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Some Seeds Are Being Planted.' How Yasuke Paves a New Path for Black Creators in Anime

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'Some Seeds Are Being Planted.' How Yasuke Paves a New Path for Black Creators in Anime

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It was around 13 years ago when LeSean Thomas first learned of Yasuke. At that time, Thomas came across the 1968 Japanese children’s book Kuro-suke by Kurusu Yoshio and saw illustrations of the real-life African warrior who arrived in 16th century Japan and served under Oda Nobunaga—a greatly influential feudal lord who is widely regarded as the first unifier of the country. “It kind of felt like a secret treasure,” Thomas said. He found it particularly fascinating that the story of Yasuke, largely considered to be the first foreign-born samurai, was told in a Japanese work. “I just thought it was really cool that there was someone in Japan who was validating this because as a concept in the West at that time, it was kind of viewed as a self-insert culturally to put a Black man with someone who was one of the unifiers of Japan,” Thomas told TIME in a recent Zoom interview. “Even at the time I didn’t believe itThat disbelief has since faded, and more than a decade after his revelation, the longtime animation producer and comic artist, whose previous credits include Cannon Busters, The Legend of Korra and The Boondocks, is now the creator and director of the Netflix anime series Yasuke. The series, which premiered on April 29, reimagines the story of the Black warrior with a fantastical twist. In the show, the eponymous character (voiced by LaKeith Stanfield) is driven by a sense of duty to keep the weak safe. When a man draws his sword on a child in the first episode, Yasuke calmly steps in to fight him—and swiftly defeats him. And after a traumatic event leads the character to leave the battlefield behind for a quiet life as a boatsman, he feels compelled to pick up his sword again when asked to help a sickly young girl. With a steady and assured voice, Stanfield’s performance imbues the character with strength and authority.

To create the series, Thomas—who was born in New York City and is now based in Tokyo—teamed up with Japanese powerhouse animation studio MAPPA (Jujutsu KaisenAttack on TitanThe Final Season). The music producer, rapper and filmmaker Flying Lotus composed music for the show and also served as executive producer.

“There is a serendipitous nature about this project, how an African-American man goes to Japan to live and work amongst the very best in Japanese anime to create an anime about an African who goes to Japan to live amongst the Japanese elite and become a warrior,” Thomas said in a press release last month. Flying Lotus, who joins our Zoom interview from Los Angeles, where he is based, also saw a parallel between Yasuke’s story and his own experience working on the series. “My involvement with the music part too is, again, another kind of outsider trying to work in the system—the Japanese anime system—which is totally different to how we do things here,” Flying Lotus said.

In the show, though Yasuke is almost immediately welcomed by Nobunaga, some close to the feudal lord repeatedly disparage his status as a foreigner and a Black man. Flying Lotus said he was unsure of the response he would receive when the project was first proposed. “I had to go to Japan and ask the Japanese system if it was cool for us to do this show and we had to pretty much be welcomed into the squad,” he said. “And who knows if there was that moment of hesitation.” He and Thomas described Flying Lotus’ trip in the spring of 2018—where the pair met with MAPPA CEO Manabu Otsuka over dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant to discuss the show. “We needed to get his blessing,” Thomas said. The meal ended positively. Otsuka was on board and the group took a photo—“the start of something cool,” as Thomas called it.Ahead of Yasuke’s release, Thomas and Flying Lotus spoke to TIME about creating a new animated hero, the portrayal of Black characters in anime and how they hope the Netflix series will inspire the next generation of Black creators.In the anime series, Yasuke wields a sword against humans, robots and magical beasts in fight sequences with stunning choreography. For Thomas, creating a new action hero who is Black was front of mind in making the show. “For this generation, we haven’t really seen a lot of Black animated TV heroes that are created by us,” he said, referring to Black creators. The director referenced Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks—the 2005 sitcom that Thomas worked on as a co-director of several episodes and as a character supervisor—and Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan’s 2000 series Static Shock, as the few examples he had seen. (While The Boondockswhich follows a Black family, is not of the superhero genre, Thomas said it’s fair to call many of its characters heroes.) He added that when it comes to Japanese animated series with a lead Black character, there have been few examples besides Afro Samurai, the 2007 television show adapted from Takashi Okazaki’s 1998 manga series.

“It’s the kind of thing where hopefully the right kids see it,” Flying Lotus said of Yasuke. “I just hope that some seeds are being planted, and this is just the beginning of the onslaught of Black animation.”

Thomas said that he had expected a wave of Black creators in the animation space to follow after The Boondocks began airing more than 15 years ago, but it “didn’t really happen.” He thinks the current moment will be different. “I feel like with streaming and technology, it’s better for us to try it now—you see a lot more Black creatives in the industry,” he explained. Thomas hopes that Black kids will watch Yasuke and be encouraged to try something similar in the future. “Even if they don’t like it, it will motivate them to want to do it—to do a better job than what we did,” Thomas said.For both Thomas and Flying Lotus, the significance of their creative direction—and Stanfield’s—in Yasuke can’t be understated. “Who knows about where LeSean, me and LaKeith will go after this,” Flying Lotus said. “I just hope that this project shows the world that there are so many Black anime fans.”

Thomas said that as a 16-year-old Black kid, he would have been deeply impacted by a group of Black men, each respected in his field, coming together to create a Japanese anime about a Black hero. “As a Black man seeing a dude from New York City doing this sh-t I would have lost my mind,” he said, referencing his South Bronx roots. Thomas said a project like Yasuke would have propelled him to do something similar. “I didn’t have that. So, for me, at the age that I’m at now, I’m just trying to be who I needed at 16 as a Black kid.”