LeSean Thomas’ historical fantasy anime, built from the known and unknown life of the Black samurai, possesses a boatload of great craft, even though its later storytelling is vexingly overstuffed.
Japan. 1582. The samurai general Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed his liege lord Oda Nobunaga and sets his castle alight. Trapped by the blaze, Nobunaga elected to die by seppuku – ritual suicide. His friend and retainer Yasuke – a Black man and the first foreigner ever granted the rank of samurai – acted as his second. Not long after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke vanished from the historical record.
Per the BBC, Yasuke arrived in Japan serving an Italian Jesuit and befriended Nobunaga in part by sharing tales of his many travels and performing Utenzi – Swahili narrative poetry that celebrated heroic deeds. Nobunaga was a patron of the arts, fascinated by Western culture, and liked to surround himself with interesting people. He was thus intrigued by the Black foreigner and sought his service – ultimately naming him a samurai retainer. He and Yasuke became close enough that Yasuke became one of the very few men to have the honor of dining with the daimyo. And again, Nobunaga entrusted Yasuke to serve as his second while he performed seppuku – not a role he would call on some random samurai to fulfill.
Yasuke is a fascinating figure, as much for what is not known about his life as what is. Now, with the six-episode anime series Yasuke on Netflix, animator LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters) offers a larger-than-life fantasy take on what the Black samurai might have done in the wake of Akechi’s betrayal and Nobunaga’s demise.
In a post-Nobunaga Japan where magic, psychic powers, and gargantuan combat androids are as vital to maintaining power as masterful swordplay, Yasuke (voiced by LaKieth Stanfield) lives in obscurity as a boatman. When a sickly and immensely powerful psychic girl named Saki (voiced by Maya Tanida) is entrusted to his care, Yasuke must resurrect his skills as a samurai to protect her.
Everyone wants Saki’s power, from an amiable band of colorful mercenaries to a vicious Catholic priest (voiced by Dan Donohue, For All Mankind) to the monstrous Daimyo (voiced by Amy Hill) who rules Japan from her spider-webbed castle and her dark army. Yasuke, even haunted by his past, will not allow Saki to be harmed by the vicious and the wicked.
Aesthetically, Yasuke is impeccable – skilfully directed by Thomas, gorgeously animated by Studio MAPPA, populated with striking characters designed by Takeshi Koike (Redline) and scored with cool, dreamy style by Flying Lotus. Its fights are without fail a ton of fun to watch.
The first half of the show pits an out of practice Yasuke and whatever he has on hand and a scared, confused Saki against the mercenaries – whose members include a cynical African shaman named Achoja (voiced by William Christopher Stephens, Final Fantasy VII Remake) and a cheerful, childish android named Haruto (voiced by Darren Criss), amongst others. These are battles for survival, not victory, where improvisation and luck carry the day. The choreography is thrilling, and in places, bone-crunching.
Yasuke‘s back half sees Yasuke draw his sword for the first time in years, as he and increasingly confident Saki battle the Daimyo and her magically enhanced, magically twisted minions. Yasuke’s tactical genius and skilled swordplay and Saki’s deep but untrained psychic might are pitted against supernatural foes whose abilities are as devastating as they are disturbing. These are battles where the options are victory or death. The choreography is of a piece with the first half, but it’s by design grander and swifter.
As a study of its title character and his journey to reconciliation with himself, Yasuke is excellent. Stanfield is quite good in the role; while his performance does wobble during some of the show’s shakier segments, he’s strong when performing Yaskue’s introspective moods and moments of full resolve – and those are Yasuke‘s best storytelling moments.
Yasuke’s relationship with his samurai past is complex. He knows that his own conduct was honorable by their code of conduct, and largely by his own as well. His time as Nobunaga (voiced by Takehiro Hira, Lost Girls and Love Hotels)’s retainer saw him both build a deep and lasting friendship with his lord and conduct a courtly romance with the woman samurai Natsumaru (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) – like Yasuke, an outsider elevated to a rigidly traditional position by the radical Nobunaga.
Stanfield… is strong when performing Yasuke’s introspective moods and moments of full resolve – and those are Yasuke‘s best storytelling moments.
Both Nobunaga and Natsumaru are long dead by the time Yasuke takes place, and Yasuke misses them terribly. He has less affection for the system the samurai enforced. For all that it emphasized honorable conduct, it left a lot of blood and tears in its wake, whether spilled by cruelly staunch traditionalists appalled by Nobunaga’s efforts at reform or by Nobunaga himself in his merciless pursuit of a unified Japan.
And for all that Nobunaga and Natsumaru held to the code, for all that they lived and died with honor, their adherence to it played a direct role in both of their deaths. Deaths that Yasuke, fairly or not, feels responsible for. He has a lot to sort out, and for a long time, he has avoided doing so.
As he travels with Saki, Yasuke emerges from the emotional, mental and spiritual retreat he has lived in since Nobunaga’s death. He comes to critical understandings in moments of both stillness and action, moving towards the reconciliation with that he has been seeking, consciously and otherwise, for a long while now. It’s tremendously compelling character work, rendered with care and skill by Thomas, the MAPPA team, and Stanfield.
Unfortunately, the rest of Yasuke‘s writing fails to live up to the high standard set by Yasuke’s arc. Outside of him, everyone is sketched pretty thinly. They’re well-performed and compelling, but they lack Yasuke’s complexity and development. Saki comes the closest – she’s a sweet-hearted and innocent foil to Yasuke’s good-hearted world-weariness who grows up during her travails and travels, but her story is more summarized than it is detailed.
Indeed, Yasuke would have benefitted from being longer than this six-episode first season. The back half of the show is rich with incidents, introducing new character after new character and repeatedly upending the status quo. Unfortunately, it proves to be too much, too quickly. The newcomers are intriguing, and Thomas’s mystical, high-tech-in-war-machines version of 16th century Japan is rich with potential. But things happen so fast and so abruptly that missed opportunities abound.
A potential rival for Yasuke who serves as a foil to both him and Natsumaru exits the show as quickly as she enters. Saki meets a school for children with powers like her own, only for that story to be shelved due to an attack by the Daimyo. Interpersonal relationships among the non-Yasuke members of the cast are essayed so speedily that they simply cannot land with the power they might if they had more space to breathe. At its most frustrating, Yasuke‘s storytelling gets so zippy that a jump between episodes feels like it’s missing an entire other episode’s worth of story in between.
It’s a significant issue, the biggest caveat in recommending Yasuke. But as far as storytelling problems go, having too many interesting ideas is far from the worst of them. As it stands, Yasuke has a terrific lead character, gorgeous action sequences, and sumptuous animation and music. Per Thomas, it’s a show designed to continue past this first season. I hope it does. Yasuke is a protagonist well worth following. This first season, even with its storytelling issues, is really good storytelling.
Yasuke premieres on Netflix on April 29th, 2021.