Yasuke Creator LeSean Thomas on Breaking the Anime Mold

From Cannon Busters to Yasuke, LeSean Thomas reimagines anime with groundbreaking work for Netflix.

Yasuke LeSean Thomas Interview
Photo: Netflix

Yasuke is the latest anime series from maverick creator LeSean Thomas. With the voice talents of Oscar-nominated LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You), Ming-Na Wen (The Mandalorian), Darren Criss (Glee), and Keone Young (Men in Black 3) to name a few, plus a soundtrack by Grammy-nominated artist Flying Lotus, Yasuke is an imaginative fantasy world of mechs and demons, set against the backdrop of feudal Japan. The titular character of Yasuke is based on a real historical figure, the first known Black samurai who lived in the mid-sixteenth century. 

Previously in 2019, Thomas delivered another well-regarded Netflix anime titled Cannon Busters. That was a crazy mashup of Wild West towns, transformer mechs, aliens, and droids. It’s just the sort of genre bending fare that only comics and anime can provide. Cannon Busters has a nod to samurai folklore too. There is a drunken ronin named 9ine who is connected to the legend of the 47 Ronin. But it’s only a passing reference while Yasuke centers around the titular samurai, reenacting some actual historical battles that he fought, with a few added battle mechs. 

Like the historic Yasuke, Thomas is a Black gaijin (foreigner) who has immigrated to Japan. A native of the South Bronx, Thomas currently works out of Tokyo. Previously he lived in South Korea, where the bulk of animation is produced nowadays. Thomas is a major proponent of the growing movement towards cross-cultural collaboration in anime production. Both Yasuke and Cannon Busters are diverse, testaments to the commitment of Netflix on cross-cultural productions. Den of Geek got on Zoom to chat with LeSean Thomas in Japan. 

Den of Geek: I’m sure a lot of the reporters are comparing your experience being African American in Japan to Yasuke. How do you feel about that?

Ad – content continues below

LeSean Thomas: I think it’s natural. When people who don’t have a lot of experience with cultural mixing and are in extreme homogeneous environments like Japan, foreigners are going to stand out. And if (that question) is coming from an American lens or a Western lens, where we’re all heavily aware and influenced by America’s history with African Americans in general, they’ll put that together be like, “Huh, that’s interesting. What’s that about?” I expect it, so it’s cool.

Do you speak Japanese? 

I don’t speak Japanese that well. I know very little. I took some language courses but most of my work is done with the help of my really, really valuable executive assistant. He’s my interpreter and my translator. I’ve been working like this since 2017 between Cannon Busters and Yasuke so it works really well. But more importantly, the Japanese studios that I work with are incredibly open-minded and graceful to allow that process because that’s not always the case with Japanese animation studios.

A lot of them only have time to do things the Japanese way. They don’t have time to insert these unique approaches. So, I’m really grateful for both Sanwa and MAPPA for being open-minded and allowing me to produce TV shows the way I produce them. That’s a big part of it. It’s not just me.

Something that really struck me about watching Cannon Busters was that it wasn’t until maybe halfway through that the characters even registered as Black to me. Maybe it was because they were speaking Japanese. Can you speak to the trend of diversity in anime?

I’m really glad you brought that up because that was all intentional. The reason why Cannon Busters feels that way – and that makes me really happy that you said that because – aside of the enthusiasm and showing love to all of my favorite animes in the ’90s – there’s an underlying motif that if you remove African Americans from the struggle, what are we? What are we if we’re not the Negro? What are we if we’re not labeled what the white colonizers of the past labeled us and positioned us here as?

Ad – content continues below

If we’re no longer that, what are we? What’s our struggle? What’s the issue? And I think a lot of times unfortunately and because of history, we’ve only been allowed to communicate our identity through our struggle and our past struggles and our trauma. And African Americans, my lens is only going to be my lens. The Black experience is nuanced and varied just because this guy next to me is Black. The only thing we have in common is that we don’t like racism, but I don’t know this dude. You know what I mean? And we’re not allowed to be that way.

So, when I create a character like in Cannon Busters, what if I just remove these brown characters from earth and put them in another dimension? Now, they’re not complaining about earth things, they’re not complaining about American racism, they’re not talking about hip hop, they’re not talking about how hard it is to be Black because they got lizards and all kinds of monsters and robots and all that stuff. And people are just no longer defined by their skin color, but their character, they just happen to be Black.

We’re not used to seeing that kind of content. The closest we usually get to it is if we put Black people in a safe, taxpaying nuclear family in the middle-class, that’s like the victory for Black people in society. You know what I mean? And we tell those types of stories. We don’t get to be equal to white people yet so we have to pretend that we are. And once we are, then we will start seeing ourselves in other galaxies and telling those kinds of stories. So, I understand that as an African American from an American lens and I think a project like Cannon Busters that’s kind of what it was.

It’s a very simple thing when you think about it because white people do that all the time. They never complain about being white because they are the norm. What happens if Blacks were the norm and they’re not in that space. So, that’s what Cannon Busters was. It was an experiment with that. 

How did you manage to get LaKeith Stanfield onboard with Yasuke?

That was a Netflix thing. I pitched the show in early 2017, right after we secured Cannon Busters before I moved here in the fall of 2017 to start production on the show. And my first meeting with Netflix was just me and I pitched them three shows and Yasuke was one of the show ideas. And then at the second meeting, they brought me back in, LaKeith was there. At the time, I didn’t really know who LaKeith was. I recognized him from Atlanta but I didn’t really watch that show fully. I was so busy trying to get my own projects off the ground, I wasn’t watching a lot of cable shows at the time.

Ad – content continues below

I knew who he was because he would be the character in Atlanta who would have the katana, right? Darius, his character. So, when he showed up to the meeting with his manager, Colin, he had a katana with him, you know what I mean? Look, he brought a katana with him so he was totally jazzed about it, totally involved in the story. And he was in the second meeting with us and we had a long conversation about LaKeith wanting to interpret Yasuke as a troubled guy, traumatized, not because of his skin color, but because of what he apparently endured during history, actual history, the Honno-ji incident.

Being from Africa and then traveling with Jesuits and then being in Japan and being with this guy who unified half of Japan by himself and then was there the last year of his life, it must’ve been insane for him. So, Lakeith wanted to take that concept and insert that into our character. That’s his trauma, a guy who’s running from his past, who’s hiding, who just wants to be left alone and circumstances forces him to revisit his past and the things that he’s kept secret that’s been bothering him. 

LaKeith had quite a bit of input then?

Oh yeah, absolutely. My story of Yasuke was a very straightforward story, still kind of the story we had but minus the fantastical elements that Flying Lotus brought to the story as well. So, it was a really cool collaboration that I was open to adding if it fit the story, then I’d be happy to add it. And I thought it worked out pretty good.

There’s going to be a natural comparison between Yasuke and Samurai Jack and Afro Samurai. How do you feel about that?

The fact that you had to say Samurai Jack and Afro Samurai and you couldn’t list anything else, says a lot, right? I mean, this is still early territory for Westerners being exposed to American depictions of Jidaigeki stories. [Jidaigeki means ‘period dramas’ and is a term used for samurai period movies and TV. Some allege that George Lucas derived ‘Jedi’ from Jidaigeki.]

Ad – content continues below

I mean, American lens, you have Genndy [Tartakovsky] who created Samurai Jack and then you have [Takashi] Okazaki-san who is a Japanese guy who was in love with Black culture and created Afro Samurai. Americans really took to that obviously because that’s not something we normally see at a high animation level quality way, so it’s only natural.

I mean, why haven’t there been any other American show creators making samurai-based stories? Is it a cultural thing or people uncomfortable with that topic? Are they not in love with the genre enough to tell those types of stories, the Jidaigeki stories? Obviously, Afro Samurai comes from a Japanese fan, that’s his culture, but what’s Genndy’s excuse? Why haven’t networks approved these animated shows based on samurais? I think that’s the bigger question for me.

I hope Yasuke adds to the enthusiasm that Afro Samurai and Samurai Jack brought into play now. This is a successful theme that can be built upon. So, that’s how I feel about it. I don’t see it any other way but that way.

Both of those are like deep fantasies, whereas your story is rooted more in the Sengoku period [1467-1615]. I mean, sure, you’ve got robots and werebears but you’ve also got history.

That’s a good point. Samurai Jack and Afro Samurai, both of those are post-apocalyptic dystopian adventures, where our story is rooted in a version of the Sengoku era so yeah, I agree with you. And I think that’s what makes Yasuke unique, it allows it to stand out on his own. Until people see the show, they’re going to draw comparisons to Afro Samurai but I guarantee you, when they’re done with the show, it couldn’t be further from the same thing. Afro Samurai was not like Yasuke. The only thing they have in common is that they’re Black samurais.

I was thinking Afro Samurai going into it but after watching that first battle scene, I was like, “Okay, this is different.”

Ad – content continues below

That’s the attempt, it’s to get people to see and hear something different and be like, “Wow, this is different but familiar.” So, I’m really glad you took from that in that way.

Yasuke and Cannon Busters are available to stream on Netflix now.