In recent years, Netflix’s commitment to producing original anime has been at the forefront of the platform’s bid to stay ahead in the streaming content arms race. This year alone, Netflix will be releasing 40 new anime titles following the success of past series like Castlevania, Aggretsuko and Blood Of Zeus. The most anticipated highlight of 2021’s massive slate is undoubtedly Yasuke, thanks to its all-star creative team.
Created, directed and executive produced by LeSean Thomas (The Legend Of Korra, The Boondocks, Cannon Busters) alongside Japanese animation studio MAPPA, and featuring the voice of Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield in the titular role with legendary beatmaker Flying Lotus on the score (he previously soundtracked the anime Carole & Tuesday as well), Yasuke features formidable talent behind the scenes. Combine all that with its intriguing premise loosely inspired by a real-life African samurai who lived in Japan during the 16th century, and it’s easy to see why this show was showered with hype in its lead-up.
Yasuke immediately drops its viewers into an alternate reality: a science fiction/fantasy version of war-torn feudal Japan, filled with mechs, magic and mutants. We follow the country’s only Black ronin through two timelines: in flashbacks, we learn of his history serving the daimyo Oda Nobunaga during the Sengoku era, a period marked by bloodshed and betrayal. And in the present, an older Yasuke struggles to live a peaceful existence after a violent past.
However the former samurai’s new simple life as a boatman for a rural village is soon upended when he is tasked to protect a young girl of immense magical power, who has become the target of dark supernatural forces. From a corrupt Catholic priest to an immortal demonic entity ruling Yasuke’s Japan, they each try to use her for their own means. When Yasuke’s town becomes the centre of this upheaval, he’s forced to take up his sword once again and transport the mysterious child across the country in order to put an end to the strife.
The most consistent strength of Yasuke’s adult-oriented fantastical adventure is unquestionably the series’ visual flourish. MAPPA continues to set the industry gold standard in the anime field, carrying on from its phenomenal work on shows like Yuri!! On Ice, Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack On Titan: The Final Season. Buoyed by striking character designs, colourfully dynamic battles (armed duels, hand-to-hand combat, large-scale wars and superpowered showdowns are each a splendour), and kaleidoscopic astral plane sequences, Yasuke is a feast for the eyes from the very first minute. Likewise, Flying Lotus’ beautifully composed instrumental hip-hop and experimental electronic score greatly adds to the thrills and wonder of such scenes.
Thematically, Yasuke is also surprisingly radical, with pointed commentary on the racial and socio-economic disparities of the time period. Our protagonist continually bristles against a prejudiced populace that diminishes his accomplishments as a warrior, and only views him as a servant or slave. In fact, it’s his ascension to Oda Nobunaga’s samurai elite that leads to his beloved daimyo’s downfall. The shockingly progressive daimyo, who is openly gay, recruits foreigners and women into positions of power, which causes both his allies and enemies to rally against him.
“You are not one of us. Servants will always be servants. That is our way, the old way,” one of Nobunaga’s trusted generals insists to Yasuke. The manner in which this show questions tradition, and interrogates both the noble and narrow-minded aspects of Japan’s ancient code of honour is commendable.
Unfortunately, Yasuke is often dragged down by its predictable plotting, familiar Lone Wolf And Cub-esque story, and underbaked character development. So much so that its dazzling climax feels lacklustre because you’ve seen the exact same thing play out (and play out better) in hundreds of other anime and fantasy narratives. Even its aesthetic – a Black samurai in feudal Japan accompanied by anachronistic hip-hop beats – isn’t unique if you’ve seen Afro Samurai (scored by RZA) or Samurai Champloo (scored by Nujabes, among other hip-hop producers). Certainly, the irreproachable quality of the shows it mirrors does Yasuke no favours.
So, where does Yasuke fall in Netflix’s 2021 anime slate? It’s not nearly as great as DOTA: Dragon’s Blood nor is it as clunky as Pacific Rim: The Black – this is somewhere in the middle. Yasuke is briskly entertaining without ever being particularly memorable.
Yasuke arrives on Netflix on April 29