INTERVIEW: Yasuke: Creator LeSean Thomas Discusses Anime & His Upcoming Samurai Series

As MAPPA's streak of exciting new anime projects continues to grow, another series that fans can get excited about is Yasuke. Based loosely on a real-life African samurai of the same name who lived during the Sengoku era in Japan, the series will add some fantastical elements to the story -- expanding it with some shonen flare. The series dropped an exciting trailer and will premiere on Netflix on April 29.

Yasuke tells the tale of Yasuke, a legendary ronin who looked to put his mysterious past behind him only to be dragged back in, finding himself suddenly in the middle of a power struggle between rivaling daimyo. Joining the already impressive team behind the series is actor LaKeith Stanfield who voices the titular Yasuke.

CBR sat down with series creator, executive producer and director, LeSean Thomas, -- an animation vet, with credits ranging from The Boondocks to The Legend of Korra and Cannon Busters -- to discuss creating Yasuke, early anime inspirations and exciting details about the series.

CBR: What was your favorite anime series growing up or ones that got you into it?

LeSean Thomas:  The early stuff I saw was like Voltron and Speed Racer [but] we didn't know at the time that that was considered anime. They weren't being licensed here to the level that they eventually became in the late 80s and early 90s, where it's been marketed as the marketing descriptor of "anime" -- this exotic euphemism of Japanese animation. That's when I started becoming more aware of it, and I think the first shows that I watched were Bio-Booster Armor Guyver and Dangaioh.

The other episode [of a series] I saw for the first time was Episode 6 of an anime OVA series called Bubblegum Crisis about the Knight Sabres -- female vigilantes in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Tokyo where they wear bio-armor suits and stuff like that. So I was exposed to a lot of the early 90's anime stuff like Iczer One or Iczer Two or Project A-Ko. My big influence was original video animations. That's the stuff that I got exposed to.

I was never a big shonen fan. I never really watched long episodes of things. It was always like limited series -- like six episodes here, 12 episodes there, or a movie. Shows like Dragonball Z or Yu Yu Hakusho, they're really good shows, but I just didn't have the patience then to watch long-form episodes. So, that kind of stuff got me really hyped into Japanese animation and made me want to mimic that style when I was, at the time, an illustrator.

How was the process of integrating the more historical tale of Yasuke with some of the more fantastical elements of the story?

Once we figured out what the story was in terms of the idea of redemption, the approach to the story was the biggest part. We could have even done a biopic -- which would have been completely embellished anyway -- we'd have to make up his name; we'd have to make up where he came from, we'd also have to end it where there would be no continuation if we were following the actual historical drama. It's a very short story, technically. So, the idea of starting a story at the end of Yasuke's reported disappearance was a classic opportunity to not only create a new action hero but also create a new action hero that we can tell multiple adventures with.

Then the rest was figuring out what was happening at this point in time when Yasuke was with Nobunaga and then what was happening 20 years later. [Then asking] how do we advance that and place him in that art? Then we put him in an unknown bubble village and moved from there.

So, once we figured out we were doing a redemption arc and also an introductory arc because we have every intention to tell multiple stories -- that's the hope -- we had to figure out what happened and who the players are. Which characters are going to be real and who are going to be fictional in order to push this character where they need to go. It was pretty broken down once we decided what type of story we wanted to tell. The history part just kind of worked itself out -- to know what to keep in and what to leave out -- because there's a lot of people that we left out in that period.

What do you hope viewers take away from the series?

I think for me just that it was an entertaining story that they want more about. There isn't anything in particular that I want people to pay attention to, other than celebrating the talent that's attached to the project. I think that's the biggest thing that I want people to take away: Flying Lotus's music, LaKeith Stanfield's presence -- being able to hear him for three hours straight in an animated cartoon, not being used to his voice and then by the time you get to Episode Four, you're like, "Okay, this is Yasuke. I know who he is."

Plus, MAPPA, Takeshi Koike, Satoshi Iwataki-san, Shinpei Kamada, the coloring team, like all of these people. As a fan, knowing who each of them is, that's the biggest thing that I hope people get to take away from because the story is pretty straightforward and entertaining. But it's the way we tell it and the talent that we have attached. I think that's what I'm hoping people get the most jazzed about.

You mentioned Takeshi Koike, the character designer -- and the character designs are amazing. Could you tell us a little about that process? 

It was a Manabu Otsuka-san, the CEO of MAPPA, who recommended Takeshi Koike and Taiki Sakurai, the chief producer of Netflix Japan Anime and a good buddy of mine, a huge supporter and a huge part of why all of this stuff is taking place. He [Sakurai] wrote Redline, Koike's magnum opus film. Not a lot of people know that. So he was like, I can get Takeshi Koike and Otsuka-san was like, yeah, we can get Takeshi Koike.

So I was so excited because I'm such a fan. I used to copy [Koike's] stuff so much after he'd done the "World Record" short on Animatrix. He's just a huge inspiration for me, so to be able to work with him was full circle. It was tough at first because Koike-san took the project because he thought the story was fascinating and interesting. My problem was that I was too much of a fan at the beginning, so it was hard for me to even give him notes because I'm like, "Oh my God, this is a Takeshi Koike character design. These are so good!"

I thought that was really fun at the very beginning, just like, "Okay, wait, we have to change this, this is awesome, but we can't keep this. We've got to stick to what we're trying to do." So there was a little bit of that in the beginning. And Koike-san is a cool guy. He was always really gracious and professional and just really enthusiastic and happy. And he really loved the way I would give notes because I was always giving enthusiastic notes. So it was a cool experience working with him, and I hope I can work with him again. He's a legend and genius.

Aside from Yasuke, is there a character you’re excited for fans to meet? (If the answer is Yasuke, that’s cool too!)

I want them to meet Yasuke, obviously, because he's a unique character -- a classic character type, but in a unique setting. I want people to meet Achо̄ja -- I like Achо̄ja. I think he's a funny guy, an interesting character. He's Yasuke's opposite in the storyline.

I want them to meet Natsumaru, whose Yasuke's ally and friend. And just some of the cool supernatural stuff I want people to see, too, you know? But Yasuke, Achо̄ja and Natsumaru are my favorites, and I'm really curious to see what fans think of them when they watch the show.

What can you tell us about the antagonistic force of Yasuke?

Well, there are two different forces, right? The approach for this storyline and who the villain is -- the villain is power, its influence. And this child [Saki] represents that. It's essentially a story trope that we use to get the story going. It's a classic story of good versus evil. And the evil in the storyline is an evil that is ubiquitous. And it's kind of like a Pandora's Box, like religion -- you can use it for ultimate good or ultimate evil.

And that's essentially the main villain in the storyline, someone who's forcing this child to run away and interrupt Yasuke's life -- this is a life of isolation -- and he has to classically come out of his hole and revisit some of his past demons in order to be who he needs to be to finally not only accept himself but protect this person. So the antagonist in the show is definitely a premise of evil, religion and dark power.

You've touched on them a few times, but MAPPA is pumping out some excellent content right now, making fans even more excited for Yasuke. How has it been working with them?

You see it often, as long as we've been watching anime and even being aware of production credits and studios' contributions to the shows. Every once in a while, you have that studio that comes out of nowhere, and they're just shining bright with a signature show that makes them shine. You have Studio Wit, you've got Ufotable, Madhouse is on point, Studio 4°C, Production I.G., Kyoani -- you know what I mean? Like, every once in a while, a studio will come up, and you're just like, they're making everything so good.

It's MAPPA's turn right now, they're the next one up, and it's exciting to see them showcase what they're able to do and show such enthusiasm and support and love from the fandom. I'm really excited for them; they're doing incredible stuff.

It’s inspiring to see Netflix continuing to bring original anime content to the west, and even more so to see an expansion in diverse characters and perspectives. How supportive have they been of allowing you to tell the story you and your team have envisioned?

I think it's a natural progression. Prior to streaming, television has always been dictated by advertisers. And the advertisers are the ones who pay billions of dollars that these networks use to finance the production of these shows and to attract the target demographic that the advertisers want to sell to. They overcharge the advertisers to run these commercials to get kids to sit down for a half-hour so that you can say, "buy, buy, buy! Tell your parents to buy this; tell your parents to buy that."

That's how these shows are financed. And with that, unfortunately, comes advertising bias and then network bias. The network is forced to continue to make the same shows over and over for the same target demographic, and there isn't a lot of opportunity or space to jump around unless it's going to sell merchandise. And when you have that, it becomes a bit dated, it becomes a bit stagnant -- and the art form of animation is far more nuanced and infinite than that.

So when you get to a space like streaming, where now your finances aren't coming from advertisers and [are instead] coming from subscriptions, you now owe your viewer diversity. You owe them. They're going to watch what they want to watch, and they want to see what they want to see -- not just themselves, but other content from other cultures. I think a platform like streaming allows a company like Netflix, whose already a leader, [to do that] and, I feel, is doing that in a really good way. It's influencing everyone in a really great way. People aren't held down by that advertising bias anymore.  If people subscribe, if people are coming, then we can make this stuff for them. And I think that's the beautiful thing about streaming.

Created by LeSean Thomas and starring LaKeith Stanfield, Yasuke debuts April 29 on Netflix.

About The Author