South Bronx, New York, native LeSean Thomas is making anime in Tokyo partly owing to a mistake. In the early ’90s, he bought a video cassette of what he thought was “Akira” but turned out to be a behind-the-scenes “production report” chronicling the film’s creation. Instead of returning it, Thomas watched it every day. When he saw director Katsuhiro Otomo and his team working through the night at their cramped desks, he thought: “That’s what I want to do.”
More than 20 years later, Thomas, now 43, is about to debut as an anime showrunner with “Cannon Busters,” a 12-episode series based on his 2005 comic book of the same name and rendered by Tokyo animation studio Satelight Inc. It premieres Aug. 15 on Netflix.
“Cannon Busters” is a multinational project, created by an American, co-financed by Britain’s Manga Entertainment Ltd. and Taiwan’s Nada Holdings Inc., produced by a Japanese studio and released on a U.S.-based streaming portal.
Thomas is leading a new generation of overseas fans who not only love anime but also, increasingly, want to play a part in creating it. His journey to Tokyo took him from New York to Greensboro, North Carolina, Los Angeles, California and then Seoul, while he honed his craft as an illustrator, television animation producer, director and storyboard artist on A-list animated shows, including “The Boondocks” and “The Legend of Korra.” His original story for “Cannon Busters” combines elements of Edo Period (1603-1868) Japan, American Westerns, steampunk and Eurocentric high fantasy, with a few mecha anime robot tropes on the side.
“There are cultural motifs that we can identify and racially code,” Thomas says, “but none of it takes place on earth.”
He first encountered Japanese animation as a teenager in the public housing projects of the Bronx, where a friend showed him a VHS tape of opening sequences and clips from a handful of late ’80s to early ’90s original video anime series, plus one full episode each of “Hyper Combat Unit Dangaioh” and “Bubblegum Crisis.” Suddenly the manga panels he’d been admiring as a reader and budding artist were moving across a screen.
“That tape was a game changer for me,” Thomas tells me over coffee in the Yoyogi neighborhood of Tokyo. “I’d never seen anyone animate anything like that. Compared to Hanna-Barbera, ‘Looney Tunes,’ and American comic books I was consuming at the time, the way anime was drawn was just a higher level of detail and technique. It was just amazing.”
In Los Angeles, Thomas worked with some of the biggest names in American animation — DreamWorks, Sony Pictures, Nickelodeon — yet remained dissatisfied with the emphasis on comedy and theatrical characters over background and environmental design. Adrift in the land of Disney and Pixar, he bought anime art books from Kinokuniya and studied his Japanese inspirations, particularly animator/directors Takeshi Koike and the late Satoshi Kon. Even while working on “The Boondocks,” one of the few animated shows to feature African American characters, Thomas says that the staff were watching Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Samurai Champloo” series for guidance and ideas.
The dream of animating his own work in a Japanese style took shape after Thomas moved in 2009 to South Korea, where the anime industry outsources much of its labor. Working with Korean animators, he developed a one-minute trailer that would become the basis for a crowd-funded 12-minute pilot in 2014.
Thomas Romain, then a senior artist at Satelight Inc., connected him to the Japanese studio, and American artist Joe Madureira, famous for his work on Marvel Comics’ “Uncanny X-Men” series, contributed concept designs. The pilot earned Thomas an invitation to the 2015 Anime Expo in Los Angeles, the largest anime convention in North America, where it caught the attention of several potential investors and producers, including Manga Entertainment Ltd. Managing Director Jerome Mazandarani, whose company was searching for an original property.
“(Thomas) is one of the best storyboard artists in TV animation, and his ‘Cannon Busters’ story is 100 times better than many anime,” he says. “It’s just great cliffhanger storytelling.”
Mazandarani convinced Nada Holdings Inc. CEO Joe Teng to help finance the project in 2017. Teng describes his Taipei-based funding company as a bridge to China, where the audience is massive but selective and strict government censorship can slash intellectual properties into unrecognizable ribbons. Nada invests 90 percent of its funds into Japanese content, Teng says, so the company wants to be involved in the production process from the beginning to avoid cuts and outright banning by the Chinese government.
“Cannon Busters,” he adds, is the ideal hybrid anime for the Chinese market.
“You have a male character, Philly the Kid, who is a typical Japanese character in line and design, and is immortal. Then a female, S.A.M. robot, whose shape is totally American-style. The Japanese male and American female go on a journey, and the car is an old American Cadillac that transforms into a Japanese robot. This is the kind of mix that can give the Chinese audience something fresh.”
But some anime fans, especially in the U.S., tend toward the parochial: If it isn’t 100 percent Japanese, they say, it isn’t real anime.
John Derderian, the director of content at Netflix Japan in Tokyo expects some resistance to “Cannon Busters” from certain sectors of the anime fan base.
“I respect people who say anime can’t come from outside Japan,” he says, “but I would love anyone who says that to sit down for an hour with LeSean and say he doesn’t get anime to his bones.”
Netflix has already greenlighted another project from Thomas: “Yasuke,” based on the true story of an African samurai in feudal Japan, designed by animator Koike and produced by MAPPA Co., Ltd.
The rise of such ventures — collaborations with non-Japanese artists that are financed and coproduced by international partners — is forcing Japan’s hidebound anime industry to open its doors and go global at home.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.