Reviewby Mercedez Clewis,
Yasuke follows the titular Black samurai Yasuke, a man who was once known as Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloi, a Yao man that most likely hailed from Mozambique. Raised as a Yao servant, Eusebio eventually becomes not only a samurai, but also a right-hand man and trusted confidant to one of Japan's most notable historical figures, Lord Oda Nobunaga.
Yasuke is also the story of Yassan, a day-drinking ronin who, in the wake of his Lord's very untimely death and the defeat of Nobunaga's army, leaves life as a samurai and becomes a boatman…until destiny comes calling in the form of a mother named Ichika and her young daughter Saki. Saki contains immense power inside of her – a power strong enough to change the fate of Japan, which is struggling under the oppressive weight of the Daimyo, Hojo Masako.
Though Yasuke is only six episodes long, it manages to tell a very thoughtful story over two interconnected three-episode arcs. The first half of the series focuses on sketching out Yasuke's past, while the back half, which is more action-heavy, fleshes out the Daimyo's ambitions as well as Saki's mysterious powers.
In a sense, Yasuke's delineation of “good” and “evil” is quite clear-cut: for example, viewers will immediately know that Yasuke stands for good, while the Daimyo, the spider-esque, overarching villain of the series, is clearly on the side of “evil.” At the same time, however, there's also a plethora of characters who aren't necessarily explicitly noble or villainous, including werebear Nikita, Benin shaman Achoja, badass brawler/sickle-wielder Ishikawa, and sentient ice-wielding mech Haruto. These characters do not sit fully on one end of the moral spectrum or the other until near the very end, but that is not a bad thing, and Yasuke does a solid job of entangling its sprawling cast in its overarching plot.
It would be easy to compare Yasuke to Afro Samurai, or even Samurai Champloo, two series with remarkable music and non-Japanese major characters (Mugen from Samurai Champloo is Ryukyuan) who are also, of course, samurai. This is especially true of the former, because the titular Afro Samurai is Black, just like Yasuke. However, as flattering as that comparison may be, it's important to recognize Yasuke for what it is: an anime about a very real Black man who lived in Japan and whose name continues to echo through Japan's history. That DNA – and that history – is the beating heart of LeSean Thomas's fantastical, sweeping tale about Japan's sole Black samurai (though Yasuke is not the only Black character in the show).
That being said, Yasuke will certainly appeal to those who enjoyed Afro Samurai, Samurai Champloo, and honestly, those who, like me, love Legend of Korra. LeSean Thomas actually worked on the latter series, and you can see elements of some of Legend of Korra's strongest fight scenes (for example, Korra versus Amon and Korra versus Kuvira in Season 4) in some of the fight scenes in Yasuke. Yasuke's fantastic blend of history with far-flung concepts like sentient mechs and dazzling onmyoji magic also often reminded me of Legend of Korra's Republic City. That said, Yasuke also packs in loads of distinctive and engaging world-building elements and dynamic, thrilling action that stand on their own merits.
Yasuke is a playful yet respectful tribute to one of Japan's most famous – and mysterious – historical figures. Despite playing with expectations of what a historical anime should be, putting forth an epic, otherworldly narrative in a Japan that feels both historic and futuristic in equal measures, Thomas's Yasuke really feels like the only way I'd want Yasuke's story to be told.
In my interview with Thomas, he commented: “Hollywood has conditioned us to not accept the fantastical before truth...You've gotta have Lincoln by Daniel Day Lewis before you have Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." Yasuke, from start to finish, channels the spirit of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to its core. It's bombastic, thrilling, magical, and filled with all these beautiful liminal moments in an alternate Japan full of sci-fi mechs and stunning displays of elemental magic.
As for the animation, Yasuke looks gorgeous, and I don't just mean Daddy Yasuke, who absolutely is one of the most handsome characters in this series. Everything in this series is a visual treat, from the background and the sweeping battlefields to the magic and the mechs. One thing of note is that Yasuke himself was drawn and designed like an actual Black African man. He's not one solid brown: instead, he has differently colored palms and soles to reflect how Black bodies look. Even his scars are colored differently to show the variance in new and old skin. Takeshi Koike, who handled the character design for the series, clearly put a lot of thought into this and deserves much credit.
Additionally, the music, courtesy of FlyLo, echoes Nujabes's work in Samurai Champloo with that sublime mix of lo-fi and Japanese instrumentals. At times, the soundtrack blends atmospheric sounds with looping, peaceful strains. During action sequences, the music ramps up in tempo to a smooth, thrumming beat, buzzing with electronic sounds, reverb, high hat, and zithers. The opening, “Black Gold”, becomes catchier every time a new episode starts, and, accompanied by gorgeous animation, gets you hyped up for whatever lies ahead.
Part of what makes Yasuke so enjoyable is this year's Oscar contender Lakeith Stanfield, who voices Yasuke in English. Stanfield's performance is evocative, emotional, and powerful, whether he's drunk and wading through his memories as Yassan, or whooping up some samurai butt as Yasuke. The same can be said of the rest of the English voice acting cast, and I don't think there was ever a time where I didn't enjoy a performance. Especially impressive is Takehiro Hira, who voices Lord Nobunaga in both English and Japanese.
Yasuke feels like LeSean Thomas's love letter to not only the jidaigeki genre and Yasuke himself, but also Blackness and found family and every remixed history movie where the lead gets to be fantastical. And really, the entire show makes me proud to be a Black anime journalist, a Black anime critic, and a Black anime fan. Hopefully, anime Blerds who catch Yasuke on Netflix will feel the same sense of pride I felt. In fact, I hope anime fans of all walks of life will celebrate and uplift Yasuke, if not for the show itself, then for what it represents in the landscape of anime production.
At a breezy six episodes, Yasuke can be completed within three hours, making it perfect for an empty Friday night or the weekend. Grab some popcorn, settle in, and let yourself binge it. I promise you won't regret it.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ Beautiful depiction of Blackness in alternate-history Japan; Flying Lotus's music is sublime; Animation is beautiful, using blues and purples to represent the struggle between good and evil
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