Yasuke Is Better When Focused on History Rather Than Fantasy

Yasuke, the long-anticipated Netflix anime miniseries created by LeSean Thomas, is inspired by the life of an actual Black samurai. However, only a fraction of the show directly connects to the true story of Yasuke, with the majority of the series being a mish-mash of anime fantasy tropes. Though the fantasy elements result in some stunning fight sequences and occasionally serve to follow through on conflicts established in the more realistic flashbacks, much of the time, they feel like a distraction from the main character himself.

A truly historically accurate biopic of Yasuke would be impossible, given how much of said history is missing. There are no clear records of his life before he was brought to Japan by Jesuit missionaries -- the only account of his fate following the defeat of Oda Nobutada is highly disputed. As such, Thomas and his co-writer Nick Jones Jr. made a reasonable decision to present an embellished but semi-historical telling of Yasuke's time as one of Oda Nobunaga's samurai in flashbacks while the main purely fictional story follows an older Yasuke 20 years later.

Even with magic and robots added to the Sengoku era setting, there's nonetheless something genuine and compelling about Yasuke's journey from servant to warrior in the flashback story. Yasuke is loyally fighting on behalf of Nobunaga and seeking his own acceptance within feudal Japan's social order while simultaneously being challenged on whether or not said order is even worth passionately defending in the first place. His relationship with the onna-musha Natsumaru proves particularly interesting and is one of the flashback story threads which eventually receives a proper payoff in the main story.

Disappointingly, too much of the main story isn't really about Yasuke himself but a generic "chosen one" story where Yasuke has to protect a supernaturally powerful child Mandalorian-style. The foes pursuing the "chosen one" are a weird mix, including another African man who basically has JoJo Stand powers, a Russian were-bear seemingly designed to appeal to the Lady Dimetrescu fanbase and an A.I. whose name is Haruto but whose logo reads "HRT," thus guaranteeing his presence in a billion trans memes. These Shonen Jump-esque supporting characters are fun, but it's also hard to take them or their convoluted storyline particularly seriously.

Even at its weakest, Yasuke consistently looks and sounds impressive. The animation is towards the upper tier of MAPPA's efforts; aside from the occasionally glaring CGI, the action scenes are gorgeous and Takeshi Koike's designs are excellent. Even better is the score by Flying Lotus, which evokes both Nujabes's chill beats for Samurai Champloo and Vangelis's iconic score for Blade Runner (FlyLo previously scored the Blade Runner Black Out 2022 anime short). You won't want to skip the opening theme sung by Thundercat. The English voice cast is strong, though lead actor LaKeith Stanfield is more convincing playing the younger Yasuke than the grizzled older one.

Yasuke's fantasy story ultimately sticks the landing with an exciting final battle and a conclusion that brings the focus back to its hero's journey, but it's inconsistent getting there. At only six episodes, it's worth the binge, but there are many ways it could have been better. This might be the first major attempt at dramatizing Yasuke's history for the screen, but it hopefully won't be the last.

Created by LeSean Thomas and starring LaKeith Stanfield, Yasuke debuts April 29 on Netflix.

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