Part of the way through Yasuke, the new chanbara fantasy anime from Cannon Busters creator LaSean Thomas and Netflix, I thought of the scene in Moonlight where Mahershala Ali’s Juan tells young Chiron that there will always be Black people everywhere, and because of that, nothing is impossible or beyond him. Yasuke, which stars LaKeith Stanfield as the first Black samurai, feels like an embodiment of that statement — even in feudal Japan, there is a warrior who looks like Chiron. The series introduces audiences to an unapologetically Black protagonist whose history and personality hearkens to the expansive multiplicity of the Black experience as a whole.
It’s just as significant that this story has manifested through anime. Japan’s animated exports are beloved by Black audiences, but only a precious few series and films that portray Black people or Black life have been able to avoid regressive characterizations. As a Black-led Japanese anime production focused on a multi-dimensional, drawn-from-history protagonist, Yasuke understands that representation means not just seeing prominent minority characters onscreen, but rather means putting power in the hands of minority creators, and giving them the freedom to tell their own stories in their own way.
Based on the real-life account of Yasuke, the 16th-century African immigrant who came to Japan as a servant of Italian Jesuit traders, then achieved the rank of samurai, Yasuke picks up with the warrior after he’s renounced his warrior life and taken up a quiet existence as the boatman for a small village. But when a child named Saki begins to manifest extraordinary symptoms in the wake of a mysterious illness, Yasuke is charged with protecting the young girl from super-powered mercenaries and finding a doctor who can cure her.
Thomas’ series embellishes the myth of Yasuke more than it recounts the history of his namesake, similar to how Yoshinori Kanemori and Rintaro’s 1999 Korean-Japanese anime series Reign: The Conqueror reimagined the life of Alexander the Great as a supernatural sci-fi epic, or how Toshifumi Takizawa introduced cyborg mechs to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai for 2004’s Samurai 7. While this might disappoint some viewers eager to learn about the actual (and little-known) history of Yasuke’s life, the series nonetheless flourishes by filling in the blanks with supernatural action-drama and sci-fi creations.
From power-armored mech suits and Russian lycanthropes to evil mutant priests and Beninese shamans conjuring ghosts, the requisite tropes and archetypes of fantasy anime are on full display in Yasuke. Character designs courtesy of Takashi Koike (Redline, Lupin the IIIrd: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, World Record) are impressive, though they occasionally feel sapped of Koike’s characteristic expressive vitality and exuberance under Thomas’ direction. None of the stark, bold outlines or exaggerated musculature one would expect from a Koike-helmed anime appear here. Instead, the execution of some of the character designs here is far less eccentric, with clear, thin outlines and uniform color schemes that don’t really leave as deep of an impression as one would hope for or expect from Koike.
The series’ six-episode length doesn’t afford much space for the characters’ stories to be explored. Yasuke is the exception: Over the course of season 1, he wrestles with the futility of his hopes of effecting change in feudal Japan, his past service to feudal lord Oda Nobunaga, and resuming his skills as a warrior in his own personal quest to save a girl’s life.
Yasuke’s entire production thrums with the level of creativity and polish expected from this all-star assemblage of talent and creators. Stanfield’s lead performance in the anime’s English dub is terse and subdued, belying a quiet, sharp intelligence that’s as quick to leap into action as it is to conversationally quote Japanese proverbs (in actual Japanese, no less!) in one breath and Catholic scripture in the next.
Yasuke faces both the extraordinary challenges of the series’ supernatural premise and the prejudices of living in a foreign land with an equal measure of stoicism and defiance. He cares for himself with unwavering pride while treating the lives and deaths of those enemies who would assume less of him for the color of his skin with more respect than they could begin to muster. As a Black writer and avid anime enthusiast, Yasuke’s portrayal in the series feels revelatory to me when compared to some of the more questionable depictions of Blackness I’ve encountered in anime. He’s a fascinating character with a rich inner life whose Blackness neither feels like an afterthought, nor reductively defines his mannerisms or personality.
MAPPA’s animation in Yasuke is impressive, with the pacing and creativity of the battles becoming noticeably more dynamic as the series progresses. This is especially true in the case of the background design, which takes a sharp turn from the mundane forests and villages of early 17th-century Japan to the more fantastical and, dare I say, badass vistas of the Daimyo’s fortress and the roiling lightning-streaked cloudscapes of the astral plane. This sequence of Yasuke and Saki ascending the steps to the Daimyo’s throne room in particular is worthy of note, with the castle’s staircases winding upward through a massive chasm of darkness, the railing lit with thousands of candles and strewn in a nest of spiderwebs. It’s a gorgeous scene, made all the more impressive for the dramatic visuals of the finale itself.
But of all the elements at play in the culmination of Yasuke’s presentation and aesthetic, none feel more quintessential than the score, courtesy of the series’ co-producer and composer Flying Lotus. Having previously cut his teeth as a composer for such anime as Shinichirō Watanabe’s Blade Runner Black Out 2022, and as a contributing musician on Watanabe’s 2019 series Carole & Tuesday, the EDM polymath has arguably outdone himself, crafting a score that feels reminiscent of Fumio Hayasaka by way of Vangelis, conjuring a tone that feels both idiosyncratic and easy on the ears. I watched the series twice during my time writing this review, and not once did I skip the opening and ending title songs sung and performed by Flying Lotus’ frequent collaborators Thundercat and Niki Randa.
Yasuke is a fascinating series, representing the latest touchstone in the cross-cultural evolution of Japanese anime as an artform, and a way to make exploring an uncommon footnote of Japanese history into something unforgettable. There are a wealth of stories to explore in this universe from Yasuke’s perspective, and if the conclusion of the season is any indication, this is far from the last we’ll see of the Black samurai.
Yasuke season 1 is now on Netflix.