[Editor’s note: mild spoilers]
Partially foraged in history, Netflix’s “Yasuke” takes what it can from the limited details of the real samurai’s origin story.
Luckily, series creator LeSean Thomas (“The Boondocks”, “The Legend of Korra”) and the stacked co-writing team; Nick Jones Jr., Alex Larsen, and musician Flying Lotus make the most of the ambiguous annals lost in nearly 400 years of time across the span of its limited six-episode run.
Brought over to Japan by way of Italian Jesuits in 1579, Yasuke—at a staggering 6’2 with skin as dark as ink—caught the eye of a noble feudal lord, Oda Nobunga. Things escalated rather quickly with a little corruption here, a little backstabbing there and suddenly by 1582, Nobunaga was forced to commit ritual suicide.
And unfortunately, not much else is known about the first (and probably last) Black samurai of Japan.
Netflix’s story picks up 10 years after the fall and feud of the Nobunaga estate; Yasuke has taken respite in a lush countryside village where he makes a living from boating, fishing, and traversing people up and down the river.
However peaceful things might seem, Yasuke is bogged down by the traumas of his former life as a samurai. Unbeknownst to the villagers, who have mostly conflated his general ennui with the life of a (slight) alcoholic recluse, there are much bigger threats within their riverside community.
In a nearby forest on the outskirts of town, a local singer hires Yasuke for safe travels up north in the hopes that she can bring her daughter, Saki, to a doctor’s commune. Yasuke learns it’s in order to help Saki control her mysterious psychic abilities that seem to be taking a toll on her body.
By the end of episode two, this is where things kind of veer off into, what I would like to call, “yolo-ville.”
Without giving too much away here; during their journey, and because of Saki’s ultra-powerful magic abilities, the pair become targets to a slew of villains; an overzealous priest, a soldier from a dark realm, and then a super-mega bad witch who is the mastermind behind all of aforementioned smaller, but deadly life-threatening puppets.
Having only six episodes (totaling approx 180 mins), Yasuke’s sudden genre switch from a late 16th-century action-adventure to a mythical-historical fiction can be quite jarring to some. And to be honest, the season is so short and the episodes are so jam-packed, that the viewer doesn’t really get a chance to digest the wacky juxtaposition that occurs as it is suddenly introduced at the end of episode two.
For example; serving as both the gateway into the mysticism and ethereal underpinnings of this show, Yasuke and Saki run into a rag-tag gang of mercenaries comprised of an African witch doctor, a shape-shifting werewolf, a tracker, and a robot (yes, a robot in 16th century Japan).
The series takes a large risk here as its main impetus is to propel our samurai soldier towards a large impending end-of-the-world event via a spellbinding cataclysm that threatens the life of everyone on the planet—if Saki is captured. For some viewers who might have been expecting something along the lines of the more traditional hack and slash stylings of an action-adventure like “Samurai Champloo” or “Afro Samurai”, the dense magical influences can be rather off-putting.
But, for what the series lacks in a smooth transition between the spiritual and physical realms it makes up for with heart.
The words of a former, deceased rival (and possible love interest) serve as the thread that holds this multi-genre show together:
“You try to do the right thing, even when you have to fight yourself.”
When you strip away the fantastical elements, you’re left with a legendary Black samurai trying to overcome and reconcile with the hardships of his past while trying to forge a new future even though the odds and perceptions of others are stacked against him.
The topic of Yasuke’s blackness is addressed in various ways throughout the show; one character thinks his skin is infused with ink and tries to scrub him clean; another thinks his true name is too difficult to pronounce so they give him a new one; others think he is way above his station. But one of the best things about this show is that it doesn’t dwell on these stigmas for too long. Yes, we all know he is Black, and yes we expect some pushback from those he encounters because of that.
The decision to pepper these issues in instead of drag them out really allows Yasuke to rise above what others think about him and just set out to prove the naysayers wrong with every majestic (and bloody!) slice of his blade.
While anime is popular in the Black community, there are not many shows with Black leading characters. And what the Black and minority-led team behind “Yasuke” were able to do with such a short arc is undeniably remarkable.
Though it has a tendency to drift into the outlandish (yes, there are robots and magic, don’t overthink it!!) and uses its first season to pull out all the stops to an over top end of the world event, I am still excited to follow whatever path that “Yasuke” sets its mind to.