Yasuke recently arrived on Netflix with striking visuals (from Japanese animation studio MAPPA) and a trippy score (courtesy of Flying Lotus), both of which help complete the experience of watching, but make no mistake: the story itself is consciousness-expanding. The six-part series dives into the mind of history’s first Black samurai and imagines what his life would be like after a nearly unfathomable trauma. Twenty years later, Yasuke’s attempting a quiet life in a feudal village, but he can’t shake the memories of his mentor, the warlord Nobunaga, committing forced suicide (by the ritual known as “seppuku”) in front of him. To somehow make matters even worse, Yasuke (voiced by LaKeith Stanfield) was tasked with cutting off Nobunaga’s head during the ritual, and let’s just say that all subsequent bets of a calm mind were out the door.
Following that trauma, Yasuke evaporated from the history books, which encouraged plenty of creative license in the writing department. That’s where Nick Jones Jr. (Hulu’s Casual) arrived as head writer alongside creator/director/producer LeSean Thomas (The Boondocks, Cannon Busters, and Black Dynamite). Together, they explored lingering fallout from Yasuke’s ordeal as a launching point for abundant creative liberties. So yes, that means magic and mechs were on the table, and it’s not too bizarre for a samurai to face off with a giant werewolf. In short, Yasuke picks up the sword again to protect a young girl from mysterious forces, and not all is what it seems. The series arrives in a compact package, but there’s still a lot to absorb, and Nick Jones Jr. was gracious enough to talk it out with us.
Nick, you recently tweeted about serving as a U.S. Marine in Japan and feeling “a bit of a full-circle moment” after writing about the first Black man to serve alongside Japanese forces.
Looking back, it’s just kind-of crazy knowing I was there and actually had the opportunity to work alongside Japanese military forces. It puts a lot of things in perspective, looking at Yasuke’s history of being a Black man and being in the same situation, working alongside Nobunaga and Japanese forces from the time, so it just felt right, like this full-circle moment, being able to look back and be like, “Yo, I was actually there, boots on the ground in my own way.” There was some synergy with things that I was able to do in my military career and the things that Yasuke did with his.
Not to take away from the way that Yasuke’s story hits hard culturally, but I was initially intrigued after hearing about this series because my grandmother was Japanese and married into the military, and that’s a whole mindset.
Yeah, this just hits people differently! And I think that this whole project, over the last couple of months, it’s come to a trip down memory line with us starting this process three years ago, and also to dive back into those emotions that I drew for in character development for Yasuke. This took me back to my military days and not just in Japan but while serving in the Marines altogether, and it’s tough, especially when you’re, in my case, a Black man that’s in a space that’s predominantly white, which speaks to the military experience as well. It definitely takes some maneuvering in a lot of places and for me, coming from the South, it’s crazy. It’s dope and took me through a lot of emotions that I’d had, and the honor that I had for serving my country in the military, which is probably the same feeling that Yasuke would have had, since he was given this purpose after being brought there and finding this new family and purpose and having honor and to fight for something. I don’t think there’s any greater feeling than having a purpose and finding something to fight for.
Why do you believe that Yasuke fell out of the history books?
There’s that quote, “The victors write the history books.” Obviously, with Nobunaga being the guy that he was and being progressive in a lot of ways, and Yasuke being a product of Nobunaga, the fact that ultimately he lost, it was a lot of “trying to hold onto traditions and the Old Way.” And in a case like that, someone like Yasuke, who was loyal to the losing side, I think that played more into it than anything else. Nobunaga wasn’t successful in the end, and a lot of things that Nobunaga stood for and people that he brought with him weren’t celebrated or hung onto in the way that they would have, had Nobunaga succeeded.
I was also thinking it could be along the lines of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, with history being resurfaced after certain parties, you know, intentionally buried it.
Oh, I remember watching that show and going on Twitter with people asking, “Did this really happen, is this real?” I knew about it, but that’s because it’s my history and not necessarily white history and history that people wanted to acknowledge, but Tulsa wasn’t the only place like that. They were doing it all over the United States. If there was a Black neighborhood, they were burning it down, and in Tulsa’s case, dropping bombs on it, literally. That’s a lot of the underbelly of a lot of the history that gets too mucky for some people to accept that it happened. Some people are like, “Nazis didn’t exist,” and I’m like, “Of course they existed, we fought them in a war!”
Well, during my review of Yasuke, I very classily wrote that I was wondering what you and LeSean Thomas were smoking when you wrote the show.
Ahhh yes, I laughed at that! You were like, “I don’t know what they were smoking when they wrote this stuff, but you should just go with it.” [Laughs]
So… were you smoking something or…. no?
Well, I can assure you that I wasn’t smoking something when I was writing it, but I can’t make the same promise as I watch it, soooo…. Obviously, LeSean brings in the anime pedigree with all of the stuff that she’s worked on, dating back to his time on Boondocks and how he brought in a lot of that flavor and style in the fight sequences in his show, Cannon Busters, so when Netflix brought us to together for this project, I was like, “Dope, dope, dope.”
And not only was there a lot of anime flavor, but a hefty emotional component to the writing as well.
One of the things that I wanted to infuse on my end was that military mindset that Yasuke would have, being that he’s a samurai and a general, and these forces in Japan, and also diving into some of the underlying emotions and trauma and PTSD, which I felt that he would definitely have, if we’re telling story twenty years down the line with the current storyline of him with Sake. Comparing that to my experience in the Marines and having friends that committed suicide, and having to personally carry their caskets at funerals, and knowing how that made me feel. You feel like you’re in quicksand and can’t move because any movement you make hurts, and knowing that pain, I felt like it would be like that plus some, being in a situation like Yasuke, where there are some that believe that he was Nobunaga’s Kaishakunin.
It doesn’t seem like anyone could shake that off, ever.
If you’re given that job, where someone commits seppuku, you have to chop their head off, how would you feel if your friend and mentor not only commits suicide in front of you, but you have to participate in the act? It would mess you up, and I wanted to start from that point and build the story out from there, emotionally. And it’s just like, what are the circumstances, events, and relationships that get you to that point, and then what’s the trauma and the emotion that lingers on after that point. And then after that, like I said, with LeSean bringing in that anime aesthetic, it’s like, great, let’s throw in the mechs, let’s throw in the mercenaries, let’s throw in the magic. And I was like, “Fuck yeah!” Oh wait, can I cuss?
Are you kidding? Go for it.
Yeah, and for me, just being an anime fan — I grew up and consumed as much as I could. Obviously, being in the South, I didn’t have a lot of outlets, but Cartoon Network Toonami saved my life, and I think USA Network had some anime on Saturday mornings at the time. That’s where I watched Street Fighter, but just being a fan of Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing, things like that. I think for me, it was obviously an opportunity and a dream to finally dive into the anime space and really do something that I felt would be a cultural event.
That anime space is so much more accessible in 2021 with Crunchyroll and every streaming service. Still, I think people are intimidated and don’t know where to start. Jim Belushi recently asked for recommendations on Twitter.
Tell him to start with Yasuke!
For when people want to dive in, do you have another go-to recommendation?
I’d say Akira and maybe Ghost in the Shell.
Not the movie with Scarlett Johansson, I take it.
Oh no no no, the original! And if you wanna jump into a series, Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing, that was one of my favorites growing up. Bleach is actually pretty cool. It’s out there, but it’s super dope, but there’s a lot of things Cowboy Bebop, but Akira and Ghost in the Shell, start there.
People wondered how Yasuke compares to Afro Samurai, which some believe was inspired by Yasuke’s legend. How would you differentiate the two?
Well, for one, I think there’s something to be said for Black creatives having the opportunity to tell the story about a Black man in Japan who was really there. And obviously, we’re diving off into alt-history and things of that nature, but to be rooted in fact with this particular historical figure. That sets it apart from anything else. This guy actually existed. He’s a real dude, and that’s the main point: we’re trying to shed light on someone real while telling a cool, trippy anime story on top of it.
What would you say about a Season 2? It seems like the story’s wrapped up in a nice bow, but maybe?
You know, I’d love to dive back in. I tried my best to seed in some stuff with prequels, and I think we’ve got some very cool supporting characters who could probably support their own side stories moving forward. And even with the nice bow we put at the end of it, I think there’s still an opportunity to continue on with Yasuke because, in the history books, he just kinda fades off, so we can write our own path for him like we did with this, where it’s twenty later, and what’s he been up to? Now that he’s been motivated to do what he does, I think there are a lot of avenues for him to move forward and to be this warrior that’s roaming Japan or maybe other places.
‘Yaskue’ is currently streaming on Netflix.