The new Netflix anime Yasuke is an entertaining and endearing new anime that focuses on a black man who was brought to Japan where he became the first, and possibly only, Black samurai in Japanese history. The lone fact known about Yasuke is that he served a feudal lord until the lord known as daimyo was forced into a ritual suicide by a traitor and underling in 1582. This story has been little told until now. The Netflix anime which was released in April captures this fascinating tale set a little over 400 years ago.
The anime has a striking style and delves into a mostly unknown part of history. The anime is created by Cannon Busters creator LeSean Thomas and executive-produced by Lakeith Stanfield — who also voices the show’s main character. Yasuke is animated by the same studio that animates Jujutsu Kaisen. The show has lovely animation and dramatic action scenes. Though the dialogue and character development are not perfect the overall outcome is an enjoyable and engaging anime.
The story follows Yasuke, a Black samurai boatsman who is haunted by his past as a samurai for Oda Nobunaga, a feudal lord who hired him after becoming impressed with his combat skills. One day, Yasuke is asked to escort a girl named Saki (played by Maya Tanida) to a doctor to treat a mystery illness. It turns out that Saki has magical powers that are coveted by evil beings. As the story progresses, Yasuke must use his samurai skills to defend Saki, a girl he has grown to care about.
Visually, Yasuke is an alluring and bright sci-fi anime. The shots of the landscape are extremely detailed and the overall quality of the aesthetic is immersive. Composed by Flying Lotus, who also executive-produces the show, the score for the series includes tranquil sounds.
The anime is exciting and incorporates action scenes where power dynamics are explored. Shōnen fantasy archetypes are examined. The show includes samurai, magic, and characters that can morph into animals. There is a climactic battle in season one where giant mechas, super-powered beings, and ordinary soldiers fight it out amongst explosions and bloodshed. In another compelling scene, Yasuke, possibly the only Black samurai, uses his boat paddle as a weapon while fighting a group of mercenaries on ice. The fight scenes are well done although they are not especially elaborate.
Flawed Character Development
The main criticism that can be made about Yasuke is that the dialogue and character development leave something to be desired. The episodes are short which may be a contributing factor to the show’s flaws. There is a group of mercenaries including a feature a mystical African shaman, a werewolf who offer little in the way of character development. The villains want power for power’s sake. All of the characters are introduced quickly, and viewers are never given the opportunity to learn about and care about the characters on a deeper level.
The characters lack depth, and the dialogue isn’t always stellar. In fact, some of the dialogue feels heavy-handed. For example, a scene where the Black samurai, Yasuke, is talking to a member of Nobunaga’s army about how samurai is part of Japanese culture and it is so over-the-top it seems like he is talking to a foreigner or someone completely unfamiliar with the concept rather than speaking to someone who is in fact Japanese. This type of dialogue contributes to the feeling that the characters are overly aware of their positions within the story and that the characters lack depth.
A Missed Opportunity
Yasuke, a character from an extraordinary part of Japanese history, seems like it would be a great place for character development but in this anime, it is underwhelming. The story begins slowly and then seems to pick up a few episodes in. Yasuke is stoic and he mostly talks about what is and is not honorable. He has needed to prove those who doubt him wrong because of the color of his skin but he never discusses the psychological effects of his experience. There are flashbacks to his past which feature scenes of betrayal and prejudice, but it still feels like there is a missed opportunity when it comes to exploring this character and the problems he faces. Stanfield speaks in a sort of monotone and solemn way and barely changes his vocal inflection. If delivering a threat or something urgent the lack of change in his tone becomes more noticeable.
Shallow Character Interactions
In one scene, Yasuke saves a boy from an angry samurai and he proves his nobility at that moment. His interactions with Saki which include her innocent questions and his honest and straightforward responses add a warm dynamic to the show. The short length of the episodes and the fact that there are multiple storylines and plots being presented at the same time leaves little room for an in-depth connection to be formed between Yasuke and Saki. Their interactions are unfortunately limited.
The relationships and character development could be better and often it feels like the characters are used as a way to move to the next action scene rather than creating characters and relationships that the viewers care about. Despite what is lacking in the dialogue and character development, this anime is worthwhile because of its battle scenes, captivating artwork, and engaging plot. Yasuke is a compelling piece of history that otherwise would have remained mostly forgotten.
Yasuke, the first and possibly only Black samurai in Japanese history, is an entertaining and engaging new anime that reimagines a mostly forgotten part of Japanese history. There are vibrant visuals and a peaceful score. The dialogue and character development leave something to be desired. There is a missed opportunity to explore the difficulties Yasuke faced because of the color of his skin. The short episodes could also have benefitted from developing depth between the characters and improving their interactions. Overall, Yasuke is a compelling piece of history that otherwise would have remained mostly forgotten.