Yasuke has been a long time in the making. Creator, writer, and director LeSean Thomas (The Boondocks, Black Dynamite, and The Legend of Korra) pitched the show to Netflix in 2017, but the new anime series is based on the eponymous real-life samurai, believed to be the first Black man to have stepped foot in Japan almost 500 years ago.
Contained to six 30-minute episodes, the series arcs from a quaint fishing village and a middle-aged warrior with a drinking problem (voiced by Academy Award-nominated actor Lakeith Stanfield) to a phantasmagorical crescendo that edges the boundaries of magical world-building.
If the promise of cerebral action sequences (including a mutant she-bear) and backgrounds drawn from the hands of Cowboy Bebop creators haven't piqued your interest, don't forget that Yasuke is scored with an original soundtrack by Flying Lotus, who was brought on in the early stages of production to help shape the story.
Yasuke will undoubtedly find an audience with those heretofore enamored with the hyper-detailed visuals and emotional narratives that any top quality anime series should offer, but there's potential for Yasuke to embroil a whole new generation into the world of animated story-telling as iconic features like Akira, Dragon Ball, and Death Note have done before it.
We caught up with Thomas from his studio in Tokyo, and Flying Lotus from his synthesizer room in LA to learn more.
What was your earliest experience watching anime?
Flying Lotus: Probably Dragon Ball. I was like, "What was that!? That was crazy!" I remember thinking, "Why doesn't everything look like this? And why can't I understand it!?" Then my cousin showed me the even crazier stuff from the manga era. Some of that Demon City Shinjuku, Fist of the North Star, and then Akira; after that, it was like, "Why are we [the US] messing up over here?" like, "Why are we getting it all wrong?!”
LeSean Thomas: I discovered anime in the late '80s, early '90s — essentially the golden era of anime. Shows like Crying Freeman, Bubblegum Crisis, Dem Giao, City Hunter, Fist of the North Star. Basically, animated TV shows adapted from popular Japanese comic books.
In America, you don't really see the American industry creating a wealth of original animated TV shows based off comic books unless they're legacy franchises, like Spiderman and Batman, etc. But in Japan, that's their bread and butter.
All of the top shows are adaptations of successful comic books, for the most part. I saw the styles and I was like, "Man, why can't American animated shows be like this? This is super detailed, it looks just like a comic book."
I was fascinated with that level of detail, and that's when I stopped watching American shows completely. I knew that if I was ever going to make an animated TV show, I would love it to be in the level of detail as those shows that I grew up watching.
What story did you want to tell here?
FL: Well, I know the story I didn't want to tell. That was more important for me. I didn't want to show Yasuke being a servant. I didn't want to show Yasuke being a slave. We don't need to see that kind of stuff anymore. I wanted to show Yasuke being a bad-ass, being dope, and inspiring as a character. Yes, he's had a traumatic life, but I didn't want to dwell on certain things that we see so much in Black cinema and Black culture. I wanted to show other things.
LT: I wanted to tell a story that was easy to get into, a classic redemption hero story arc. I knew I was trying to create a story that the audience would at least feel comfortable with so that I could introduce new ideas to them.
What attracted you to the project?
FL: I got involved randomly, kind of. I know a producer, Matt Shattuck, and he reached out to me out of the blue, asked me if I liked anime. And I was like, "Of course." And he's like, "Do you want to make one at Netflix?" I was like, "What is this? Where's the camera at? Of course!" It was as simple as that. I was involved early on and kind of helped shape things a bit. It's been a fricking fun ride and I know the kind of focus that I needed to finish the show would have been hard if I had been traveling and stuff. So, it was really nice to be able to focus on Yasuke for a while.
LT: Knowing that Yasuke existed in such a unique time period, as a real samurai who actually served Oda Nobunaga in the final year of his life, and knowing that no one had ever done a mainstream, fully-fledged adaptation of his story in a fantastical way, well, I saw that was a perfect opportunity. There was no estate that owned Yasuke, so he was a free story to tell.
And history allowed me to celebrate his character in history by creating an action hero based off of him that we can use to tell multiple adventures, hopefully further down the line.
And I will say that it was fun to know the serendipitous nature of how this project came together and how it reflects my current journey, not personally, but like, "I'm also a Black man who moved to Japan to live with Japanese people to make an anime about a Black man who moved to Japan to live with Japanese people and become a samurai." And so, that's a very unique combination that I found really, really intriguing and appealing.
How did Lakeith Stanfield get involved?
LT: When I pitched the show in early 2017, Netflix called to have a meeting with me. And this was right around the time that I was negotiating my first show with them, Cannon Busters, and I moved to Tokyo in the fall of 2017 to start working on that. They brought me back for a meeting prior to me moving, and when I came back to talk about it, LaKeith was there — and I'm not going to say no to LaKeith Stanfield, you know what I mean? And I thought, personally, it was a great opportunity to have him on board, one because he's our star, and two because I wanted to have a fresh voice. Japanese animated shows that are dubbed in English have created a peculiar, stereotypical audio pattern when it comes to English voice actors in Japanese animation.
Lakeith has a very distinct voice... you know it when you hear it. And it was a great idea to have him on board. And that was Netflix's idea, not mine.
What kind of soundscape did you want the show to have?
FL: I had to say it was really, really difficult for me to nail what sound to give the show. I remember thinking about things like Blade Runner, and I also fell in love with synthesizers really crazy last year. So, I wanted to do a synthesizer-inspired sound that I had never done before with Japanese percussion, African percussion, and obviously hip-hop elements to make all those universes intertwine.
LT: In 2017, Netflix came back to me and said, "We want Yasuke to be your next show after Cannon Busters, but we don't want to do it unless we know you're really excited about it." I said "Of course I want to do it. I'm super excited about it." I thought that was a great gesture from them — and it shows how Netflix is pretty creative-friendly.
But they said, "okay, so that's great. LaKeith's already on board. What do you think of Flying Lotus doing the music?" And I was like, "What? You've got Flying Lotus? He wants to do anime with me? That's so cool." I'm already a huge fan of him. I own all of his music. I used to kill some pretty serious deadlines to a lot of his albums. So, it was kind of full circle that he wanted to collaborate with us on this project.
FlyLo and I worked really closely on this. And I'm really happy to say he was quite pleased with my music selection for his tracks, because he produced over 200 tracks for the show. And I had to go through each one and then go through each sequence as I remembered it from the script stage and as I see it at the board stage, and then carefully place these tracks in this order.
And then the editing/sound team did the rest by chopping things up. So, from what I'm told, FlyLo's quite pleased with how his music is presented in the show.
How does creating music for a show compare to making a record?
FL: Working in this capacity forced me to work so fast! And to be flexible in ways that I didn't have to be before. For example, when I'm doing my own thing, I can tinker around with an album for two or three years. But with this, I didn't have time to tinker. There was one episode where I only had one and a half weeks to work on it. So it was a challenge in the best way for me... to get out of my head about things and commit to an idea.
I think I needed that. And I took that with me from the show. I feel I don't obsess over things nearly as much now and try to get things done in the spirit of when I have the spark.
Did you find good synergy working with MAPPA?
LT: I like MAPPA a lot because they're full of really, really young creatives and really, really hungry people. And Moriyama-san who's the mastermind of it all, who founded Madhouse and then MAPPA, has that same kind of energy. So, the fact that they're so open-minded to work with foreigners, and so open to suggestions and adding ideas, and allowing me to add my personality to some of their suggestions, made for a surprisingly organic collaboration. And a big part of that is because everybody involved at the senior level is a consummate professional. They're really good at what they do. Things go really smoothly where you work with people who know what the hell they're doing.
What can people expect from the show?
LT: We only have six half-hour episodes to chop a three-hour movie up. So we wanted to have an enclosed world that hinted at things, but without having to explain it. I think a lot of American anime fans tend to watch children's shows — or at least young male shows, which is usually Shōnen — and those shows are usually for kids, and the storylines tend to be spelled out the way the comic books are spelled out.
But since this is an original storyline, a three-hour story with a beginning, middle, and end, with different characters having different arcs, we didn't have a lot of time. The idea was to make sure the story was succinct, and on point, and tight. And then sprinkle elements of the world to give an idea that this world is dangerous, and that there's a lot going on.
I think our audience is intelligent, and I think this type of storytelling is fine. For people who are used to Shōnen spoon-feeding, this may not be a show for them. They may be like, "Well, why is this happening? And what is that happening? And why aren't they explaining the whole story in the opening credit sequence?" We wanted to respect our audience's intelligence and let them put this stuff together themselves. And it encourages them to have another viewing as well, to go back and see things they didn't before.
Yasuke premieres on Netflix on April 29