For decades, VIZ Media has been a name synonymous with Japanese manga. The publisher remains one of the cornerstone importers of manga in America, but starting this year, it will also be stepping up into the world of original American anime.
Before the year is out, VIZ, Powerhouse Animation and Netflix will launch Seis Manos on the streaming service. A kung fu horror story set in Mexico, the series aims to combine the mysticism of Latin culture with the action and star talent of 21st century pulp thanks to a voice cast that includes Luke Cage's Mike Colter, action vet Danny Trejo and more.
VIZ brought out the big guns to help spread the world on the show for a panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and CBR was on hand for a first look at the series MC'd by company staffer Urian Brown, along with Seis Manos co-creator Alvaro Rodriguez and writer Daniel Dominguez as well as Powerhouse Animation CEO Brad Graeber.
The group started by showing off the opening minutes of the show's first episode – a clip that felt like the anime equivalent of a Robert Rodriguez movie blended with the animation style of Legend of Korra. Rodriguez even referred to the show as "Machete meets Kill Bill on the set of Coco."
"The storyline is about these three teenagers who are orphaned in Mexico in the 1970s...so it was really important to depict all the characters in that space," Rodriguez added, noting the role of the women in the show in particular. "They're all really played against stereotype and as strong characters."
The titular "Seis Manos" of the series are the hands of these three protagonists who must master their martial arts training while trapped in the middle of a war between the police and a mob boss with his hands dripping in demon blood.
Graeber described the show's aesthetic by saying "fight scenes should drive the story." He noted that when it came to animating the series, the producers wanted to be as authentic with the kung fu as possible. Animators met with and filmed martial artists to make sure "we weren't just making up crazy cool stuff but we were really being authentic." Each character in the show has their own style of kung fu, and the animators also worked to include the personal ticks of the voice actors as they recorded to flesh out the characters.
The other side of the coin for Seis Manos is what the producers called Mexican mysticism. Rodriguez noted, "There's just something about the culture that draws on all those elements...all of this is stuff I was exposed to from an early age...some of this was already second nature, but the group of artists and writers went to see a curandero [native healer] shop in Austin, Texas."
Graeber said there were strange coincidences between the mystic flavor of their setting and the pop culture influences, citing an instance where he wanted to play a scene similar to the '70s TV series Kung Fu only to find real Mexican artifacts that could play the same idea in a more authentic way. The show's resident anime nerd and horror nerd was Dominguez who said they worked to make the show as creepy and intense as they could in line with their influences.
After airing a second clip, the panel welcomed a lineup of cast members including Mike Colter, fan favorite Overwatch actor Johnny Cruz, Jane The Virgin star Angelica Vale, martial artist and actor Vic Chao and of course Danny Trejo.
The latter started the conversation by saying that "doing anything in animation is really fun because you don’t have to dress up." Trejo frequently leaned into his reputation as the ultimate silver screen tough guy in preparing the part of mystic mob boss El Balde. "The roles I play are like ‘I guess I’ll kill ya,’ but this is a lot of fun. To get into the emotion of most of my characters, I just have to look into the mirror and go ‘Oh yeah, I remember,’" he said laughing.
Though the legend took time to acknowledge the importance of a series full of Latin cast, creators and themes, saying "The more you push, the more you get." Trejo explained, "We don’t push. People wait for something to happen. A lot of doors are being opened right now, so if you want to see more, write a story. I think things are going well right now in terms of representation in film and animation, but we’re got to fight for more."
From Trejo's involvement to some of the intense zombified animation shown across the panel, a key part of Seis Manos is its adult-oriented action and horror sequences. The blood seen on screen is more intense than the average American animated fare and on purpose. "Yes there is gore, yes there is the supernatural, but it’s not there for it’s own sake. It’s there to tell the story, Chao promised. The actor plays the part of Chiu, a mysterious kung fu master who guides the teenage leads on their path to heroics, and Chao noted that he drew on his experiences with his original martial arts instructor as a teen to bring his performance full circle.
Cruz brought a level of humor to the panel as he does on the show with the part of Jesús – the lovable big man of the show. He said he was drawn in to the series by "all the things they brought together from eastern philosophy to Mexican mysticism...you just don’t see that together."
Anchoring the action are Colter and Vale who play a pair of grizzled '70s police detectives caught in the middle of the madness. Vale joked, "There has to be humor in it, and I love not wearing makeup. Plus, I look hot [as an animated character.]" The actress with extensive experience in Mexican telenovelas also spoke about her unlikely preparation for the part of Garcia. "I was doing a telenovela in Mexico. When I got the job, I came back to LA, and I was complete out of touch [with my English] so I started to watch a lot of cops on TV...I wanted to listen to a lot of girls playing the tough cop role."
Colter came to the project with experience in live and and animation, saying his attraction was "I thought the combination of all the worlds – a drug cartel mixed with kung fun – was great, but at the heart of the story are these kids who are lost and need to come together...I love the creation of these worlds and how far they push everything. There’s no way you can’t find something that appeals to you in this story."
Colter's role as Brister works to reinvent the blaxploitation cop role. "Since we’re in this heightened world, a character in that role fits right in, but as you find the character it starts to feel more real...anytime after that, anything real or heartfelt of grounded in these characters connections because you say ‘I thought we were having fun, but now something real is happening.’”
Viewers can see the full extent of how real the horror and kung fu of Seis Manos gets when VIZ Media and Netflix debut the show this fall.