Yasuke sure offers plenty of substance along with entertainment. The title character is a real-life historical figure with a legend that’s ripe for (some) reimagining. He did actually exist as history’s first Black samurai, who wielded a sword in feudal Japan around the mid 1550s. He was an African expatriate (trafficked on a Portuguese ship) with great physical stature, and he drew quite a reaction from the warlord Nobunaga, who was initially convinced that the foreigner’s skin was covered in ink. The two men forged a respect-based bond and attempted to unite a fractured Japan that couldn’t get itself together under opposing lords. In the process, Yasuke ascended to nobleman status and earned the title of samurai. Somewhere along the line, he fell out of the history books, and that’s where this series starts to take the story into legendary territory.
Anime happens to be an ideal vehicle for such creative liberties to happen. We don’t know too much about Yasuke’s life after Nobunaga’s 1582 death (by forced suicide, or seppuku), and this series takes us decades into the future with flashbacks. And anime allows for fantastical touches with any historical figure, so long as their spirit is honored; and seriously, Japanese animation gets pretty free-wheeling on a regular basis. So, it doesn’t feel too far-fetched to see Yasuke facing off with a giant robot or for someone to shape-shift into a werewolf while fighting. There’s magic everywhere while Flying Lotus is doing the scoring honors, and everything looks freaking beautiful while you might wonder exactly what the artists (and writers LeSean Thomas and Nick Jones Jr.) were smoking when they dreamed up those details. One would do well to roll with it.
The best news is that this series is in great hands, overall. That’s more than important because anime has not always been the most representative storytelling realm. Yet creator/director/producer LeSean Thomas arrives with a proven track record (The Boondocks, Cannon Busters, and Black Dynamite) of interweaving anime and Black culture. Thomas helms this reimagining of Yasuke’s post-samurai days and runs with them, infusing layers of understated emotion within the character and (yes, this is speculative) taking leaps to explore the relationship between Nobunaga and the man who he felt was more of a son than his own flesh and blood. We see how Nobunaga also sent a female warrior onto the battlefield, and how both elites and rivals reacted to Yasuke’s elevation, and damn, there’s a lot of baggage that Yasuke ends up carrying around decades later, long after we see him present at his warlord’s death. All of this comes full circle in a relatively closed-off season, although there’s certainly room for a continuation, should the Netflix renewal-gods desire to go there.
Somehow, I’ve yet to mention that Chadwick Boseman signed onto a Yasuke feature film before his death, and Boseman has never steered his audience wrong for selecting worthy subject matter. Likewise, LaKeith Stanfield voices Yasuke here (and he executive produces), which bodes well for this project even if his role-picker isn’t as pristine as that of Boseman. Yes, Stanfield boasts a streak of critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved projects (Sorry To Bother You, Atlanta, Judas and the Black Messiah, Get Out). Yet since we’re talking about a Netflix anime project, I cannot resist noting an exception (however silly it might seem) to this rule. A not-so-great LaKeith project would be Netflix’s Death Note (2017) movie, which is a live-action adaptation of one of my favorite anime series. This is otherwise unrelated fact that I only mention to acknowledge that Stanfield and Netflix have now both made good on their “crimes” against anime, given that the live-action Death Note crushed the source material’s spirit. Yasuke does the opposite. It’s a fine anime selection, and one that celebrates its subject matter’s spirit.
As I’ve already mentioned, the story imagines what Yasuke’s life is like while he’s (unsuccessfully) attempting to forget his ronin past. He’s craving a peaceful life, which is not in the cards, and he’s eventually pushed to pick up the sword again. His past experiences inform his present, and he’s (self-)tasked with protecting a mysterious young girl who finds herself on the run from dark forces. Their relationship is an endearing one that not only fuels the present plot but adds plenty of texture to Yasuke as an ultimately honorable character. Also, this little girl can kick some magical ass.
The production falls under the umbrella of Japanese animation studio MAPPA (Attack on Titan: The Final Season, Jujutsu Kaisen), which will spark the interest of any anime fan. However, if you consider yourself a non-anime person, rest assured that Yasuke is fairly accessible with LaKeith and the cast doing their thing in English (although there’s a Japanese dub on the way, too). The show’s also a surprisingly speedy binge and wraps up a season in six 30-minute episodes. It’s far less intimidating (runtime-wise) to sit down and tackle than many other currently running anime series, which can include seasons that span dozens of episodes with a whole lot of filler. Yasuke may not be perfect, but it won’t be accused of wasting any audience’s time.
However, this show should not be mistaken for a quick-and-dirty job. The runtime might be economical, but manages to at-least create the feel of an epic journey on behalf of the title character, and the visuals are absolutely stunning. Yasuke pulls out a lot of stops to paint a gorgeous background for its characters, almost to the point where some of its nature shots look startlingly realistic. It’s a stunningly rendered series, and that’s only one of the attractions, aside from the biggest: a fitting reimagining of a legend’s story.
Netflix will stream ‘Yasuke’ on April 29.