Netflix anime ‘Yasuke’ puts spectacle over substance for the Black samurai
MAPPA Co., Ltd. the Japanese animation studio.

Anime, the Japanese originated hand drawn medium, is often one with fantastical creatures and high-fantasy concepts. Netflix’s new series Yasuke attempts to add this anime style of storytelling to the very true story of the famous Black warrior who served under one of Japan’s most notable rulers. The results of such a merger will entertain those who enjoy high action adult animation in general but leave those of us seeking more historical depth not completely satisfied.

Yasuke is a six-episode series created by LeSean Thomas and executive produced by LaKeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah), set in alternate fantastical Japan during the feudal era. The program tells the story of a samurai warrior of African descent who must return to his life of violence in order to protect a mysterious girl from the dark forces.

The series is short and jam packed with action and strange creatures. As the description points out, this is an alternative fantastical Japan, and therefore viewers will be treated to magic and all types of other-worldly wonders not mentioned in the history books. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, especially in making such a story appeal to the mainstream. The problem that Yasuke falls into is that it leans so heavily into the high fantasy (read: non-historically accurate) concepts, that the factual and quite interesting tale of the Black samurai feels completely overshadowed.

Yasuke, a man of African origin, is recorded as having arrived in Japan in 1579. He was in service of the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. Yasuke would then meet Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga was a Japanese daimyo (a powerful feudal lord) who would go on to be referred to in history as one of the three “great unifiers” of Japan. It is unclear if Yasuke was considered a slave when he first met Nobunaga, but he would not remain one.

According to many historians of that time, Nobunaga saw Yasuke as one of his closest confidants. Thomas Lockley, the co-author of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan, explains that Yasuke was one of the first recorded foreigners in service to a Japanese feudal lord, and the first foreigner to be granted samurai status. And, if accounts are true, Yasuke may have played a key role in determining the fate of Japan.

After serving in Nobunaga’s military for a number of years, witnessing the feudal lord’s rise in power and unification of Japan, Yasuke also witnessed the ruler’s historic demise. During what would later be referred to as the Honnō-ji Incident, Nobunaga was betrayed and ambushed at the Honnō-ji temple by his general Akechi Mitsuhide. Sensing he was soon to be captured and defeated by Akechi’s troops, Nobunaga commits seppuku, a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment, which was seen as a way to retain honor in the face of defeat. What Yasuke did next had a great influence on Japan’s future.

According to Lockley, Yasuke was there for Nobunaga’s ritual and saved his severed head from falling into the hands of Akechi. Without the symbolic clout of the dead ruler’s head to prove his legitimacy and power, a rebellion arose against the general, and he was eventually defeated. Unfortunately, Yasuke too was wounded in his second battle against Akechi, and although he does not die, there is no recorded history of him after that.

All of these historic details are filled with drama and intrigue, sure to draw any viewer in if they are presented with such a robust story. Unfortunately, for Netflix’s Yasuke, the series for whatever reason chooses to begin its narrative after all of this happens!

The episodes take place twenty years after the facts and instead present a “what if” scenario of the Black samurai’s life years after serving under Nobunaga. The real happenings are demoted to brief flashbacks, making space for more supernatural monsters and magic. There’s more spectacle than substance even with a quality voice cast.

LaKeith does a fine job voicing the main character, but even the characterization of Yasuke leaves a lot to be desired. The protagonist ends up falling into the overdone trope of the brooding lone figure with a chip on his shoulder regarding his past. Considering that the real Yasuke had traveled across the globe, spoke a number of languages, and was a skilled warrior, one would hope he’d be given an interesting personality that would better suit that backstory. There’s no such luck here.

The visuals of the series are beautiful. If you forget the fact that the real history is only sprinkled throughout the show, then you may appreciate a well crafted anime that features a Black character. Black lead characters in this medium are rare and overdue, and Yasuke at least has that going for it. It’s not so much that the storytelling is bad, it’s the fact that the creators clearly didn’t feel that Yasuke’s real story was interesting enough to keep the audience’s attention. That’s a shame since, in this writer’s opinion, it very well would have.

If nothing else, one can hope that this series influences whoever watches it to dig deeper into the true story of the Black samurai, and other little taught moments in world history that have characters of color at the center.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.