Interview: Nick Jones Jr. Talks ‘Yasuke’, Being A Black Creator In Anime & More
Interview conducted & written by Joshua Mackey
Anime is an art form that gets to reinvent reality. Teenagers fighting evil by moonlight and winning love by daylight, superpowered aliens delivering epic energy blasts, and samurai cutting a path to the future, while reflecting on the past. In anime, anything is possible and there’s a new wave of Black creators continuing this tradition, but through a Black perspective – one of those creators being Nick Jones Jr.
“Damn when you put it like that, it puts it into a new perspective. It’s dope and hopefully we’re just the beginning and hopefully it’ll keep going for generations to come”. Jones joins this new wave of Black anime creators as a writer for Netflix’s latest anime production, Yasuke. The show is the brainchild of Jones and creator LeSean Thomas, with voice acting talent being led by Academy Award nominee LaKeith Stanfield, and Grammy Award winner Flying Lotus having produced the soundtrack. The actual Yasuke was the first African samurai in Japan. Through this anime, audiences receive a fantastical retelling of his history, as the titular character reconciles with his war-filled past while escorting a powerful, young girl named Saki targeted by mysterious, dark forces.
Anime arrived in the States in the ’60s with Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Gigantor as the first of many Japanese anime exports that influenced U.S. audiences and TV shows alike. It gained in popularity in the ’80s with Voltron and Akira and solidified its mainstream status with hits like Sailor Moon and Pokémon. Now, with new anime like Neo Yokio, Michiko & Hatchin, and Carole and Tuesday, storylines are becoming as diverse as the representation. But this wasn’t always the case. “We had to pretend to see us [in anime] and try to find something to relate to.”
Black representation in anime is leaving behind caricatures. Characters like Mr. Popo (Dragon Ball Z), Sister Krone (The Promised Neverland), and Superalloy Darkshine (One Punch Man) and moving forward with well-rounded representations, like Kilik (Soul Eater), Canary (Hunter x Hunter), Atsuko Jackson (Michiko & Hatchin), and Ogun Montgomery (Fire Force). Jones is partly to thank for that, as he joins the few, but growing list of Black artists influenced by the Japanese art form who find ways to pay homage to it.
Aaron MacGruder’s anime-influenced The Boondocks, to LeSean Thomas’ Cannon Busters, to the first Black-owned anime studio, D’ART Shtajio, more Black creators are making their mark in anime. Thankfully, Jones offered up his time to discuss working with other Black collaborators on Yasuke, his anime influences, the impact of being a Black creator in anime, and the relationship between anime and its Black fans.
Were you an anime fan prior to writing Yasuke?
I’m an anime fan. I watched it, I played it, [and] I had apparel. Toonami was a lifesaver, it introduced me to a whole world. USA Network had anime on Saturday morning. I think it was Sailor Moon and Street Fighter. Everything else, I watched on Cartoon Network. My sister was actually joking about it the other day. She was like, “You have to mention Sailor Moon because that’s my show.” And I was like, “You were watching Sailor Moon because of me. I put you on.” Tuxedo Mask was my guy.
How was it writing for an artform that heavily influenced your childhood?
Cathartic in a lot of ways. I think anytime you can pull from childhood experiences, like the happy stuff, I think that’s always good because there’s this certain joy that goes on top of doing this work. From being a cinephile to going to college for it, I already have a joy for making stuff. But when you’re a fan as well, it’s like that times ten because you’re fulfilled to the point where you sleep it. You’re thinking, This is dope. How can I pay homage to some of the stuff that I grew up watching? What are some cool stuff that we can do to impact people in this generation, like [how] we were impacted by this stuff when we were kids? It’s always cool to think about how this stuff can be culturally significant.
Where do you think this love of anime from Black fans comes from?
I don’t know. I mean for me, there was something about the powers and abilities that a lot of these characters had. Whether they’re fighting to save their village or they’re fighting to save their planet, I think there’s something to the idea that within us that there’s the laden inner power that we have to unlock in order to be greater than our threats or to be greater than our enemies.
I also think a lot of anime properties deal with the outsider view and perspective. So being Black and growing up in the south, I was in a lot of predominantly white spaces, even in the military. I kind of identified with a lot of the characters who were viewed as “other” or as outsiders in their communities, yet still embrace that same community, like me being in the military.
At least that’s what I found interesting about anime. Also, not everybody is doing the Kamehameha wave. That’s specifically for the anime genre.
Did you ever feel like you watched TV shows with a double consciousness?
Yes and a lot of times I still do. We aren’t where we need to be in film and television. There are shows that I love that don’t have any developed Black characters, but I’m still able to find things that I can relate to. Breaking Bad is a show I like and there are not a lot of Black people there. The same thing with Game of Thrones, not the final season though.
We are getting to a place where we have [Black] TV shows and films that white people watch. Like Black Panther – it had a huge audience. To see rural white kids running around in T’Challa outfits for Halloween was so groundbreaking and amazing. Hopefully, with more opportunities for Black creatives to put things out there, more white audiences will get to see our stories and relate to us. Like we can relate to others around the globe.
During your time in the military, you were stationed in Japan. How did your time there influence your writing of Yasuke?
I mean that’s how I found out about Yasuke, being in Japan and learning about this man who was there all these generations prior. Some of the guys in the Japanese military were the ones who told me about Yasuke. They said I looked like him and I was like, “Who’s Yasuke? Is this some guy you know? Is he one of your friends?”
That’s when they told me the history about him. Now, there’s more stuff coming to light. I think there were some books that came out recently about him.
Your retelling of Yasuke is very fantastical, with magic and mech. Did you always plan on telling his history as well?
Yes! When I came on board, the most important thing was to make sure we knew where he came from and knew where he was going. It’s almost like telling a story about Jesus Christ, but to people who necessarily don’t know Jesus Christ, and starting the story after he rolls aways the stone.
Let’s at least lay the foundation for who this man is and try to pepper in as many historical facts as we can before we tell this fantastical story. I think that even in the best fantastical joints, they’re grounded and rooted in something. So for me, that emotional pillar was his tie to Oda Nobunaga and what he meant to him and what his death meant to him.
What was it like to work with so many Black collaborators?
It was amazing and honestly to be able to bring this whole brainchild together with LeSean, LaKeith, and Flying Lotus, it was cool, exciting, and definitely different. This was not the experience that I had in Los Angeles or in making television and film in general. I’m usually the only Black person in the room being the authoritative “Black voice” and making sure we’re on the right track. To be in a space and look across the room or to be on a Zoom call and see people who look like you, it’s an experience that I hope to continue to have on projects in the future.
How does it feel to have celebrities discussing your work?
I didn’t know that Megan Thee Stallion was a big anime fan. Someone showed me an Instagram live video that she did. They were like, “Megan is talking about Yasuke” and I was like, “Thee Megan? Thee Stallion?” Also, Naomi Osaka is a huge anime fan. I actually saw it when she posted about Yasuke in her [Instagram] story. People like that who are into anime and were excited to see Yasuke come out was super humbling.
I guess we are all just fans of each other. I catch Naomi’s highlights on Sports Center. I listen to Megan’s music and to know that they’re watching my show on Netflix is all full circle. We are all watching each other.
Back in the day, we didn’t necessarily know who was watching it back in the day. We lived in these silos of being Black and watching anime. But now, to see people from different reaches of the world watching [Yasuke], it’s cool to be a part of that. That’s part of why we do what we do, making content that people want to see.
How will it feel to see people be influenced by Yasuke?
Actually, I’ve seen a couple of people in cosplay, but this one guy (jonathanbelle) did a photoshoot in a field and he looked the part. They’re rockin’ with us. Also, Super7 did a post on Twitter and you can preorder the action figures at Target. To know I played a part in that, it’s a proud feeling – the same when I see the cosplay.
What do you hope for the future of anime?
For me, it’s all about diversity and inclusion. The more people of color that are allowed to play in the “sandbox”, the better. I’d love to see more anime with Black characters because we don’t have a lot, which I think would be dope.
Do you see more anime in your future?
All I can say is that conversations are being had.