From Masaaki Yuasa’s gonzo Devilman Crybaby and the fighting anime Kengan Ashura to a CGI continuation of Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex and LeSean Thomas’s original Cannon Busters, Netflix’s anime catalog is full of standout originals and manga adaptations with something to satisfy every anime aficionado, whether one likes robots, shamans or samurai warriors. LeSean Thomas’ latest anime, Yasuke, combines all that and more, as it is a series loosely based on an actual figure: Yasuke is historically recorded as the first African samurai warrior, serving under the feudal lord Nobunaga Oda in 16th century Japan.
The African samurai legend gets his story told in a new, fantastical anime series from LeSean Thomas.
What’s documented about Yasuke includes his arrival to war-torn Japan as a servant to an Italian missionary in 1579, and an event called the Honno-ji Incident in 1582 that saw Nobunaga betrayed by his long-time army general Akechi Mitushide, then either killed in battle or dying by his own hand while Yasuke was helping to fight the enemy forces. From there, stories of the Black samurai are mere speculation, but with renowned animation studio MAPPA, lead voice actor LaKeith Stanfield, and co-executive producer/composer Flying Lotus, Thomas crafts a breathtaking and brilliant vision for the Black samurai’s legend with an unbridled passion for anime in every aspect, meshing famous elements of the medium with the facts about his life to tell an empowering story about a man driven by loyalty who didn’t let himself be defined by his skin color or how he was perceived by others, but by the strength of his indomitable spirit.
Taking place in a fantastical version of feudal Japan, Yasuke begins with the Honno-ji Incident, which the anime depicts as a bloody and chaotic battle between the Oda clan and the monstrous witch Hojo Daimyo’s army of demons, possessed soldiers and even giant mechs. With defeat imminent, Yasuke (Stanfield) implores Lord Nobunaga (Takehiro Hira) to follow him to safety, but he insists suicide is a more honorable death before impaling himself on his own sword, and asking Yasuke to finish him off, which he accepts to do with the utmost regret.
Yasuke continues to feel that guilt twenty years after the Incident as he lives a quiet, anonymous life as a boatsman in a small village. But one day, he is visited by the songstress Ichika (Gwendoline Yeo), who asks him to take her and her sick daughter Saki (Maya Tanida) down a river to see a doctor. Yasuke agrees, and the ensuing journey allows him to reflect on his days in Nobunaga’s army (which are told in flashback), hoping to find guidance in them because as he often says, “the past informs our future.” But little does the Black samurai-turned-boatsman know that Saki has burgeoning magical powers that attract the attention of ominous forces, from a diverse team of bounty hunters to the psychotic priest Abraham (Dan Donohue), and even the monstrous witch Hojo Daimyo herself (Amy Hill), and Yasuke soon finds himself having to rebuild his broken spirit through fighting the villains that cross his path.
Yasuke takes its eclectic band of characters down avenues that are beautiful to look at thanks to breathtaking animation. The forests Yasuke and company traverse through shimmer with gorgeous colors, while the realms of the astral plane and Yasuke’s dreams are majestic in their vibrancy when the show takes its turns for the metaphysical. The animation also lends its hand in emboldening the legend of Yasuke the warrior, designing him with great height and stature compared to the rest of the ensemble, and brutal, violent fight sequences that display his impeccable skills of combat through the eyes of the Black samurai, spectators and even those of a head flying through the air after Yasuke severs it.
Yasuke also merges the ideals of Japanese culture with the Black experience very well. Japanese royalty valued honor above everything else in feudal times, but the clans with whom Nobunaga wishes to form a united and inclusive Japan see the Black samurai as an insult to their beliefs, while the Japanese at large are even mystified by his skin color upon meeting him, asking him if he inked his skin black. Nevertheless, Yasuke yearns to be accepted as a leader in Nobunaga’s fleet, and perseveres through adversity in both timelines with loyalty, vigor, strength and cunning that will endear the open-minded and empower diverse audiences.
The fusion of Japanese and African-American cultures extends to the show’s sound design. Co-showrunner Flying Lotus is a Grammy-award winning music producer known for merging the genres of funk, rap, techno and jazz into a psychedelic sound with high energy and a tempered tone that encourages dancing, relaxing and deep thought all at once, often exploring ideas about existence, death and state of being. His musical genius extends to his work composing the music for Yasuke; funky bass lines and hip-hop beats are fused with raucous Japanese percussion during intense fight sequences, and dreamy synths merge with scintillating piano during the show’s quiet moments, giving the world of Yasuke an ethereal, wondrous sound that complements its visual splendor. Meanwhile, Stanfield lends his voice to the titular character in a solid performance that displays his great range as an actor; portraying the titular character’s nobility with commanding pride in the flashbacks, and his inner torment with graveled weariness over the course of his journey.
As entertaining as Yasuke is, the first half of the season is paced better than the second thanks to its two-timeline structure, only for it to be abandoned at the halfway mark. This creates the issue that the battles in the latter half feel so epic in scale and stakes that when an episode slows down in a way that’s easy to think an episode is ending, it picks up minutes later with another action sequence.
The flashbacks also present a duality of both kindness and ruthlessness within Lord Nobunaga, creating intrigue to the dynamic between him and Yasuke that’s left unexplored. It’s also worth noting that at six episodes, it’s a very quick watch that wraps up its main storylines nicely, but also introduces a lot of interesting characters and leaves audiences wanting to see more from them, while squeamish viewers may oppose the amount of blood and gore that spills throughout the show’s chaotic battles.
But that leaves potential for future seasons if Thomas and company wish to continue the show, and they should in this critic’s mind, because Yasuke is an enthralling collaborative effort between a renowned animation studio and a team of showrunners that love anime. Audiences will be in awe of the fight sequences and swept up in the world Yasuke travels thanks to the variety of its characters, the beauty of its landscapes and its unique sounds, while diverse viewers will not only have another hero to latch onto, but will also want to speculate about the theories surrounding the real Yasuke’s life. It’s as informative and action-packed as it is beguiling and empowering, and that’s why Yasuke stands on its own as a Netflix original anime.