LeSean Thomas is a talented dude. Rather it is his part in writing The Boondocks, or his creation Cannon Busters, he has worked on many things I’ve enjoyed. Mappa is a talented studio, I mean, just look at some of the works they’ve done recently. Dorohedoro, Attack On Titan, Jujutsu Kaisen, and Zombie Land Saga, the point is, they make good shit. So when the two of them partnered with Netflix and decided to make a 6 episode ONA that followed the first recorded African Samurai, not only I but many members of the community were hooked. Playing fast and loose with the historical context they set out to make a world of magic and mechs in 1600 Japan, and boy, what a ride it was. As of writing this, Yasuke launched yesterday, and hours after so I watched all 6 episodes of the series and within this article id like to talk about it, the things it did well, the things it did poorly, and ultimately, the thing I believe it wished it was.
Yasuke follows, well, Yasuke. Historically speaking there’s a chance Yasuke was in the service of a missionary when he first traveled to Japan. While there, however, he quickly drew the attention of daimyo Oda Nobunaga. I’m not very well versed in these events but what I do know is most of them are shrouded in history. This was the late 1500s, and accounts of the event and most of those that followed are often up for debate. What is better documented however is Nobunaga himself. In his life full of morally questionable events, I will say Nobunaga had at least one positive attribute, he welcomed all who seemed worthy into his court, a move that most of Japan did not agree with. Yasuke was one outcome of this, a servant turned samurai he remained a loyal guard for Nobunaga until his downfall Honno-Ji Incident in 1582, leaving Yasuke a ronin.
It is at this time the anime picks up the story, telling a fictional tale of what life exists for the former samurai and enemy of the state. One thing right away I like that this series does is it intertwin the trauma that befell Yasuke while he was a retainer, specifically the battles he fought along with the friends he made and lost. The Sengoku period in Japan was, for a lack of a better word, chaos. Outside of the contestant warring of the clans was deception and betrayal. I enjoyed how the show depicts this, a social leper in his own right, it shows Yasuke climb the ranks in a world that doesn’t see him as anything more than a slave. He faces aggressive prejudice and racism even within the Oda clan, but he does so alongside others like him, not necessarily black, but minorities in their own right whom Japan would never accept as samurai.
Though under the umbrella of Mappa it is pretty clear right away the shows western animation influence. It’s a bit like The Boondocks meets Afro Samurai, all in a strange cyberpunk early 1600s Japan. This is a point that honestly I felt indifferent on, even with the exists of mechs and magic I didn’t much care for their implantation. Whenever the mechs or mages are on the field they get little to no screen time other than backdrop unless Yasuke himself is fighting them, but even at those moments the details and overall feel of them were just a bit bland.
But even with that, there was one takeaway that no matter how hard I tried to shake the feeling I couldn’t. I cannot speak for LeSean nor am I aware of any interview where he stated his inspiration for this show. With that being said as soon as the opening played, the first scene unfolded, the mixture of hip-hop, smoothing jazz, electronica, and action I couldn’t shake that Yasuke was chasing the very thing Watanabe, Shinichiro had mastered. Right away I felt that Yasuke was just a weak weirdo mech-filled Samurai Champloo and I hate that I felt that way. The sound, the action, the camera angles, all of it just screamed weak Watanabe, and when the story of a samurai helping a girl find something, it just doubled down on that feeling.
Now I want to make something very clear, Yasuke and Champloo are two very different stories told in two different worlds. That much is made apparent by the heavy emphasis on the racial prejudice that exists within Yasuke. As an American, it’s pretty clear some imagines, events, and dialogue, even those that come off as comedy play on the racial lines that LeSean would have seen (if not directly experienced) within the states. These are at the same time also things that Yasuke in real life may have had to go through day end and out. The very idea that he is lower than human, that people that fight beside him think of him as nothing more than a mere item, would not only have been disheartening but at times, terrifying. This narrative plays well within the show, no matter how physically strong, how much honor he may have, a majority of the people that interact with him stereotype that interaction on the simple fact he is black. It’s a complex and often hard line to walk when it comes to storytelling, it’s even rarer for the substance to be in the form of anime, but none the less it’s something that Yasuke tackles well irrelevant to my other impressions of it.
In short, the sound was good, the action was okay, the animation was whatever, the story was, well the story was on ass but that’s not always a bad thing. The world was dark and interesting, the blood looked like jello, so that was annoying. The balance of flashback to present-day action was near perfect and in the end, how I felt about it, was pretty damn good. Yasuke is good, it’s not real good, it’s not amazing, but it isn’t bad either. It is a series that sadly was overplayed due to Netflix’s insane marketing team, but even with that, I thought it filled the role nicely. It doesn’t have over-the-top flash action, nor does it mix the music and scenes perfectly, but it gives it the best go and I love to see it. I decided not to throw a number on this simply due to it being an ONA and my feelings all over the place with it. I can’t shake my Champloo bias and as long as I look at Yasuke and see Champloo I don’t think I will ever be able to appreciate it as it should be. But if you are in the mood for a whacky, gore-filled, mech piloting, magic-using samurai series about the first African samurai, Yasuke is definitely worth the watch.
As always, thanks for the read!