Over the past few years, Netflix has tried very hard to establish itself as a serious outlet for quality anime. Series like Castlevania, Devilman Crybaby, and Aggretsuko have proven that the platform can publish and host acclaimed anime of multiple genres; while Yasuke does not yet meet the highs of those shows, its brief first season lays the groundwork for a potentially groundbreaking series.
Yasuke is the new fantasy samurai series from creator Lesean Thomas, who also directed Netflix’s Cannon Busters anime and co-directed episodes of the cult classic The Boondocks. The series tells the story of the titular Yasuke, a real historical figure who became the first non-Japanese samurai in the 16th century. This series features a loose retelling of his origins and time as a samurai, but largely focuses on the warrior many years after his service ended.
When the series begins, Yasuke is working as a boatman in a small village, trying to avoid both trouble and his past. Naturally, his life of solitude does not last; before long, a young girl named Saki has mysterious powers awaken within her, and her caretaker asks Yasuke to escort her to a doctor who can help. One thing leads to another, and Yasuke is quickly thrust into a world of violence, magic, and mechas.
If that last line made you do a double-take, you aren’t alone. All the promotional material leading up to Yasuke made it seem like it would be a historical series, looking at Yasuke’s rise to glory and fame. Instead, the series’ opening battle scene features giant mechas and magicians, setting a very different tone. If you are onboard with these elements, then this may not prove to be an issue—it almost certainly is not what the series was expected to be though, for better and worse.
The world of Yasuke is fascinating. Its mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, and historical elements gives it a unique atmosphere and lays the groundwork for dynamic world building, but there is no explanation to be found for the inclusion of magic, giant robots, or shapeshifting Russian mercenaries (this show has it all, folks). Not everything in entertainment needs to be explained, but a little context goes a long way—and Yasuke has none.
It doesn’t help that the plot is significantly less interesting than the world around it. The story of a grizzled, aging warrior escorting a young “special” child to their destiny has been done to death in popular media, and the story beats for Yasuke are very similar to many other stories in this vein. While the borderline-outrageous world helps colour some story moments in an interesting light (the climactic final battle features some interesting and awesome uses of magic), the proceedings are largely predictable.
Despite these flaws, Yasuke has a lot going for it as a series. For starters, the performances from the central cast are strong and give these characters a degree of believability that can occasionally be lacking in anime. LaKeith Stanfield voices the titular Black Samurai, and he gives a stoic performance that quickly grew on me. At first he seems a bit uncomfortable and stiff, but once he quickly makes it clear that those elements of his performance are purposeful, and they give the legendary figure an honest edge. The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well, with Maya Tanida giving Saki plenty of youthful energy and Takehiro Hira bringing the difficult and multi-faceted Nobunaga to life vividly in his limited screen time. There’s also a group of mercenaries that bring a nice variety of voices to the show, including a robot mercenary voiced by Darren Criss who steals any scenes he is in.
Yasuke also boasts stunning visuals and incredible fight scenes thanks to the work of the production studio, MAPPA. Known for recent hits like Jujutsu Kaisen and the latest season of Attack on Titan, the studio adds another visually dazzling notch in their belt with this show. Sword fights are fast-paced and brutal, spells flow off the screen, and war scenes provide massive scope without sacrificing quality—even when the story was lacking, it was always a treat to watch. The show has no issue being graphic either, so fans of violent swordplay and gruesome battles will be pleased.
The final element that ultimately saves Yasuke from its weakest elements in the soundtrack, courtesy of legendary producer Flying Lotus. The score features rattling hi-hats, wavy synths, and splashes of classic samurai soundscape flourishes that make every scene sound totally unique. The score feels like a melding of hip-hop, electronic, and ambient music that was always a highlight. As the cherry on top, the opening theme “Black Gold” is sung by Thundercat, whose croons combined with the surreal visuals make for an amazing tone-setter.
The first season of Yasuke has a few major issues, but it ultimately satisfies in the end and definitely left me wanting more. When its predictable story and lacklustre world building threaten to drag the series down, the strong voice work, stellar animation, and unique soundtrack make it worthwhile. And while I’m not an expert in this area, I’d be remiss if I did not mention how cool and inspiring it must be to so many viewers to see a Black man leading an anime—a medium that has frequently shortchanged Black characters. For that reason, among the others listed above, Yasuke is worth a watch—not just for this adventure, but for the many places we may go with the legendary samurai in the future.
Yasuke is available on Netflix now