The story of Yasuke, the African immigrant who became the first foreign-born warrior to achieve the status of a samurai, and the story of LeSean Thomas, the creator, producer, and director of the Netflix-produced anime Yasuke, bear a resemblance when viewed side-by-side. Like Yasuke, LeSean is a man of considerable talents who found success and purpose in a land half a world apart from his home country.
Growing up in the South Bronx, Thomas started out as a comic artist and storyboarder before moving to North Carolina, and scoring a gig as the character supervisor on Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks. But despite relative success, Thomas yearned for more. In 2009, the animator relocated to Seoul, South Korea, working on such shows as The Legend of Korra and Black Dynamite, the latter of which he served as a creative producer and supervising director. He finally achieved his goal of directing in 2019 with the premiere of Cannon Busters, a fantasy action series first funded on Kickstarter in 2014 before being acquired by Netflix.
His latest series Yasuke, a second collaboration with Netflix, is a star-studded production, produced by the venerable Japanese animation house MAPPA, co-produced by musician Flying Lotus (who serves as the series’ composer), character designs courtesy of Redline director Takeshi Koike, and voice cast led by Judas and the Black Messiah star LaKeith Stanfield. Yasuke is a sci-fi fantasy take on the life of its eponymous protagonist, an African servant brought to Japan by Jesuit traders who would later serve under Oda Nobunaga as a samurai. Several years after the violent end of Nobunaga’s reign, Yasuke abandons the sword and assumes a new life as a reclusive ferryman. But when a young girl from his village begins to suffer from a mysterious ailment, Yasuke is charged with safeguarding her to a doctor, all while being hunted by mysterious foreign mercenaries who believe the child’s condition hides a formidable, untapped power.
Polygon spoke with Thomas ahead of the Yasuke’s season 1 premiere on April 29 to talk about how his collaboration with Takeshi Koike came about, comparisons made between the series and 2007’s Afro Samurai, and the historical research and narrative care that went into the design and backstory of the series’ cast of characters.
[Ed. note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.]
Anime fans will make comparisons between Yasuke and Fuminori Kizaki’s 2007 series Afro Samurai. But Yasuke strikes a very different tone in its approach to a similar subject matter. How do you feel about the series existing in conversation with Afro Samurai?
I’m glad you brought that up. Two people today have already mentioned the parallels between the two today. It’s natural, y’know? It’s basically like, we are conditioned to a certain type of content that we see. African Americans, in particular, haven’t had a great track record of being showrunners for animated TV shows. It’s just not really our lane yet compared to our contemporary peers of lighter pigment in the industry. So when you have a project like Afro Samurai that comes out … it was awesome. It was just really nice to see that happen, and I consider that as an entry into a space of things that we don’t normally see. Because of America’s education on xenophobia and ethnocentrism, we know that Afro Samurai’s appeal is that he is a Black man in Japan, which is considered not a normal thing by the majority who view Japan as a homogenous culture. Yasuke is going to be treated the exact same way. There’s nothing you can do about that.
The difference between Afro Samurai and Yasuke is that Afro Samurai was sort of a self-insert, a fictional insert to an idea and premise that celebrated a love of Black culture. [Takashi Okazaki] created Afro Samurai, in his own words, because he was influenced by Black culture; disco, afros, music, and all that stuff. For him, it started as a love founded in high school and college, and then he turned that love into a character and created a story and then it got turned into a series. Next thing you know, you’ve got Samuel L. Jackson and the genius RZA onboard and it became a thing. He wasn’t influenced by [the real] Yasuke to make that story. Afro Samurai is like us Americans creating Kill Bill: you give a blonde girl a katana and call it Bushido. It’s a surface love letter to a culture that is not his own, but nonetheless loves. He can’t speak English in the same way I can’t speak Japanese except, in the case of what I’m creating with Yasuke, my source material is this guy that actually existed in Japanese culture and no one’s done a story about him yet. So here’s an opportunity for us to celebrate this. This story was going to be told whether Afro Samurai existed or not, that’s my true belief. It was on [Fuminori Kizaki] to use his enthusiasm and brilliance to create this show based on this fictional character born out of this love for both Black culture and Japanese culture.
So when it comes to the question of putting Afro Samurai and Yasuke together and comparing the two, that’s just the way that it is. And when you add marginalization into the mix, you’re bound to see the two pitted against each other. We can’t just exist at the same time, that’s not fun as a Black person, you got to be competing against one another right? [laughter] I mean that sarcastically, of course. That’s going to be an unavoidable conversation and when you present it through media and marketing and hype, everyone’s going to respond to that and give their own response to that like. Afro Samurai was first, so obviously there’s the element of nostalgia attached to that so for some that makes it undefeatable, right? These are all the elements that make for an interesting conversation among people. What I’m interested in is how people will receive Yasuke. Is he going to live on as a character in the way that Afro Samurai did? I think that’s the exciting part about all of this, but the comparisons are inevitable.
When Boondocks — I think it was either season 3 or 4 — came out, I was working on Black Dynamite season 1, and both Black Dynamite and The Boondocks were airing on Adult Swim at the same time. And I was excited about it because I worked on the first series of the first IP and now here I was as the producer and supervising director of the second IP. I remember telling the showrunner, my boss Carl Jones at the time, “Yo, we got two Black-led animated shows on TV at the same time!” But everyone else was just concerned about comparisons. “Oh, Black Dynamite is better than Boondocks” “No, Boondocks is better.” Yadda yadda yadda. I was just like man, that’s unfortunate, that’s the nature of the game. That’s the nature of the society we live in, culturally. So I welcome that conversation. I welcome comparisons because there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s just the space we’re living in.
Yasuke is the main character of the series, but he’s not the sole Black character in the series. Can you tell me more about what went into the design of Achoja, the Beninese shaman who works as a mercenary for the antagonist Abraham? Is he something of a foil to Yasuke?
Yeah, of course! I’m really glad you brought that up. Achoja is a character we really didn’t get a chance to build on because it’s a short story and we didn’t have a lot of time to do long-winded backstories on all the characters. At the time, he’s a shaman from the Benin Kingdom, which is now Southern Nigeria. At that time period in 1602 the Benin Kingdom was, I believe, at the height of its powers. We introduced Achoja because we wanted to play around with the idea that in Yasuke’s time in his story he was the only Black character, but just 20 years later, there are far more foreigners coming in. In 1602, the Nanban trade was nearing its end, Japan was about to go into isolation at the beginning of the Edo era, the Battle of Sekigahara had already happened with Tokugawa having defeated Toyotomi, and now Tokugawa rules all of Japan.
So we liked this idea of people still coming in yet not knowing that Japan was now off-limits. There was a movie, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which kind of spoke to that period. So I understood that time period and wanted to introduce the idea of foreigners coming to Japan during the Nanban trade period, between the mid-1500s all the way to the early 1600s. And this was just a regular thing. So it’s natural for there to be a character that’s a Russian or a Catholic priest and so on and so forth. That was an opportunity to introduce side characters or villains to give Yasuke someone to fight, and then use those pieces as motifs to introduce a foreign angle to it. Achoja was one of them with the idea of, well, you’re not the only Black in Japan. And that is the dynamic between the two of them.
If you look at the history, Africans have been coming with the Jesuits for a very, very long time.
I mean, it was actually encouraged at a certain point where you bring Africans with you on your ships when you arrive for trade, import, export, or whatever, because it made you more valuable. So this idea that Yasuke was the only Black guy in Japan is not true — there were tons of Africans arriving as servants, as crewmen, and so on. When you look at a lot of the old Ukiyo-e paintings of the Nanban trade online, you’ll find portrayals of Black men everywhere, just all over those Japanese paintings. So they were around, but for the sake of the story, we wanted to play with that idea of Achoja as the Black guy foil to Yasuke.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but for me working in an all-white space growing up as an artist, I’ve had the experience that, if there’s this other Black guy that’s been there for a long time, he’s shaped these white folks’ idea of what it means to be Black until the other Black guy shows up, and then he’s like, “Man, we don’t do that shit! I’m the alternative! His version of the Black experience is not my version of the Black experience!” I think Achoja is a symbol of that in a sort of tongue-in-cheek fun kind of way. That was the idea behind his design, and I’m glad you brought him up because he’s one of my favorite characters.
Takashi Koike, known for Redline, Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, the Afro Samurai pilot, is one of the series’ primary character designers. How did you and Koike first meet, and what was it like collaborating with him on the project?
So Taiki Sakurai, who is the chief producer of anime at Netflix Japan, was a huge cheerleader for this project when I pitched it to him in 2017. It was also Taiki Sakurai who convinced Manabu Otsuka, the CEO of MAPPA, to bring Takeshi Koike on board. Little known fact: Taiki Sakurai, who was with us when we first announced the character designs for Yasuke in October, the guy responsible for all the anime being made for Netflix, was the writer of Redline, and he and Takeshi Koike are really close friends. So when this project came through, Sakurai was like, “I want to get Takeshi Koike on this.” I was like, “I didn’t say that; you said it,” because saying you want to get Takeshi Koike on your show y’know is like saying, “I want to get Beyoncé to do a guest verse on my song.”
It wound up working out that Otsuka-san is a close friend of Koike, and Koike’s done a lot of work with MAPPA like Dororo’s opening intro and a bunch of other projects. It was an easy sell, once we presented this to Koike-san. He jumped on it because he thought it was a really interesting take, a fascinating story, and it was a part of Japanese history that he didn’t really know about either. So it was just good timing and opportunity as far as getting Koike on-board.
Working with him was tricky at first because I was such a fanboy that when he handed in the designs, I wouldn’t even critique them. I wouldn’t critique them for what we needed for the show, I was just excited to get Koike’s stuff. So I had to recalibrate my brain and be like, OK, this is an incredible drawing, but this is not the direction we want to go. So how do you correct Koike? How do you give Koike notes? [laughter] I think the thing that really worked with him, and I’ll never forget this, when I first presented the idea and had a meeting with him I said, “Listen, if you need any references I’ll send you all of my images and photos and stuff that I have in mind or whatever to help you with your ideas for the characters.” He was like, “Nope, I don’t need anything; I’m on board, I love this project, I’m gonna go in.” And when I say he went in, I mean over 200 illustrations and character designs for this project. Like he went all the way in, including with the promotional art. He was just really excited about this project and it shows through his work. I was super privileged to work with him.
All six episodes of Yasuke season 1 premiere on Netflix on April 29.