There are many holes in history, and several of them effectively scrub minorities from the stories we tell about our countries. For every Francis Drake there’s a Zheng Yi Sao, and for every Billy the Kid there’s a Nat Love. It’s tragic just how many of these potential heroes have been lost to time, with no scribes recording the Herculean efforts of their achievements.
These unsung heroes were exactly who LeSean Thomas was interested in when he set out to make Yasuke. With the aid of MAPPA, maybe the hottest animation studio of the modern era, Netflix’s six-episode Yasuke follows the elusive Black samurai of the same name who famously served as retainer to Oda Nobunaga, the Great Unifier of Japan and one of history’s most notable warlords. The story isn’t quite interested in Yasuke’s time with Nobunaga, though—the series takes place some 20 years after Nobunaga’s assassination.
Yasuke (voiced impeccably by LaKeith Stanfield) is now older and works as a boatman under a pseudonym in a cozy countryside village. After meeting a beautiful koto player named Ichika (Gwendoline Yeo), he is tasked with helping her and her sick, psychokinetic daughter Saki reach a doctor up-river. The hero then becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to capture Saki, who is coveted for her extreme (but uncontrollable) abilities.
Yasuke, as a Black man in Japan, isn’t respected or regarded in the same light as others of similar or even inferior talent; it’s one reason LeSean Thomas decided to fill in the gaps of Yasuke’s scant known history with mechas and magic. But these elements are occasionally an extraneous and even confusing distraction for the show’s themes that are otherwise quite strong. For example, Yasuke—who is preternaturally talented with a blade—is shown to be regarded as little more than a servant and not a samurai in his own right by Nobunaga’s former general Akechi Mitsuhide, the man who would later betray Nobunaga. Yasuke deals not only with racism but conservatism, tradition, and nationalism as a whole.
In the alternate Japan the show takes place in, these are rancid ideals, ones that quite literally twist and contort people into demonic beings consumed by their own greed and hatred. Yasuke’s devaluing parallels Natsumaru’s (Ming-Na Wen), a fellow retainer who is seen as lesser because she is a female warrior. The two share a strong bond as members of Nobunaga’s inner circle who aren’t allotted the respect they deserve. Though one of Japan’s bloodiest warlords, Nobunaga was also well-known for his progressive ideas; his civil policies were concerned with connecting people through central roads, abolishing monopolies, and even allowing for the construction of the first Christian church in Kyoto.
This kind of passion extends to Yasuke, who views life and death as equally precious. The show shines in its quieter moments, when Yasuke walks through serene villages contending with his trauma, all the while ensuring Saki doesn’t face the same bloodshed he has. These scenes are galvanized by Flying Lotus’s excellent score, which is surprisingly restrained throughout—sporadic trap beats pulse through organic sounds of shamisen and taiko, providing an effortlessly cool vibe that perfectly suits Yasuke’s unpretentious composure. FlyLo has said that he composed the music “chronologically” alongside the character’s growth, effectively avoiding static cliches and remaining dynamic throughout.
Unfortunately, these somber moments are often truncated, with stakes raising to impossible heights. The show’s story starts relatively simply: Yasuke needs to get Saki to the doctor all the while avoiding a maniacal, tentacle-waving Jesuit priest who pursues them mercilessly. Later, the show ramps up in such a way that Yasuke’s original characterization seems forgotten. After he swears to lead an army towards a brighter Japan, I found myself thinking “Wait, when did that become his central motivation?”
This pithiness of characterization extends further into the cast, where the anime struggles to give individual identities to Takeshi Koike’s very well-designed characters. They swirl around Yasuke, switching allegiances in such a way that pleased me on a base level (I oh-so-hate when villains with great designs are introduced only to be killed off an episode later), but left me confused upon further thought. Much of the show’s interstitial elements seem to follow the “rule of cool”; if it’s cool for something to happen, then why not!
I’m totally down to ride the cool wave, but I can’t help but feel cheated out of a narrative that only scratches the surface of something more meaningful. The show tends to contradict its own points, thanks in part to its magical, imaginative setting. Why would Natsumaru be disrespected for being a female samurai when Yasuke encounters fearsome female samurai and even a female daimyo later in the story? Why, also, would a Russian bear-woman and an African spirit shaman quake in disbelief at the existence of Yasuke (who, comparatively, feels a lot more mundane)?
Saki and Yasuke’s relationship and its development is one of the strongest aspects of the show, and Saki is almost never rendered a useless damsel—the growth of her abilities is one of the show’s central concerns, and Saki serves as a active player in many battles, acting in tandem and even eclipsing Yasuke’s own strength as a fighter. But when the show falls into another laser-versus-laser battle, I can’t help but feel like I’m watching a show I’ve seen before.
While liberal with its influences (Dororo and Samurai Champloo come to mind), the show sometimes struggles to find its own individual identity. Fans of the Castlevania anime will notice Yasuke follows a similar formula, jampacking its short-form season with gradually bigger (leading to gargantuan) enemies until an explosive final battle. Nevertheless, the show is certainly worth watching if just for its sumptuous animation and impeccable score. But viewers will also find a series that feels philosophically imperative—one that highlights the importance of tearing down gates that bar creators from achieving the excellence they are capable of.
Yasuke premieres Thursday, April 29th on Netfilx.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire
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