“The kids – anime kids, Black kids – need more heroes”: As the new Netflix series Yasuke is released, featuring a score by Flying Lotus, the musician reveals how he wants to change anime
Before Flying Lotus was a genre-defying musician and founder of the Brainfeeder label, he was a teenage anime nerd who spent countless hours watching films like Akira and Wicked City. “My version of anime was aimed at adults who were crazy, probably,” he laughs. “My cousin had all those movies and he would show me all this stuff with boobies like, ‘don’t tell your mum.’”
Now the 37-year-old (real name Steven Ellison) is making his full-length anime scoring debut with Yasuke, a new Netflix series co-directed by The Boondocks creator LeSean Thomas and Oscar-nominated actor Lakeith Stanfield. Ellison is credited as executive producer, writer and composer on all six episodes of the show, which is loosely based on the real-life story of the first Black samurai. Set against the feudal backdrop of Japan’s shogunate era, the series fuses historical events with sci-fi elements and fantastical plotlines of mutant Catholic priests, mutant assassins, and trigger-happy robots. Ellison’s soundtrack is equally surreal, blending together synth-driven riffs with cosmic jazz flourishes that form the backdrop to trippy battle sequences and kaleidoscopic journeys through time.
“I think that just the mere existence of Yasuke is the most interesting thing I’ve ever heard,” he begins. “Just the fact that this isn’t just some character, but this is a person who actually existed and is very much a part of history.” He describes his emotional connection to the story of Yasuke, both in his feelings as an outsider and as a Black man. “I’m used to being an outsider all the time,” he explains. “When I travel to Europe and there’s no Black people; when I go to Japan, we’re the only Black people in who-knows-what distance.”
With Yasuke, Ellison hopes to create a world that Black anime fans can resonate with. “Being an anime fan and not seeing any Black characters that I relate to, and seeing so many Black kids who are anime fans not having characters to cosplay, is heartbreaking,” he explains. “The kids – anime kids, Black kids – need more heroes, and we need badass heroes who can do crazy things. Not just Black versions of Superman, but a person that exists in his own universe.”
The score builds on Ellison’s cohesive, freewheeling sound, traversing elements of instrumental hip-hop, experimental electronic music and avant-garde jazz. It’s a more restrained musical palette than what we’re used to hearing from the LA producer, who is known for his groovy, maximalist arrangements. But Ellison’s woozy blend of jazz riffs, mind-bending synthesisers, and New Age tinkling is what makes Yasuke so engaging. Mirroring the show’s hybrid genre approach, it pulls from the sounds of past, present and future to dream up new worlds.
Ellison previously contributed to the soundtrack for Blade Runner 2049 prequel Blade Runner Black Out 2022 and songs for Carole & Tuesday, both by Shinichirō Watanabe, who’s also behind cult favourites Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Space Dandy. “Watanabe, that’s the homie,” says Ellison. “He hit me up when he did a short film for Blade Runner and we’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve been checking on him. He’s busy at work doing stuff. He needs a vacation, that guy.”
He elaborates, “There was a big part of me that was ready for the freakin’ anime nerds to be like, ‘This sounds like Samurai Champloo’ or ‘This sounds like Cowboy Bebop,’” he says. “There’s a person on my shoulder that has that voice as well. So I had to just kind of surprise myself. I had to quiet that voice and do my best to just let it have its own identity.”
Watching Yasuke feels like a natural progression for an artist who cites the influence of anime soundtracks and videogames as much as he does any given musician. Ellison got his start creating bumbers for the TV station Adult Swim, after all. “I definitely had to throw things at the wall to get the vibe going,” he says. But being creative on demand is never easy, especially during a global pandemic. “Having to work quickly wasn’t something that I was used to doing and it really tripped me out. But, I told myself, I got to do something dope right now. Like dude, you’re Flying Lotus, bro.”
Yasuke is out now.