Once upon a time — a little over 400 years ago — a Black man was brought to Japan, where he became the first, and likely only, Black samurai in Japanese history. Besides the fact that he served a feudal lord until the daimyo was forced into a ritual suicide by a traitorous underling in 1582, nothing is known of the warrior named Yasuke. And, to date, his story hasn’t been much more than a Snapple fun fact. Now it’s a trendy anime.
Released on Netflix next week (April 29), Yasuke is a stylish and sleek anime reinvention of a tragically under-explored piece of history. Conceived by Cannon Busters creator LeSean Thomas, executive-produced by Lakeith Stanfield — who also voices the show’s titular character — and animated by the same studio that animates Jujutsu Kaisen, the show has all the ostensive elements of a must-watch event. With beautiful animation and dynamic action sequences, it often succeeds, but clumsy dialogue and limited characterization prevent it from being more than the sum of its parts.
The story follows Yasuke, a Black boatsman haunted by his final days as a samurai for Oda Nobunaga, a feudal lord who enlisted his services after being impressed with his combat skills. One day, Yasuke is asked to escort a girl named Saki (played capably by Maya Tanida) to a doctor to deal with a mystery illness. It turns out that the girl actually has magical powers coveted by evil beings. And soon, Yasuke has to tap into his samurai mastery to defend the girl he’s grown to care about.
On an aesthetic level, Yasuke looks the part of an anime sci-fi epic, with Mappa rendering the show in luminous colors and 3-D animation you can find on shows like Attack on Titan. When shots of the landscape appear on screen, you can almost see the individual grains of dirt in the fields the villagers work, and the 3-D visuals immerse you in the spaces the main characters travel. Composed by Flying Lotus, who also executive-produces the show, the score for the series is laced with ambient strings and tranquil percussion, perfect complements to the plush forests and peaceful rivers the characters traverse. For more frantic scenes, it slides into muted electronic, a futuristic soundscape for a sci-fi feudal adventure.
The show thrives when it’s going full throttle and Yasuke is thrown into action scenes with purple skies, splattering blood and inventive displays of power. The battles and their participants encompass the farthest reaches of Shōnen fantasy archetypes. There’s samurai, there’s magic and people that can morph into animals. The climactic battle in Yasuke season one plays out like a smaller-scale version of the last fight in Avengers: Endgame, with giant mechas, super-powered beings, and ordinary soldiers colliding in a cocktail of explosions and bloodshed. In another scene, Yasuke uses his boat paddle as a weapon as he flaunts some acrobatic ability and fights a group of mercenaries on ice. While Yasuke’s swordplay isn’t particularly elaborate, the sheer activity of each battle and 3-D visuals that bring a layer of immersion to the fight, create scenes that any anime fan can appreciate.
As a series, Yasuke looks and sounds cool, and the battle sequences can be thrilling. However, the story sometimes falls flat due to lame dialogue and flimsy character development that might be a byproduct of being confined to short episodes. Throughout the story, we meet a group of mercenaries, which feature a mystical African shaman, a werewolf and more, who offer little besides half-baked crew banter and bad guys who want power for power’s sake and do nothing but brood, plot, and destroy. One priest-like villain says he wants to bring peace and order to his land, but that’s about it for his motivation. Only one villain approaches any sort of philosophical reason for being, and that’s more or less revealed to be a bad case of saltiness. All of these characters are introduced so quickly and seen so sporadically that there isn’t enough time to explore their abilities or their personality.
The characters’ lack of depth is connected to a script that feels a bit ham-fisted and reads more like Yasuke SparkNotes than an organic piece of speech. In one scene, a general condemns Yasuke, telling a member of Nobunaga’s army that the way of the samurai is a piece of Japanese culture reserved for Japanese men, repeatedly referring to their nationality to the point where it sounds like he’s explaining the concept to a foreigner rather than one of the very Japanese men he’s talking about. On-the-nose pieces of dialogue like this make the subjects seem too aware of their position in the story, and it underscores the idea that these are hollow anime tropes rather than people with distinct identities.
Yasuke, whose open-ended legend should have been fertile ground for characterization, is one persona that feels under-explored. For the story, which starts slow but picks up steam around the third episode, writers offer stoicism as his primary character trait, and he doesn’t say much besides what is and isn’t honorable and other aphorisms that aren’t even profound enough to be in a fortune cookie. He’s someone who’s had to prove doubters wrong due to the color of his skin, but he doesn’t mention or allude to the psychological ramifications of that experience, which feels like a lost opportunity. Flashbacks to a tragic past littered with betrayal and prejudice help fill in the blanks, but there’s a sense that there’s a lot more to do with his character.
Some of the reasons Yasuke can come across as too one-note can be found in the performance of Stanfield. Stanfield’s solemn baritone gives the character an assuring measure of calm, but sometimes, he sounds rigid, with his lines spilling out like a series of one-word sentences rather than a normal speech pattern. Additionally, regardless of the situation he faces, he barely alters his vocal inflection.
Because his character is even-keeled and doesn’t have a ton to say anyway, it’s not a big problem, but when he utters threats or tries to say anything with emotional urgency, that lack of magnetism becomes more noticeable.
While there are some shortcomings with how Yasuke is presented, moments like the time he saves a boy from an angry samurai showcase his nobility, and his interactions with Saki — comprised of her innocent questions and his straightforward answers — inject warmth. However, with each episode being less than 30 minutes and there being multiple plot points unfolding, Saki and Yasuke don’t actually spend enough time together for that connection to resonate for more than a few moments. When they do talk, whether in route to their first destination, in Yasuke’s house or by talking by campfire, it never goes much further than “You can’t do that” or “I’ll protect you.”
Moments of pathos and friendship are fleeting, and too often the characters feel like fast tracks to the next action scene rather than people you should care about. In the best stories, character arcs become journeys in themselves. But Yasuke doesn’t have to be the best for it to be worthwhile. With its epic battles, gorgeous artwork, fantastical plot, and a dynamic score from FlyLo, Yasuke is an inventive reimagining of a Japanese history, and it demands attention by adding color to a largely forgotten legend.
Peter is a writer and editor who covers music, movies, and all things dope. Catch him in the Hyperbolic Take Chamber on Twitter @pellz_.
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