A Black Samurai Fighting Giant Mechas? ‘Yasuke’ Asks, Why Not?

by Andrew Limbong

At first, it’s not clear who’s fighting whom. All you know is that it’s Kyoto, 1582 and dudes are getting absolutely sliced up. Then come in the big mechas, and they have huge guns and swords for arms that contribute to the bloodshed. And then there are the sorcerers summoning beams of arrows that would cut their opponents down if not for those other sorcerers conjuring protective shields.

This is the world of Yasukethe new anime series on Netflix about the real-life Black warrior who served under Oda Nobunaga, one of the great unifiers of feudal Japan. The show’s creator, LeSean Thomas, first read about Yasuke in 1960s children’s bookKuro-suke, by Kurusu Yoshio. It is, of course — with the aforementioned mechas and sorcerers — not a straight take on history. “Knowing that we were going to be Trojan horse-ing the story through the beautiful medium of Japanese anime,” said Thomas in an interview, “why not?”

Thomas, originally from the Bronx, is a Tokyo-based animator who worked with MAPPA, the prestigious animation studio, to bring Yasuke to life. His previous Netflix show, Cannon Busters, was a similarly fantastical and adventurous romp based on his own original comic book series. With Yasuke he didn’t really see the need to do a straight-ahead version of a guy with such a scant historical record. “I don’t think true historical biopics in Japanese anime are popular,” he said. “Historians will like it, but it’s kind of boring for the average viewer.”

Instead, this Yasuke, voiced by LaKeith Stanfield, is a washed up ex-samurai loner, who finds himself in the care of a young girl with special abilities. He’s quiet and standoff-ish at first, like all the great archetypal lone-wolf heroes. He’s tall, scarred, kind of jacked. And, instead of being bald like he is in that ’60s children’s book Thomas read, he’s got dreadlocks. Which was kind of a big deal for musician Flying Lotus, who did the music and served as an executive producer on the show. He’s worked on animation before but this was his first time actually having a hand in crafting the story — which put his lifelong anime fandom to good use. In an interview, he talked about honoring Yasuke’s story while pushing new ideas, new sounds, and “a lot of things we just haven’t seen before, unfortunately.”

Which is as good a place as any to bring up the lack of Black characters in anime. While there have been some (including in Thomas’s Cannon Busters), it’s still few and far between enough that a release like Yasuke, with the Black character being front and center of the narrative, is notable. Flying Lotus told me about seeing Dragon Ball Super: Broly in theaters a while back, with, “nothing but Black kids in the audience. Nothing but,” he said. But when it comes to on-screen representation, “All we got is Piccolo, man. Piccolo don’t count.”

I think platforms like Netflix are trying to make anime spaghetti. Everyone loves spaghetti.

LeSean Thomas

(Real quick: if you’re not a Dragon Ball fan, Piccolo counts as a “person of color,” inasmuch as he’s green — and there’s not enough space here to unpack Mr. Popo — but “Piccolo is Black” is a take that’s gone from meme to almost canon in the Dragon Ball fanbase. As Flying Lotus says, with a hedging tilt to his voice, “he’s kind of a brother? Kind of. Kiiiiind of?”)

But the dearth of Black characters in anime and the rest of Japanese pop culture is changing, says Yoshiko Okuyama. She’s a professor of Japanese studies at the University of Hawaii, who specializes in film and manga. She says current population trends in Japan have made the country more “welcoming” to foreigners — if out of sheer necessity. She says there has been recent interest in portraying the historical figure Yasuke in Japanese pop culture, and “that kind of spotlight is an indication in Japanese interest in multiculturalism.”

Anime is growing as a global, multicultural artform, with the help of platforms like Netflix. As this happens, Yasuke creator LeSean Thomas has seen his fair share of gatekeepers and snobs trying to define what makes real, authentic anime. But he’s seen hip-hop grow from a small scene in the Bronx to becoming the “lingua-franca of youth music culture” around the world right now. No reason why anime can’t be the same. Or to compare it to another medium, “I think platforms like Netflix are trying to make anime spaghetti,” says Thomas. “Everyone loves spaghetti.”

This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the Web by Andrew Limbong and Petra Mayer.