The true stars of Yasuke are its visual and aural landscapes. The animation has a lonesome beauty that matches the protagonist’s temperament, and it’s all pulled together by a score by Flying Lotus.
Among the marvels in Netflix’s samurai anime series Yasuke are sorcerers, a shape-shifting woman-bear, astral plane duels, and giant robots set in feudal-era Japan. However, the novelty that its characters are most taken aback by is the presence of a Black man who speaks Japanese.
Yasuke (Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah) is a historical figure; he is an African who served under shogun Nobunaga Oda (Takehiro Hira) in the 1500s, who came dangerously close to uniting Japan under his rule. (On their first meeting, Nobunaga assumes that the man’s skin colour is artificial.
Yasuke, which premieres its six-episode first season on Thursday, is loosely based on the life of its title character. (Very fictitious; once again, I refer you to the giant robots.) However, if you’re expecting a sober historical drama, LeSean Thomas’s (Cannon Busters) artful genre mash-up delivers both less and an eye-popping amount more.
Following an opening combat sequence — a wizardry- and laser-enhanced recreation of a real-life 1582 battle in which Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his officers — Yasuke leaps forward 20 years. After his lord died and his cause was defeated, the former samurai became an anonymous ronin in a small riverside village, where he spends his days alone on a fishing boat or at the bottom of a bottle. “A true warrior prays for peace above all else,” he says, shooing away a local boy pleading for sword training.
Yasuke makes numerous leaps, both between decades and between modes. The protagonist arrives in Japan as a trader’s servant, joins Nobunaga’s service, and encounters hostility from nativists who regard his elevation as a betrayal of their culture. In the present, he is roused from retirement — as all retired swordslingers must be roused — by a cross-country quest escorting Saki (Maya Tanida), a village girl whose burgeoning mystical powers have the potential to liberate the terrorised country if they don’t kill her first.
The journey introduces a cast of colourful antagonists, including a Western priest wielding magic (Dan Donohue) and the quasi-arachnid Daimyo (a sumptuously wicked Amy Hill). However, both in the past and present, Yasuke faces forces hostile to him as a foreigner, as well as a history of defeats and betrayals.
Stanfield, an actor whose strength lies in his reserve, seamlessly transitions between the idealistic young samurai and the hard-bitten elder. (Assisting cast members include Ming-Na Wen as a female samurai who shares an outsider’s bond with Yasuke and Darren Criss as a mercenary robot with a golden heart, or at the very least a gold-plated CPU.)
Still, there’s a lot to see and hear and like in this story: the balletic swordplay, the hallucinatory visions of psychic combat, the subtler battles between competing conceptions of honour. By fancifully filling the gaps of history, Yasuke has created an intriguing hero, even if you may end it wanting to know him a little better.
Yasuke | Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @njtimesofficial. To get latest updates