The golden era of anime is upon us and it’s never been bigger. Every year there are hundreds of new shows and unique genres that release to vie for the attention of current fans and newcomers alike.
That means creators have to appeal to audiences in distinct ways that resonates with viewers. When Netflix announced Yasuke, the story of a black samurai set in 16th century Japan, there was a lot of potential to capture the hearts of anime fans across the world. There hadn’t been a black lead character in anime since Afro Samurai, one of the most beloved animes from the late ’90s, and the genre hasn’t done the greatest job of representing black characters.
Yasuke sought to change that narrative by telling the story of Yasuke the Samurai, an African who arrived in Kyoto Japan in 1579. He stood tall at 6 feet and 2 inches at a time where the average height for Japanese men was 5 feet and 2 inches. His arrival caused such an uproar amongst the people that onlookers risked their safety to catch a glimpse of him.
The Warlord Nobunaga was most intrigued by the martial arts skills he already possessed, and Yasuke further impressed him with the little bit of Japanese that he knew. That granted him favour which led to a developing relationship between the two, and eventually through training, Yasuke was bestowed the title of Samurai.
It’s at this point in history that the Netflix adaptation starts off, but unfortunately that’s where the similarities end. Viewers are thrust into a mythical Japan where high-tech robots roam the battlefield, but all forms of technological progress are only made through these war machines.
Architecture, science, and the mode of living are all stuck within 16th century Japan. This dichotomy erases a sense of immersion and makes the world and it’s characters feel phony. Other characters are also given special abilities akin to telekinesis and magical barriers but there is no explanation for how or why these powers came about which feels like a cheap way for the writers to simply add “flare” to the show with little reason.
There is some significance to magic in that, a little girl by the name Saki is deemed to be the chosen one to deliver Japan from evil. Her debut is a timid one as she’s stricken with an illness which is later revealed to be an internal struggle with her emerging powers. In order for her to make a full recovery, she must be delivered to a special doctor who will help her unleash said powers.
Cue in Yasuke. After losing the Oda Clan fight and honorably taking the life of Nobunaga, Yasuke has been living a secluded existence in a small town in which most of his days are spent boating, fishing, and drinking at the local bar.
He’s tasked with delivering Saki to the doctor as he’s the only one with ability to travel fast enough via boat to deliver Saki in time before she dies. Here lies the biggest issue with this adaptation.
While the show is titled Yasuke, and should revolve around the black samurai, Yasuke’s role is relegated to Saki’s bodyguard. It’s a total bastardization of Yasuke’s history and makes the entire series feel hollow by the end.
There are some redeeming qualities along the way as the two of them face dangers together. The fight scenes are well done and enjoyable, but do tend to fall on the short side as many characters are postured as these large looming threats, only to be bested in a few seconds. The musical score done by Flying Lotus is a nice touch, as they combine Japanese folk music with hip-hop sounds.
The story also suffers from pacing and storytelling. Many characters are introduced with no background or understanding of their motives. They’re simply inserted as obstacles for Yasuke and Saki to overcome, with the sole motivation being a potential payday upon their demise.
The main villains also lack motivations beyond controlling Japan and the viewer is never informed on who they are, where they came from, or why they’re even there.
Yasuke gets his past sprinkled in tiny segments within the show, but it’s mostly centered around an uncompelling love story that ultimately serves little purpose in understanding Yasuke’s character.
The tone of the show shifts after episode three when the death of the priest reveals the “true” enemy which makes the show feel rushed. It’s possible that six episodes at 30 minutes each was too little to tell the story they were going for and it would have benefitted the show to have had an additional few episodes to flesh out a better narrative.
Yasuke could have been a better story if it focused solely on his life of fighting within the ranks of Nobunaga’s regime and the battles and hardships he faced while doing so. That story would have been more appealing than the tales of Saki and her bodyguard Yasuke in a magical and uninspired imaginary Japan.
Featured Image via: Netflix Official website