At first, you don’t know who is fighting who. All you know is it’s Kyoto, 1582 and the guys are completely cut out. Then come in the big mechs, and they have huge guns and swords for the weapons that contribute to the bloodshed. And then there are the wizards who summon bundles of arrows that bring down their opponents if not those other wizards summoning protective shields.
This is the world of Yasuke, the new animated series on Netflix about the true black warrior who served under Oda Nobunaga, one of the great unifiers of feudal Japan. Show creator LeSean Thomas first read about Yasuke in a 1960s children’s book Kuro-suke, by Kurusu Yoshio. This is, of course – with the mechs and wizards mentioned above – not a straightforward take on the story. “Knowing that we were going to be a Trojan horse of history through the beautiful medium of Japanese anime,” Thomas said in an interview, “why not?”
Thomas, originally from the Bronx, is a Tokyo-based animator who worked with MAPPA, the prestigious animation studio, to bring Yasuke live. His previous show on Netflix, Cannon Busters, was an equally fantastic and adventurous adventure based on its own original comic book series. With Yasuke he didn’t really see the need for a straightforward version of a guy with such a meager historical record. “I don’t think true historical Japanese anime biopics are popular,” he said. “Historians will like this, but it’s a bit boring for the average viewer.”
Instead, this Yasuke, voiced by LaKeith Stanfield, is a stranded lone ex-samurai, who finds himself in the care of a young girl with special abilities. He’s calm and unemotional at first, like all of the archetypal great lone wolf heroes. He is tall, marked, a little broken. And, instead of being bald like in that 60s children’s book Thomas read, he has dreadlocks. Which was a bit of a big deal for musician Flying Lotus, who made the music and was executive producer on the show. He’s worked on animation before, but this was his first time helping to create the story – which put his long-standing anime fandom to good use. In an interview, he spoke about honoring Yasuke’s story while pushing for new ideas, new sounds, and “a lot of things we just haven’t seen before, unfortunately.”
Which is as good as any for evoking the lack of black characters in the anime. Although there have been (including in Thomas’s Cannon Busters), there is still enough for an exit like Yasuke, with the black figure at the front and center of the story, is remarkable. Flying Lotus told me to see Dragon Ball Super: Broly in theaters a while back, with “nothing but black kids in the audience.” Nothing else, ”he said. But when it comes to the on-screen representation, “All we’ve got is Piccolo, man. Piccolo doesn’t count.”
(Really quick: if you’re not a Dragon Ball fan, Piccolo counts as a “person of color,” as long as he’s green – and there’s not enough space here to unbox Mr. Popo – but “Piccolo is black” is a take that has gone from meme to almost canon in the Dragon Ball fan base. As Flying Lotus puts it, with a cover slant in his voice, “he’s kind of a brother. ? Sort of. Kiiiiind of? “)
But the dearth of black characters in anime and the rest of Japanese pop culture is changing, says Yoshiko Okuyama. She is a professor of Japanese studies at the University of Hawaii, specializing in film and manga. She says current demographic trends in Japan have made the country more “welcoming” to foreigners – even out of sheer necessity. She says there has been recent interest in portraying the historical figure Yasuke in Japanese pop culture, and “this kind of spotlight is an indication of Japanese interest in multiculturalism.”
Anime is developing as a global, multicultural art form, with the help of platforms like Netflix. As this happens, Yasuke Creator LeSean Thomas has seen his fair share of guardians and snobs trying to define what makes anime real and authentic. But he’s seen hip-hop go from a small stage in the Bronx to becoming the “lingua franca of youth music culture” around the world right now. No reason the anime can’t be the same. Or to compare it to another medium, “I think platforms like Netflix are trying to make animated spaghetti,” Thomas says. “Everyone loves spaghetti.”
This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the web by Andrew Limbong and Petra Mayer.