Netflix’s new anime series Yasuke is LeSean Thomas’ ode to anime jidaigeki, or Japanese historical fantasy. Based on the life of the only recorded African samurai in Japanese history, the six-episode series exists in an alternate version of the 16th century Sengoku Period of Japan. A place where mechs and magic, mutants and mercenaries all coexist.
Thomas, actor Lakeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah), and Grammy Award-winning musician and visionary Flying Lotus executive produced the project. MAPPA, the award-winning Japanese studio behind recent hits Attack on Titan and Jujutsu Kaisen, is behind the animation. The lead anime director is Satoshi Iwatazki (Ghost Hunt ), with character designs by Takeshi Koike (Lupin the Third).
With over 20 years in animation and comics, Thomas—best known for his work on shows like Adult Swim’s The Boondocks and Black Dynamite—began writing Yasuke right before he secured his Netflix deal for Cannon Busters. “Netflix asked me if I had any other show ideas with Japanese animation studios. I pitched three. Yasuke was one of them,” Thomas explained.
Stanfield was already on board as executive producer when Netflix began assembling Thomas’ dream team. “They asked me what I thought about Flying Lotus doing both the music and being involved in the story development as well,” Thomas recalled. “It was like I went from a fan to a collaborator!” Next, they secured lead writer Nick Jones, Jr. (Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous) on a recommendation from fellow Camp writer, and showrunner of the upcoming Marvel animated series What If?, A.C. Bradley.
I spoke with both Thomas and Jones about crafting Yasuke’s story and how they approached mixing fantasy with facts about the most mysterious samurai to ever live.
“This project has been a journey and a series of, ‘Wow! Are you kidding me?’ moments,” Thomas said. The voice cast features Stanfield as Yasuke, Takehiro Hira (Girl/Haji) as Nobunaga, Maya Tanida (Neila the Princess Knight) as young Saki. Ming-Na Wen (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Mandalorian) also appears as female samurai Natsumaru. Even Glee alum Darren Criss is there as the voice of a giant robot named Haruto.
The Yasuke portrayed in the Netflix series is a ronin who makes a modest living as a boatsman on one of the many islands of the Japanese archipelago in solitude. He keeps to himself until a musician from his favorite watering hole asks for his help. She needs transportation to get her ailing young daughter Saki to a doctor. The Sengoku Period in Japan was almost constantly at war. A war in which Yasuke no longer wants any part.
But he reluctantly agrees to ferry them North, and that’s where the adventure begins. Near the start of their journey, they are attacked by a team of mutant mercenaries: a Russian Were-Bear, an AI-controlled mech, a scythe-wielding warrior woman, and an African mage.
Their target? Little Saki.
Yasuke’s mix of mechs and swordplay will remind anime fans of other period anime. “I definitely was influenced by Samurai 7,” Thomas said. “Our story is paying homage to the magical aspects of Japanese fantasy.” Jones shared the same sentiment, adding that he was also influenced by Lone Wolf and Cub and even Rambo (2008) while writing the script.
“But I felt to really tell this story, we needed to know where Yasuke came from because he is a real historical figure,” Jones said. “So the goal was to try to tell as much of the real facts as we could and kind of merge it [with fantasy].”
The real Yasuke traveled to Japan in the service of a Jesuit priest on a cargo ship in 1579. Yasuke’s appearance in Kyoto drew such a crowd at one point, it caused a riot. Lord Oda Nobunaga, ostensibly the most powerful daimyo in Japan at the time, demanded to meet the “black man” who had caused the commotion. Fascinated by the African, he insisted that Yasuke work for him and eventually elevated him to samurai status.
The real Nobunaga was both a ruthless dictator and a visionary compelled to unify the warring factions of Japan into one nation. This earned him the nicknames “ The Demon Daimyo” and “The Great Unifier.” He achieved the latter before his death in 1582 at the temple of Honnō-Ji in Kyoto. Betrayed by one of his Generals, Akechi Mistuhide, Nobunaga was forced to commit seppuku. It is believed that Yasuke was there to witness the ritual suicide.
“As far as history is concerned, Yasuke disappears after the Honnō-Ji incident,” Thomas explained. “We wanted Yasuke’s story to start 20 years after that. [Making it] easier to decide what was going in the story because we only have six episodes.”
The anime uses flashbacks to show Yasuke’s time on the Nobunaga compound. As is his relationship with the fictional Natsumaru (Ming-Na Wen), an Onna Bugeisha, or female samurai. A concept that Jones wanted to be sure to include in the story. “Nobunaga was a futurist,” Jones said. “He was very progressive, and part of how he rose to power was by bringing villagers, foreigners and women samurai into the ranks.”
The big baddies of Yasuke are both physical and metaphorical. Yasuke and Saki are caught between running from the maniacal Jesuit priest Abraham—who uses the church’s influence to pay the mercenaries after her—hiding his own mutant abilities, and carrying out his masochistic search for the child unchecked in his quest for power. The more sinister threat is Daimyo, a demon who rules half of Japan with an undead army and lives off of the population’s life force while they live in fear. Yasuke and Saki must learn to trust and rely on each other and their friends, old and new, to defeat her.
“We went this direction because we wanted to create a new action hero and tell multiple stories, if possible, without being shackled by the confines of history,” Thomas explained. Does this mean Netflix is granting Yasuke a second season? Both writer and creator are hopeful.
“I made sure to leave a lot of room for a continuation or prequel or even spin-offs,” Jones said.
Thomas echoed the sentiment: “I would love to continue. So the hope is that we get people excited enough about Yasuke to demand more.”
The first season of Yasuke hits Netflix on April 29.