Japan has no shortage of legends, ranging from spooky phantasms descending on wary travelers through to the tales of heroes who fought off impossible odds throughout the nation’s tumultuous centuries of civil war. Perhaps the strangest of stories is that of a black samurai who served the man who began to unify Japan, Oda Nobunaga. A retainer who became a trusted samurai under Nobunaga’s command sounds like pure fiction for a country that was infamously suspicious of any foreign influences.
And yet there’s a truth to the story, one backed up by historical documents and source material that details the rise of Yasuke. Did that era also happen to have towering mechanised warsuits tearing castles apart, samurai wielding fearsome telekinitec powers to rip through rival armies and squads of warrior Shinto-priests practicing gruesome bone-breaking magic? Maybe! Although records from that era are spotty at best.
That’s the world of Yasuke, Netflix’s latest anime series that is headlined by some big names within its production. Six episodes, produced by Jujutsu Kaisen powerhouse studio MAPPA, written by Cannon Busters creator LeSean Thomas, the lead character voiced by LaKeith Stanfield, and the entire operation backed up by the smooth soundtrack of Flying Lotus.
What does all of this talent on display create? A pretty alright mini-series, but hardly a memorable one at that.
To be more vague, Yasuke lacks a certain killer instinct that you’d expect from a gathering of this much talent. Stanfield offers a fine but mostly subdued performance as the legendary black samurai, and is often outshone by everyone else around him. It doesn’t help that anime itself doesn’t exactly lend itself well to English voice-acting, creating an uncanny valley effect that no amount of talent can shake off behind the microphone.
Special mention has to go to Maya Tanida though, whose role as Saki is the real emotional anchor of Yasuke. As the walking MacGuffin of the entire series, she’s a focal point for everything that goes on in Yasuke, which includes a gang of mercenaries with wild powers going on a rampage, an army of the damned being summoned to wage war, and a Daimyo hellbent on cheating death.
And yet the entire experience feels like it hits with the blunt spine of a katana, rarely delivering the killing blow to your eyeballs that makes anime so anime. Think of some of the recent anime series that have become weapons in a streaming platform war over the last couple of years. One-Punch Man’s incredible attempt to kill a single mosquito, Devil Man Crybaby’s disturbing mob violence, or spellcasters in training racing to catch up to a nuclear missile in Little Witch Academia.
Yasuke has a number of great setpieces, but it has no kickass moment that you’d raise your fist to or frame an entire AMV around. Its action is passable, rarely makes use of MAPPA’s A-team effort (seriously it looks like the studio focused all of its efforts on Jujutsu Kaisen) and it only makes a last-ditch effort right at the end of the series. There’s also some ugly CGI thrown in for good measure, as Attack on Titan: The Final Season’s influence can be felt here.
Where the animation doesn’t falter though, is in the world that it creates. It’s a crying shame that most people will never realise just how good the environmental art is when more dynamic animation is placed on top of it, but every frame that rests in the background of Yasuke is an instant attention-grabber. Forests are filled with life, small towns look like a perfect location to catch 40 winks, and crumbling castles bear the scars of a war campaign gone tragically wrong.
Perhaps the most interesting omission in Yasuke, is how it dances around its themes of a black man struggling to find his place in feudal Japan. It’s an idea that’s teased and referenced, but it never fully commits itself to that narrative. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m about as white as your mom demanding to see the manager at Woolworths, and never in a million years would I feel qualified to talk about these themes.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be educated about them however, and not seeing those ideas given more substance feels like a missed opportunity for Yasuke to stand apart from every other anime show in existence which has generally sidelined people of colour to supporting or small roles on the periphery.
Yasuke’s visuals may not live rent-free in your head once the end credits roll, but the Flying Lotus soundtrack certainly will! Somehow striking a terrific balance between history and fantasy, there’s a subtle beat to every track which can be as explosive as a clash of samurai steel or as mellow as a Sunday afternoon. If you were expecting Samurai Champloo part deux, you’ve come to the wrong anime house as Lotus skips out on the obvious hip-hop treatment. Instead, there’s a blend that is befitting of Yasuke himself, a merger of African and Japanese themes that just feels right.
Last Updated: April 20, 2021