Yasuke is a Netflix original anime series based on the life of an African samurai who served under Oda Nobunaga in 1579 (approximately). While little is known of his origins, his family history, or the reason he came to find himself in Japan, what we do know is that Yasuke was a talented warrior and earned his place as a member of the royal guard. Oda Nobunaga seemed to see something in Yasuke and, despite his pigment, welcomed him as one of his own. While embellished, this Netflix adaptation hits on all the concerns we still face to this day regarding race relations. Let’s take a look at how Yasuke strives for societal progression.
Samurai Vs. Robots
As previously mentioned, Yasuke follows the life of its eponymous protagonist from his life as a talented samurai, through his life as an old man, until ultimately climaxing at...well you should probably find out for yourself! While Yasuke tries to remain as faithful as possible, the writers decided to take certain liberties to make the story more entertaining. These include the inclusion of mechanized war robots, transforming beast-human hybrids, and telekinetic magic-users. This isn’t your grandma’s average retelling here folks.
After coming to learn that the Daimyo wants to harness the magical powers of a young girl to take over Japan, Yasuke and Saki set out to defeat her and save their home. The relationship between Yasuke and Saki is very endearing to watch as the two butt heads on occasion but always find a way to work together. The pair do battle with a group of mercenaries, waves of foot soldiers, and metamorphosing monsters, while we gradually receive flashbacks giving insight into Yasuke’s past as a retainer. Along the way, we are treated to a great mix of traditional Japanese stringed melodies as well as groovy electronic jams. Truly, Yasuke aims to bring both the past and the future together in this homage. By honoring our past, we may learn from our mistakes for the betterment of tomorrow. This seems to be the message Yasuke wants to preach not only in its writing but in its subtext as well.
Yasuke Vs. Racism
It would be impossible to talk about Yasuke without addressing the several undertones that permeate throughout the series. Needless to say, when placing a black protagonist in the middle of bygone Japan, topics surrounding racism will surely crop up. However, Yasuke does well to not drive its message down your throat. Instead, it chooses to subtly imbue several of its characters with forward-thinking mindsets, all the while providing a thoroughly entertaining story that does not come off as “preachy”. Nobunaga is responsible for not only hiring a slave into his midst but also a woman (Natsumaru). Where his retainers and several others (including Mitsuhide) scoff at his decisions (“You will be a slave no matter what armor you wear”), Nobunaga cements his resolve to care for those he deems worthy of serving him, regardless of race or gender.
We also see this breaking free from tradition used metaphorically as well. After Yasuke has been captured and tortured by the priest and his mercenaries, he destroys his shackles to save Saki. This breaking free of one’s chains has always been a powerful allegory for the abolishment of slavery and Yasuke seems to want to highlight this message again for us here. The series goes on to imply that no matter what its titular protagonist does, he will “forever be marked by his skin.” With recent movements surrounding BLM, #MeToo, and Stop Asian Hate, we can see how these ideologies remain prevalent in our supposedly equal society. The female retainer Kurosaka acknowledges that this segregation has led her to foster her hatred. Yasuke on the other hand becomes the change he wants to see in the world. Violence begets more violence and only when we come to accept one another as human beings, can we truly move forward.
Yasuke, on the surface, is a touching story about a man coming to terms with his past. After battling in countless wars, Yasuke discovers that he much prefers being Yassan—a genteel old man. However, diving a little deeper, Yasuke holds a powerful message to the public about the ridiculousness of racism. As Yasuke himself put it; by clinging on to past traditions, we impede our progress to the future. What did you think of Yasuke? Let us know down below!