During the Sengoku period, Oda Nobunaga, one of the most infamous warlords of the period, took on a black slave from a Jesuit missionary and made him one of his retainers. That man’s name was Yasuke. Right there, you have the makings of an awesome premise.
An African warrior in Japan who befriended or at least was the subject of much fascination by a legendary warlord of the time. The character has long been a source of pride among the black community. Considering a past wrought with slavery, an icon of that time embodying some sense of emancipation through a station of honor such as that of a samurai – no matter how accurate the claim is – is comforting.
So it pains me to say that the first significant work of fiction to adapt this story was a rushed mess. It was the makings of a sprawling adventure, condensed down into six episodes, for whatever reason. Now, that’s not to say that such a length couldn’t have worked in this story’s favor.
After all, some of the best shows have been six episodes. FLCL, Gunbuster, Diebuster – there are some great series and OVA’s that make great use of a shorter runtime. But Yasuke is cluttered as all hell and it didn’t need to be, except the screenwriters decided to add two things: magic and mechs.
Supernatural elements aren’t taboo for historical fiction set in Sengoku-era Japan. After all, last year’s Dororo by MAPPA is one of many whose fantastical elements are perfectly diagetic by virtue of Japan’s spiritual culture. That, and, if you establish the rules of your world early on enough, that’s half the work done.
Hell, Sengoku Basara didn’t even have an explanation for its characters having superpowers, but it committed so hard to it and was so consistent that it just sorta worked. But Yasuke has magic and mechs, yet I don’t really understand the purpose beyond either.
It seems as though the script was written to be a short exploration of the life of Yasuke. All of the flashbacks to Yasuke’s time as Oda’s retainer are fascinating and played mostly seriously. I say flashbacks because most of the story is set after the recorded history of Yasuke ends.
The story begins with him as a boatman, long after the end of Nobunaga’s time. He does what any boatman does, all while getting pestered by a young kid who wants to be a samurai. Suddenly, he is propositioned by a woman in the village to transport her sick daughter to a doctor upriver.
But the girl ain’t just sick. She’s also got psychic powers, and a creepy priest from the West has sent mercenaries to go get her for her powers. These mercenaries include a scythe-wielding woman, a robot, an African shaman, and an eight-foot-tall Russian woman who is also a were-bear.
I know, just bear with me (get it?), because those mercenaries are unironically the best characters. See, there are supernatural elements and they don’t necessarily need to be explained, but the mechs sure as shit need to be.
The ONLY explanation we receive is that the Mongols invented mechs, tried to invade Japan, but lost, and now the Japanese have mechs. That’s not an explanation. That’s the latter half of a complete answer.
There are so many plot elements and magical or technological… things, that are introduced up through the penultimate episode with no real weight to them. There are mechs, mutants, androids, and the astral plane, among other things. There are too many ideas.
Even early on, I was optimistic, however. After all, the first three episodes are like a prolonged introduction. It’s the only part of the story I feel actually takes its time. I do think the show spends way too much time in one place before the journey starts.
I have a pet peeve where if a piece of art markets itself with particular iconography (an outfit, a weapon, a character), it sucks when that thing isn’t there for like half of the story or more. It takes three full episodes before Yasuke even gets his sword or dons his attire from the marketing materials.
It’s a shame too because the character designs by Takeshi Koike are great for the most part. What sucks is that the art and animation are so woefully inconsistent that I could hardly tell they were designs by Koike, whose repertoire is… pretty stellar. Just look at his Lupin III designs.
A lot of the allure of sakuga as an art form is how corners are cut, but the limitations are accounted for in creative ways. Here though, the animation and art struggle to maintain a solid baseline. There is beauty to behold in this show, but it is few and far between. At least the background art is pleasing.
Episode four only gets a pass thanks to the storyboarding by Masahiro Ando, the director behind Sword of the Stranger and Snow White with the Red Hair. I find his involvement fitting, yet almost amusing. Stranger, his cult classic from 2007, was a film about a man protecting a young boy on a journey while they were hunted.
This show spends three episodes at the beginning in one place just trying to get the journey started, and two full episodes at the end at the destination. If you’ve done the math, you’ve realized that there is only one episode dedicated to that journey, and it’s the one Ando storyboarded. Funny how it’s the best one too.
If this were any other show, this would have been 12-24 episodes long, fleshed out the world more, and given more standalone adventures to explore the cast. As it is, Yasuke is too dang short and I wonder if that was a necessity given the production environment.
Studio MAPPA has taken on too much work. They are a studio that has seen such meteoric growth and they will only suffer in the long run for it. They have taken on adaptation after adaptation, as well as original projects that simply lack the solid creative talent needed to make them worth it.
They have made beautiful things, like Jujutsu Kaisen or the masterful final season of Attack on Titan, but the quality of those shows cannot supersede the larger issues at play here. And when I say that this show lacks the right talent, I mean the director as well.
LeSean Thomas has gained a following for having worked in the industry both in America and overseas. He’s also notable for the independent projects he has worked on with lots of black representation. However, while I love his drive and his mission, I think his direction is lacking. This show needed a clearer vision of what it needed to be, for the sake of this character and this story.
If I may take a moment to praise some things about this show, I will gladly give a round of applause to the voice actors. LaKeith Stanfield does a great job as the ever-stoic Yasuke. I worried his delivery would be flat, but the trailer lines were the worst of his performance. I was pleased to enjoy him in the role. Extra shoutout to Ming-Na Wen as Natsumaru. She’s great in everything though.
Next, I think the dynamic of Yasuke and Saki, the young girl, was an interesting change of pace. Typically the kid is completely defenseless, but since Saki has psychic powers, she’s actually more powerful. It makes them partners as opposed to being “protector and protected.”
But that’s another problem. Saki has no reason to have Yasuke around other than for directions and friendly company. Plus her sickness feels nonexistent. They bring it up but it doesn’t seem to slow her down all that much.
Meanwhile, Yasuke gets his ass kicked constantly. He doesn’t get many opportunities to really win by himself unless he’s just killing normal humans. Anyone remotely superpowered just kicks the shit out of him. This isn’t inherently bad, but he needs to grow and get stronger from each fight, be it a victory or a defeat.
The last two episodes show a more clever and strategic side of Yasuke that was entertaining but it’s too little, too late. By the end, he became the least interesting part of the story. But… I also didn’t know enough about the rest of the world to care that much either.
Netflix’s Yasuke is a mediocre show. More than that, however, it is an unfortunate reminder that the excitement and optimism I felt towards the studio that created was bound to be replaced with disappointment eventually.
Lovers of the time period would be better served with Masahiro Ando’s Sword of the Stranger. Those interested in supernatural tales of the period will find much to love in 2020’s Dororo. For high-octane, ridiculous action, Production I.G.’s Sengoku Basara will get you addicted. And for black representation with relentless style and soul, Afro Samurai walked so this show could run… and then trip and fall.
The moral is, everything potentially promising about this show has been done better somewhere else. You just gotta look for it. But if you’re itching for something you can finish in an afternoon and can put aside narrative issues for good music and even better performances, Yasuke might be worth a look. I can’t promise the legend will be all it’s cracked up to be, however.
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Yasuke is available for legal streaming through Netflix.