Content Warning: Blood, Graphic Violence, Ritual Suicide
What’s It About: Yasuke, more often known as Yassan the boatman, is content to live life in the bottle as a boatman in a village after his Lord, Oda Nobunaga, meets an untimely end. That is, until a musician named Ichika begs Yasuke to take her daughter Saki upriver to a special doctor to help her with a mysterious malady that erupts in the form of raw, magical power.
Yasuke episode 1 begins in medias res on the battlefield at Honoji temple, which is ablaze with onmyoji magic and soaked with blood. It’s a gruesome scene that fades into a conversation between Lord Oda Nobunaga and the titular Yasuke, the latter of whom is determined to see this battle through to a win. Yet the proverbial writing is on the wall for Lord Nobunaga. Without hesitation, he ritually dies by suicide, having appointed Yasuke as his kaishakunin–his second in this act–mere moments before his death. The scene is brutally quick, signaling the end with the swipe of a blade as Lord Nobunaga cries for Yasuke to end it.
Flash forward twenty years into a new century and Yasuke, now called Yassan by the village children, is a boatman in a small river village where no one knows his legacy. He’s also now living his life as a heavy drinker, and even starts the series properly by purging into a bucket before taking a sip in honor of his former lord.
Things seem peaceful until Ichika -a women who plays koto at the local bar- begs Yasuke to save her daughter Saki and to also take her upriver to a doctor who can help Saki with her strange malady. Mind you, her strange malady is the type that erupts in a strange burst of magic, strong enough to snap a wooden sword in twain.
And that’s when the story really kicks in.
The bulk of Yasuke’s first episode is set-up. It spends a lot of time establishing the overarching plot of the six-part series, mostly through flashing back and forth between Yasuke’s present life as an unassuming Black boatman and his previous life as Lord Oda Nobunaga’s confidant and vassal. It also deals lightly with Yasuke’s PTSD, which seems like it’ll remain present as the series develops.
There’s very little anti-Blackness here, despite the fact that most likely the real, historical Yasuke would have dealt with xenophobia. I credit that to director LeSean Thomas, who is of course, a Black man who lives in Tokyo. However, I’ll also credit MAPPA, the studio who handled animation, for doing Yasuke right, especially when it comes to his hair, which is so gloriously Black I wanted to loc my own hair immediately.
What prejudice there is against Yasuke and his foreign Blackness is smartly dealt with, either by Lord Nobunaga or by Yasuke himself: a Yao man who was formerly known as Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloi during his time as a servant/slave, before Nobunaga gave him a new name. At no point does the series ever dip into genuine hate of Yasuke’s Blackness: instead, what we get is a foreign man who becomes a crucial part of Lord Nobunaga’s household and vassals.
Once more, I credit that to having a Black director and Black executives at the helm of this project. However, credit should also go to Takashi Koike, who animates Yasuke so well that I teared up as the credits rolled.
Fans looking for a jidaigeki period drama anime that’s heavy on history won’t find that there. I don’t think that’s the story LeSean Thomas set out to tell. Rather, think of this as the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter of anime. It’s bombastic, it’s got sci-fi, it’s got a magic: really, if you can think of it, Yasuke has it, including mechs. And yes, it has history, as much as we know about the real Yasuke. But even then, there’s a lot here that didn’t happen, like the magic, mechs, and sci-fi elements. Yet I think that’s part of the fun of exploring a character like Yasuke.
For some people, that’s going to be a massive turn-off. I definitely think there’s a part of anime fandom that wants to see Yasuke, but as a straightforward, factual historic figure rather than someone dropped into an alternate Japan. Yasuke, the anime, certainly has a good amount of fact in it. It’s just not completely historic, and that’s okay.
In fact, I think it’s a good thing.
I implore you to consider why it’s important that Yasuke is so larger than life on the digital big screen. I ask you to consider why it might be encouraging to Black anime fans to see one of Japan’s most prominent Black figures shown in a world where he excels and ultimately, was a hero with potential to do it all again. I’ll even ask you to consider why it’s important that we get a thrilling, bombastic anime with Yasuke centered as a potentially triumphant lead before we ever get a biopic.
At six, roughly thirty minute parts, Yasuke is bingable in about three hours, give or take a few minutes. I highly suggest sitting down with this series and seeing what its all about. Hopefully, you’ll find the same abundance of Black joy that I personally found in my watch. If this premiere sounds interesting, definitely make space for Yasuke as soon as you can. Even if it’s not your thing in the end, I still find so much value in people watching it to understand why this show is having the moment it is.