Yasuke: The Real-Life Samurai Behind Netflix’s Upcoming Historical Anime

Netflix has announced a lot of new anime in recent weeks. However, one announcement that stood out was that of Yasuke, set to premiere in 2021. The series stars Lakeith Stanfield as the titular Yasuke. After a lifetime of combat, the samurai Yasuke attempts to settle down. However, he quickly gets pulled back into the conflicts of a fictionalized version of Japan brimming with magic and mechs. However, while Yasuke's vision of Japan is fictionalized, the lead character is not. Yasuke was a real person with a fascinating life story that doesn't need magic or robots to make it interesting.

Lack of records means that little is definitively known about Yasuke's life, especially his early days. In fact, we don't even know where he was originally born. While 1627's Histoire Ecclésiastique des Isles et Royaumes du Japon says that Yasuke came from Mozambique, many modern historians, including Thomas Lockley, suggest that Yasuke was one of the Jaang people who came from what is now South Sudan.

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What we do know is that in 1579, Yasuke arrived in Japan as a slave of Alessandro Valignano, a Jesuit missionary tasked with inspecting every mission in the region to ensure they were following the correct procedures. Legend says that when Alessandro and Yasuke passed through the town of Sakai, large crowds gathered to see Yasuke, both due to the color of his skin and his imposing height. Reports from the period say that Yasuke was over six feet tall, while the average height in Japan at that time was closer to five feet. The crowds were so desperate to see him that buildings and balconies collapsed under the weight of the crowds perched atop them. This continued wherever Yasuke and Alessandro went, with them taking refuge in churches to hide from the crowds, which unfortunately lead to several people getting crushed from the sheer mass of people.

When the pair had an audience with the warlord Oda Nobunaga, Yasuke quickly became the focus. In a 1582 letter sent to Lourenço Mexia from missionary Luís Fróis, he says that when Nobunaga laid his eyes on Yasuke, he believed his skin to be coated in ink and demanded that Yasuke clean himself. However, when Nobunaga learned that this was not true, he took an interest in Yasuke. Yasuke was said to be fluent in several languages, including Japanese, and quickly engaged Nobunaga in conversation, delighting the Daimyō with stories of Africa and India. Nobunaga was so impressed by Yasuke's knowledge that he had his nephew give Yasuke a sum of money, something that was quite unheard of.

Yasuke and Nobunaga's relationship only grew deeper as time passed. And at some unknown date, Yasuke entered the service of Nobunaga, making him the only non-Japanese samurai that the Daimyō had. However, Yasuke was not Nobunaga’s slave. He was his vassal and confidant. In the Shinchō kōki, a chronicle of Nobunaga's life, it says that Yasuke was given his own residence as well a short ceremonial katana by Nobunaga. Yasuke was also given the title of Weapon Bearer, a position which shows that Yasuke was both highly educated and highly-skilled, as this rank was exceedingly prestigious and hard to reach.

Yasuke and Nobunaga in combat

Yasuke followed Nobunaga on his campaigns and fought alongside him many times, including at the infamous Battle of Tenmokuzan. However, in June of 1852, an army under the command of one of Nobunaga's former generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, attacked the Honnō-ji temple while Nobunaga and his advisors were inside. Nobunaga, Yasuke and the others tried to fight off the invaders but were overwhelmed. Nobunaga committed seppuku, a ritualistic form of suicide before his page set the temple alight to make sure that no one would be able to take Nobunaga's remains as a trophy. One legend says that Nobunaga's last command was to Yasuke, asking him to behead him as part of the seppuku rite and to take his head to his heir, Oda Nobutada. A gesture of Nobunaga's deep respect and utmost trust in Yasuke.

Yasuke survived the attack and made his way to Nijō Castle, where Oda Nobutada was trying to rally troops to avenge Nobunaga. Yasuke fought alongside them for several months, however, their campaign was futile and quickly snuffed out. During the losing battle, Yasuke was captured and taken to Akechi. Legend says that when Yasuke was presented to Akechi, the warlord said that as Yasuke was not Japanese he should not be killed and instead taken to a Christian church in Kyoto and left in the care of the men there. However, this fate is heavily debated.

All we know for sure is that this is where the story of Yasuke comes to an abrupt halt with no more being written about the samurai. However, his name has gone down in legend and his fascinating life has become the focus of many different works. The most famous of these works is Yoshio Kurusu's 1968 children's book, Kurosuke, which is considered a children's classic in Japan. While Netflix's Yasuke will deviate from the historical tale due to its magical future setting, it can't be denied that Yasuke's story is fascinating in its own right, and we can only hope that Netflix's adaptation gets people interested in the life of this legendary figure.

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