You probably heard a lot about Oda Nobunaga, a daimyo (Japanese magnate, feudal lord) and one of the leading figures of the Sengoku period, a name heavily featured in many video games and anime. However, there is another notable figure that has been overlooked until recently, and that is Yasuke. Who is Yasuke? He was an African samurai (coming from Mozambique) serving as a retainer for Nobunaga in 16th century Japan. There have been a lot of theories about his origins and in particular about whether or not he came from the Yao people (hence the name Yasuke), and like Nobunaga, there were a few references to him in anime, manga and/or video games.
Some say that Yasuke might have been an inspiration to the Afro Samurai franchise. There were even talks about a live-action movie starring Chadwick Boseman, but unfortunately with him having passed away in August of 2020, that might have been cancelled. However, it was announced in November 2018 that there was going to be an anime series based on him created by LeSean Thomas. Thomas is someone who you known from doing animation work for earlier seasons of The Boondocks, Legend of Korra, Black Dynamite, and having creating and directing his own series Cannon Busters, which ran on Netflix as well. The other factor is that the titular creator would be voiced by actor LaKeith Stanfield, who is also serving as an executive producer. So with all that said, let’s get into what this is about.
In an alternate-reality 16th century feudal Japan reimagined with magic and advanced technology, an African man named Yasuke went from being in the service of Jesuit missionaries during the Nanban trade to being a warrior & retainer in the service of Lord Oda Nobunaga. In the year 1582, he witnessed the fall of Nobunaga’s forces in battle at Honnō-ji Temple against the army of the Dark General, who serves the demonic warlord Yami no Daimyō. With Nobunaga’s death and the defeat of his forces, Yami no Daimyō assumes complete control of the land. Twenty years later, Yasuke tries to put his storied past as a legendary ronin known as the “Black Samurai” behind him and retires as a recluse boatman named Yassan at a remote village. He encounters a singer at a local bar named Ichika and later agrees to take her and her daughter Saki, a sick girl with mysterious magical powers, north to see a special doctor to help with Saki’s condition, he is tasked with protecting Saki while coming to terms with his past, dealing with would-be conquerors of Japan, and facing dark supernatural elements as Yasuke and Saki find themselves in the middle of a struggle against the forces of Yami no Daimyō.
So, if you were expecting a straight-up historical samurai epic based off what you heard, prepare to be disappointed as this is more of the romanticized alternate reality version that you usually expect in anime like this, from mecha robots to magical elements. Although to be fair, it is interesting that while this is more of a historical fiction fantasy, it’s good to see POC characters in fantasy, and my feelings of it being that way is not harsh at all. Sure, a historical samurai epic would have been nice as well, but then it would’ve ended up being a generic biopic, and yet there was still some balance in between, looking at the pivotal moments of his time serving with Nobunaga in flashback form and the plot of him helping taking this sick girl to a special doctor outside of the village.
The flashbacks help establish how Yasuke became the samurai he is while going through several struggles like racism at the hands of one of Nobunaga’s men (that being Akechi Mitsuhide), and thankfully it’s not very over-the-top or cartoonish, but instead more of a subtle racism, as in, “No matter what you do in our tenure, you’ll be nothing more than a servant under that armor.” I’m just paraphrasing here, but that’s what I got from him. There’s also Natsumaru, the lady samurai for Nobunaga who, despite only being in flashback, does play a good part in the story and shares some similarities in terms of how they are looked at as insignificant by their foes and even their allies.
However, I’m glad they stuck with the mysterious magical girl as another character of interest because outside of Yasuke, she’s the only interesting secondary main character in the series, at least in the main plot. I would’ve been annoyed if that one boy in there was the secondary MC because he just screams ‘annoying kid that would get on my nerves’. Thankfully his role isn’t that big, and at least it was only for a few episodes. Oh, and on the titular MC of the series, he’s the type of character I always like in an anime: someone who is mostly silent but whenever he says something, it makes you want to pay attention, and while he is a badass, he’s not overwhelmingly so. He’s not overpowered, but he does get his ass kicked in the series, especially by these mercenaries, which happen to be interesting side characters throughout the run, including an assassin with a big-ass scythe, an African tribal Shaman, A Russian Werebear lady and a robot… yes, a robot. If you’re wondering why there is a robot in the 16th century, don’t bother asking why. This is anime, weirder things happen even in the most accessible gateway titles. It’s also interesting to see how the series explores his trauma and mental health in the course of his life from everything he experienced.
And now for the part I’m most excited to talk about… the music. Oh yes, when I heard that Flying Lotus was not only working as an executive producer and writer on this but would be providing the music as well, I was ecstatic. It’s no surprise that I’m a big fan of his, and I was curious to see what he was going to do with the music here, and as expected it is very impressive. You think you’re going to get your standard hip-hop score based on his pedigree, but it’s much more than that. It’s very organic in how it incorporates hip-hop, electronic, and ambient sounds with Japanese percussion, synthesizers, and even African percussion in the mix. “Black Gold” as an opening is just fantastic with Thundercat providing vocals, and it has this mystical, mesmerizing vibe going in. When I first heard this song by itself, I had a feeling it was going to be the opening, and the ending song, “Between Memories” with Niki Randa does serve as a nice slow yet smooth way to end an episode. Overall, the score is the best aspect of the series and the album is even more fantastic once it was released for streaming and other venues.
For the animation, the company behind this is MAPPA, known as the studio that brought you hits like Jujutsu Kaisen, Yuri!! On Ice, the final season of Attack on Titan, or as most anime people refer to them, the studio that never sleeps but needs to because of their nonstop grind in the last couple of years. Character designs are top-notch courtesy of Takeshi Koike, there is plenty of blood and brutality in there but nothing too gratuitous, and the quality of the animation is good with only a minor hiccup now and then. Again, this studio has been working on a lot of projects with even more coming in the future. Seriously, I hope those animators get a vacation after all they’ve been doing.
For the voice acting, LaKeith Stanfield does a great job as Yasuke with his subtle and nuanced approach to the character in terms of written dialogue, and he’s not too shabby in the voice acting department. I find it interesting that Takehiro Hira, a Japanese stage and film/TV actor, provides the voice of Oda Nobunaga in both Japanese and English. Also, I didn’t expect Ming-Na Wen to have a role here as Natsumaru, which is fitting for how much of a badass the character and the actor is in their roles. The English recording production is done by NYAV Post, and they are known for taking something that has a lot of diversity and applies that range to the voice cast, with plenty of names in the supporting cast that I don’t recognize right off the bat as well as a few names that always appear in NYAV’s work like Michael Sinterniklaas or Johnny Yong Bosch as additional voices.
FINAL VERDICT: Now part of me easily wants to give this a high mark because the show is basically everything that’s right up my alley, and fortunately this gels really well with me. It might be an alternate history fantasy anime with all the fictitious trimmings instead of a straightforward samurai epic, but it actually turned out pretty well. The action is satisfying, the story is interestingly presented through flashbacks and the present-day plot doing a good job showing how Yasuke became one of Nobunaga’s men, and of course the aesthetic of the series is beautiful from the art style to the action scenes and especially the music. This is worth checking out on Netflix if you have a subscription, and word is that there might be more of this coming. I, for one, would love to see that.
YASUKE is available to stream on Netflix. The soundtrack is on Warp Records and is available on digital download and streaming services. The CD and Vinyl releases are scheduled for September 24, 2021 at the time of this review.