LeSean Thomas is known for a multitude of productions, and his latest work is Spring 2020’s Netflix Original animation, Yasuke. Yasuke places the titular Yasuke – Japan’s most famous and mysterious Black samurai – into a colorful world full of magic, technology, and best of all, giant mechs. Ahead of Yasuke‘s late April premiere, Mercedez Clewis interviewed LeSean about the six-part series, as well as his thoughts on anime for fans of the genre and the potential for new viewers to the medium.
So I have a background in history and I’ve known about Yasuke [the historical figure] for quite some time. But I’m really interested in when you first learned about Yasuke.
I learned about Yasuke about twelve years ago. I got a hold of PDFs, files, and images online about a children’s book called Kurosuke. It was my first time seeing, you know, a really cool illustrated children’s book about the story of a foreign Samurai who helped Nobunaga during the whole regime. And I found out that that foreign Samurai was Black, and I was like, “This is kinda cool! There’s a Japanese creator being influenced…telling this kind of story…is this a story that Japanese children read? Do they know about this book?” because it was a children’s book and I thought it was fascinating.
Fast forward years, production, work, and I started developing my relationship with Netflix, and that was right around the time that I started playing around with the idea of a potential action-adventure, Jidaigeki, fantasy adventure series. The protagonist would be this historical figure, Yasuke. It would be him trying to navigate history, you know what I mean?
That was kind of the approach. By the time I started working with Netflix, I had refined the idea, and then all the other talents came on board. You know, LeKeith, Fly-Lo (Flying Lotus), and it became this fantastical, Japanese, magic Jidaigeki adventure series. And that’s kind of how it came together.
It sounds like when you were in talks with Netflix, and it was a pretty intentional decision that you want, specifically, Yasuke as a lead, but also specifically a Black lead.
Well, I think Yasuke was already Black so there was nothing I could do about that. [laughs]
But…you know, knowing what I know, and being socially and emotionally intelligent as I am, and being self-aware of the climate and as an artist, you can’t help but resonate with what’s going on inside of you and in the world . I kept those things in mind. I knew the response—it was more about me being aware of the response would be as opposed to it being an idea, because you know… it’s a unique story. We love fish-out-of-water stories, and we just don’t really get to see that from a particularly Black lens because of the history of cinema, the history of animation, and where African-Americans were positioned at the beginning of that event at that time, historically. So this was either gonna happen now, or it would have happened twenty years ago. Someone would have gotten ahold of this story because it’s history, and a fascinating one at that. So, I think that was more of it than anything, you know?
Yeah! I will say, it’s interesting that you said that, “Is this a story that a lot of Japanese children learn about?” because actually, I’m a former teacher in Japan. I left last year, but this was also something that I often wondered, “Do students learn about Yasuke in History class, or is that just kind of a blip in the hundreds of years that they’re learning about?”
I would imagine it’s the same way that we as Americans learn our history. I mean, do we know all the presidents? History in general is a very, very, very small…[there is a] very small minority of people who are history buffs. Doubly so when you’re factoring in entertainment. People don’t want to be preached to; edutainment is never really my thing because the story always has to stop to tell the history and that kind of bit.
So, I think that’s probably part of the reason why it’s more of a bigger deal for us than it is for the Japanese, you know?
Talking about Yasuke, most people know him as a historical figure, but the anime has a lot of sci-fi and magic and mechs. So, I guess my question is…why? Was that there from the beginning?
Yeah, I think for me, it was always there from the beginning. I’m sure you, being in media, heard rumblings of people trying to adapt this story. Naturally, you know Hollywood has conditioned us to not accept the fantastical before truth. We always have to get a biopic before we get an adventure. I’ve mentioned this before, but you’ve gotta have Lincoln by Daniel Day Lewis before you have Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. You can’t drop vampire hunter Abraham Lincoln first, you know what I mean? [laughs]
You can, but Hollywood and American History have conditioned us so that you have to find the truth before you find the fantastical element. I think Yasuke’s story, in and of itself, is fantastical because there’s so little truth out there on him: it’s mostly just popular theories that people consider fact.
But they’re all still theories. No one knows what his real name is. No one knows where he came from. No one knows how old he was. No one can confirm how actually tall he was, what his day-to-day life was, what languages he spoke, and what was his accent. If he’s Jesuit and then he’s speaking Japanese, well what were his languages, from whatever country in Africa he’s from, which no one can confirm. Some say Mozambique, others say Sudan, some say Egypt.
When you have a character like this who’s kind of like Jubei—a historical, mythical ninja character that’s been romanticized heavily—it was an opportunity to go down that route as well and leave space for anyone who wants to try their hand at a biopic for Yasuke’s actual story. Let them do that; allow us to be able to create a new action hero that people can say, “Wow, this is a romantic celebration of this historical figure! Did you know he was a real person?”
That was the approach with our story. We wanted to create a new hero that no one had a stake in because there’s no estate who owns Yasuke as a historical figure. That would allow us to create someone who’s unique to tell multiple adventures with, potentially. It was very, very intentional and self-aware. And the mech part was part of that. It was like, “How do we create a world that is separate from other Jidaigeki anime in Japan?” because you know… Jidaigeki anime are not very popular in the US, right? And it’s not popular in Japan.
I mean, even when we worked on it with MAPPA, a lot of the Japanese talent was like, “Wow, it’s really cool to see a historical Japanese piece ’cause we don’t usually make that. We’re usually making reverse-engineered, Euro-centric fantasy with knights, and swords, and dragons and stuff like that.” They don’t get to do a lot of hardcore Jidaigeki fantasy. Even by Japan standards, this is not normal. So, that’s the part that Westerners who aren’t educated on this don’t see, that even in Japan, this isn’t normal.
That was even more of a motivator. It was part of the reason we got such great talent on the project, because a lot of them were excited about doing a historically-influenced Japanese piece.
I think you have a really good point because I think for a lot of anime fans, especially in North America, there’s this image that maybe…the anime we don’t get is historical sometimes, when in fact, you’re right: a lot of Japanese people don’t get those historical anime. I know right now with the isekai trend, a lot of things are heavily medieval Europe, a lot of them are Victorian , but interestingly, you don’t see a really big Japanese historical aspect. It is really interesting hearing that that was kind of the intent.
Yeah, it was very, very intentional. And I mean again, it’s anime stuff. We’re aware of that as well, that anime as a form of storytelling has a broad swathe of genres that have their own ecosystem. You have isekai, and you have genres like shonen, josei, and seinen on top of those. Us knowing that, we wanted to tell a straightforward story and pepper it with these little nuances that could attract those particular groups.
There’s a hardcore mecha fanbase out there that may have a little bit of animosity towards modern anime fans who may not like mecha. So they’re like, “Oh my god, thankfully! Mecha, mecha, mecha!” So there’s a lot of little things that, working with the Japanese, we were self-aware of when we were creating these things. Especially working with Takeshi Koike.
There are definitely mecha fans who feel very…strongly
It’s not for real! It’s like we live in a ghetto! They can’t—“No one likes mecha!” It’s like, “What?!” That’s how anime boomed out big! But different regions like different things, and it’s interesting to see what American anime fans generally gravitate towards. It’s usually stories that they like to consume from our own media: we just don’t get a chance to get them in animated form. The stuff that we watch in Japanese anime has been touched on in live-action.
I’m gonna kind of go back a little bit. When you were younger, what kind of anime stuck with you? What kind of cartoons stuck with you to this point where you’re now making Yasuke?
I think the anime that I got exposed to that got me into Japanese animation were… Dangaioh, The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor, City Hunter… all of the really late 80s, early 90s original video animations. I was a big fan of OVAs. I like short stories. I was never a fan of 500-episode shows. There’s nothing wrong with those, but people tend to forget that most anime we consumed in the West [at the time] were adaptations of long-running, ongoing comic books. As long as the comic books are going, the anime can continue to be made. The comic book artist stops making the comic, the series ends.
I think that we’ve been spoiled a bit by these sorts of carefully-selected, heavily-edited-for-Western-consumption anime choices from these big licensing companies. They’re the ones that give us the actual stuff that we watch. I think, for me, I was never a fan of long-running anime in shonen. That stuff was kids stuff for me. The stuff I just listed to you was not for kids.
You gotta understand: when I was watching those shows growing up, I was also only consuming Bugs Bunny and Batman: The Animated Series. That stuff was groundbreaking for a lot of people! But I was like, “Why don’t we have Bubblegum Crisis? Where are the four female knights who are like, in post-apocalyptic New York with body armor suits and mechs and stuff?” That was the kind of stuff that I was into as a kid—adult limited series. It’s a reflection of the stuff I’m making now.
That’s actually what I was about to ask: why Yasuke has the kind of episodic run that it does. Is it because you’re more about a shorter run versus, as you said, that kind of 500 episode length?
I think it’s a convenience of product and format. Yasuke is an original story, and original stories very rarely get to run for 500 episodes, you know? Also the format, costs, budget… a three-hour movie broken into six half-hour parts – that works.
Is there anything ahead of Yasuke‘s launch on Netflix that you want to tell fans who are really looking forward to it?
I mean, I’m the hype man right now, so I’m just really excited about everything! I want the fans to – when you say fans, there are different types of fans. This show is largely for casuals, you know what I mean? Just full disclosure, and I might get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t make anime for hardcore anime fans. It’s not a slight against hardcore anime fans. Hardcore anime fans already know what they like, which is the same thing over and over and over. Just packed in! [laughs]
If you’re gonna make those things, then they have to have those things that the Japanese do so well, and I’m not Japanese. A lot of that stuff is intrinsic to Japanese culture, perspective and approach. Individualism versus the collective group, and so on and so forth. For me, there’s a massive, underserved audience that can make anime even bigger than it currently is. And that’s people who are casual, people who are like, “Well, I’m not really into anime, but LaKeith is in it!”
So, I want people to check out LaKeith. I want people to listen to Flying Lotus‘s music when they hear the show. I want people to watch what happens when Takeshi Koike works with Satoshi Irotaki from Dororo on the character designs in this fantastical world. There’s just so much in this story that I see as a production that I want fans to get excited about, and those are the elements. How does this all work together? Is this entertaining? I think it is. I’m excited about that.
Maybe I’m going to get in trouble for saying this too, but I do think that there’s something to be appealing to your more casual anime viewer who is on the fence, and who doesn’t really know a lot about the medium. Because you’re right: I think hardcore fans – and I say that as someone who also falls into niches that I like – do go in wanting “xyz thing, presented in in xyz way.” So I think that it’s really nice that there’s a show that I can now recommend to people who aren’t really into the genre, who aren’t really into the medium, who are looking for something, but don’t know what. I think that it’s nice to have that appeal.
I mean not everybody likes action shows, either, you know? It was a nightmare working in television animation before I started working with Netflix in Japan, trying to get an action show greenlit at these studios, which was… pretty impossible. You had to like, sneak an action show into a kid’s show. Now that advertising bias isn’t influencing these networks to make these shows just for kids. You’ve got streaming or subscription as your revenue model now. Whoever’s subscribing wants to see different things. It allows people like me to get in there and make different things for casual viewers. And I don’t think everyone agrees with that, but that is a very real thing and there is a real market for that. I feel like I’m here to service that, you know, as a fan.
I hope that people experience Yasuke as their first anime. “Oh, I’m not really into anime because the fandom is too hardcore, and elitist, and very mean and unforgiving… I don’t really wanna deal with. But… I really loved LaKeith in The Photograph. I loved him in Atlanta, and Get Out, and Sorry To Bother You. What? He’s playing a Black Samurai in an anime?! I don’t really watch anime, but I’ll check that out!” you know?
I don’t think Kimetsu no Yaiba or Shingeki no Kyojin is going to do that. You need to really be in the culture to really get into that. I understand that as someone who’s on both sides of the fence. Not expertly, but enough to be careful with the nuance. There are so many other ways to get people into anime, and this is my way of doing it
I think that’s kind of the beautiful thing about anime is that there’s a million entry points: it’s just about finding the one that works for you.
And which platform you’re looking for because you know, we have a few ways of going online, and I tell you… some of these people are really passionate to a fault. I definitely think it’s cool to be able to be a part of something like this. It’s…It’s an experiment. It’s an opportunity to entertain people in a different way. I want someone to say, “Yasuke was the first anime I watched. It had the Black Samurai, and it was entertaining! Are there more anime like this?” and that kind of thing.
I, myself, and really hyped for it. I think, in large part, it’s because now I can tell people, “Hey, guys there’s two Black anime out there!” I can tell you to watch this one, and now go on Netflix and watch the next one: go watch Cannon Busters. It feels really great, and it’s really wonderful to see anime evolving to include other aspects of Japanese history that, like you said, kind of have the myth behind them. We don’t really know a lot about Yasuke, but what can we do with that story? What can we do with what we have?
Make it entertaining! I definitely think there’s this perception that because there’s not a lot of American creators, showrunners, and directors living in Japan and wanting to work with these Japanese studios. Just like Japan, America likes to make things the way they like to make them. Japan is the exact same way. That’s why you don’t see a lot of Japanese anime produced by Americans. We like American shows, you know what I mean? The same thing with Japan. There are no non-English speaking, Japanese directors coming to America to make an American show, and they can’t speak English. That’s what I’m doing here in Japan.
So there’s not a lot of that. I think once people understand that the Japanese are just like Americans—they just want to make good stories. They don’t have an aversion to working with foreigners. It’s just that consumers are used to watching anime that are adapted from comic books. It’s the mangaka who may not be interpreting Black people in their comic stories. Those comic stories are being adapted into animated shows. It’s not that Japanese people don’t wanna make anime where Black people are at. It’s adapted from a popular manga. The mangaka doesn’t want to tell those types of stories either. I think we tend to forget that. It’s necessary to keep that in mind.
If you wanna make an original story with Black characters in it, that’s more likely a possibility, you know what I mean, that we can get now. It’s an original story: you’re not inserting characters into a story that didn’t have Black people in the manga and now you’re adding them into the animation and people are like, “Well, what are you doing? Is there an agenda?!” kind of thing.
It’s about people getting over here, having the money, because Japanese talent want to work on different things. They all wanna work on different things. They just don’t really have the opportunity. I think this was one of those opportunities to do something different.
Thank you so much for meeting with me. I truly appreciate it. I’m kind of shocked that our time passed by really quickly. I had a really great time.
I really appreciate it. I’m glad you took positively to the project. I think the team will be thrilled! Everyone worked really hard on this project, even during 2020 which was rough. Everyone on production, even with COVID’s effect and impact on the show…we were able to push through thanks to MAPPA being the hardcore soldiers that they are. We got it done, and we’re just really glad that we’re able to bring this out to the people. I really appreciate your enthusiasm!
Let me tell you congrats! I certainly look forward to sharing Yasuke with as many people as I can. Thank you so much!
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