It’s one of those tales so improbable, it could only be true: An African warrior arrives in feudal Japan, and becomes a samurai for the most powerful lord in the country.
The historical figure of Yasuke, who served under 16th-century military leader Oda Nobunaga, has featured in novels, children’s books, TV dramas, manga and video games. But he’s never been depicted the way he is in Netflix’s latest anime series.
Created by Tokyo-based director LeSean Thomas, “Yasuke” takes the scant known facts about Japan’s real-life African samurai as the starting point for a fantastical romp populated by robots, shape-shifters and warriors with magical powers.
It was produced by celebrated Japanese animation studio MAPPA, with character designs by Takeshi Koike (“Lupin the IIIrd”), but this is anime with an international flavor. Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) voices the title character, while the soundtrack is by Warp Records mainstay Flying Lotus, both of whom also worked as executive producers.
“I feel like the global audience is already ready for this kind of stuff,” Thomas says via email.
The New York native notes the parallels between Yasuke’s story and his own experiences as an African American working in the Japanese anime industry.
“I feel like there’s some deep-down part of me that’s like, ‘You’re meant to tell this story, and why not you?’” he says.
While Thomas came up with the original concept, he worked closely with Stanfield and Flying Lotus (real name Steven Ellison) while developing the show.
“I got to be way more hands-on with this than I thought I could be,” Ellison says, speaking over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. That’s where he created the sound of “Yasuke,” vibing to the images and staying up late for meetings with the creative team in Tokyo.
“When I was talking to Japan, it was, like, three in the morning, my time,” he says. “That was brutal. But I learned how to do it. … I was so committed, I was such a samurai the whole time.”
The series is set 20 years after the death of Oda, long after its eponymous hero dropped off the radar. In this retelling, the aging samurai has been leading a quiet life as a village boatman while drowning his demons with drink. However, he picks up his sword again in order to protect a girl, Saki (voiced by Maya Tanida), who possesses mysterious powers.
“There was a whole time period in someone’s life where you didn’t know anything about him,” Ellison says. “You get to dream up stuff. That to me is way more inspiring than what was already known, and what was written.”
“Dream up stuff” is an understatement, but that’s not to say that “Yasuke” completely ignores the historical record. The narrative is intercut with flashbacks that depict its hero’s time with Oda (Takehiro Hira), which are given a pointedly revisionist slant. (“History will forget you!” screams an adversary, just before getting relieved of his head.)
Knowing that there was a potential Hollywood movie about Yasuke in the pipeline encouraged the show’s producers to take a more offbeat approach. While Stanfield suggested digging deeper into the character’s past traumas, Ellison was responsible for some of the more out-there touches.
“I didn’t want to tell a historical drama: I didn’t want that to be the project that I worked on,” he says. “I wanted to have there be fantastical elements and magical elements … I wanted it to always kind of keep you on your toes, and I feel like that is probably what I brought to it.”
Another thing he was keen to avoid was repeating “Samurai Champloo,” Shinichiro Watanabe’s influential mid-2000s anime series, which mixed irreverent swordplay with a hip-hop soundtrack by producers including the late Nujabes.
“I think he was always like a reference point in a lot of things that LeSean and myself would talk about,” he says. “I love (‘Samurai Champloo’) so much, and just as a fan of that stuff — and a fan of myself at the same time — I was just like, ‘What can I do to contribute in this space?’ I want my s— to be the next Nujabes for somebody. I don’t want to be someone replicating that.”
Although he’d been involved in “Yasuke” from an early stage, Ellison says it wasn’t until he saw the animated footage that he knew how it should sound.
“That was the trigger: that was all I needed,” he says. “Once I saw it move and flow a bit, I figured out what Yasuke’s theme was. It was just flowing magically after that.”
COVID-19 restrictions at the time ruled out inviting musicians over to the studio like he usually would. While he tapped regular collaborators Thundercat, Niki Randa and Denzel Curry to contribute vocals, it was mostly a solo effort.
“Once I got it, and it started flowing, it was just so much fun,” he recalls. “I’m making the score and, like, shouting at the screen when I get something that works, because it worked so well. You’re like, ‘Oh my God!’ and get so hyped watching it, like, ‘Yes!’”
The results of these sparring sessions are a long way from the kaleidoscopic overload of recent Flying Lotus LPs, closer in feel to his more beat-focused 2006 debut, “1983.”
The soundtrack — which is being released as a standalone album by Warp — incorporates Japanese instrumentation and scales, though Ellison also mentions “Blade Runner,” with its distinctive sound design and soaring Vangelis score, as “a big, big inspiration.”
“I was super inspired by Vangelis, as well as (Isao) Tomita,” he enthuses. “All these old synthesizer albums, like Jean-Michel Jarre.”
A long-standing anime fan himself, Ellison says it was watching “Dragon Ball Z” in the 1990s that “really just cemented my love for anime as an art form and a way to tell stories.”
He sees “Yasuke” as a good entry point for viewers who are coming new to the genre, while conceding that it may get some blowback from “the super-deep anime kids, who are gonna be like, ‘Ah, well, they should’ve done this, that, da-doobee-dah…’”
Well, haters gonna hate. The series noticeably leaves the door open for future installments, and he says he’s keen to see it continue — and to carry on working in the anime world.
“I hope ‘Yasuke’ comes back for more,” he says. “I’m trying to stick around, man.”
“Yasuke” is now streaming on Netflix. Flying Lotus’ “Yasuke” soundtrack is currently available on digital platforms, and will be released on CD in Japan via Warp Records / Beat Records in June.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.