- Netflix announced in March it would release 40 anime shows this year.
- “Yasuke,” an anime about a Black samurai, was one of Netflix’s most popular shows last week.
- Head writer Nick Jones Jr. talked about the anime boom and the lack of Black representation.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of suicide and minor spoilers for Netflix’s “Yasuke.”
Anime is booming at Netflix.
The streaming giant announced in March that it would release 40 anime series this year after the success of “Blood of Zeus” in 2020.
“We want to be able to pride ourselves as being the top entertainment destination with good quality content,” Taiki Sakurai, Netflix’s chief anime producer, told Bloomberg in March. “The growth of our business is directly connected to the growth of our anime.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What attracted you to the series?
I already knew a bit about the character Yasuke through my time in the military and some time in Japan, so it was cool that I wasn’t coming into it completely blind. For me, he was one of those men in history I looked up to. For him to go to a completely different country, learn the customs and courtesies, learn their traditions, learn how to fight, become a general, and ascend to the ranks that he did was amazing.
How did your military service influence how you approached writing the series?
We knew we wanted to tell a lost warrior story and have Yasuke protect a child during the present-day storyline. So how did he get there? How did he become this recluse who’s just living off the land and rowing boats? That goes back to [his mentor] Oda Nobunaga and how he met his death by seppuku, which is a traditional warrior suicide in Japanese culture.
I likened that to my experience in the military, having friends that committed suicide in the Marines. I thought that was a good starting point for Yasuke. And then I wanted to ratchet it up a notch. Part of the seppuku tradition is that you can charge someone who’s with you to be a kaishakunin, who would chop your head off after you’ve gutted yourself.
I was thinking about how I felt emotionally having to carry caskets for guys I knew. Not only did Yasuke’s friend and mentor commit suicide, but he also participated in the act. That was the emotional point I wanted to start with and from there, it’s about the emotional journey that comes from that — the trauma and the PTSD that follows.
Was Netflix’s push into anime something you knew about or thought about at all coming into this?
I know Netflix has invested heavily. It’s a booming business. As an anime fan, I’m definitely aware of the popularity of it. I remember when I was growing up watching [Cartoon Network’s evening block of anime television] Toonami. Now with streaming you can watch it anytime you want to.
Is there a lack of Black representation in anime?
There is a lack of Black anime and Black characters in anime. There has been a cry for more representation in anime for a while. “Dragon Ball Z” is a perfect example. We had to find a way to relate to characters like Piccolo, who’s green. We try to relate to his swagger and his personality, and try to connect with some of his characteristics instead of just looking at the screen and saying, “Oh yeah, he looks like me.” It’s tiring at times when you’ve got to keep looking beneath the surface to relate to what you’re watching.
Did that put a lot of pressure on you when writing “Yasuke”?
I didn’t feel the pressure while making it. I think the pressure, or at least the excitement and the anxiety, came after the fact. I hoped people would like it, especially when we were making a show about a historical figure that a lot of people don’t know about. Now people hit me up on Twitter and tell me they didn’t know Yasuke was a real dude. I think with any project there’s that inherent pressure to create something good that people want to watch. With this one in particular, I think there was a chance for it to be culturally significant and that’s one of the things that drew me to it.
Do you think it’s harder for film or TV creators to get something made today if it doesn’t have some sort of genre hook, like you were just describing, or a comic-book influence?
I’m a little biased because I’m a huge fan of that stuff. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I grew up reading comics … I think it’s just about telling stories in new ways, and with the superhero boom that’s one avenue. But none of these avenues last forever. Maybe something else will come in and take the driver seat. I remember when romcoms were the leading genre.
Do you think another genre will emerge to take the lead [from comic-book content]?
I think the fantasy genre is coming back. Obviously there was “Game of Thrones.” Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone” is in that same vein. Especially after the pandemic, the more escapism you can add to a story the better.
You’re a big superhero fan, so were there any characters, storylines, or movies that influenced you while writing “Yasuke”?
Going into it, the first character I thought of was [the Marvel character] Blade, even though it should be reversed. Before I knew who Yasuke was, he was the first Black character I saw with a sword.
Before we end, I want to ask about the future of the series. But in that regard, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the LaKeith Stanfield Clubhouse controversy. Should he have turned the conversation away from any antisemitic language, even if he didn’t use any himself, or left the chat sooner? Are you worried this could impact the series at all or do you think his apology was sufficient?
A forum like Clubhouse is a lot of noise. It’s easy to get ganged up on. You’re in a situation talking to people you don’t know who are just looking to get into an argument. Engaging might have brought more tension to it. The best way to not give it a bigger platform would have been to dip out.
I feel his apology was on point. There’s not really much more anyone can do in that situation without it blowing up.
Do you have a vision in mind for future seasons?
When I was writing it, part of that was seeding opportunities for prequels, spinoffs, or just continuing Yasuke’s journey now that he’s regained his sense of honor. There’s stuff I seeded in the show that go further back and could explore some of Japan’s supernatural lore. And we introduced cool side characters that could handle their own series and journeys. So it depends on the direction that Netflix wants to go in.
Which characters do you see carrying their own series?
Definitely Saki, the girl that Yasuke’s protecting. The mercenaries are really dope. They’re scene stealers. How did they get to Japan? What are their other adventures? Because right now they’re out just trying to get a paycheck. Even Nobunaga and his rise in Japan, I think there would be a really fantastical way of telling that story.
Disclosure: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, is a Netflix board member.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
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