Netflix’s anime selection is huge and growing by the day. One new original project in particular — Yasuke, created by LeSean Thomas and starring LaKeith Stanfield — tells a true story but uses some truly fantastical elements to do it. Gizmodo recently spoke to head writer Nick Jones Jr. about his journey to becoming a writer, the worldbuilding process, and the future of the series.
Jones Jr. grew up in Alabama, where the Tuskegee Airmen were his heroes, and always knew he would be a storyteller. Like many of us, he considers himself a big nerd; he would run home from school to watch anime like Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon, loved playing video games — especially Gundam: Battle Assault, the Metal Gear games, and Resident Evil — and watching movies. After graduating high school, he went on to play college football but the need to write and create worlds was his ultimate goal. It wasn’t until he met President Barack Obama that he decided to pursue screenwriting, which led him to work with animator LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters) on the animated series Yasuke.
For those who aren’t aware, Yasuke was a real person mostly forgotten by history until now. A 1.83 m tall man from Mozambique, Yasuke was the first Samurai of African origin and arrived in Japan in 1579 as the slave of an Italian Jesuit missionary. The high-ranking lord Oda Nobunaga took a liking to Yasuke as he was the first African Nobunaga he had ever seen, and possibly the only non-Japanese bodyguard in Nobunaga service. Yasuke fought alongside Nobunaga in the battle of Tenmokuzan, but when he was attacked by another clan and lost, Nobunaga committed seppuku. It’s at this moment in Yasuke’s life that Jones Jr. begins the animated series.
Valerie Complex, Gizmodo: When did you know writing for film and TV was something you wanted to pursue?
Nick Jones Jr.: I always had the dream of working in Hollywood. I was a Black kid in the deep South. My escape was movies. But you know, growing up with collard greens and sugar canes in your front yard, Hollywood felt unreachable. I joined the Marines and was carrying my pack for a few years and figured that was going to be my life for the next 20 [years]. Then I met President Obama. He asked me what I wanted to do and he told me to do it. When the president tells you to do something you do it. Meeting Obama was the fork in the road moment of my life. Everything changed after that. He’s the reason I’m here today.
Gizmodo: How did you learn about Yasuke, and what about his story stood out for you?
Jones Jr.: I initially learned about Yasuke when I was stationed in Japan. It was super isolated so I was the only Black guy on the island where we were. I guess someone just felt I needed to know about the man [laughs]. I really appreciated Yasuke’s sense of honour and devotion to the ideals of Bushido. I related to that loyalty with my devotion to the Corps and the Marines under my charge.
Gizmodo: How did you two conceptualize the world Yasuke would live in and the characters he would interact with?
Jones Jr.: When I came aboard the project I knew I wanted to dive into the trauma and survivor’s guilt of the character. Having served myself, unfortunately, I’ve known a few people that have taken their own life. And they were damn good Marines. I carried their caskets. So I knew the pain that came with being the one to have to carry on. It feels a lot like quicksand. The more you move the more you sink, so you just stand still because it hurts to do anything else.
With Yasuke, I started with that, Nobunaga’s ritual suicide and how that would’ve affected a man that cared for him, especially if he assisted in the suicide. It’s a dark hole and it takes a lot to climb out of. So a lot of the characters he interacts with are obstacles in that journey. When you’re lost in the dark the smallest light can guide you out. That’s what Saki represents — the young girl he’s tasked to protect. Purpose goes a long way. It gives you something other than yourself to live for, to fight for, and for me, that’s a motivation I get any time I hold my five-year-old daughter. So I wanted to start with those grounded emotions. The fantastical elements are an extension from that, like branches to a tree.
Gizmodo: When did LaKeith Stanfield come into the picture? What makes him perfect to voice Yasuke?
Jones Jr.: LaKeith is such a cerebral cat. He’s someone who’s interested in the underlying layers of character and emotion, and he’s not afraid to confront the demons that he uncovers when diving into that abyss. That takes honesty and imagination. Who better to take on that challenge? Dude’s a beast of a talent. He has a quiet strength that embodies the way of the samurai. I love his passion and commitment.
Gizmodo: Was Netflix involved from the beginning? Or was the idea being shopped around?
Jones Jr.: The head of Netflix Anime reached out to me from a recommendation. He told me they had a Yasuke project with LaKeith Stanfield attached. Honestly, they had me at LaKeith. I’d been following his work since Short Term 12. I knew I wanted to work with him. Period.
Gizmodo: What are three things anime fans can look forward to before watching the show?
Jones Jr.: I think people can look forward to learning a bit of history about a great man who defied the odds and became more than the sum of what his circumstances allowed him to be. People can definitely look forward to the spectacle — it’s studio MAPPA. Enough said. There are some top-notch fights and the battles are amazing. And third, the music. It’s definitely a vibe.
Gizmodo: What do you see for the future of the series?
Jones Jr.: I designed the story as an introduction to this world. We’ve got threads that would allow us to tell prequels, sequels to the story we’re currently telling, and even spin-offs for some of the supporting cast.
Yasuke also features the voice talents of Ming-Na Wen, Takehiro Hira, Maya Tanida, and more. The six-episode series is now streaming on Netflix.