Spoilers for Netflix’s Yasuke
Netflix’s Yasuke created quite a buzz online when the initial trailer dropped. Not only was it from the mind of LeSean Thomas, creator of Cannon Busters and staff on shows such as The Boondocks, Black Dynamite, and The Legend of Korra, but the series was based on the actual, real-life Black samurai. With positive reviews and high ratings, Yasuke is a critical success. However, I found Yasuke lacking and wanted some perspectives on this story that was supposed to center a Black lead from people other than the mostly white critics who were praising it. Thankfully, I found several overlooked Black reviewers highlighting how the show falls short of the source material’s potential.
The anime takes place in an alternate-reality feudal Japan with magic and mechs, and follows the historical Black samurai Yasuke twenty years after the fall of Oda Nobunaga, as he tries to live a quiet life as a boatman. However, he is approached by a local singer, Ichika, who asks for his help transporting her sick daughter Saki, who has mysterious magical powers. As he escorts Saki, he has to confront the samurai life he left behind.
Yasuke and the Power of His History
The historical Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579 with Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit. Historical records state that when he met Oda Nobunaga, he left a strong impression, as Yasuke was the first Black man Oda had ever seen. He was also incredibly tall for the time at six feet tall, with an obvious military background. Thomas Lockley, the co-author of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan, describes the relationship between Yasuke and Nobunaga as amicable. Yasuke rose to samurai status within a year of their meeting, and the two were known to talk often, with Yasuke becoming a sort of confidant. Unfortunately, the known history of Yasuke becomes a mere trickle after 1582 when Nobunaga was betrayed by his general, Mitsuhide Akechi, and performed seppuku, entrusting Yasuke with the task of delivering his head to his son, Nobutada. The remainder of Yasuke’s life has mostly been speculated on, with few confirmed facts.
The anime follows Yasuke twenty years after the fall of Lord Oda Nobunaga as he tries to live a quiet life as a boatman. However, Yasuke is approached by a local singer named Ichika, who asks him to transport her daughter Saki, who is sickly and also has mysterious magical powers. As he escorts Saki, he has to confront the samurai life he left behind.
In the show, Yasuke’s known history is portrayed through flashbacks, while the current plotline delves deeper into speculative territory with our titular character going from soldier to boatman to an escort for the powerful Saki. The way Yasuke acts mostly as a sidekick in Saki’s story, rather than the protagonist of the show named for him, creates a sense of disconnect..
This becomes explicit in episode four when Saki outright says, “I don’t need anyone to protect me.” When Yasuke asks why she insisted on bringing him, she simply replies, “So I wouldn’t be alone.” Had Yasuke been better developed as a character, this could’ve been used as a moment to demonstrate Yasuke’s drive to protect the young and weak; instead, it illustrates how inconsequential he is in his own story. Going into Yasuke, I’d hoped to see a narrative centred solely on him, Black man navigating feudal Japan. He didn’t even have to be the hero, but as a Black anime fan, I needed him to be more important.
Although it didn’t feel like the right narrative, Thomas’ intentions to center Yasuke seemed to have been in a similar place with the audience’s hopes. In an interview with Highsnobiety, he stated, “Knowing that Yasuke existed in such a unique time period, as a real samurai who actually served Oda Nobunaga in the final year of his life, and knowing that no one had ever done a mainstream, fully-fledged adaptation of his story in a fantastical way, well, I saw that was a perfect opportunity. There was no estate that owned Yasuke, so he was a free story to tell.”
He further explained that he “wanted to tell a story that was easy to get into, a classic redemption hero story arc.” While this is a laudable sentiment, he did not fully succeed. In the words of Akeem Lawanson in his review for IGN, “Yasuke is an endearing character who operates from a sense of loyalty and honor. If only we could’ve found out more about what shaped this hero beyond his chance encounter with Lord Nobunaga in 1579.”
Sweet Tea mentions that her expectations before going into Yasuke were to see him “becoming who he is.”. With so few known biographical details about him, the writers could easily have filled out the details and created a fictionalized version of his life with Nobunaga. As Chauncey K. Robinson of People’s World puts it: “All of these historic details are filled with drama and intrigue, sure to draw any viewer in if they are presented with such a robust story. Unfortunately, for Netflix’s Yasuke, the series for whatever reason chooses to begin its narrative after all of this happens!” Personally, I would have loved to have seen different takes on Yasuke’s training before he travelled with the missionaries. Some sources say Yasuke spoke with Nobunaga about his homeland and his travels. Seeing that in the show would have added a different dimension, and more context, to his story.
Robinson continues, “Considering that the real Yasuke had traveled across the globe, spoke a number of languages, and was a skilled warrior, one would hope he’d be given an interesting personality that would better suit that backstory.” These recorded aspects could have provided ample material for molding Yasuke into a hero and amplified his relationship with Nobunaga, since historians described them as well-matched confidants.
One historical detail the show touches on is the betrayal of General Mitsuhide Akechi, a character who was often antagonistic to Yasuke in his flashbacks. Mitsuhide reappears as part of the villainous Dark Army in the latter half of the series. According to historical accounts, as well as in the anime, Yasuke was a noted tactician. This would’ve made a compelling Judas-type story with Mitsuhide as the main antagonist rather than its actual villain, the Dark Daimyo. This change of plot could’ve played out throughout the season and would have been a different foundation for season two. Unfortunately, that’s not what we got.
The End Product
What I and many other fans hoped for was a story that would delve into the real-life Black samurai, and not a completely fabricated version of him. Instead, so much of Yasuke felt bogged down by its fantasy/science fiction elements, a plot both too sprawling and too convoluted for only six episodes, and an over-large cast of characters. Yet the inclusion of things like mechs, Russian werebears, and a demonic Catholic priest isn’t my gripe with this anime, but how they ultimately felt unnecessary to the main story.
Robinson describes Yasuke’s overuse of fantasy: “[The fantastical storyline] isn’t exactly a bad thing, especially in making such a story appeal to the mainstream. The problem that Yasuke falls into is that it leans so heavily into the high fantasy (read: non-historically accurate) concepts, that the factual and quite interesting tale of the Black samurai feels completely overshadowed”.
Considering the real-life Yasuke travelled with missionaries to assist in their attempts to spread Christianity, it seems only natural that the priest would become a major character. After all, it would be a solid way to include more realism into Yasuke’s overall story. Unfortunately, the priest ended up being a minor villain that was killed early to make way for a mystical being – Yami no Daimyō – that Saki easily defeats in the end. I firmly believe this was a missed chance to explore and develop Yasuke into a more multi-dimensional character.
I frequently felt lost during my watch of Yasuke, especially since the series jumps frequently between the past and Yasuke’s present with Saki, to the detriment of its pacing and tone. The speculative elements frequently overshadowed any time that could have been used to flesh out the emotional connections between the large cast of characters. There’s very little explanation for why such things exist in Yasuke’s world, which often becomes frustrating. Youtuber Mekel Kasanova sums it up best in his review: “How can I care about any of this when you’ve given me no reason to care? There’s no backstory, no character development, there’s nothing.”
The main cast is treated so inconsequentially that it becomes hard for audience members to connect to them and become attached; when major characters die, there’s little emotional impact lasting consequences. They feel like mere devices to move the hollow plot forward . As Lawanson says, the cast “plays out like the typical archetype we’ve seen in other anime: the reluctant hero, the child with mysterious powers, the rivals-turned-allies, the villain wanting complete dominion.”
The voice acting further exacerbated the problems with the character writing, dampening even more. Lakeith Stanfield’s casting as Yasuke himself was a huge part of Netflix’s hype machine. However, his monotonous delivery ultimately was a net negative for the entire series. The performance made Yasuke feel perpetually bored, flat and unimpressive with little to no vitality. Only the stunning visuals and fight sequences convinced me that this version of Yasuke was actually a warrior.
By the beginning of the series, Yasuke is already a great warrior; there’s not much tension in seeing him fight because the outcome is already clear. Even then, there was no true impact because he was already a great warrior: we didn’t get to see the path towards him becoming a great warrior. In fact, most of his greatest fight scenes are through the lens of him as a samurai in the years “past his prime”, even though there are no real indicators of the passage of time in his physique or skills. This ultimately reduces the tension as his skill level hasn’t been impaired despite him drinking often, and not training or fighting for 20 years. None of Yasuke and Saki’s adversaries ever felt like real threats, because there wasn’t any challenge between the two protagonists. If Yasuke is on the edge of defeat, Saki uses her powers to save him.
I had high hopes for Yasuke. As a Black anime fan, I wasn’t looking for a text-to-screen biopic, but I did expect to see the real-life Yasuke honoured in a way that reflected the desire of many Black fans who wanted to see part of our history in anime. It’s a shame because the details available in historical records point to a man that was powerful, knowledgeable, and even respected.
This series could have been so much more for Black and non-Black viewers alike. I wanted to feel in awe of Yasuke’s strength, inspired by his journey, and root for a positive depiction of a Black hero that could never be overshadowed or replaced. To see Yasuke relegated to the sidelines and drowning in a haphazard plot and setting was disappointing. The best I can hope for is that the show sparks an interest in Yasuke’s real-life history, so more people will learn about who he really was and how he lived, and any future projects based on his life will do the same.