Day 6

Netflix's big bet on anime is changing the Japanese animation industry, says expert

Yasuke, a new Netflix original animated series, is drawing attention for the way it both subverts the traditional Japanese anime genre, while also remixing classic tropes in a way that appeals to North American and other global audiences. 

New programming like Yasuke blends Japanese art with western creators

Netflix's latest anime original, Yasuke, tells the story of Japan's first-recorded Black samurai. The anime series was created by LeSean Thomas, and features the voice of Academy Award-nominee Lakeith Stanfield as the eponymous main character. And while the show's creative team are largely American, Yasuke was produced by Japanese anime behemoth Studio Mappa. (Netflix)

A new Netflix original animated series is drawing attention for the way it both subverts the traditional Japanese anime genre, while also remixing classic tropes in a way that appeals to North American and other global audiences. 

Created by South Bronx, N.Y.-raised animator LeSean Thomas — known for his work on The Legend of Korra and The Boondocks, and for previously creating the Netflix's Cannon Busters — Yasuke is the latest in the U.S. streaming giant's expanding library of anime programming.

The show itself features a score composed by acclaimed Los Angeles-based experimental musician Flying Lotus. Academy Award-nominee Lakeith Stanfield voices the eponymous main character.

And though Japanese anime behemoth Studio Mappa was responsible for producing the show, there's no denying that Yasuke walks the fine line between Japanese and North American sensibilities. 

Roland Kelts is a professor at Waseda University and author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about Netflix's big bet on anime, and how shows like Yasuke are changing the Japanese anime industry. 

Below is part of that conversation.

What is it about anime that makes streaming giants like Netflix so eager to invest in not only the content, but in studios and in talent?

On the one hand, it crosses borders really well. Streaming services are global. They're not just located in one country or devoted to one culture.

I also like to think of anime characters as anime tribes. Take a movie star in the U.S. or China and they may not be that well-known outside of their own nation, but anime characters have this unique ability — partly because they're just illustrations — to travel very, very well.

So streaming services are looking for content that will appeal not only in Toronto, but also in Toledo, Ohio, and in Tianjin, China, for example.

But it's still very much identified with Japan. How are Japan's anime heavyweights responding to this injection of interest and capital from international or American groups like Netflix? 

They're thrilled. There are anime artists here who never imagined that they would have fans in Paris, for example. 

Also, there's more money pouring into the industry than I've ever seen — record-breaking sums are being paid to studios to produce. 

If you want to look at a downside, there's pressure on anime directors and creators right now to appeal to a global audience, which is something they really haven't faced in the past.

Most anime was made for a Japanese audience and now they're thinking, "Is this going to work in somebody's living room in Nebraska?"

LeSean Thomas's Yasuke draws inspiration from the historical figure of Yasuke, Japan's first-recorded Black samurai. But the series also features many anime tropes, including magic and even a wisecracking talking robot. (Netflix)

Does it still qualify as anime if you have a giant American streaming platform that's calling the shots and these American artists giving their input?

That's something that we're seeing evolve right now, which is a kind of a new category or a new genre, which I've heard people call "Anime-inspired work."

Now, I don't want to diss anybody who worked on Yasuke, because it's made in Japan, it's made by a Japanese studio right here in Tokyo. I don't want to say that anime-inspired is somehow weaker or lesser than straight-ahead Japanese anime. 

It is a kind of new category that's emerging where you have international financing and international creatives who might be taking anime in a new direction. I think that's the exciting part.

Japan is known for being walled off in some ways, so they might be averse to some outside influence. Do you think that Netflix is changing the way Japanese people view television or consume anime themselves?

When I wrote my book, Japanamerica, 10 years ago, there were a lot of Japanese who genuinely and sincerely asked me why anyone outside of Japan would watch anime. They were puzzled. [They'd say,] "You have Disney, you have Marvel, you have Pixar. Why does anybody watch this?"

I do think the younger generation has gotten the point that there is something distinctive about the Japanese approach — everything from the art style, which is a very finely-honed, two-dimensional approach to animation. So not the 3-D Pixar look, but really finely outlining shapes and very detailed backgrounds.

While a lot of popular U.S. animated content, like Pixar's "Soul," now leans heavily on 3D imagery, Roland Kelts what makes anime truly unique is its emphasis on bold, traditional 2D animation. (Disney)

Then there's something about the storytelling. It's not so limited to the three-act Hollywood action film style. So you get these psychological probings into characters and these often darker story lines, and aestheticized violence that you would never see in an animation from the West unless it was an underground work.

I think Japanese are starting to realize that what they produce here is special and appeals globally. At the same time, it's still a fairly insular society. It's an island nation. There aren't very many immigrants in Japan, and so maybe the plus side of that is a lot of anime is still made for Japanese.

Netflix is sponsoring an anime school in Japan. How do you think that will go over?

I think it'll actually go over very well. A lot of people in the industry and outside the industry — [and] a lot of fans here in Japan — are aware of the fact that talent is running thin on the ground. That's partly because studios here years ago started outsourcing work, just as back in the 60s, big U.S. companies like Warner Bros. and Disney outsourced work to Japan.

So it's the same economic cycle. Japan started outsourcing work to Southeast Asia and to Korea. The result of that, of course, is that there are fewer and fewer talented artists on the ground here in Japan, especially in the younger generation.

Do you think that the Japanese anime industry is going to continue to support and nurture foreign talent like LeSean Thomas and celebrate them when they have success? 

I do. And I think one of the crucial features, of course, of LeSean's story is that he's Black. The sort of stereotype of the Western anime fan or Japanese pop culture fan has been, frankly, nerdy white guys.

As someone who has Japanese heritage [like myself], it's gotten to be a bit tired. And it's really nice to see people of colour and someone like LeSean, who is a Black guy who grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx. 

To go from the South Bronx and to come all the way to Tokyo because of your passion, I think it's great for Japan, of course, because Japan is a relatively mono-ethnic society. And to have non-Japanese coming in and loving and respecting Japanese art, I think that's great for Japan.

I also think, and maybe this is more important, it's really great for young people of colour — for a young Black kid sitting in Chicago who gets into anime and he sees that here's a Black man from America who's making anime.

Whatever that particular kid thinks of Yasuke, he's going to see a Black character represented on the screen and he's going to find out that a Black man made it in downtown Tokyo. 

Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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