Yasuke‘s first moments thrust you into a chaotic battlefield engulfed in flames. Samurai are stabbing dudes in the back causing explosions of blood, 30 foot tall sword-and-gun wielding mechs are swooping down on their foes like starving hawks, and magicians are summoning legions of energy-based arrows in a hail mary attempt to win it all. This unconventional anime is at its best when it’s juggling sprawling, otherworldly combat, especially when those scenes sync up with the smooth stylings of musicians like Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Denzel Curry.
It’s heartening to see an anime with a dark-skinned protagonist, a rarity that I can count on one hand. When the Black samurai is in his rhythm, gracefully evening up the futile odds stacked against him, it makes me wish a show like this came out sooner. While the writing can be flat at times, the headboppable fights of Yasuke make it a chill afternoon watch that rivals the vibes of Samurai Champloo.
No Honor to be Had Here, Only Pain and Blood
Creator and director LeSean Thomas (The Boondocks, Black Dynamite, Cannon Busters) brought Yasuke to life with help from Japanese animation studio MAPPA (Jujutsu Kaisen, Dorohedoro, Yuri!!! on Ice). Considering a chunk of Thomas’ previous projects are heavily anime-inspired, Yasuke feels both immanent and excitedly fresh. The plotlines revolve around the mysterious and largely unknown life of Yasuke, a real victim of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and his journey to become the first Black samurai. While the source material is based in reality, the show is set in a fictionalized feudal Japan where sentient robots and ethereal fighting JoJo-style stands are everyday occurrences. Yasuke fills the missing gaps in history by taking large creative liberties which lead to a lot of unexpected, fun scenes in its fleeting six-episode run.
It’s been a few days since I watched Yasuke, and I’ve had the soundtrack on perma-repeat ever since. Flying Lotus completely composed the sounds that make every showdown a music video of blades. The OST’s wide range of audio styles change the flow of Yasuke’s tone and pace on a track-to-track basis. Between Memories with Niki Randa is particularly dreamlike with reverberating synths, echoing voices, and an attentive drum loop. African Samurai features Denzel Curry and delivers a rhythmic hit with fast-paced wordplay that raps through the plot while the drum hits in the background like raindrops on a shed. The most memorable one is Black Gold: a beaming ray of bass and synth paired with Thundercat’s nonchalance that makes for an iconic anime OP of the ages. Listening through the full 40-minute album is breezy; the music has such a clear, pointed vision that makes it impossible not to fall into the bizarre world of Yasuke.
The fights are so damn cool. Science fiction, fantasy, and historical concepts constantly jump in and build on top of themselves, exploding whenever the titular character decides it’s finally time to fight. During one scene Yasuke is travelling with a group across the middle of a river in the dead of night. The water instantly freezes while he’s paddling across the current, and lo-fi instrumental crescendos signal a battle is about to begin. Four super-augmented goons jump Yasuke with a freeze ray, magical powers, and a colossal sickle. Bolts and lasers color the night sky, and Yasuke bobs, weaves, and fends for himself with nothing but a fishing spear. These ideas are fun, chaotic ingredients that make skirmishing a spectacle, but they also lead to a few narrative issues.
Slightly Dull Sword
The one area that Yasuke falls flat is its writing. Yasuke is a dry, underused character, and doesn’t have a discernible personality. That characterization would be fine if the other, more eccentric supporting characters had breathing room to grow and develop, but they don’t. This makes a lot of the non-combat scenes bland, and doesn’t give Lakeith Stanfield, a powerhouse with range, a chance to make a significant vocal impact. Yasuke also casts a wider net than it can handle for its plotlines. It doesn’t commit, going in too many directions so nothing really feels earned or accomplished.
In episode two, a creepy priest from the Catholic church positions himself as the Big Bad, fostering a motley crew of amazingly designed henchmen that remind me of a Phantom Troupe with less conviction. But the protagonists swiftly defeat them all by episode three, leaving a very short break before they crank the final build-up into overdrive. I really like the priest’s design: He’s a cold, selfish, and manipulative white man that serves as a strong criticism of the countless Europeans that profited off of bloodshed and iron bondage with no remorse. It’s a shame that Yasuke‘s pacing ends up being stunted and rushed, with so much tangible ambition trapped in a bottle of six episodes.
I had a lot of fun watching Yasuke. Its hectic battle animations and passionate audio possess a distinct style and personality that deserves more screen time than the short mini-series can offer. It’s confirmed that Yasuke is coming back in another form eventually, and if it’s for another season, I hope they get more space to really dig in and flesh out every one of their time-bending, eccentric ideas and show the world the full story of the Black Boatsman.