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With 'Trojan Horse' Animation, 'Yasuke' Creators Honor True Story Of Black Samurai

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Not much is known about the first Black samurai in feudal Japan. And spoiler alert here, he apparently did exist. And he's now the center of a new anime series on Netflix that introduces his story to an American audience. It's called "Yasuke." And as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, it takes a fantastic approach to history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Kyoto, 1582.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: Giant mechas with long guns and blades for arms mow down soldiers left and right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YASUKE")

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As character, screaming).

LIMBONG: Sorcerers cast beams of arrows as opposing sorcerers summon shields of energy to protect themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: A lavishly violent and bloody scene as dense and surreal as any Hieronymus Bosch depiction of hell, the show's creator LeSean Thomas took a few liberties with the historical record.

LESEAN THOMAS: Knowing that we were going to be Trojan-horsing this story through the medium, the beautiful medium of Japanese anime, why not?

LIMBONG: Thomas is an animator based in Tokyo. He worked with the acclaimed Japanese studio MAPPA to make the show. Thomas first heard about Yasuke through a Japanese children's book from the 1960s.

THOMAS: Yeah. I saw these images of a bald Black man with a sword, where he was wearing one of those ruffled neck fashions that was worn during that time period.

LIMBONG: You know the ruff, that white collar thing worn by 16th century Elizabethans. Anyway, Thomas checked around and found out that the guy actually existed, that the Black samurai served in the 1500's under Oda Nobunaga, one of the great unifiers of Japan. And that's pretty much all Thomas had to go off, which, in a way, gave him more freedom. The Yasuke of the show, voiced by LaKeith Stanfield, is a washed-up ex-samurai loner who finds himself in the care of a young child with special abilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YASUKE")

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Yasuke) Where I'm from, every man and woman cares for every child. It is our duty to make sure every child is safe.

LIMBONG: Instead of the ruffled collar from the children's book, this Yasuke is in tattered ropes. Instead of being bald, he's got dreads, which was a big deal for musician Flying Lotus, who was an executive producer on the show.

FLYING LOTUS: It's a dream come true.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK GOLD")

FLYING LOTUS: (Singing) Brought in a world.

To have your imprint on a series and have a character who's got your same hairstyle and all that, you know, it's like...

LIMBONG: He's worked in animation before, but this was his first time doing more than just the music - actually having a hand in crafting the story, putting his lifelong anime fandom to good use.

FLYING LOTUS: It feels right. It feels like we're honoring Yasuke's story while telling some new, fresh things, new ideas, bringing new music and sounds forward and a lot of things we just haven't seen before, unfortunately.

LIMBONG: Though there have been a few, it's still uncommon to see Black characters in anime. Flying Lotus told me about seeing a "Dragon Ball" movie in theaters a while back.

FLYING LOTUS: Nothing but Black kids in the audience. Nothing but - and I was like, oh, man, all we got is Piccolo, man. Like, Piccolo, don't count.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DRAGON BALL Z")

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: (As Piccolo) All right. Steady now.

LIMBONG: If you're not a "Dragon Ball" fan, Piccolo sort of counts as a person of color in that he's green, which for a while had to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DRAGON BALL Z")

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: (As Piccolo) This one's for Gohan and Goku.

FLYING LOTUS: He's kind of a brother. Kind of. Kind of.

LIMBONG: But now?

YOSHIKO OKUYAMA: Japanese values are really changing.

LIMBONG: Yoshiko Okuyama is a professor of Japanese studies at the University of Hawaii. She specializes in film and Japanese comics, or manga. She says current population trends in Japan have made the country more welcoming to foreigners. And that's reflected in the country's pop culture.

OKUYAMA: That shows that a recent interest in portraying Yasuke as either side character main or character.

LIMBONG: In the past few years, Okuyama says there have been movies and manga either about or drawing inspiration from the historical figure Yasuke.

OKUYAMA: That kind of spotlight is an indication of Japanese interest in multiculturalism.

LIMBONG: And that interest in multiculturalism slices both ways. Here's "Yasuke" creator LeSean Thomas again.

THOMAS: We are, you know, obsessed with the fantastical and the spectacle of things. And I think "Yasuke" fits in that category considering how much we love, you know, East Asian pop culture, in particular samurai culture and Japanese culture.

LIMBONG: Thomas is a Black man from the Bronx, living in Japan, working in a primarily Japanese art form. And he's seen his share of gatekeepers and snobs trying to define what makes so-called real anime. He compared the form to food.

THOMAS: Platforms like Netflix are trying to make anime spaghetti. You know, everybody loves spaghetti.

LIMBONG: No matter where you're from, as long as it's good. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK GOLD")

FLYING LOTUS: (Singing) A whole new identity, can't you see? Black gold of the sun. Open up your eyes. Open up your heart, and feel the sunshine. Let love in. I just want to be where I'm supposed to be. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.