When it was first announced that Flying Lotus and LaKeith Stanfield were making an anime about a black samurai in feudal Japan, the hype was real. Two outspoken black artists, genre-bending in their respective artforms, were going to insert themselves into a traditionally Asian medium. The fact it was even being attempted was impressive. Yet as concept art got released, heavyweight Tokyo animation studio MAPPA signed on, Flying Lotus brought on Thundercat for the theme, and Netflix announced the decision to host the first season, the reality of this cultural blend took form. Now that the six-episode series has been released, does it manage to tie the historical figure to the present?
The true story of Yasuke, the black samurai, practically begs to become mythologized in pop-culture. An underdog alone in a strange land embraces the culture and becomes stronger for it. The efforts today to expand and raise black voices certainly helps the case for telling the story of a black man carving out his place in a land that did not accept outsiders for centuries. In a flashback to Yasuke’s arrival in Japan, a lord orders his skin scrubbed clean and asks him: “Did you ink your skin?”
Anime as a medium often packages societal issues into easily digestible spectacle, like hiding the faces of soldiers dying behind giant robot suits. Yasuke puts racism and sexism on full display, marking it as a titular reason that Yasuke’s lord is betrayed by a xenophobic general. It is not embellished for cheap sympathy from the audience but presented as a factoid of life that Yasuke must navigate, making the show far more mature than many of its peers.
The best thing about Yasuke is upfront criticism of archaic traditions. Besides calling out how racism & sexism are tied to ideals of strength & nationalism, blind religion is also scrutinized. A Christian priest uses “God’s Will” as an excuse for violence and power-grabbing. There are moments of flawed characters citing “The Old Way” as an excuse for terrible actions. Yet rather than take the easy route to please everyone and just condemn old ideas as inherently flawed, Yasuke presents a more nuanced answer that traditions should be tempered with new experiences.
Early on, the black samurai draws upon tradition from his African heritage of ‘One Village’ to justify helping a mother and daughter. Even in making the show Flying Lotus created a soundtrack that blends traditional Japanese music with modern synths and hip-hop beats. The fact MAPPA, a Tokyo studio traditionally only involved in anime, teamed up with Netflix and American producers enforces this message of blending cultures. It is a complex message that shows respect for the audience in its delivery.
Which isn’t to say Yasuke doesn’t struggle with itself. The best anime has a self-awareness to poke fun at the sheer ridiculousness of what it is. One Punch Man brilliantly pokes fun at the Shonen-hero trope. Yasuke struggles between being a serious historical social commentary and batshit fun anime. Magic spirit energy and giant robots are in the very first scene, and rather than provide a shred of exposition the audience is expected to just go with it. A narrative decision that seems odd in a true-life historical setting.
As Yasuke progresses it can’t find the footing to make magic and robots feel like natural parts of its universe. Yasuke’s rival Mitsuhide sees his black skin as an affront to tradition, so he sides with a non-human, clearly evil witch in response? Don’t get me started. A large part of the troubled narrative is the six-episode season requiring break-neck pacing to complete Yasuke’s story. Unfortunately, the show brings in so many fantastical characters and themes that none of them ultimately get satisfying arcs besides the title character. Remember the little boy who followed Yasuke around with tons of screen time? What was the point of his character, again? The animation is beautiful, as expected of MAPPA, but the narrative is so rushed and bogged down by different elements that the stakes never feel real.
Yasuke shines in its quiet and reflective moments away from the main story. When Yasuke remembers his past or idly chats philosophy with another character. These moments remind us he was a real person, and that the issues he is facing are still real, and in turn this makes the moment we’re watching feel real. Unfortunately, the giant robots and generic spirit magic pull us out before Yasuke can reach his potential.
Pop culture doesn’t feel done with Yasuke yet. Before his tragic death, Chadwick Boseman was set to play the black samurai in a movie. Here’s hoping that any future versions focus on who Yasuke was, and not what they imagine he could be.