After working in the animation industry for two decades, LeSean Thomas has left his mark on many successful projects in several different capacities. Born in New York and based in Tokyo, Thomas has worked as a storyboard artist on shows such as The Legend of Korra, Ben 10, and Kim Possible. His career took a bold turn when working as a supervising character designer and director on Adult Swim’s The Boondocks and Black Dynamite. He has since made the trivial leap into anime with the Netflix show Cannon Busters, based on his very own graphic novel.
Thomas’ latest project, which is another in the Netflix family, is Yasuke – a six-episode anime series loosely based on the historical figure of the same name. Voiced by Academy Award nominee LaKeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah), the series follows Yasuke, a samurai of African origin in an alternate feudal-era Japan. While trying to live a peaceful existence in a world of magic, mechs, and warfare, Yasuke is forced to return to his way of the sword in order to protect a mysterious girl from dark forces.
We had the chance to sit down with LeSean Thomas and delve into Yasuke. We touch upon his career in animation, working with the talents of LaKeith Stanfield and Flying Lotus, and the differences between working in Western and Japanese animation. We, of course, also get a tease of his hopes to continue Yasuke in the future.
What inspired you to put Yasuke, such a historical figure, into this fantastical science-fiction setting?
LeSean Thomas: At the time that I started crafting the story in 2016 and then pitching it to Netflix in 2017, I had already seen that there were rumblings in the form of independent comic-books, people attempting to adapt this story. All of those approaches were biopics. I knew that I didn’t want to be in the crosshairs of historian criticism or those who feel they need to put a negative light on the project because it didn’t accurately portray the theories that are out there, because everything out there is still theories. No one knows his real name, no one knows where he came from. There are popular theories that he came from Mozambique, but that’s still a theory, it’s not fact. No one can confirm whether he was an actual slave or not. Some say he was a servant. There are all these different theories, and I didn’t want to try to sell people that this is a true story.
When we did our initial marketing for the show, I think last year when we first released the images, it was me kind of slowly guiding Netflix to make sure that they understood to market this as a fantasy adventure, it is not a historical drama. Because for the average viewer, when they think historical, they think school, and history is not their favorite subject, right? (laughs) So I understood that and understood that we were working in the realm of television animation production, and more importantly, through the lens of Japanese animation.
I wanted to make it very clear that we were doing a fantastical story, a story where we sort of romanticized this historical figure. The same way Japan romanticizes their Jūbei Mitsuyoshi’s, Hattori Hanzō’s, and Miyamoto Musashi’s of their culture. And even Nobunaga, the demon, anytime they do a story with him in animation or media, he’s either time traveling or riding mechs or doing all kinds of crazy stuff. I felt that seemed to be the culture of jidaigeki fantasy anime, I wanted to create a story that honored that and stayed within the space of Japanese history while also catering to a western audience. So telling a story where Yasuke’s life begins at the end of Honnō-ji frees us from the shackles of history and not only creates a new action hero, but an action hero we can tell multiple adventures with. That’s the reason we chose to go that route, so no one could question our version of Yasuke. It allows us to do that we want to do, it was a very intentional approach.
So that’s to say that it’s a story built around Yasuke, and the fantasy elements didn’t come first?
LeSean Thomas: Actually, when Flying Lotus came onto the story, that’s when it got fantastical. He introduced the female character, the young girl. I was like, “Oh, that’s very interesting. So now we can do Japanese magic. This is kind of like Nioh, this is like Onimusha,” the video game, I used to play on PlayStation. The Japanese magic, spiritualism, demons, and stuff like that… because it’s Yasuke, we’re conditioned to think that we need to see a historical biopic before we see him do these fantastical things, and I think that’s always the approach when they see the show.
Since you mentioned Flying Lotus, the music is very electronic and ethereal, but it also uses traditional Japanese instruments and you don’t hear that combination in anime often. What was the curating process for the soundtrack like?
LeSean Thomas: I can’t speak for [Flying Lotus], but I’m a huge fan. I own all of his albums. It was a dream to find out that he even wanted to score the music, let alone want to contribute and create with me. I just thought that was a dream come true. And to my knowledge, he was having a hard time finding the sound for Yasuke at first. I think a lot of it came from the way we produce content in Japan. We don’t score music to picture in Japan, music is produced before the final picture is done in Japanese animation, and that’s really difficult for western producers who are used to our TV production. We get our final picture and then we score to picture. Feature films in Japan score before picture too, but for TV shows [we] usually score with a music menu. You have to make the music up first and then it gets repeated every episode before final picture is done.
I think [Flying Lotus] had a challenge with that because MAPPA wanted the production process to be the way they produce Japanese animation so that things can be smoother. It wasn’t until he saw the first sword sequence, it was [an] unfinished fight sequence in an episode two flashback where Yasuke fights eleven Iga ninjas and he kills all of them! (laughs) It was one of the first finished scenes we got and I sent that to him. He was like, “Oh my god, I got it.” Then he was scoring just from that. He uses classic synthesizers. One of his favorites that he uses is the famous synthesizer that I think Vangelis used to create the soundtrack for Blade Runner. And you hear a lot of that, those Blade Runner-esque synths. That’s the kind of thing that Flying Lotus does, and him coming hot off Blade Runner: Black Out 2022, which is one of my favorite animated shows ever, he brought that vibe in but still wanted to keep that Japanese percussion. It was a very interesting, organic, “dog chases its tail to the finish line” kind of scenario. It really worked out though. Incredible music.
I absolutely agree. Now, you’ve been working with Japanese animation studios for a while now, how does working with a Japanese studio differ from a western studio in your experience?
LeSean Thomas: I don’t think there’s any difference at all if you’re talking about script to final delivery and production. I did just highlight the process of how music plays a role, that’s slightly different. But everything is pre-production, main production, and post-production. The only difference is the language and the culture (laughs). Culture is different in different regions, but even within the regions, studios have different cultures. Some studios in Japan are not comfortable working with foreigners. They don’t have a lot of experience working with foreigners. They don’t sometimes have the patience to insert a non-speaking native into the production process, no matter how skilled they are. They would just rather things be smooth because there’s just not a lot of time to experiment and take risks. Then there are other studios who are open to that. Satelight was open to working with me when I did Cannon Busters, they were open to working with me because they had a history of working with foreigners.
MAPPA is a young, vibrant, powerful, hungry studio and they are a byproduct of today’s generation. A lot of young, late 20s [and] early 30s talents. This is just ubiquitous for them. Ootsuka-san, the CEO and president of MAPPA, he’s a forward-thinking guy. He wants to prove that people from different regions and cultures can collaborate on something. He believes this and that’s why he took on [Yasuke]. The west is different obviously, they have their way of doing things. I’ve been working in the American animation industry for a very long time, and I think that’s why I was able to transition, even with the culture and language barriers here in Japan. Having worked in animation storyboards and character design, I was able to use that to guide the project, even with my assistant who is my interpreter and translator for production. Also, with American TV shows, we outsource most of our animated content to South Korea, whereas Japan doesn’t outsource most of their content. They outsource maybe just marginal parts of the production to South Korea [since] they animate most of their stuff in-house.
The series does feel very wrapped up by the end. You’ve introduced so many cool characters and it does feel like there’s an ending, but do you have any ideas to continue with Yasuke in the future?
LeSean Thomas: I would love to say more about it, but I just want people to focus on this show and get excited about this show. Like all things, if the response is what we want it to be, anything’s possible.
The show has a fantastic cast and you’ve got LaKeith Stanfield leading, who is incredible. Since he’s the star voice and an executive producer on the series, what was it like working with him?
LeSean Thomas: I don’t meet many young people his age who are so focused and professional. As someone who has worked with so many personalities in television production, acting, writing, directing – it’s rare to see someone so professional and on point. Things happened fairly quickly with LaKeith. He was instrumental in the early stages when we were negotiating the project. He was very adamant about making sure we focused on Yasuke’s psychological trauma, and we tried to implement that throughout the show. Pepper it in flashbacks and nightmare sequences. It’s always recurring, that sequence in Honnō-ji where he had to do the honor of his lord’s seppuku ritual. That was something LaKeith was adamant about and I think we did a good job of honoring that. He was instrumental in adding to Yasuke’s psychological state.
We recorded in English first and that was great, but then COVID happened and we needed dialogue pickups, and LaKeith was filming in New Mexico. We had to get him microphones and record over the phone, and he was just constantly professional, on point, and enthusiastic. Every time we sent him stuff for dialogue pickups, more of the show would be finished, so he would see it and be like, “Man, this show looks so gorgeous. This is an incredible looking show” as he was working on it. It’s just really great to work with him, man. He’s a talented brother and I’m just happy about all the love he’s getting right now.