The career of Stephen Ellison, the director, producer, and EDM polymath better known by his fans as Flying Lotus, has taken an exciting turn in recent years. The award-winning musician has parlayed his success as recording artist to produce music and scores for a medium he’s particularly passionate about: anime.
As the co-producer and composer for Yasuke, the LeSean Thomas-helmed Netflix anime inspired by the real-life story of an 16th Century African servant who became Japan’s first foreign-born samurai, Flying Lotus has outdone himself in crafting the series’ musical signature, transmuting his characteristic sound of vibrant cosmic jazz, glitchy synth-electronica, and melodic melancholia into a score that stands as distinct work in his own discography and in the range of musical composition for anime.
Polygon spoke with Flying Lotus on the eve of Yasuke’s season 1 release this week to talk about how he went about creating the series’ score, the principal creative input he had on the series’ characters and story, and who his favorite character in Yasuke is aside from the Black samurai himself.
You recently tweeted that Yasuke was a “perfect pairing” with your sensibilities as a musician. Reflecting back on this experience, as both an artist and a life-long anime fan, what did the opportunity to work on a series inspired by the life of the only Black samurai mean to you?
I felt the weight of this moment, for sure. I felt the weight of, y’know, knowing that there’s no other black anime characters around right now and there’s no other Black anime productions happening either. I knew that Black Panther was out there and there’s people who needed that, that wanted to see more Black heroes on screen. I felt like there was a space for this and that it needed to happen. Someone’s going to make a live-action movie of Yasuke’s life one day, and I was like, “Who’s going to get there first?” Now we’re going to be Yasuke’s introduction to the world. I’m glad there’s a lot of cool historical stuff in the show, but it’s an interesting story that speculates on what could have happened as well.
You worked with your frequent collaborator Thundercat and vocalist Niki Randa in composing the score for Yasuke’s title and ending themes, “Black Gold” and “Between Memories.” What is about their work that you feel brings out the best in your own? What did their distinct respective sounds bring to the sound of Yasuke as a whole?
Well, it’s funny that you ask: I think that the character of Ichika was inspired by Niki Randa. She’s a person I have worked with for forever, and when it came to coming up with characters, she was just the kind of person in the back of my mind who embodied that character. To me, that’s Niki, and in a lot of ways Thundercat is Yasuke. There were things about Thundercat that I got to throw into Yasuke’s story. It just elevated the whole thing for me because I’m watching parts of my life and Yasuke’s story and all this other stuff, it just intertwines.
I don’t think there’s any other project where I could have put so much of myself into the work and have it become something so much bigger than me or LeSean. I was just talking to LeSean and I was like, “It’s so crazy that we’re at this point where the show is way beyond us now.” Whatever this moment means, it has nothing to do with just us anymore. We carried it to this point, and now it’s really just about to be the world’s character and trying to take ownership of that is going to be crazy. It’s like Goku, right? Like, of course Akira Toriyama created Goku, but Goku belongs to me and you and everyone. I mean, that’s the homie!
What were some of your favorite ideas that made it into Yasuke?
I guess Saki, she’s my favorite. She was a character I came up with, the little girl with the powers, because I think having a character like that just opens up the kinds of things you can bring into the show. Having this magical character allows for magical problems, magical scenarios and things like that. So that was like the jumping off point for a lot of the left field concepts. Once you have this character who has these abilities, you’re no longer dealing in historical samurai fiction. You’re now into mystical magical stuff, and that’s what I’m into, for sure.
But otherwise, from the smallest little details to the characters themselves, I had a hand in that. I got to be connected to so much, even the decision of letting Yasuke smile. That hadn’t happened the whole time and I was like, “Y’know what would be really crazy? What if we just see Yasuke with this big ol’ cheesy grin somewhere.” There’s one at the end, but there’s also one in the end credits. There’s a shot of him smiling while he’s lifting these kids that are hanging from his arms and stuff. I wanted to show that the townspeople really liked Yasuke and that the kids especially loved Yasuke, and there’s not this kind of weirdness that I think people might have otherwise anticipated. I just didn’t want to show the race dynamic being such a crazy thing.
But besides that, just little things throughout the story that would eventually become big things. Nobunaga being bisexual, for example. That was one of my contributions. He was an adventurous dude! Maybe even in ways people might otherwise not expect.
How does this series’ cast of characters affect or influence the range and type of sounds you wanted to explore in Yasuke?
Yeah, I feel like [the character of] Yasuke told me what the show was. LaKeith’s performance told me what the sound was, the art told me what the sound was. I had all these possibilities and I threw all these different things at the wall. But once I started seeing animatics and seeing stuff move, it kind of solidified; just everything kind of fell into place. But it really just came down to, like, hearing the tone of the voices, the pace, how people spoke to one another — all of that influenced how I created the music. I limited my palette to work with how much technology was present in the show. I took that to mean how much technology I was limited to use in producing the score. I don’t have every piece of high-end equipment at my disposal, I’m going to use older sounding things and just try to get into that headspace. That was a challenge, but it’s so much fun to have limitations.
Were there any instruments that were new to you that you brought into your palette while exploring and developing the sound of the score?
I had never worked with taiko drums and Japanese percussion ensembles. I never really messed with that before. I never worked on anything with hella reverb before. The soundtrack is drenched in reverb. If I had my way, I would have drenched the dialogue in reverb too and everything would’ve just been washed. The whole show would’ve been washed out. Maybe in season 2, we’ll see! [Laughs] But yeah, all those little ethereal tones you hear along the way. The show kind of has this, it starts off with kind of more of a sound you may be familiar with and more like straight up beats and stuff, and as the show progresses it gets a bit more ethereal and a bit more magical sounding. And that was also a lot of fun to just get into thinking about the progression of the music and not just like a static sound. The music travels, so what does that feel like?
This is your fourth time working as an anime composer, having previously worked on Shinichirō Watanabe’s Blade Runner Black Out 2022, Carole and Tuesday, and the music video for your 2019 single More. How was your experience working on Yasuke different from your previous work on those projects?
The difference this time was for one I have a bit more education. I’ve really spent these past few years going deep into my musical education, trying to get better in understanding actual musical theory and studying to become a better player. I was able to use everything I’ve learned in the show, and if I hadn’t learned that stuff I would have needed way more help to get it done, to be totally honest. So I was so grateful that I had put in the time to really learn some things because I used everything I had learned.
It was such a trippy learning experience to kind of deal with the Japanese system [behind music scoring] because they have a way of doing things where they have mini Japanese music menus. I guess a lot of television shows do, where a composer will make a playlist of songs not necessarily written to picture, where the score is created independent of the film or show. Trying to navigate that and be like, “Nah, I want to do the score all to picture,” and fit that all into the production schedule, that was its own little hurdle.
But I guess to answer your question, so much has changed for me since working on Blade Runner Black Out 2022 and being so close to the project, being so involved from an early stage. I didn’t get that with Blade Runner, I didn’t get that with Carole and Tuesday, but with this, I was part of it from the beginning. I was part of the foundation of it, so there was a bit more weight on my shoulders and a bit more pressure to get a good job done. It’s Netflix, y’know, so I wanted to do a good job. So it was a bit more challenging.
One last question: Apart from Yasuke, who is your favorite character in the show and why?
I love Lord Nobunaga and I love Achoja, the shaman. Lord Nobunaga is dope because he just feels like a character who I know in real life, he’s like a straight up hipster dude who I feel like I would know from like Silverlake, Los Angeles. He’s just this cat who’s just the most eccentric art collector dude who has to have the finest things, wants the rarest things, and just has a unique taste and appreciation for life. I feel like I personally know people like that. I got a few friends like that [laughs].
Yasuke season 1 is out now on Netflix.