Creator LeSean Thomas tells EW he hopes his show will be a "gateway" for viewers into anime.

By Nick Romano
April 01, 2021 at 08:00 PM EDT
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Yasuke, the world's first African samurai, had to fight for his place in history. The records of his time traversing 16th century Japan and serving under daimyō Nobunaga Oda are still sparse and filled with gaps. And yet, given the figure's significance, anime creator LeSean Thomas is surprised there hasn't been any "full-fledged mainstream media storytelling" of the warrior. He's about to change that now, albeit with a supernatural twist.

EW can exclusively reveal the first trailer for Yasuke, Thomas' new anime series for Netflix that features Judas and the Black Messiah Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield as the voice of the title sword-bearer.

Told across six episodes, the alternate-reality series, designed by animation studio MAPPA (Attack on Titan: The Final Season), follows the greatest ronin ever known as he struggles to maintain a peaceful life as a boatman to a local village after surviving a past marked by violence and death.

Record producer Flying Lotus crafted the music for Yasuke and also helped shape the story with Thomas and Stanfield.

"The stuff that I tend to make I consider gateway anime," Thomas tells EW over the phone from Tokyo, where he's been working in the Japanese anime scene for the past few years. "These are projects that have a combination of ingredients that you wouldn't normally get from the Japanese industry because of the history, the regional differences, and our cultural approaches. There are people who I'm pretty sure will say something like, 'Well, I'm not really into anime but, man, it has LaKeith,' or, 'Wow! Flying Lotus. I want to check that out.'"

Yasuke
Credit: Netflix

Thomas came across the story of Yasuke about a decade ago. He found images online from a Japanese children's book and found it interesting that "a Japanese artist was doing stories focused on samurai who were not only foreigners, but Black foreigners."

Thomas didn't seriously consider creating a show around Yasuke until he became more confident pitching series years later. He was working on Cannon Busters, another anime he developed for Netflix, in 2017 when the streamer asked if he had other ideas. "I pitched three and Yasuke was one of them," he says.

"I didn't want to do what everyone else was going to do, which was most likely a hardcore biopic," he adds. (Before his death in August 2020, actor Chadwick Boseman was set to play Yasuke in a historical biopic.) "I didn't want to be trapped by the elements of history, so to speak, and I wanted to add a sense of fantasy, a sense of romanticism to it, much like the Japanese do with their historical figures."

Stanfield and Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison), who were aboard the project early on, were fundamental in bringing those elements into the story.

Thomas had "a more basic approach" in mind when Stanfield introduced the concepts of "trauma and mental health, the idea of psychological trauma from your past and how to overcome things that have stopped you from moving forward." That's where we find Yasuke at the start of this series, attempting to live a more humble life in a remote village in Japan.

Stanfield and Ellison then introduced a supernatural take on the material, which involves a Japan populated by mechs and magic. Thomas isn't even sure he wants to mention the characters' names at the risk of spoiling his own show, but he says the actor "wanted two major characters" that introduced that fantastical element.

One of them, a young girl, was Ellison's creation. Yasuke is forced to pick up his sword once more when he's tasked with transporting a mysterious child who has become the target of dark forces and bloodthirsty warlords.

"That's when the story became more interesting," Thomas notes.

EW can confirm additional members of the creative team, which includes chief animation director Satoshi Iwataki, chief technical director Takeru Sato, sub-character designer Kenichi Shima, world art and art setting designer Minoru Nishida, art director Junichi Higashi, color setting designer Azusa Sasaki, 3D CGI director Yuki Nomoto, cinematographer Park Hyo-gyu, and editor Mutsumi Takemiya.

Yasuke
Credit: Netflix

Thomas recognizes the obvious parallels between Yasuke and his own story. The creator relocated from New York City's South Bronx first to South Korea in 2009 and then later to Japan as one of the few Black creatives working in the country's anime industry.

"I'm a Black man who moved to Japan to work with the Japanese making an anime about a Black man who moved to Japan to live with the Japanese and become a warrior. That's kind of cool," he says. "I don't know if there's anyone else who could actually say that as a TV animation show creator, but I wouldn't say it was an intensely personal experience. It made it more fun."

Thomas instead saw this connection as "an opportunity" to entertain people. That's what he likes to do. He isn't close to being comfortable putting his own story into his work just yet.

"I am not a Japanese person. I am not an expert on Japanese culture, but I do know the craft of television animation and am able to navigate the waters between the West and Japan, and understanding what makes both of those exciting."

Yasuke premieres April 29 on Netflix.

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