Yuyu Kitamura headshot with pink background.

Yuyu Kitamura is on her own journey of acceptance

Meet one of the charming young stars of Netflix's new supernatural DC Comics series "Dead Boy Detectives"

Yuyu Kitamura


Yuyu Kitamura recorded her self-tape for new Netflix series Dead Boy Detectives with her dad as her scene partner. He’s a Hong Kong cinephile—favorites like Shaolin Soccer, In the Mood for Love, and Internal Affairsbut works in finance, not acting. “I was in Hong Kong during Covid and all my actor friends were in New York,” Kitamura tells me. “He was giving me notes. It was a mortifying experience,” she jokes. One scene involved Kitamura asking three characters if they make out and get up on each other. “My dad stopped and he was like, ‘What are you auditioning for?’ and I was like, ‘It's fine. I'm working!’”

She obviously nailed the audition. Dead Boy Detectives is a Netflix adaptation derived from the DC Comics series authored by Neil Gaiman and Matt Wagner. It orbits around two spectral teenagers, Edwin (George Rexstrew) and Charles (Jayden Revri), as they work together to solve mysterious supernatural occurrences wherever they are needed, all while deftly eluding entities intent on their consignment to the afterlife. In the show, the pair get stuck in Port Townsend, Washington (thanks to a mischievous cat spirit) and take on the paranormal problems ailing members of the community. Accompanying them is the clairvoyant Crystal Palace (Kassius Nelson), loosely inspired by a character from the source material. Viewers initially encountered the trio, albeit with different actors, in the Max series Doom Patrol, also originating from DC Comics. Their inclusion served as a backdoor pilot, catalyzing the development of their own series. Not among the initial three-piece was Kitamura's role of Niko Sasaki, a wholly original character. Niko traverses from Japan to Port Townsend to attend high school following her father's death. She becomes a case for investigation as she is afflicted with an otherworldly parasite. 

From left, Kassius Nelson as Crystal Palace, Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki, George Rexstrew as Edwin Payne, and Jayden Revri as Charles Rowland in "Dead Boy Detectives."
From left, Kassius Nelson as Crystal Palace, Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki, George Rexstrew as Edwin Payne, and Jayden Revri as Charles Rowland in "Dead Boy Detectives."

“I loved that she was a Japanese girl that was going to school in the U.S. And it felt like me. That was me,” Kitamura says. Raised in bustling Hong Kong, Kitamura had middle-child syndrome (and a creative at that) in a sports-loving family. The scales were balanced a bit as she did consume plenty of CW and ABC shows like Castle and Grey’s Anatomy. Sandra Oh was a huge inspiration, as was Jenna Ushkowitz on Glee. “It was very few and far between but seeing people that looked like me was really transformative. It made me believe acting was something I could pursue,” she says.

Fortunately her adolescent schooling also offered theater, with two performances a year. Of course the biggest draw for her was seeing her mom and dad in the audience. So dad does have some qualifications to give acting notes after all. “I definitely thank him, I would not be here without my dad being my reader,” she says warmly.

Another family member helped out too. “When I read Niko. I immediately knew who she was. Her soul and her energy reminded me a lot of my younger sister,” Kitamura says. Externally, Niko and Kitamura contrast one another. The former prefers vivacious colors, occasionally monochromatic in wardrobe, and possesses an equally exuberant zest. Kitamura describes herself as cynical and sarcastic, while wearing lots of neutrals. But internally, she shares she deeply resonated with her character. Throughout the episodes, she proves she is quite the inquisitive investigator due in part to her countless hours watching Scooby-Doo cartoons and reading manga. Niko puts those skills to use and frequently goes on her own sidequests, out of a desire to help people. Kitamura reflects, “I thought about the purity in her, but there's a lot of loneliness and grief that she experiences. Even though the world has been hard for her, she still finds this way to dig in and bring the light out not in just herself, but mainly in others. Niko's light and love is something that she sees because it's something that she yearns for herself. It's a way that she's able to mask her own sadness and forget about it.” 

From left, Briana Cuoco as Jenny Green and Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki in "Dead Boy Detectives."
From left, Briana Cuoco as Jenny Green and Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki in "Dead Boy Detectives."

Emitting light during dark times is something Kitamura knows well. On paper, her future prospects looked bright shortly after graduating with an illustrious education from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2019. Since the age of 12, it had been an aspiration that resided in her subconscious, prompted by youthful naivety and a Google search for the best drama school in the world after a family vacation to the Big Apple. When she was accepted into the program, it felt like a great sign for her parents and for herself that acting was truly the step she could take. “My parents didn’t really know what to do with the arts, but they were supportive. They have always instilled in me this idea that you can really do anything you want, but you have to be the person to set everything in motion and really take charge of your life,” she says. It’s a mentality well aligned to NYU’s own. She recalls the biggest takeaway of her time there was professionalism. The sprawling cosmopolitan city was her campus and that meant peers weren’t rocking up to class in sweatpants. Some of her professors were established actors, one favorite teacher was Joe Holt from The Walking Dead. He kept it real with them and communicated he was a working actor too. “Seeing how incredibly difficult and unpredictable the industry is set my expectations of what I would be getting into,” Kitamura says. That life lesson came in full force as her diploma meant having an expired student visa.

An O-1B visa can be granted to nonimmigrant individuals that demonstrate “extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry.” The process can take months and requires arduous documentation and recommendations. On the artist side, they typically have to present sizable media coverage as evidence of their talent to be in the U.S. “It was both humbling and also incredibly vulnerable to be kicked…not kicked out of a country I should say, but knowing that I wanted to work in the States and being put up against the way that immigration in the U.S. works. It’s complicated and challenging,” Kitamura admits. Obtaining visas is an ordeal for anyone, but there was an added cultural conundrum. “Growing up in Hong Kong with a Japanese background, I’m not comfortable with selling myself,” she says. “In the Western world, it is almost championed. We really highlight and support people who know their brand, know what their worth is and what they can bring to the community. But it was also during a time where I had to ask myself,‘Iis this what I want to do? Is coming to the U.S. where I want to be?’” 

From left, Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki and Kassius Nelson as Crystal Palace in "Dead Boy Detectives."
From left, Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki and Kassius Nelson as Crystal Palace in "Dead Boy Detectives."

As the U.S. door closed, a Hong Kong one opened. Kitamura was able to produce, direct and star in her own short film Invited In, which went on to fanfare at the New York Asian Film Festival, Regent Park Film Festival, and the New York Lift Off Film Festival. “The whole visa experience really pushed me out of my comfort zone. It made me realize the process of trying to apply was worth it. With filmmaking and anything creatively, you often rely on people around you. I got to really immerse myself and find community, which is something that I was often afraid of doing,” she says. “It made me see myself. This is who I am. This is what I can bring to the table. Those emotional moments made me stronger. It made me accept that I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses. But I also know the types of projects that I want to work on. I know what I would like to say in the world.”

Discovering the power of her own voice is what she is most proud of from the Dead Boy Detectives set. As Niko was scratch-made, early drafts heavily leaned into a “Harajuku style, Tokyo anime girl” aesthetic. Kitamura had her reservations. “There were things that I wanted to ask questions about, especially about her background or her look. I didn't want her to feel like a caricature of my culture. I wanted to make sure that it was coming from a good place,” she says.  “I think our show runners and creative team were so open to conversations that I was really nervous about having as someone who is new to this. We were able to tone that down and find ways to make her feel more authentic and fitting to the show’s wonderful, whimsical world. I think it is just a blessing getting to live and do the work in this specific cultural landscape of our time. I don't know if this is something I would have had 10 years ago.”  

From left, George Rexstrew as Edwin Payne, Kassius Nelson as Crystal Palace, Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki, and Jayden Revri as Charles Rowland in "Dead Boy Detectives."
From left, George Rexstrew as Edwin Payne, Kassius Nelson as Crystal Palace, Yuyu Kitamura as Niko Sasaki, and Jayden Revri as Charles Rowland in "Dead Boy Detectives."

For instance, Niko doesn’t have a Japanese accent, but her physicality and mindset was influenced by Kitamura’s own upbringing. “Even with a lot of her mannerisms, I thought of how I move in Japanese spaces, when I'm back with people from home, it is a lot of slight bows and formalities,” she says. “Niko’s selflessness is a really Japanese quality. A sense of gratitude, service for the greater good, to be easy and not be an imposition that causes trouble. It's a blend of finding the Japanese things about Niko but also the fact that she is so wonderfully bizarre and on her own frequency."

No word on a season two yet, but Kitamura would love to explore more of Niko’s background and draw upon spooky Japanese lore in future plotlines. “There's like a whole culture around ghosts that hang around graveyards. I think that that's really cool. Or like kappas, which are water people” she says. She considers the show an actor’s playground because of wacky storylines and flying eyeball special effects, but mostly because the show is grounded in humanity.

The protagonists of Dead Boy Detectives all confront actual and metaphorical demons trying to hurt them. And only in embracing who they are, do they overcome them. Niko, a beacon of light and love, only shines so bright because of Kitamura accepting her authentic self.

Published on April 25, 2024

Words by Daniel Anderson

Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.