Yasuke is a Black samurai anime that delivers on an expansive promise

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Part of the way through Yasukenew chanbara fantasy anime from cannon breakers creator LaSean Thomas and Netflix, I thought of the scene in Moonlight where Mahershala Ali’s Juan tells young Chiron that there will always be black people everywhere, and because of that, nothing is impossible or beyond him. Yasukewhich stars LaKeith Stanfield as the first black samurai, feels like an embodiment of that statement even in feudal Japan there is a warrior who looks like Chiron. The series introduces audiences to an unapologetic black protagonist whose story and personality reflect the expansive multiplicity of the black experience as a whole.

It’s equally significant that this story manifested through the anime. Japanese animation exports are beloved by black audiences, but only a few treasured series and films that depict black people or black lives have been able to avoid regressive characterizations. As a black-led Japanese anime production focusing on a multi-dimensional protagonist drawn from the story, Yasuke understands that representation is not just about seeing important minority characters on screen, but rather means putting power in the hands of minority creators and giving them the freedom to tell their own stories in their own way.

Based on the real-life account of Yasuke, the 16th-century African immigrant who came to Japan as a servant of Italian Jesuit traders and later rose to the rank of samurai, Yasuke picks up with the warrior after renouncing his life as a warrior and taking up a quiet existence as a boatman in a small village. But when a child named Saki begins to show extraordinary symptoms as a result of a mysterious illness, Yasuke is tasked with protecting the young girl from super-powered mercenaries and finding a doctor who can cure her.

Yasuke, bloodied and battered, collapses in a corner as Saki rests next to him.

Picture: Netflix

Thomas’ series embellishes the Yasuke mythos more than it tells the story of his namesake, like Yoshinori Kanemori and Rintaro’s 1999 Korean-Japanese anime series. Reign: The Conqueror reimagined the life of Alexander the Great as a supernatural sci-fi epic, or how Toshifumi Takizawa introduced cyborg mechs in Akira Kurosawa The Seven Samurai for the years 2004 Samurai 7. While this may disappoint some viewers eager to learn more about the real (and little-known) story of Yasuke’s life, the series nonetheless thrives on filling in the blanks with supernatural creations of action drama and drama. science fiction.

From armored robot suits and Russian lycanthropes to evil mutant priests and ghost-summoning Beninese shamans, the requisite tropes and archetypes of fantasy anime are on full display in Yasuke. Character designs courtesy of Takashi Koike (Red line, Lupine III: The Woman Named Fujiko Mine, World record) are impressive, though they sometimes feel sapped from Koike’s characteristic expressive vitality and exuberance under Thomas’s direction. None of the bold, daring outlines or exaggerated muscularity that one might expect from an anime headed Koike show up here. Instead, the execution of some of the character designs here is much less quirky, with clean, thin outlines and uniform color schemes that don’t quite leave as deep of an impression as one might hope or expect. Koike.

The series’ six-episode runtime doesn’t leave much room to explore the characters’ stories. Yasuke is the exception: in season 1, he grapples with the futility of his hopes of effecting change in feudal Japan, his past services to feudal lord Oda Nobunaga, and resumes his warrior skills in his own quest. to save a girl’s life.

A hulking armored mecha suit fires a volley of projectiles off-screen.

Picture: Netflix

YasukeThe entire production vibrates with the level of creativity and finish expected from this assembly of talents and creators. Stanfield’s lead performance in the anime’s English dub is terse and subdued, belying a quiet, sharp intelligence that’s as quick to spring into action as it is to quote Japanese proverbs (in real Japanese, no less! ) in one breath and Catholic scriptures in the next.

Yasuke faces both the extraordinary challenges of the series’ supernatural premise and the prejudices of living in a foreign land with equal measure of stoicism and defiance. He cares for him with unwavering pride while treating the life and death of those enemies who would assume less of him for the color of his skin with more respect than they could begin to muster. As a black writer and anime enthusiast, Yasuke’s portrayal in the series strikes me as telling compared to some of the more questionable portrayals of Blackness I’ve encountered in anime. He’s a compelling character with a rich inner life whose darkness doesn’t feel like an afterthought, nor does it reductively define his ways or personality.

Animation of the MAPPA in Yasuke is impressive, with the pacing and creativity of battles becoming noticeably more dynamic as the series progresses. This is especially true in the case of the background design, which moves from the mundane forests and villages of early 17th century Japan to the more fantastical and, dare I say, badass vistas of the Daimyo’s fortress and the swirling lightning-streaked clouds of the astral plane. This sequence of Yasuke and Saki ascending the steps of the Daimyo’s throne room in particular is worth noting, with the castle stairs winding upwards through a huge chasm of darkness, the balustrade lit by thousands of candles and dotted with a nest of cobwebs. It’s a stunning scene, made all the more impressive by the dramatic visuals of the finale itself.

An armored Yasuke watches flaming arrows descend on Nobunaga's private chambers.

Picture: Netflix

But of all the elements involved in the outcome of YasukeThe presentation and aesthetic of the series, none seems more essential than the score, courtesy of the Flying Lotus series co-producer and composer. Having already cut his teeth as a composer for anime such as Shinichirō Watanabe Blade Runner Black Out 2022, and as a contributing musician on Watanabe’s 2019 series Carol & Tuesday, the EDM polymath has arguably outdone himself, crafting a score reminiscent of Fumio Hayasaka to Vangelis, evoking a tone that’s both idiosyncratic and ear-friendly. I watched the series twice while writing this review, and not once did I skip the opening and ending songs sung and performed by frequent Flying Lotus collaborators Thundercat and Niki Randa.

Yasuke is a fascinating series, representing the latest touchstone in the cross-cultural evolution of Japanese anime as an art form, and a way to transform the exploration of an uncommon footnote from the Japanese history into something unforgettable. There’s a slew of stories to explore in this universe from Yasuke’s perspective, and if the season’s conclusion is any indication, it’s far from the last we’ll see of the dark samurai.

Yasuke season 1 is now on Netflix.

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