Did you get a chance to watch Yasuke yet? It’s a new animated series on Netflix about a Black samurai living in and fighting for feudal Japan. If that premise alone isn’t enough to get you pumped, hearing about the people behind it surely will:
The titular samurai—called Yassan by those close to him—is voiced by LaKeith Stanfield, whose performance in Judas and the Black Messiah scored him an Oscar nomination in a category that he didn’t win but definitely could have.
The series is created, produced, and directed by LeSean Thomas, one of few American-born animators to climb to a managerial position inside Japan’s homogeneous and highly competitive animation industry (more on his story in a moment).
Music is provided by Steven Ellison, a Californian rapper and record producer whose music career took off like a rocket after submitting some songs to Adult Swim back in 2006, and who is also known by his stage name: Flying Lotus.
And, to top it all off, animation was hand-drawn by MAPPA, the Tokyo-based animation studio that recently made headlines for putting together the final season of one of the most popular anime series of all time: Attack on Titan.
Okay. That’s a lot to unpack. Where to begin?
Yasuke is a well known historical figure in Japanese culture, so much so that Thomas found out about him through an illustrated children’s book. Like all larger-than-life figures, much about Yasuke’s existence remains shrouded in mystery, though there are a few things we can say with relative certainty.
By and large, historians agree that he was born in Mozambique before moving to India, joined Italian Jesuits on a mission trip to Japan in 1579 and stayed behind to become the first non-Japanese samurai in service of feudal lord Oda Nobunaga, with a good deal of foreigners to follow in his footsteps. What happened in between isn’t clear. Thomas Lockley, author of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, speculates Yasuke may have been brought to Asia as a slave, but maintains that—by the time he arrived in Japan as bodyguard to a priest—he was a free man acting on his own volition.
Most sixteenth century Japanese people—born and raised on an isolationist island-nation—had never seen a Black person before. When Nobunaga first met Yasuke, it is said he mistook the color of his skin for dirt, and that he was surprised when—upon ordering him to bathe—it didn’t come off. This, and many other striking scenes, have made their way into the Netflix anime.
Yasuke’s time serving under Nobunaga was cut short when, in 1582, the lord was ambushed by one of his generals and forced to commit ritual suicide. Though the insurrectionists outnumbered them by the thousands, Yasuke subsequently joined forces with Nobunaga’s son, Nobutada. According to Lockley, the last record of Yasuke’s life indicates that he was wounded in battle and taken to a monastery.
This is where the story of Yasuke the person ends and that of Yasuke the protagonist begins. Fast-forwarding several years into a fictional future, the anime finds Japan turned into a wasteland with Yasuke drinking his grief away in a remote fishing village, waiting for a second chance.The familiar but powerful story of an outsider proving their worth in a society that was not built for them doesn’t just apply to Yasuke, but its creators as well. Director Thomas, who grew up in a Bronx project, moved to Seoul to work with animators at Studio Mir, the production company behind American hits like The Boondocks and The Legend of Korra.
Most shows you see on American television were drawn by animators based in Asia. Historically, collaboration between western and eastern members of the same productions has been kept to a minimum, with each side sticking to their own job on their own side of the world. Thomas, however, wanted to change that.
In early 2018, he and Flying Lotus invited the CEO of MAPPA, Manabu Otsuka, to dinner to ask him whether he wanted to make a Netflix show together. To their surprise, Otsuka agreed, making Thomas (to my knowledge, at least) the first Black man in anime history to oversee a Japanese production. A big deal, considering how difficult it is for non-Japanese to earn their place in society.
Said Thomas of the barriers he had to overcome in a recent interview with the blog Discussing Film: “Some studios in Japan aren’t comfortable working with foreigners. They don’t have a lot of experience working with them. They sometimes don’t have the patience to insert a non-speaking native into the production process, no matter how skilled they are.”
Yasuke And The Future
Time to address the elephant in the room: does Yasuke qualify as anime? It’s not an easy question to answer, especially since we are still looking for a definition that everyone can agree upon. Some argue the thing that makes an anime an anime is culture: it has to be created by Japanese animators for Japanese audiences.
Others believe it’s a question of artistic style. Behind large eyes and small noses—two characteristics of a subgenre of anime that have become unelected spokespersons for an entire industry—lies, according to art critics, an unwavering attention to linework that can be traced to the manga on which anime are based.
Personally, I like to think of anime as any animated series that can evoke powerful responses in its viewers and establish an intimate relationship with them. Sitcoms like South Park or The Simpsons are entertaining and all, but I don’t see myself in them. Their MMO is delivering social commentary that applies to an entire civilization, not animating a personal experience through motion and emotion.If you stick by this admittedly loose definition, I absolutely think Yasuke fits the bill. As does Boondocks, and The Legend of Korra, and any other animated series produced by teams of passionate, multicultural creators. Hopefully there will be more of them moving forward.