A few mentorship sessions with Barack Obama—yes, the former president—changed the trajectory of the writer’s hope, and career.
From ‘Afro Samurai’ to ‘Cannon Busters,’ Black anime is not a fad. It’s a movement that’s here to stay thanks to writers like Nick Jones Jr. The New Jersey native and Marine veteran has gone from fighting for our country overseas to helping lead the push for Black stories through a classic Japanese art form.
His new Netflix anime series ‘Yasuke,’ starring Lakeith Stanfield voicing the title role, adds a fantasy twist to a piece of Black history. It’s inspired by the true story of the only known Black samurai in feudal Japan, believed by historians to have fought in wars in the late 1500’s. EBONY contributor Brandon Pope had a chat with Jones Jr., to find out more about the new series, how he drew on his own personal traumas to craft the story, and how former President Barack Obama ignited his journey through Hollywood.
EBONY: You served in the United States Marine Corps. How did you make that pivot to film and TV?
Nick Jones Jr.: Oh man, now that's a crazy story. It was President Obama, he was the reason. We had a chance encounter in Hawaii after one of my deployments, and he just kind of sat me down and talked me through what I want to do with my life and what I want to do in my career. Was that staying 20 years in the Marine Corps or doing something else? At the time I was just like “I want to be in the industry. I want to be an actor,” and all this other stuff. “But I think it's impossible.” And that's when he stopped and looked at me, and was just like, “I'm a Black man about to be president, nothing's impossible.” We stayed in contact after that. He and Michelle sat me down and they just laid out a plan, this is what you need to do, how you need to do it. I took notes, he told me about the about the GI Bill, which I ended up using to go to film school out here in Los Angeles. I just kind of followed their steps and followed that blueprint. So even though I'm not in politics, I do consider myself from the Barack Obama tree.
EBONY: Not a lot of people can say that they had a conversation with Barack and Michelle Obama, let alone had them jumpstart their thinking about what they're going to do next. Since then, what has your journey been like in this film and TV game?
NJJ: After film school, I became an assistant. I was doing everything from military advising on films to helping with other parts of production. I did this movie with Shia LaBeouf and Gary Oldman, called ‘Man Down.’ My job was to make sure everything was accurate on the military staff front, and also to train them.
But I mean, going from that to doing as many workshops and reaching out to as many people to be my mentors as I can. I had a great network of writers that I was able to connect with that helped show me the ropes, and you know you get lucky, hopefully one of your scripts gets to the top of the pile. I was able to do that and you know get staffed on some incredible shows.
EBONY: And the networking paid off. Now, you have Yasuke.
NJJ: All from a random email from Netflix! Netflix anime on a Sunday evening, they're just like “we got your name and heard that you might be interested in writing the show. It’s with Lakeith Stanfield and Flying Lotus and LeSean Thomas.”
I have to thank AC Bradley who is an outstanding writer who put my name out there in the universe for this project. She's the showrunner for What If? coming out Marvel later this year.
EBONY: Is this your first experience with anime?
NJJ: I grew up watching Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon.
EBONY: Now those are some throwbacks!
NJJ: Tuxedo Mask, man! I was always just a fan of the world, and the style, and the liberties that you have with anime where you're fighting and next thing you know you've got mechs and magic and things of that nature. So to be able to kind of like take all of that stuff that I was a fan of as a child and kind of mash it all together on Yasuke, I was just like, yes, this is the sandbox I want to play in.
EBONY: You’ve got a pretty unique sandbox here, because not only are you using supernatural elements, but this is a historical figure, a Black samurai. What's it like for you as a writer trying to fuse that history and also adding those supernatural elements?
NJJ: I love alt-history, taking these unknown facts but then tweaking them just a bit to work with whatever story that you're trying to tell. So for me, I was already a fan of Yasuke the historical figure, just with my time serving in Japan, and knowing a little bit about him and his journey and stuff so it went from knowing the myths to studying the legend, and then building that out.
I felt like there was a lot of symmetry between Yasuke and myself for being a Black man in the Marines, and then having to go through war time, or actually being in Japan and being the only Black person on this small isolated island.
EBONY: So, in writing Yasuke you were sort of writing about yourself?
NJJ: It can feel that way. On a deeper level, diving into what Nobunaga meant to Yasuke, he was the feudal lord that kind of brought him in and made him a samurai. He commits seppuku, which is a ritual suicide practice that they did back then. And in my life, to have fellow Marines commit suicide, and knowing how I felt personally when it was a good friend and how that kind of gutted me. That was kind of the emotional center for me as far as building out the story.
EBONY: That's some heavy themes right there. But that's where the best stories are told honestly, through our own experiences and penning that through the pain. Let's talk a little bit about how unique this is. I loved anime growing up, but I didn't really see Black people in the anime, let alone anime that involved, black creators like yourself, and Lesean Thomas. What is that like for you and for those involved, being a part of this and knowing that there's an audience for it?
NJJ: That's one of the things we always talked about, being able to tell a story that allows us to be seen in this space. In a space that is very, very closed off when it comes to us. Growing up, I’m watching anime, but then I have to kind of suspend my belief and think that, “okay Piccolo he's green, but he’s really Black because he’s the only character that has pigment.”
EBONY: I did that too! We all did that! That was a Black man to me.
NJJ: I saw the weighted clothes and thought, “that’s what we do!” So for us it was definitely important. We wanted to do the story right, do Yasuke’s legacy right, and wanted to do the culture right by really coming up with something that was going to be super dope and inclusive. We hope to bring in not just anime fans, but Black audiences as well.
EBONY: You’ve also created some buzz with the Flying Lotus tracks that dropped last week.
NJJ: Flying Lotus kills it! This might be the greatest soundtrack for any anime ever; we'll put that out there. Oh, man, I'm telling you. You could just put this show on in the background while you're cooking or something. It’s that good.
EBONY: That right there is confidence. Sounds like this will be a lot of fun for people.
NJJ: Definitely. It’s a story of hope and rehabilitation and just finding inner peace. Those are a lot of things that I hope shine through.
Yasuke debuts April 29 on Netflix.