If you’re an anime fan like me, then you’ve probably become accustomed to the typical tropes that are included in almost every popular anime series. From samurais to giant mecha-robots to magic, sometimes it feels like we’ve already seen enough variations of these anime themes. But what if you combined all of the above and ended up with something entirely new?
From visionary creator LeSean Thomas comes Netflix’s Yasuke, a modern and original take on the story of the real historical figure of the same name. The real Yasuke was an African man who arrived in Japan through Portuguese trade in 1579, a time when Japan was overrun with daimyo (warlords), samurai, and constant war. Yasuke went on to serve as a retainer under Oda Nobunaga, one of the most fearsome and powerful warlords of the Sengoku period.
Legend has it that because of his immense strength, great height, and Black skin (which was, unsurprisingly, not a familiar sight in 16th century Japan), Yasuke was perceived as a god. He was feared and respected by many, and was even present at the infamous Honnō-ji Incident, a key historical event that ultimately led to Oda Nobunaga’s downfall. To catch up on all of the essential Japanese history that inspired Yasuke, be sure to watch Netflix’s Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan series for some entertaining research.
Although the story of Yasuke is influenced by real people and real events, it adds several unexpected components to the story that pushes it beyond the limits of a jidaigeki (period drama) anime. While the physical setting is appropriately established in feudal Japan, Thomas also added major sci-fi and fantasy elements to the worldbuilding of Yasuke. Giant mechas, complete with laser beam arms, are a prevalent bad guy figure alongside the more realistic human armies. Other significant characters include a Russian woman who transforms into a bear, an African shaman with voodoo-like magical abilities, and a young girl with telekinetic powers who is destined to save the world from evil.
As you can see, there’s many different kinds of genres thrown in together here. The Yasuke cinematic universe is set both in the historical past and in the distant future, and includes everything from high-tech robot weapons to mutant animal-people to spiritual travel across dimensions. Are you confused yet? It can be difficult to keep track of all of the unexpected and miscellaneous elements that the plot keeps throwing at you.
While Thomas deserves praise for his original ideas and his fresh take on how diverse anime can really be, unfortunately his decision to include multiple clashing themes led to a confusing mishmash of storytelling elements. You can try to put history, sci-fi, and fantasy all together into one story, but you’ll probably end up with a plot that doesn’t make much sense. While Yasuke is definitely entertaining, it lacks a coherent storyline and is unable to neatly tie all of its varying themes together. With only six short episodes, the series didn’t have enough time to build a more consistent setting, leaving much to be desired. Personally, I think the anime would have turned out better if it just stuck to the period drama formula.
Despite these shortcomings, Yasuke still has several redeeming qualities. One of the most important contributions of the series is the diversity and Black representation that it brings to the table, which has long been lacking in the anime genre and community. It’s no secret that in the past, the small number of Black characters that have appeared in popular anime series are often modeled after racist caricatures. While anime has always been considered a progressive and innovative genre, its inclusion of Black people, both on the screen and behind the scenes, has been severely inadequate.
Yasuke is an encouraging first step toward breaking these barriers. LeSean Thomas, the creator and director of the series, is Black. The voice of the titular character is performed by Lakeith Stanfield, an Oscar-nominated Black actor who is highly respected in the film industry. Flying Lotus, a Black producer and musician, meticulously crafted the soundtrack for the series, including Yasuke’s unique opening song, “Black Gold.”
Standing out from typical anime openings, the song contains a “synthesizer-inspired sound mixed with Japanese percussion, African percussion, and hip-hop elements” (Wikipedia). While it differs from the upbeat, fast-paced rock anthems that we are accustomed to hearing in most anime openings, “Black Gold” sets the perfect mood for the overall tone of the series, and is a visually stunning representation of Yasuke’s personal journey. Read more about Flying Lotus’ creative process for Yasuke in his interview with The Verge here.
According to the Rotten Tomatoes page for Yasuke, while the anime has an outstanding 92% “fresh” score, the average audience score is a meager 54%, accented by the website’s sad little image of spilled popcorn. These contrasting scores accurately reflect how I personally felt about the show—while its overall concept and design is unique and captivating, there is too much going on for it to have a properly developed plot. Considering LeSean Thomas’ determination to include several clashing elements, the series should have been given more run time in order to craft a coherent story that would tie all of its various themes together. But alas, time is money.
Truthfully, I was a little disappointed after watching the show all the way through. While the trailer appeared exciting and very promising, after I finished the last episode, I was sad that I didn’t enjoy the show as much as I thought I would. That being said, since the series is a mere six episodes long, I would encourage people to watch it anyway. While it may not be a strong story on its own, it’s still interesting to explore the possibilities of a Black protagonist and hero in anime, and Thomas’ creative spin does add entertainment value. The animation style itself is also very unique and cool to watch. Hopefully, an (improved) second season is in the works at Netflix.