Featured image: Samurai crew from left to right: Christian Thornton (Former Chief Marketing Officer), Immanuel Gracia (CEO & Creator,) Alex Moore (Lead Writer) and Phill Jones (Chief Operating Officer)
Spanning 19 episodes, the lengthy “Dragon Ball Z” battle between Goku and Frieza is one of the longest in anime history. Immanuel Gracia watched every single episode, falling deeper in love with the Japanese medium each time.
“It started for me with ‘Dragon Ball Z,’” he says. “I just thought it was so crazy that it wrapped me up in a way that I could relate to it.”
Prior to the pandemic, Puerto Rican-born Gracia worked in music, managing artists while making his own. Once the music slowed down due to COVID-19, Gracia, who now lives in Greensboro, quickly sought another means of artistic expression. Enter “Samurai: The Legendary Ronin,” an anime series that explores political- and social-justice issues through the eyes of Yoshihiro, an Afro-Asian ronin with a heart full of rage. It revolves around the oppression of his people by Emperor Okuda and others whose goal is to destroy essential farmlands so he can rule over those communities, a metaphor for gentrification. The first episode is loosely based on the death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man out for a jog who was pursued by three white men in a truck, one of whom shot and killed Arbery in February 2020.
“The reason this show started is because of that Ahmaud Arbery video,” Gracia says. “If you watch the first scene in the show, you’ll be like, That’s familiar. Two off-duty officers? That’s familiar.”
Gracia searched social media and his inner circle for writers, artists and animators to work on the show and join Golden Dynasty Entertainment, the independent animation studio through which the series will be released. Instagram is where he saw the work of 18-year-old Neev Asken, an animator from Los Angeles. After exchanging ideas with Gracia, Asken became the first to join the project, causing GDE to reach nationwide status. Gracia then contacted Pasquale Dorsi, a freelance animator and illustrator from New Jersey to act as art director and influence character design. Rather than draw characters himself, Dorsi manages the team of artists, making sure they’re sticking to the image Gracia, known to the GDE team as “Lou,” desires.
“Lou had a specific vision in mind, but he gave me creative control to take what he wanted and just flesh it out,” Dorsi says.
Gracia says he took inspiration from “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Dragon Ball Z” for the art style of “Samurai,” with Dorsi putting his own touch on the process. He chose to make the characters more realistic than using traditional anime style which typically feature exaggerated facial expressions and wide eyes. The characters of “Samurai: The Legendary Ronin” look similar to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” yet Yoshihiro’s dreadlocks exude the individuality of Gracia’s vision and GDE’s art style.
Gracia also contacted Alex Moore, a recording engineer with an interest in filmmaking, to be lead writer, even though he had never written a script before. In the story, he plans to relate the imperialization of Japan to the colonization of Black communities, having Yoshihiro fight against a new way of life being forced on him.
“You force a system on people, unfortunate things happen,” Moore says.
According to Moore, the project provides a history lesson to its viewers in the way Yoshihiro chooses to fight different scenarios, whether it’s through protest or physical action, similar to how people of color have had to choose the most effective way to fight injustice.
“He’s gonna be doing it violently,” Moore says while hitting one fist against an open palm, mimicking the sound of punches landing. “You’re gonna see him going at it like that.”
Christian Thornton, former chief marketing officer of GDE and with whom Gracia is “thick as thieves,” says the series will spark conversations traditional anime never has due to its subject matter.
“This hits your heart with a message,” he says.
The work is an example of the longstanding relationship between the Black community and anime. Thornton says anime was part of his upbringing, from having Dragon Ball Z-themed birthday parties to collecting Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.
“Once you’re that immersed in the culture, it never truly leaves you,” he says. “You find other interests as you grow and mature but you never really part ties with that nostalgic feeling anime really gives you.”
Moore’s first introduction to anime was “Gundam” due to an “uncontrollable addiction” to PlayStation. A young Moore was captivated by the fact there were people inside the larger than life robot suits.
“I didn’t even know there were real people inside the Gundamthing, so when I found that out, I was like, ‘Oh snap!’” he says.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Gracia was exposed to anime by exchanging movies in the neighborhood. He collected Bruce Lee films and went as far as participating in “Dragon-Ball Z” role-playing in the streets.
“We was even acting out some of that stuff thinking we could do spirit bombs in the middle of the projects!” he says.
Thornton says the connection between the Black community and anime lies in escapism. Children in impoverished communities could use anime to live vicariously for a moment, believing they are powerful and can do anything.
“It’s for the culture, truly,” Gracia says.