Yasuke: One Villain Exposes European Missionaries’ Complicated Japanese History

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Yasuke, now streaming on Netflix.

Despite being a relatively short anime at just six episodes, there are two major villains in Yasuke, the first of which is the European priest Abraham. While the villain Daimyo eventually replaces him as the show's big bad, Abraham is actually a much better antagonist, both because of his role within the story and within the series's historical setting.

The hero, Yasuke, has given up being a samurai to become a ferryman by the time he meets Abraham. He agrees to take a young girl named Saki safely upriver, but is attacked en route by a group of assassins sent by the priest, setting in motion the events of the series.

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Abraham's primary goal is to kidnap Saki, whose incredible magical abilities he wants for himself. Saki's adoptive mother is killed when his assassins attack, but she and Yasuke escape. Later, they track him to a local tavern, where Abraham introduces himself. The priest claims to be a missionary sent to save souls and to find Saki, who has been prophesied to bring peace. Yasuke rebuffs him, so Abraham has the assassins subdue him to be interrogated.

This scene at the tavern frames both characters as mirrors of one another, and at one point, Yasuke -- whose religion is unknown -- even quotes a Biblical verse from memory to the Christian priest. Abraham presents himself as a servant of God chosen to lead his people and Yasuke questions whether he is a servant or a leader, insisting that servants will always remain servants --something Yasuke himself is repeatedly told throughout the series).

Historically speaking, the Catholic Church sent European Jesuits to convert other peoples throughout the world, and priests like Abraham first arrived in Japan in the 1540s. In fact, the Jesuit responsible for spreading Christianity through East Asia was Alessandro Valignano -- the same man who brought Yasuke to Japan as his personal bodyguard! While the Jesuits genuinely wanted to save souls by spreading their faith, in practice their actions were typical of European imperialism in the 16th Century.

They coerced daimyo to convert and to support them in exchange for European firearms. By playing rival nobles against one another, they destabilized local political power so they could seize control. Jesuits orchestrated the destruction of Buddhist temples and worshippers and sold Japanese people as slaves overseas. Valignano personally respected Japanese culture, but he still sanctioned all of these practices.

One can try looking past these violent tactics, as the Jesuits had genuinely good intentions. Unfortunately, even the most compassionate among them still had the jingoistic biases common among Europeans of the era. Furthermore, proselytizing is always an act of colonialist violence, no matter how well-meaning. The Jesuits encountered numerous cultures they knew nothing about, assuming the locals to be morally and spiritually wrong and using force to destroy traditions they refused to understand.

One of the three great unifiers of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, eventually banned Christianity and the Jesuits in response to their repeated attempts to destabilize the nation. That said, some Japanese Christians were also persecuted for non-political reasons, just as Buddhists and Shintoists had sometimes persecuted one another over biases.

Yasuke kills the priest Abraham

Abraham and Yasuke are both foreigners brought to Japan by the Jesuit Order. They are dark reflections of one another. In fact, Yasuke gives his original name as Ibrahim, which is just another spelling of Abraham. However, their actions are complete inversions of one another. Yasuke served his daimyo honorably and was rewarded. Abraham claims to serve God by leading people, but really just covets power -- typical of how Jesuits acquired political power in Japan by any means necessary. His desire for power at any cost surpasses any of his religious convictions.

As Abraham brutally interrogates Yasuke, the priest reveals that he has demonic powers, which he uses in this torture. Eventually, Saki comes to rescue Yasuke, using her own magic against Abraham. Yasuke breaks his bonds to help her, snapping the priest's neck, but it's not enough to kill him. In the end, Suki crushes him beneath a massive cross -- illing him with the symbol of a god he spent his life claiming to serve, while actually just spreading misery and death.

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