Giant robots, magical warlords, mutant priests, and one legendary African samurai: these are the parts that make up Yasuke, the new anime series on Netflix produced and scored by Flying Lotus. Every Flying Lotus project is a wild ride; this is one of the wildest and most accessible. It’s a landmark achievement in a year where the musician has already had plenty to celebrate – his friend Thundercat won a Grammy, marking the first win for Flying Lotus’s label Brainfeeder.
Yasuke is an anime retelling of the true story of its titular character, the African samurai who served Oda Nobunaga, the first great unifier of Japan. The historical Yasuke’s story is already badass, but the anime series adds extra sci-fi/fantasy sauce. At a tight six episodes, it’s supremely bingeable stuff that critics are already calling “an action packed step forward for anime.”
This wasn’t Flying Lotus’s first anime-related project, but it is the one closest to his heart. It’s also his self-described synthesizer album, heavily influenced by scores by legendary composers like Vangelis and Angelo Badalamenti. There’s some interesting overlap with GQ’s playlist from fellow producer Mike Dean, who recently took GQ on a synth odyssey of his own. Check out the music that inspired Yasuke below, along with Flying Lotus’s takes on Final Fantasy VII and the Twin Peaks reboot.
Jean-Michel Jarre – “Oxygene, Part 1”
This is one of the most famous synthesizer albums of all time, and one of the first, as well. The opening track on there is so beautiful. I was super inspired by the synthesizer for the whole show. In the past, I’ve worked with a lot of samples and dabbled with the synthesizer for texture, but this was the first time I really spent a lot of time with the [instrument]. Part of the reason [for that] was because it was a TV show and I couldn’t sample anything. The other reason is that I just had to run with where my muse was, and the muse was the synth. I wanted to figure out a sound for the show that I hadn’t really seen in anime before. I hadn’t heard that synthesizer direction.
There’s a part of me that’s that critical person on Twitter, like, “Oh, this sounds just like this!” I know there’s a part of me that would just be frustrated if I tried to sound like Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo or any of the other more iconic, hip-hop inspired things. So I was like, “You gotta come with something else.”
Vangelis – “Blade Runner Blues”
This may be kind of an obvious one. That’s a track that I’ve listened to more than any other piece of music in my life. That specific piece has lulled me to sleep so many times. I’ve put it on many mixtapes. I got my hands on the synthesizer that was used for that tune, and ever since I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring that world into Yasuke. I used to say, “If I ever did something like Blade Runner, I would use that sound,” but then I thought, “Wait, why don’t I try to use that vibe for something that’s not Blade Runner?” That would be more interesting than treading the same territory.
Pink Floyd – “On the Run”
The song “War Lords” [is influenced by this]. That was completely unintentional. I was messing around with my synthesizer, and it has a cool clock sync for arpeggios. I sped up the arpeggiator and thought, “That sounds just like ‘On the Run!’” That spirit led to me finishing the song and realizing it belongs in Yasuke. Making “War Lords” got me listening to Dark Side of the Moon again, too. It’s just a perfect album.
Ennio Morricone – “Man with the Harmonica”
I’ve always loved the western vibe of Morricone, and I’ve always noticed the parallels between westerns and samurai films. I love how Tarantino used Morricone’s music, and I love Once Upon a Time in the West, and how those scenes inspired people beyond Tarantino and the usual suspects. He passed right around when I started working on Yasuke, so I wanted to have his spirit in this, a little bit. The biggest lesson that I would take from Morricone is that melody is always king. There’s no ambiguity, melodically, to his work. You can always sing his stuff back. I find that to be a thing. If you can sing something back that you heard, a catchy melody, that’s a gift, a sign.
Nobuo Uematsu – “Let the Battles Begin”
“Let the Battles Begin” is off the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack. It’s like the usual battle music you hear when you get into a fight with someone. I remember playing that game and having that theme drilled into my head.
I bought the remake, but I haven’t played it yet, and I’m actually glad, because they’re doing an even cleaner PS5 remaster. It’s one of my favorite game experiences of all time, and you can still play the original version of it. But I’m excited to play the new version and fall in love with it again.
Plenty of video games inspired [my work on] Yasuke. Donkey Kong Country, the underwater theme. A lot of the music from the Playdead games, like Limbo and Inside—a lady named SØS Gunver Ryberg makes the music. It’s this dark, ambient music that’s very sparse, but very beautiful.
Isao Tomita – “Claire de Lune”
Isao Tomita’s rendition of “Claire de Lune” off the album Snowflakes Are Dancing—that’s one of those early synthesizer records that I’ve played a million times. The whole album is made up of Debussy music, and it’s so gorgeous. It’s the best classical synthesizer album ever made, for sure. Putting that stuff together at that time was so crazy and tedious. They’re playing a lot of monophonic synthesizers, so they couldn’t play chords, either. You had to play note for note. Sometimes having very limited gear and a couple synthesizers, you can do a lot with that. You don’t necessarily need a lot of equipment, sometimes you just need a couple good melodies to make cool stuff.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – “solari”
I love this song. It’s kind of like a funeral song. It’s sorrowful but quite beautiful. It’s got that hazy, beautiful depression sound in there, but super rich and lush. The way [Ryuichi Sakamoto] plays chords is super inspiring to me. His chords are very simple, but they’re always just right.
If someone doesn’t know Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work, where would you recommend they start?
It depends on the person. I would tell some people to start with async. Others I would tell to start with 1999, a compilation of his best stuff. With him, you can start with the hits and go deeper out if you want to. It depends, you can play A Thousand Knives for someone! That album is hella fusion-y and crazy, it all depends on who you’re talking to. But he has all types of vibes, that’s the thing I love about him. You can take the easy path or the trippy path just as well.
Angelo Badalamenti – “Dark Space Low”
Angelo Badalamenti is the composer from Twin Peaks and a lot of David Lynch stuff. The track “Dark Space Low” is from the third season, Twin Peaks: The Return. That song really surprised me, it was at the very end of the show, something you hadn’t heard the entire time. The feeling that you left with, the last thing you heard in the show, is this unsettling ambient wave. There’s not much to it, but it’s so minimal and dreadful and mysterious. It’s just exactly what the show was. I took a lot of inspiration from that. When you have a show that’s so visual, sometimes you don’t have to put everything into the music. You can just let the scene play, present yourself more as texture for the scene and not necessarily try to steer it emotionally. I think Hans Zimmer is a person who does that. There’s something about this specific track that gets the balance just right. It doesn’t pull you out. It brings you in, but it’s not busy, it’s just very simple and hypnotic. That’s something I try to achieve with my stuff.
King Crimson – “In the Wake of Poseidon”
I’ve tried to pick songs that aren’t too big, so people can open up a bit and check out new old stuff. This King Crimson track is one of my favorite songs of all time. They use the Mellotron synthesizer for the strings, and I used it for that in Yasuke. Each time I would think about using strings, I would think about how effective that sound was on that album, In the Wake of Poseidon. This track is so anthemic and beautiful.
Flying Lotus – “Crust”
I love the track “Crust.” It soundtracks Yasuke’s arrival in Japan in the first episode, in a flashback scene. It’s one of those tracks that gets stuck in my head, it’s just a vibe that you can play right out the gate, it takes you to Yasuke-world, a shipyard in the 1500s.