‘Yasuke’ Is An Exciting And Refreshing Reimagining Of The Legendary Black Samurai – Review
The tale of Netflix’s Yasuke is one of transition and reconciliation through the eyes of the first African samurai. With visually stunning scenery and a sonically pleasing soundtrack, Netflix’s latest anime production takes the audience on a journey through feudal Japan. On that journey is our titular character who starts off as a mere servant then becomes a samurai, and eventually, a ronin.
His story teeters between timelines, giving viewers a glimpse into the main character’s past. As an enslaved man, he wins the favor of the Shogun Oda Nobunaga. Fast forward 20 years later, he escorts a powerful young girl named Saki on a passage to a mysterious doctor.
The story itself is loosely based on the actual tale of the first Black samurai in Japan who rose to the upper echelons of Japanese society. The history of Yasuke is cloudy. Some reports state that he was an enslaved African man born in Mozambique and brought to Japan by Italian Jesuits. Other reports say that he may not have been enslaved, but had a warrior background that allowed him to rise to the ranks of samurai.
Either way, don’t expect a history lesson as this Netflix production provides anime fans just what they want, a little bit of magic, mech, and swordplay. The show flies between realism and fantasy and is less about the true history of Yasuke and more about a fantastical tale of a Black man finding peace with his past. Led by the voice talent of Academy Award-nominated actor Lakeith Stanfield, Yasuke gives us brief moments of history intertwined with mystical wars, international villains, and nefarious religious leaders. You can thank creator, executive producer, and showrunner LeSean Thomas for that. Alongside executive producers Stanfield and Flying Lotus, who also developed the musical score, Thomas’ creation is a love letter to samurai anime classics, like Rurouni Kenshin and Afro Samurai. Thomas’ credits include The Boondocks and his first Netflix project Cannon Busters. Two very different shows from Yasuke, but both rooted in expanding the presence of Black folks in animation.
The combo of Thomas, Stanfield and Flying Lotus ushers in a new wave of Black influenced anime, but bringing the story of Yasuke to the screen was a long time coming. In development prior to this anime was a live-action biopic. The tale of the first African samurai was to be told by the late Academy Award-nominated Chadwick Boseman. His untimely passing saw the project be sidelined. Although there may not be a live-action rendition of Yasuke’s story, audiences are awarded the opportunity of Thomas’ take.
This anime shines at the crossroads of excellent sound and visual. The animation, developed by MAPPA, is beautiful to say the least. As the setting and characters fluctuate between animation and CGI, Yasuke continues to offer stunning scenes filled with dreamy settings and fluid animation. Even the most visceral fight scenes become beautiful shots within the anime. It is this animation that will bring audiences into Yasuke’s world, but also his memories. Additionally, Flying Lotus’ soundtrack brings a sense of etherealness to show, from beginning to the end.
Beyond the imagery, the show engages with the state race, class, and feminism in the late 1500s. The first episode introduces Yasuke to Japan. After a battle that wins the shogun’s favor, he demands that Yasuke be washed only to find that his skin color does not change. This scene joins others that highlight the racism Yasuke faces every day. From strangers gawking at him, to questions about his skin and hair, to the denial of respect from other soldiers round up his experience as a Black samurai in Japan. The rest of the cast highlights women in power as onna-bugeisha, the presence of Christianity in Japan, and the westernization of the country. Although Yasuke is not a historical account, these elements ground the story that is otherwise fantastical. You’re reminded of the fantasy once characters start exhibiting their extraordinary powers, which are grounded in a recognizable reality.
The anime has many highlights, but some elements don’t shine as brightly. The anime is around 30 minutes per episode. With only 6 episodes of presumably the first season, viewers are left wanting more. Due to the timing of each episode, certain character arcs feel unfinished. Additionally, the compressed explanations of various powers, essentially the character Saki’s, are explained no more than the existence of mechanical inventions within feudal Japan. But perhaps that is the beauty in it? The show exists between the balance of past, present, and a hopeful future wrapped in a dream.
In all, Yasuke represents a step in the right direction of the cross-cultural pollination of anime. Time will tell what lies next for anime with an American flair. In the meantime, let Yasuke’s futuristic soundtrack, beautiful visuals, and fantastical story present a portrait of a time where a Black samurai existed.