Yasuke Series Review: An addictive blend of history and fantasy
Yasuke is an anime reimagining of a real-life figure from Japanese history
Netflix's latest anime series, Yasuke, introduced me to a real-life figure from Japanese history that I didn't know existed until now. What's most interesting about this man is that he is not of Japanese origin. Formerly an African slave, he is rechristened Yasuka by his master, a benevolent Japanese lord named Oda Nobunaga, who yearned for a unified Japan. He gave Yasuke shelter and samurai status despite strong opposition from the conservative officials in his clan. Though there are various accounts of Yasuke's life, the show treats him as a legendary samurai in his own right. At one point, Chadwick Boseman was supposed to essay him in a live-action film.
Director: LeSean Thomas
Cast: Jun Soejima, Takehiro Hira, Kiko Tamura
Streaming on: Netflix
In the anime, Yasuke is voiced by Jun Soejima (Japanese) and LaKeith Stanfield (English) while Takehiro Hira, who played the lead in the Netflix original series Giri/Haji, voices Nobunaga. We get glimpses of Nobunaga and Yasuke's bond in flashbacks, which also explain how the latter was adopted by the former. Nobunaga is depicted as a progressive man who has renounced old methods, and Yasuke follows his example.
Despite the presence of samurai characters in the show, Yasuke is less of a samurai-centric story and more of a Tarantino-like reimagining of the main character. It places the character in a fantasy setting. The main story couldn't be more familiar: a warrior protecting a child with special powers from evil forces. We have seen live-action versions of this story before in several films. But, despite this familiarity, Yasuke remains a very entertaining, binge-worthy show owing to the many exciting ideas it brings to the table.
To begin with, the idea of cultural assimilation, which has been explored in films such as Dances With the Wolves, The Last Samurai, Ghost Dog, and Avatar. However, Yasuke is closer to The Last Samurai and Ghost Dog in that it shows a man from another culture learning the ways of the samurai. In the first, a white man becomes a samurai; in the second, a black hitman lives by the Book of Bushido. By telling a centuries-old story of an African man accorded a position usually reserved for a Japanese warrior, Yasuke is a show that feels very much contemporary. In one negotiation scene, the leader of the enemy force, when informed of a group of "seven samurai" (a likely nod to the Akira Kurosawa classic), responds by acknowledging only five because one of them is an African and another is a woman.
The show opens with a violent battle scene that gives Yasuke recurring nightmares 20 years later. Stripped of his former rank, Yasuke is now a boatman going by the name of Yassan. But when he crosses paths with the aforementioned child, a girl named Saki, Yasuke is forced to revisit his past. When a group of mutant henchmen, also with special powers, come looking for her, Yasuke has no option but to get involved. Before we are introduced to the main baddie, an Evil Queen-equivalent, we get to witness the antics of a nasty bunch of evil mutants and giant robots. They give a tough fight to Yasuke and Saki.
The blend of science fiction and fantasy in Yasuke is very much reminiscent of Star Wars. One of the mutants can dispatch two translucent beings from his body and make them fight; another can forge weapons out of her body; a third can transform into a bear, and so on. We are only vaguely told why the dark forces are in pursuit of the girl — something about "using her to control Europe and the Catholic church" — by an evil priest who serves the principal antagonist.
Yasuke is one of the most addictive shows to come out of Netflix in a while. Each episode, running close to 30 mins, closes with a cliffhanger. We get some surprises as the show inches towards its finale, just when things seem to be getting too heavy for everyone. The electronic music by Flying Lotus complements the dream-like narrative replete with stunning animation. The six-episode show has a definite conclusion, and if a second season arrives, I would gladly welcome it.