‘Yasuke’ is a Beautiful and Bloody Love Letter to the First Black Samurai

Yasuke. A real life folktale. Not so much in the sense that he never existed. It’s more like there isn’t much known about his mysterious life, aside from how challenging it must have been.

All that’s known about history’s first Black samurai is that he was likely born around 1540 in Africa, around the Mozambique area. At some point in his life he came in contact with Oda Nobunaga, a feudal lord of Japan, and became a member of his samurai guard.

Researchers ever since have been filling the gaps in Yasuke’s life with newfound evidence, theories, and of course, good old fashioned fantastical depictions. Netflix’s new anime adaptation falls under the latter category.

Yasuke stars LaKeith Stanfield as the titular warrior, with music produced by legendary musician Flying Lotus. For the most part, it sticks pretty close to real life accounts of the samurai’s life, detailing his introduction to Nobunaga and his time under his wing. But don’t get confused, this is an anime.

An honest to God anime full of all the tropes. From tentacle monsters to insane magical powers, to robots, demons and bears, oh my. But what seperates Yasuke from any of Netflix’s other anime offerings is that among all of these bizarre abnormalities in this version of Feudal Japan, the one most shocking to everyone is the Black samurai.

Yasuke himself is treated as an outsider. “Acquired” by Nobunaga and taken to a world that wasn’t his own, Yasuke already experiences the feeling of a fish out of water. But those around him see Yasuke as some sort of myth. A black-skinned giant who went from a legend in the battlefield to a mysterious, quiet boatsman.

Even after years of proving himself to be a formidable warrior and a holder of their traditions, Japan still views Yasuke as less of a person, and more of a concept. One that’s somehow harder to believe when it’s right in front of you than a daimyo with black magic.

The over the top anime cliches might be a bit stuffy at times, but it goes so far as to suggest that even in a world full of the truly impossible, there are things some of us still might find too hard to accept.

The beauty of Yasuke is that it is never boggled down by this. The same can be said for the character. Yasuke isn’t tortured so much by his life as an outsider, a Black man in Japan. He’s since made peace with that. Yasuke’s torture comes from his belief that he may not have the power he needs to protect the ones he cares about.

A fear that is slowly qualmed over the course of the show’s six episodes. Yasuke has plenty of skill to hold his own in a battle. A fact seen several times in the series, thanks to some truly bloody battle sequences. These scenes are brutal, but also beautifully animated. The entirety of Yasuke boasts some absolutely wonderful animation. Slick animation and vibrant colors that could only come out of MAPPA, the same animation studio that worked on the adaptations of JuJutsu Kaijen and the final season of Attack on Titan.

All in all, Yasuke is a true victory. The show pays tribute to a living legend, and thankfully doesn’t turn a story about him into a “Black suffering” teaching moment. Yasuke is not seperated from his Blackness. As a man treated as an outsider in a world he was taken to, he understands a plight that many, many do. But the series doesn’t that make that his journey.

Instead, his journey is about finding his inner strength, and finally believing himself to be a person who does what’s right, despite how the world may view him. Surrounding this story are incredible visuals, epic fights, interesting characters, and a black samurai who’s ready to face it all. I’d get into the score as well, but with Flying Lotus releasing an OST for the series, that itself deserves an article.

Yasuke season 1 is on Netflix now. So far, there’s no plans for a second season announced, but I hope we get to see more of Yasuke in the future.

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