There’s a throwaway line in Max Landis and David Ayers’ 2017 Bright film about how “Mexicans still get shit for the Alamo”. It’s supposed to be a sign of solidarity with that movie’s orc-cop character who constantly gets the brunt of the story’s fantastical racism, but it ends up being one of the many points that just raises further questions about the backstory and worldbuilding of the Bright setting. How did ‘the Alamo’ go down in a world whose history is otherwise founded on a 2,000-year-old fantasyland battle against a Dark Lord? How many other real world historical events still occurred in this otherwise distinct universe, and how different were they due to the presence of orcs, faeries, centaurs, and the like?
I am not here to review Bright, though in the interest of context, I can confirm for you that I did watch that movie, and I did not like it. I am here to review the ancillary anime film Bright: Samurai Soul, which picks up Bright‘s ill-defined historical ball and runs with it. It depicts a specific period of history in the context of the Bright-verse, starting with the point that the events leading to Japan’s Meiji Restoration mostly played out the same, with a couple key differences that lead into the this story. It makes for a fairly obvious point that the original film seemed to miss in its own historical allusions, that the presence of powerful artifacts like magic wands could result in quicker, more bloodless resolutions to events like the siege of Edo Castle. This opening for Samurai Soul demonstrates the value of said magic wand right upfront, clarifying its importance at the center of the plot as it continues, as opposed to being dropped in halfway into the story and the narrative needing to rotely explain its power to the audience.
It is easy to make snide comparisons to many of the infamous issues of the original Bright, especially as Samurai Soul so pointedly echoes its progenitor’s structure: a human and an orc end up working together to escort a young elf girl and a wand to safety. But the clear resemblance highlights how much more economical the anime incarnation is overall, whether that be because of its animation resources or simply sharper storytelling sensibilities. Samurai Soul mostly feels functionally straightforward as an animated adventure tale, presenting much of its setting in matter-of-fact basics with which to springboard onto its story and characters. By the end it’s even crystalized a fairly tangible theme to its plot, reflecting on the nature of ‘loyalty’, what constitutes it, and what it means to truly deserve that kind of devotion.
That straightforwardness in presenting its story could be seen as a drawback of Samurai Soul. Whereas the inceptive Bright derived many of its fundamental issues from its overt devotion to navigating its nonsensical worldbuilding, this anime film could be argued to deal in the extreme opposite. Apart from the magic wand’s role in the historical event glimpsed in the prologue, little explication is given on how the former fantasy world and its magical culture evolved into the setting we see. Instead, it merely looks like regular Meiji-era Japan, only with orcs and elves walking around. There are snippets that inject the original movie’s focal point of the prejudice experienced in society by the orcs, but it’s thankfully more simplified and limited compared to the first film’s fraught attempts to pattern things directly on western institutions of racism. In Samurai Soul, the xenophobia that Raiden the orc experiences in Japan informs his focal character arc, but the movie never seems like it’s trying to be about racism.
Being better than the original Bright’s worldbuilding and social commentary is honestly something that any story should be able to do by default, so it’s not surprising that its own spin-off is successful. Samurai Soul even manages a more brisk, clean explanation of the Shield of Light and Inferni factions working in the background of the story that propel it through to its climax. Unfortunately, following the plot to the finish also shines a light on the biggest weaknesses of Samurai Soul. The third act of this movie relies on some truly outrageous contrivances in order to loop all its characters and events back together for a functional finish. I won’t spoil some of the most egregious surprises, but basically the main characters find themselves with no direction on what to do next, until another character appears out of nowhere and represents an absurd escalation of the very concept of narrative convenience. They simply spawns inside the story to infodump the plot to our heroes and lead them to the ending. The fact that this comes mere minutes after another character exposited key plot points only makes it feel that much more disparate and desperate.
It’s a frustrating finish to a story that had felt functionally simple and solid up to its finale. The previously floated question of what our masterless samurai hero Izou would do after adventure is left hanging in an unsatisfying way. The revealed villain’s motivation comes off simply as generic power-hunger that only barely resonates with the movie’s thematic arc. And a huge turning point of that third act hinges on the ‘surprise’ revelation of the true location/nature of the magic wand which, I’ll be honest, I had presumed the movie knew we had already figured out. What we were given in the first two-thirds of the movie honestly shouldn’t have necessitated this much messiness in wrapping up, and yet it comes off like the writer thought they had painted themselves into a corner despite the room being bone-dry.
Then there’s the distracting animation. Supposedly inspired by Japanese woodblock printing, the movie uses motion-capture with the bold, solid colors of the anime designs laid on top. This isn’t an unusual base technique for a piece like this, but the direction of the characters, constantly in motion along with the odd ongoing ‘floating’ movements of the camera viewing them, can be disorienting at times. The characters always seem to be occupying too large areas on under detailed, flat planes. The spacing makes it feel like the animated actors are just seconds from clipping into each other. When the camera calms down, it is possible to take in the riot of coordinated colors making up many of the backgrounds behind the characters. However, even that makes shortcomings apparent, as viewers will notice that the flat coloring of everything can make keeping track of depth perception difficult, leading to something of a pseudo-rotoscoping effect with how the characters are visualized. As well, facial expressions for the models can often seem limited. It’s overall more ‘distracting’ than out-and-out bad, and whether it stabilized as the film went on or I simply grew accustomed to it, the look definitely felt like less of an issue by the time I got to the end of the movie.
The audio side of Samurai Soul might be where its efforts at stylization come through more. The music for the movie is composed by band LITE, who infuse the background with a varietous mix of funky style and forward-focused rock tunes. It creates an anachronistic feeling that gives the movie its strongest sense of identity as something not just about the mash-up of different cultures, but created out of that kind of real-world mix as well. That soundtrack is genuinely one of the biggest highlights of the film. The main linguistic version of the movie, the Japanese-audio release, presents solid performances from its actors. The standout to me was Daisuke Hirakawa as Raiden, who brings just a bit more character to his role compared to the more subdued, workmanlike approaches of the other actors. Though recognition also has to be given to MIYAVI, who makes his voice acting debut as the movie’s villain, but fits in so well you would never guess he hadn’t done this before. There will be an English dub of Samurai Soul that includes Simu Liu as Izou, but that version was not ‘final’ at the time of the screener used for this review.
To call Bright: Samurai Soul ‘better than the original Bright‘ would be the most backhanded of compliments to pay any movie, but that is honestly the most apt superlative it can earn. On its own, it’s a perfectly functional historical-fantasy action movie marred by the messy decisions of the third act and some off-putting animation choices. But as an addition to the distressing conceit of a ‘Bright Cinematic Universe’, it’s actually a bit heartening. Samurai Soul shows that the world built for Bright as a story can be finely applied to other times and places and function well enough so long as those behind the stories don’t overextend themselves. That Samurai Soul ends up explaining itself well enough that you could enjoy it without even watching the original movie is thus a boon: If you’ve found yourself morbidly curious about Bright as a concept, you can provably do worse than Samurai Soul.