Three B’s changed Steven Ellison’s early teenage life. They were contained within his cousin’s VHS tape of Fist of the North Star.
“It was bugged out,” Ellison says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s boobies and blood and brains and guts and all this stuff.’ It was nuts and [it had] really adult stories and ideas.”
The cartoons of Ellison’s youth were massively influential in their own right—Batman: The Animated Series, The Ren & Stimpy Show, X-Men—but in terms of sheer beauty and ferocity, they couldn’t match what he saw unfolding on his screen as he watched that 1980s classic anime.
“Why do they care so much more than we do,” he says of the anime of his childhood. “Why is their stuff so much better?
Decades later, Ellison is better known as the electronic and hip-hop producer Flying Lotus, and he now has the opportunity to answer that question. It’s part of the perks of being a massively successful musician. His latest project, Yasuke, is a Netflix-backed anime that gets to add another “B” to a medium that Lotus has loved since a kid. Yasuke is helmed by two Black men (Lotus and the director and writer LeSean Thomas), features LaKeith Stanfield in the titular role, and follows historical accounts of a 16th-century Black samurai.
Operatic, fast-paced, and childlike, the six-episode series embellishes the story with genre staples like magic, robots, and demon spectacle, but at the heart of the enterprise is Ellison’s love for the medium. He has multiple credits on the series—executive producer, composer, story—and thus was integral to the process from the beginning. Reminiscing about Yasuke’s journey, Ellison can’t help but compare himself to the protagonist he spent years trying to bring to life.
“I did find parallels between myself and LeSean, we’re like going to Japan, asking the Japanese system, if we can be down—it’s kind of like Yasuke, right,” Lotus says. “We had our own experience of how to navigate their way of doing things. And, these outsiders coming in to try to run stuff, it was unique.”
Ellison appeared on The Ringer Music Show this week for an episode that discusses Yasuke and the rise of anime in American music and also includes interviews with Milan Records senior vice president JC Chamboredon and composer Kevin Penkin. Below is an extended version of that conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get brought onto Yasuke?
I worked with the producer on a pilot for a show for Apple and that producer hit me up out of the blue and was like, “You want to make an animated series about a Black samurai?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “Do you want to do that on Netflix?”
My reaction was “Yes! Is this a joke? What is happening right now? Where’s the camera, like what is going on?” And then all of a sudden, I’m in Netflix, and we’re trying to figure out this stuff. Even then it felt like it was just not going to happen. I’ve taken so many meetings for film and TV stuff before. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don’t. So I don’t ever get overly excited or enthusiastic because usually it’s like a waiting game anyway. For so long, I was like, “Who knows? Maybe it won’t happen.” So, I’m going to Japan taking meetings with MAPPA studios and maybe one day, starting to see conceptual art come in and maybe this is getting real. Once some of the scenes started being sent to me and episodes started being sent to me I’m like, “This is starting to feel like it’s actually happening now.”
There was a rough treatment when I got involved. That was more like a traditional biopic kind of film or a historical drama about Yasuke. When I got involved, I got to write a treatment and LeSean and my treatments kind of got merged together and made into this mashup of a crazy show with historical drama, but with fancy elements and a lot of heart.
Was there any trepidation about stepping into anime? Anime is a very insular industry and obviously it’s getting a little bit better, but most of the studios and animators are in Japan.
There was a part of me that was a little nervous about pulling it off, but because we had Netflix backing us and we had LaKeith involved early, I had a bit more confidence. I figured that if anyone can get MAPPA studios to make our project, it would be Netflix.
But just being real, man, I feel like I got a lot of love in Japan. When I go to Japan, they’re really nice to me. And they really love and support my music over there. And they don’t know me in the anime space, but I see Japan as fam to me. I don’t see it as like a wall, even though I’m sure it exists, but I just don’t think about that.
Let’s talk about the kind of the treatment that you had envisioned for Yasuke, because it is based on a historical document of this Black samurai, but there’s not much information out there. So when you’re writing the treatment, how do you fill in those gaps?
To me, the jump-off was the fact that we didn’t know much about what happened after his time with Lord Nobunaga [the daimyo that Yasuke serves during the Sengoku period]. And that to me was just like, “Oh, well, let’s just make it up. What would it be?” That was the point that I wanted to be involved in. That was my biggest contribution to the story.
A lot of stuff that LeSean brought to the story was Yasuke’s history and kind of building around the facts and the historical drama. I think we needed that balance, getting both of those elements in there because his understanding of Japanese history is way deeper than mine and he lives there and he spends a lot of time there even before he lived there. So he’s very useful in that way. It was kind of both ideas meeting where I feel like I needed him to kind of reel some of the things in, and he needed me to kind of like stretch some of the ideas and make them a little crazier.
When you’re younger, watching anime like Dragon Ball Z or Pokémon, you don’t know until you’re older that some of the stuff is racist. I think we’re getting better at it. But still, when I read some manga, I’m like, “Wow, what is going on here?” So how do you make sure that something like Yasuke not only honors anime, which is from Japan, but it also shows Black men in a positive light?
Yeah. That’s deep. It was a priority between LeSean and the studio to kind of get Yasuke right. And the character designer, Takeshi Koike, he’s a legend. I think it’s been historically pretty jacked up. I think there was a huge emphasis on making Yasuke look like a brother, making him look the part. I can’t stress that enough.
How do you ensure that Yasuke is something different? I’m sure you’ve been going through this and people throw out names like Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo or Afro Samurai. Most likely, they’re doing that because you see anime that’s influenced by Black culture, but you do not see a lot of Black anime.
Early days we would make jokes about people comparing the shows. And we knew that it would happen, inevitably. I knew that it would happen just with the soundtrack stuff. Even just the soundtracks that I knew people were going to be like, “Oh, is it going to be that Samurai Champloo, Nujabes? Is it going to be like Cowboy Bebop, Yoko Kanno? I have my own expectations in my own voice. I don’t want it to be those things. I really want the show to have its own identity. I think those other shows are great, but I didn’t want to tread in the same kind of territory, but I also feel like the show is so different from all those other shows.
I think people want to compare it to Afro Samurai. I think they’re two totally different shows. I think Yasuke has way more heart. I think Yasuke has less of a Tarantino-y kind of thing. Afro Samurai was really off the tail of Kill Bill. They were just like, “Let’s make some cool hip-hop thing,” and that’s great. I think this has the potential to be what Black Panther was for a lot of kids. I think we have a new hero here, which we haven’t seen before.
How do you wrap your head around the music aspect of it? Because you have something that’s a little bit like a biopic and a historical drama, but also there are sci-fi elements. I’m assuming as the person who’s composing the music, you can go in a million different directions.
Yeah. You can, but there are also limitations, right? I felt like there was a palette that we needed. To me what was the most fun was looking around my studio and being like, “OK, what are we using it? And this is it.” I make a list, a mental list, “We’re using this keyboard, this keyboard, this one, these drums, and that’s it.” It frees you up from getting caught up in all these possibilities of what it could be, but you have these limitations and it’s great. That was huge. It was kind of difficult to figure out what the sound was going to be, because it could go anywhere. There’s also my own preconceived ideas and voices in my head that I have to satisfy.
Were there any stories from the creation of Yasuke that stick out to you?
One memory is scoring the first scene of the first episode, which wasn’t the first thing I scored. I was holding back on that war because it was so important to get that right. I was so terrified of that. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written to picture, the most difficult, high-pressure thing. This is the opening of the show. I got a big ole credit on there and I got to set the tone for everything. I’ve never written a war theme before.
And as soon as I started laying in and stuff, it just started to flow real naturally. Once the sound effects are implanted in there and they start sending me new cuts, and I got that war thing together—playing it back I was like shouting at the screen. I was like, “Yes! Yes!” It was cool. I felt like my music was pushing the battle forward. It was really cool.
You’ve been making music for so long. I feel like it would be easy. It’s just like breathing now, but I guess composing a war scene does sound very high stakes.
The war scene is hard, man. The war stuff to me was the most difficult. That’s not a thing as a concept that I’m actually interested in. I don’t like war. I don’t think about making war music. The idea of that was just daunting to me. Every war theme that I think of in my head it just sounds like “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.” I don’t want to do that shit. I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that. I’m not doing that. So, what else is there? You watched a bajillion movies, so you kind of have this preconceived idea of what it’s supposed to be. So how do you break that?
I mean, I have preconceived notions of what I thought samurai music was from watching anime.
Listening to Yasuke, I’m just like, “What am I listening to? Oh, this is setting it up. So it’s not your typical samurai story,” which I thought was incredible because you easily could have gone the conventional way.
There were a couple moments. Thankfully, the director was super into it. He would be like, “Yo man, I liked all the scoring stuff, the atmosphere, but man, don’t forget about the beats though.” I was like, “Bro, I love you. I got you.”
So he was trying to like hype you up like, “Bring the beats, man. C’mon.”
He was like, “Yo, the score-y stuff, the moody atmosphere is nice, but man, but yo, the beats though.” Like he wants some head-nod joints in there too. I was like, “OK. I know what you want, I know what you need right now.”
How did you get Thundercat on the theme song?
That’s my boy.
But I’m assuming you have to go like, “Hey, you know, I need you for an anime.” Was he like, “Yes, absolutely,” ’cause he’s a fan of anime as well? Or was it like, “What’s going on man? Can I see it?”
He knew about this stuff when I was writing ideas because a lot of the ideas that I have for Yasuke I pulled from Thundercat’s life. I pulled from my friend and pulled from the world around me. So he was very much in the know from the jump when this project was kind of being built. So in the earlier treatment as well, we were suggesting that Yasuke had a singing voice and that voice would be Thundercat too. It’s hard to imagine now if you’ve seen it, but in my original thinking, it was a little bit lighter of a tone.
For you, what are some of your favorite anime you’d name if people are just like, “Yo, I just watched this and I want to kind of dig into what else is like rolling around in Steve’s mind?”
As far as ideas, I love Dorohedoro. I think that’s such a trippy show.
Oh, yo, you’re a Dorohedoro fan, bro?
I used to read the manga. Yeah.
I love the manga. When I read it, I was like, “What am I reading? I have no idea what’s happening.”
It’s really crazy. I love that. And on the other end of it, I love My Hero Academia, which is a shonen show, which I think is really a good show for anyone who has not really stepped into anime, but wants to get into something. And I think that show’s so pretty and it has so much heart and it’s a great thing for anyone who was like, “I don’t know if I like, like this Dragon Ball stuff,” but I kind of want to get into anime.
Are you manga and anime for My Hero Academia or strictly the anime?
Well, for My Hero, I know they’re way ahead in the manga, but I do like the show. I do love all the things on the show side. I just try to not read the spoilers in the manga.
OK, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Are you up on Jujutsu Kaisen as well? Are you a fan?
I’m just getting into Jujutsu Kaisen. I’m not sure I’m super into it to be perfectly honest.
Damn, really? The fans are going to be broken.
I’ve only seen three episodes though. So forgive me. It’s the same with Demon Slayer or whatever. But I’ve only seen like three episodes of both of those shows, and I’m like, “Ugh.”
I thought Demon Slayer would be right up your lane.
Yeah. It’s a little slow for me.
But I think both of those shows like Jujutsu, it took a turn at the end of the first, second episode, I was like, “OK, this is actually really interesting,” but I just haven’t followed through. But at the beginning of it, I was just like, “Oh no, another like high school weirdo, high school story. I don’t know if I need that.” But it actually turns into some really cool stuff.
Are there any other anime, any other things you’re working on after Yasuke?
After Yasuke I think I’ll probably be sticking around in anime for a little while. It appears it’s not over, so yeah, hopefully.