a facility in China for two weeks, working out the moves for each fight and taping them for reference. Wu says this is common practice for giant blockbuster movies, but a level of prep work rarely seen in animation. It helped that she could also wield a sword if the animation team at France’s Blue Spirit ever needed a closer-up point of reference.
There are episodes in which Wu broke the manifesto to blow the audience back in their sofas. The series’ sixth episode finds Mizu fighting her way through an aggressively defended fortress full of traps that would make Jigsaw salivate. Wu says it was an homage to Enter the Dragon, gaming, and anime — sources of inspiration that revel in boss fights. But the fantastical are few and far between in the series; for the most part, even the goriest pangs of violence in Blue Eye Samurai followed the rules, all while satisfying Wu’s dreams. In one of the early episodes, Mizu finds herself taking on 10 fighters in a dojo. The sequence was a perfect place for the director to vent.
“I didn’t want this to be another kind of, like, ‘I hack at you, you hack at me’ thing because that’s just so boring,” she says. “I wanted something that would even wow our stunt community. So we talked a lot about Mizu and her character because she doesn’t talk very much and the other 10 dojo students were mouthing off at her. So I said, ‘Let’s rip out their teeth. Let’s injure their mouths because she wants them to shut up.’ And who doesn’t wince at teeth being knocked out?”
Wu can’t help but laugh at her own flex and all of the show’s elegantly constructed bursts of rage. Even the first season’s overarching plot, depicting the arrival of European guns to Japan and the disruption of honorable fighting, mirrors her own experiences. “I grew up in Asia,” she says, “and Western culture was always bombarding us, telling us that our Asian culture wasn’t as important or wasn’t as fun. So it was kind of the arrival of that bombardment.”
With Blue Eye Samurai, Wu gets to push back, and in a style she’s been honing for years in service of others. Now it’s her turn.
“It’s all a long revenge for me,” she says with a smile.
Blue Eye Samurai season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.