REVIEW: ‘Yasuke’ Puts A Fantasy Spin On The Black Samurai’s Legend

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Yasuke

Yasuke is a Netflix Original Anime series created by LeSean Thomas and based on the story of the first Black samurai. 20 years after the death of his lord Oba Nobunaga, Yasuke (Lakeith Stanfield) ekes out a living as a boatsman in a small village. However, his life is soon upended when local bar singer Ichika approaches him with a request: to take her daughter Saki to a doctor in the mountains. Saki, though an ill child, is gifted with immense psychic powers which prompt the Daimyo of the land to send forces to hunt her down. Yasuke takes Saki under his protection, all the while haunted by the ghosts of his past.

I first became aware of the legend of Yasuke when doing an assignment for college. In the same way that learning about Bass Reeves altered my perception of the American cowboy, the idea of a Black samurai instantly captured my imagination. For years I hoped that the legend would be adapted in some form, and the anime is quite literally a dream come true. Though Yasuke hews fairly close to recorded history, it contains a multitude of fantastic elements-including a group of superpowered assassins, giant war machines, and magic spells-were a product of Thomas’s imagination. Given his work on Cannon Busters, which also featured a similar melding of giant mecha and Western elements, I’m not surprised that these elements are so prominent. Thomas also said he wanted to take a different route with his version of the legend, as he said he wanted to apply the same sense of romanticism and myth to Yasuke that other historical figures have been afforded in adaptations. As a Black man who wants to write his own films one day, this definitely resonates with me.

The central reason why the series is so compelling is because of his title character and the actor playing him. Stanfield, who also serves as an executive producer, delivers a layered performance. In the vein of most protagonists of samurai fiction, he comes off as rather stoic but is revealed to have a deep commitment to honor as well as a softer side-particularly in his interactions with Saki. The flashback sequences also help to fill out Yasuke’s backstory, especially how he came into Nobunaga’s service and an almost-romance with onna-bugeisha Natsumaru (Ming-Na Wen). This latter relationship is the crux on which the series hangs, both in terms of how it shapes Yasuke as a character and how his past connects to the present.

Bringing Thomas and Stanfield’s vision to life is animation studio MAPPA, whose previous works include Jujutsu Kaisen and the final season of Attack on Titan. Under MAPPA’s direction, Yasuke stands tall, his soulful brown eyes hiding trauma and regret. It’s also a relief to see a Black character in an anime series that looks like a normal person and not an insulting stereotype.

The detail put into the fight scenes is incredible, especially a scene in the second episode where Yasuke confronts a rival group of samurai. He moves like lightning, blade cleaving through flesh and blood spurting into the air. The camera also tracks him throughout this sequence, making the audience feel like they’re in the thick of the action. And the finishing touch comes courtesy of executive producer Flying Lotus, who composes the score. His work is soulful and stirring, with the opening theme “Black Gold” being a standout. I seriously feel like fellow anime lovers will be humming along with it once the show premieres.

The other characters are just are realized, including the villains. The general of the Daimyo’s forces is a massive hulking figure, clad from head to toe in jet black armor and wearing a mask resembling an oni’s—complete with glowing red eyes. And the bounty hunters Yasuke encounters have their own quirks and skills-particularly the Russian powerhouse Nikita, who can transform into a massive werebear. Yes, there are werebears in this anime.

Yasuke beautifully blends the legend of the first black Samurai with fantasy elements, topped off with a soulful performance from LaKeith Stanfield and stunning animation sequences. History buffs and anime lovers alike will want to check out this series, and I can’t wait to see what else Thomas may have in store for future anime projects.

Yasuke will be available to stream on Netflix on April 29.

Yasuke
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Yasuke beautifully blends the legend of the first black Samurai with fantasy elements, topped off with a soulful performance from LaKeith Stanfield and stunning animation sequences. History buffs and anime lovers alike will want to check out this series, and I can’t wait to see what else Thomas may have in store for future anime projects.