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Netflix's Yasuke is a sci-fi samurai saga that proves the value of diversity within a conventional framework

  • "Yasuke concerns Japan’s first Black samurai, although a history lesson is not what’s provided by this six-part Netflix anime series," says Nick Schager. "Enlivened by a cross-cultural spirit that blends East and West—and the classical and the modern—to create something refreshingly unique, showrunner and director LeSean Thomas’ animated venture uses its real-life origins as a launching pad for a fantastical tale of feudal war in which swordsmen and archers do battle alongside giant mechas, sentient robots, and magic-wielding warriors. Think of it as a hybrid of Yojimbo, Mobile Suit Gundam and Lone Wolf and Cub, much of it coated in arterial-spray torrents of blood." He adds: "Stanfield’s vocal performance has a somber gravity that underscores Yasuke’s isolated condition, which slowly melts away as he bonds with a variety of characters who are more like him than their appearances suggest. Yasuke is a time-honored tale about a pariah finding love, family and community through dedication to upright ideals and unwavering courage and self-sacrifice in the face of imposing threats. At only six installments, it sometimes feels a bit rushed, and there’s a tendency for interesting characters to be introduced and then fatally dispatched in the span of a single episode. Still, such brevity is also a benefit, since it keeps ponderous commentary to a minimum, and allows the focus to remain on the proceedings’ lovely visuals, which pop off the screen and, during the climax, devolve into beautifully hallucinatory abstractness that’s attuned to the script’s themes of resurrection and transformation."


    • Yasuke is a marvel of invention, plus shrewd casting: "It’s quietly respectful of who Yasuke was and how he rose to samurai status, an achievement that would be nigh-impossible for lowborn members of Japan’s old caste system and thus a Herculean feat for a foreign servant," says Andrew Crump. "(Creator LeSean) Thomas’ curiosity with his subject doesn’t equate with crude apathy. He cares. But he has a passionate preoccupation with the genre, and a wild imagination, and frankly what documentation there is about Yasuke’s life and times is so anemic that filling in the blanks with epic adventures feels almost like a sacred trust: If the historians can’t draw the full scope of the man, then Thomas might as well fill in the blanks. Who’s to say the armies of the Sengoku period didn’t do battle with giant robots and spellcraft?"
    • Yasuke prefers its increasingly outlandish fantasy elements over its compelling protagonist: "The show’s fantasy elements don’t add much except confusion," says Tyler Hersko. "The attire, customs, and traditions are period accurate. Samurai fight with katanas. And yet, there’s also a towering Russian woman who can transform into a bear. There are mechas and inexplicable forms of magic. These things appear with increasing prominence as the show progresses and there’s never a rhyme or reason to their inclusion beyond pure spectacle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mixing this kind of outlandish fantasy and sci-fi into a more grounded setting but these elements just seem out of place in Yasuke. Many people in the show are fascinated by Yasuke’s dark skin but don’t blink an eye at a sentient robot mercenary — why does a sentient robot mercenary even need money? Why do samurai fight with katanas when there are piloted mechas and powerful magic users who could annihilate them in an instant? Where did the godlike leader of the evil Dark Army — yes, the Dark Army. It has a Dark General! — acquire her nigh omniscient powers? There’s not much of an overarching theme or message to supplement the increasingly nonsensical action, either. There’s the expected handful of mentions about the hero’s skin color and outsider status and a few racist villains, but Yasuke is too preoccupied with its wacky video game escort mission story and action to dig into what Yasuke’s boundary-breaking work actually means to him and the people he coexists with. There’s also a noticeable lack of attention for the show’s supporting female characters, many of whom have exciting superpowers but otherwise lack characterization. It’s telling that almost all of the show’s supporting men make it through the season unscathed; the same can’t be said for the women."
    • There’s a certain weebish distinction to Stanfield: He is "unmistakable in his performances but also in his celebrity—and that’s whether you like him or not—that’s marked him as the first and obvious choice for a role such as Yasuke," says Justin Charity. "And that’s crucial to the series, which is determined to incorporate Black pride and Japanese culture into a joint celebration. This much is clear in Thomas’s efforts to distinguish Yasuke from the beloved manga series Afro Samurai, written by Takashi Okazaki and adapted as an anime series starring Samuel L. Jackson and produced by the anime studio Gonzo. Okazaki created Afro Samurai to celebrate Black culture; Thomas created Yasuke to celebrate Japan. In the end, Netflix licensed the series in its long and fruitful campaign to dominate anime streaming in North America, competing with the likes of Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu. In six episodes, Yasuke overwhelms the viewer with a lot of mysticism and lore, and it’s enough to make you wonder whether a more sensible account of Yasuke’s life in Japan, as unsung and remarkable as he apparently was, might have sufficed for a shonen series."
    • Stanfield, an actor whose strength is in his reserve, modulates deftly between the idealistic young samurai and the hard-bitten elder: "The true stars of Yasuke, however, are its visual and aural landscapes," says James Poniewozik. "The battle scenes are copiously bloody, but the animation, from the studio MAPPA, has a lonesome beauty that matches the protagonist’s temperament. And it’s all pulled together by a scintillating, jazz-inflected electronic score by Flying Lotus, who is also an executive producer. (His frequent collaborator Thundercat sings the haunting opening theme, 'Black Gold.') Vibe, in a short animated season, counts for a lot, and there’s an otherworldliness here that befits the fabulist story of an African expat in Japan spun by a Black American creator. But I must return to the magic and robots. Yasuke is an action adventure at heart, and in its excited rush to layer twists, genre elements and mythology in six half-hour episodes, it feels hurried and overstuffed. Is this a story of an outsider in a rigid national culture? A character study of a battle-scarred warrior overcoming his regrets? A mystical epic of an anointed child against an ultimate evil?"
    • Yasuke’s entire production thrums with the level of creativity and polish expected from this all-star assemblage of talent and creators: "Stanfield’s lead performance in the anime’s English dub is terse and subdued, belying a quiet, sharp intelligence that’s as quick to leap into action as it is to conversationally quote Japanese proverbs (in actual Japanese, no less!) in one breath and Catholic scripture in the next," says Toussaint Egan. "Yasuke faces both the extraordinary challenges of the series’ supernatural premise and the prejudices of living in a foreign land with an equal measure of stoicism and defiance. He cares for himself with unwavering pride while treating the lives and deaths of those enemies who would assume less of him for the color of his skin with more respect than they could begin to muster. As a Black writer and avid anime enthusiast, Yasuke’s portrayal in the series feels revelatory to me when compared to some of the more questionable depictions of Blackness I’ve encountered in anime. He’s a fascinating character with a rich inner life whose Blackness neither feels like an afterthought, nor reductively defines his mannerisms or personality."
    • Yasuke creator LeSean Thomas says the series has been "a journey and a series of, ‘Wow! Are you kidding me?’ moments"

    TOPICS: Yasuke, Netflix, LaKeith Stanfield, LeSean Thomas