This year, we welcome the Netflix-ordained release of a highly anticipated adaptation of the life of a historical figure—Yasuke, the African samurai. For those who are unaware, LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters), Flying Lotus, and Studio MAPPA collaborated to bring to life a world and story based on the life of Yasuke, an enslaved African trained in the way of the samurai serving under Oda Nobunaga during the Japanese general’s ambitious quest to unify Japan during the Sengoku period.
These 16th-century exploits are reimagined for a modern demographic, who may or may not be familiar with the story of the unification of Japan and the fate of Oda Nobunaga after his ambition was realized. Anyway, Yasuke (the anime) follows the quiet life of the black samurai, long after the death of his leader. Now living as an antisocial fisherman with a penchant for alcohol, Yasuke’s past continues to haunt him.
While the six-episode ONA draws a lot of its setting from history, the Yasuke team has taken all kinds of liberties to make the Yasuke series more recognizable as an out-and-out “anime”. Whether or not this was a successful undertaking is down to opinion; however, while it has positives, there are a few issues with the highly anticipated Yasuke that have dampened the experience, and perhaps even left us wanting. Let’s chat about some of the various elements that make up the 2021 Original Netflix Animation, Yasuke!
The biggest aspect of the context surrounding Yasuke comes from the fact that it is the depiction of the story of Yasuke, an African man taken from his home, thought to have been somewhere around Mozambique. Most speculate that he was a member of the Yao people, while others suggest that he may have been a member of the Dinka people from South Sudan. Yasuke (the anime) has characterized this man according to the understanding that he had Mozambiquan heritage, which is expanded upon by the reveal of his real name: Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloyi.
If you didn’t know, Baloyi is a common last name in Southern Africa, more specifically, South Africa, Malawi, and Mozambique, in that order. This piece of information builds fragments of Yasuke’s identity prior to his being forced into slavery; however, the series is about Yasuke’s life as a reclusive fisherman living in a Japanese village after Akechi Mitsuhide’s betrayal of Oda Nobunaga.
Historically, Eusebio arrives in Japan as the enslaved person of Italian Jesuit Christian missionary Alessandro Valignano. In the anime, Oda’s interest in him is established when he intervenes in a violent situation between one of Oda’s officers and a young boy. A short yet powerful soundtrack, “Using What You Got” by Flying Lotus, fills the scene as Eusebio shows off a slightly rhythmic but extremely powerful unarmed martial art that capitalizes on his speed and huge wingspan. After Eusebio overpowers his opponent, it is revealed that the child is the little brother of one of Oda Nobunaga’s retainers, a female samurai, or rather, “Onna Bugeisha” named Natsumaru.
This entire exchange piques Oda’s interest, who then orders that the dirt be washed off Eusebio’s body. Upon realizing that the man’s skin is naturally black, Oda becomes even more interested in him, requesting that Valignano relinquish Eusebio’s servitude over to him. Historically, Oda’s interest in Eusebio was heightened by the realization that he was a black man.
Under Oda, Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloyi was made into “Yasuke”, the name being a possible Japanese portmanteau of the word “Yao”, a reference to Eusebio’s alleged ethnicity, and the suffix “-suke”, which is commonly used in Japanese names for individuals raised as boys. Another understanding of this “-suke” is that it’s a reading of the kanji for “to help” or “to assist”, which some anime fans will remember from the commonly used “tasukete”, meaning “help me”.
Some sources claim that “Yasuke” means “the black one”; however, upon closer inspection of the various ways in which the name was scripted in Kanji, there is no evidence for these claims. The name could be a reflection of Yasuke’s assigned role as one of Oda Nobunaga’s servants or retainers.
In the anime Yasuke, the story follows Yasuke’s treacherous journey alongside Saki, the daughter of the village songstress, who is harbouring incredible supernatural powers. Yasuke’s objective is to keep his promise to Saki’s mother. Why he does so after being vehemently opposed to carrying out the escort mission to take her to the best doctor in the region is because he notices the crest.
Part of the subtext surrounding Yasuke’s loyalty to Nobuanga rests in the general’s supposed acceptance of people seen as outsiders or undesirables. Nobunaga is introduced in Yasuke in Honno-ji Temple as it burns after he is betrayed by his retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide. In the anime, this betrayal is slowly built upon through flashbacks to Yasuke’s time as a samurai of the Oda Clan, but it is also one of the first events we witness taking place in the anime.
Akechi’s loyalty to Oda is presented to be under stress, especially when you consider his consistent criticism of Oda’s blasé attitude to culture, custom, tradition, et cetera. The anime attempts to give contextual clues surrounding the circumstances of Oda’s death, when, we don’t actually know for sure why Akechi Mitsuhide chose to betray Oda on June 21, 1582. Those who finished Yasuke would know that in the anime, Akechi Mitsuhide’s allegiance shifted from Oda Nobunaga to the unnamed “Dark Daimyo”, who is the primary antagonist of Yasuke. Under this supernatural antagonists’ rule, Akechi gains access to grotesque supernatural powers, but falls in his battle against Yasuke, fated to be reabsorbed into the Dark Daimyo’s powers.
Yasuke’s arrival in Japan is dated at around 1579, being one of the first Africans to be taken to the archipelago during the Nanban trade period, dated from the arrival of Europeans in 1543 to the beginning of the “Sakoku” period, in which Japan’s international relations were severely limited for 214 years. The first Africans who arrived in Japan were enslaved by the Portuguese, who were of course, avid “explorers” in the 15th and 16th centuries. In this era, Japan has recently been unified through the efforts of Oda Nobunaga; but still in a period of intense bloodshed. As some would know, Nobunaga’s death in the Honno-ji Incident on June 21, 1582 was some 18 years before the famous Battle of Sekigahara of 1600.
All of this brings us to the major problems with Yasuke—it relies upon the viewer having intimate knowledge of the historical context. They try to keep us in the loop, showing us past and present events, which are very clearly marked whenever such a transition is in order, but other than a date and location, there’s no real weight given to the gravity.
In the very first episode, Nobunaga commits seppuku as Honno-ji Temple burns, with Yasuke having to decapitate his master and escape. Yasuke’s characterization is that of a former samurai with feelings surrounding the death of his leader, and perhaps lingering inadequacy stemming from how he identifies with being a samurai while being one who failed to do the main thing samurai do: protect their masters.
The historical context coupled together with how the anime sprinkles it with the cookie-cutter things that non-Japanese attempts at anime tend to throw in to feel like more “authentic anime”, end up fully distracting the viewer from the significance of the story being brought to life. You know what we mean—the mecha and the supernatural abilities are elements of this historical fiction that feel forced.
The world of Yasuke boasts all kinds of anime mainstays, yet we get rather superficial information about some of the aspects of this world. Characters’ supernatural abilities are not adequately explored. It is initially introduced that events in this story are occurring in an alternate timeline, but it is inadequately made to feel real. The characters are not very convincing, nor is there much of an attempt to properly characterize any of them, especially the contingent who spend most of the series in pursuit of Saki.
While Studio MAPPA is a Japanese studio and behind this particular animation, there is an unmistakable feeling that this show is lifeless or lacking in authenticity. Having MAPPA on animation and FlyLo on the soundtrack sent people back in time to 2004, when the now-defunct Studio Manglobe teamed up with artists like Shing02, Tsuchie, fat jon and the late Nujabes to create an Edo-period masterpiece in the highly acclaimed Samurai Champloo. With a similar historical setting and an all-star musician on the production team, Yasuke was expected to do something just as incredible. However, the soundtrack was brilliant, an absolute phenomenon by Flying Lotus, yet disconnected from the action at times.
Ultimately, Yasuke suffers from not having characters who are given enough time to develop and a lifelessness to story and characters that is rather uninspiring. Yasuke looks great, and the soundtrack is expertly made—to the point where it outshone the anime itself sometimes. However, the story’s subversion of Japanese history seems to rest upon one having a lot of knowledge on what actually happened to appreciate the historical aspect. The characters weren’t very memorable, and the antagonist wasn’t anything to gawk at either.
The idea that this was set in an alternate timeline begs that viewers know what happened in the “main” timeline (ours), but there was simply not that much time dedicated to developing the world and the lore of this universe adequately. However, the announcement of further seasons of Yasuke in the works means that the anime could very well come into its own, both as a historical fiction, and as one of the few depictions of black characters as anime protagonists. While not the so-called “prodigal son” of Samurai Champloo, this story is still an important story worth adapting. What did you think of the new Netflix anime, Yasuke? Drop a comment below and tell us what you think!