One hopes that any other studio on Earth might have come to the self-evident conclusion that “what if the Rampart scandal, but magic?” wasn’t a premise capable of supporting the next “Star Wars” (despite screenwriter Max Landis’ outspoken faith in the franchise potential of his “Bright”). And yet 11 million subscribers who clicked on something they managed to tolerate for at least the length of a movie trailer can’t be wrong, thus inspiring Netflix to leverage its multi-tentacled worldwide content machine in a way that allows the streamer to squeeze water from a stone without further tarnishing its brand or embarrassing Will Smith.
At the risk of evoking a certain Dril tweet, you almost gotta hand it to them for trying; “Bright: Samurai Soul” may be a deeply mediocre riff on a modern fantasy so bad it made “movie magic” feel like a contradiction in terms, but that still makes it a notable step up from its source material. That also makes Kyōhei Ishiguro’s past-tense spinoff a lucid (if unexciting) glimpse at the future to which so many of us have subscribed. As entertainment giants continue to stretch their pre-existing IP in every possible direction — ubiquity and volume replacing enthusiasm and quality as the most important metrics — this 19th century-set adventure ironically feels like a more telling indication of where Netflix is heading next than “Bright” itself ever did.
Scripted by prolific anime writer Michiko Yokote (whose credits stretch back as far as “Cowboy Bebop” and 1990’s “Patlabor: The TV Series”), “Samurai Soul” begins with the curious assumption that people remember the “Bright” mythology, only to reaffirm how flimsy it was by neglecting to expand upon it in any significant way. In fact, this spinoff effectively tells the same story as the original film — mean sexy human and sweet but scary-looking orc team up to protect a vulnerable elf lady from the pointy-eared fundamentalist “Infernis” who need her magic wand to summon the Dark Lord — only half a world away, 150 years before, and 40 minutes faster.
The novelty lies in the animation, a “good in theory” attempt to combine the hand-etched texture of traditional Japanese woodblock printing with the maximalist velocity of modern CGI. In keeping with franchise tradition, the results of that intriguing mash-up are close enough that you can see what Netflix was going for, but also so far short of the mark that it leaves you wishing you’d watched something else instead.
The big hook in “Samurai Soul” is that the Meiji Restoration — a period of modernization and industrial growth in Japanese history that began with the consolidation of imperial power in 1868 — was actually triggered by someone finding a magic wand or whatever. Cut to: the Kyoto brothel where a mysterious ronin named Izou (voiced by Yūki Nomura in the original Japanese audio and Simu Liu in the English dub) is slumming it as a security guard now that samurai have been formally stripped of their status. It seems like an amenable job for an expert swordsman who’s ready to drink his life away, but things at work get heated in a hurry when a tiny, seemingly pre-pubescent elf girl (Shion Wakayama as Sonya) is sold into Izou’s care — though “care” may be too affectionate a word to describe how our hero-to-be throws Sonya into a cage as soon as he sees that she’s not human.
Fear not: She won’t be in there for long. A band of Inferni-sponsored monsters and such are hot on Sonya’s trail, leading to a bloody melee that finds Izou showing off his blade skills, and Ishiguro showing off the film’s Ukiyo-meh style. The characters are etched with hard lines that give them a hand-worn texture, and wide shots place them against vivid environments that evoke the feeling of living folklore (the brothel itself is particularly rich in period flavor, and not only because it’s the only memorable location in the film).
Whenever Izou and his pals are seen in close-up, however, we’re struck by the lack of detail to their computer-generated design; Sonya often looks like a JRPG character who’s been lifted straight out from a mid-budget installment of the “Tales” series. But the real damage is done whenever the frame moves, as the digital camera floats around the various elements in a way that renders all of them stiff and unnatural — like someone trying to affect a rotoscoped look in Microsoft Paint.
It’s a small miracle that any of the film’s characters manage to survive all of those distractions, but Raiden (Daisuke Hirakawa) is too broadly likable to get drowned out. A blue-skinned, rock-like orc with a heart of gold (imagine Dr. Manhattan with a massive underbite), Raiden is an indentured servant who’s sent — on his last job — to kidnap Sonya, only to wind up escorting the young elf to safety once he’s freed from his contract.
The gruff but endearing galoot is a common anime type, and “Samurai Soul” neither offers a new riff on that trope riffs nor meaningfully uses it to explore the notions of prejudice and otherness that are baked into the Bright Cinematic Universe, but Raiden is nice and simple and it’s not his fault when this movie starts hemorrhaging exposition around the midway point and bleeds out before our eyes. While it’s Screenwriting 101 that exposition should always be delivered by a monologuing centaur, watching this movie try to piece together a mythology from the ruins of Landis’ original script is like watching a Fogteeth orc shaman try to resurrect the Dark Lord without a wand.
As the action escalates towards a sea-bound climax, the story begins to narrow its focus to the old grudge between Izou and a power-mad human from his past. It’s a bond that hinges on eye-rolling coincidences, as “Samurai Soul” desperately strains to find a soul of its own. Japanese math rock band LITE offers the movie its best chance of finding one. Their anachronistic score — which tucks lush and lilting piano melodies inside skittering electronic jazz beats to give the film a timeless flair — reliably creates the feeling of a world in flux, even as the drama barrels down on a pat conclusion that further defuses any broader interest in the “Bright” mythology.
Ishiguro, his crew, and the people who put them up to this have confronted a nigh-impossible task with integrity, and the fact of the matter is that you can’t blame them for trying; “Samurai Soul” is an outlier in a recent string of impressive anime spinoffs (“Star Wars: Visions” and the various “Witcher”-related Netflix films) that have successfully expanded upon beloved franchises. Nevertheless, it would take a true act of sorcery to conjure a compelling story from this sad grab bag of stale ingredients. Short of that, Netflix would do well to realize that you can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat if you don’t even have one to begin with.
“Bright: Samurai Soul” is now streaming on Netflix.