Netflix and LaKeith Stanfield’s Mind-Meltingly Awesome Black Samurai Anime
The stunning new series “Yasuke” depicts a 16th century in which swordsmen and archers do battle alongside giant mechas, sentient robots, and magic-wielding warriors.
Yasuke concerns Japan’s first Black samurai, although a history lesson is not what’s provided by this six-part Netflix anime series. 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 (premiering April 29) 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.
LaKeith Stanfield voices the hero of Thomas’ series: Yasuke, a real-life figure who, in this fictionalized story, is acquired in the 16th century from a Western trader by Lord Nobunaga (Takehiro Hira), who aims to unite all of Japan under his rule. That vision includes breaking with tradition by training both Yasuke and female soldier Natsumaru (Ming-Na Wen) as samurais—a decision that doesn’t sit well with their teacher, Mitsuhide, who views Nobunaga’s plan as a violation of Japan’s sacred heritage. This context is fleshed out in flashbacks that pepper the first few episodes, as well as in the opening sequence, which depicts a large-scale skirmish involving blaster-firing mechas, a trio of sorcerers with the ability to conjure magic web-shields, and the Dark General, whose forces triumph against those of Nobunaga, thereby compelling the defeated Lord to have his trusty right-hand man Yasuke kill him.
Yasuke is a perpetual outcast thanks to his skin color, such that during an early encounter with Nobunaga, the Lord (who’s never laid eyes on a Black man) tries to have Yasuke’s dark complexion scrubbed clean. Two decades later, the samurai lives in a remote village as the “Black Boatsman,” spending his days ferrying locals to and fro, and reluctantly training young Ichiro (Jan Chen) to be a warrior—at least, when he’s not drowning his sorrows in booze at the bar. Yasuke prefers to be alone and miserable, wallowing in his alienation and his shame for having killed his beloved master. Nonetheless, a reclusive existence isn’t in the cards; Yasuke is thrust into babysitting duty when singer Ichika hires him to transport her sick daughter Saki (Maya Tanida) to a doctor to treat her mysterious illness.
This mission turns out to be more complicated, and perilous, than it initially appeared. On a frozen river, Yasuke, Ichika and Saki are attacked by a gang of mercenaries that include Russian werewolf Nikita, African shaman Achoja (William Christopher Stephens), and a quirky, wisecracking robot. In the ensuing conflict, Ichika perishes, leaving Yasuke to assume responsibility for Saki’s safe passage to her physician. It’s not long before that quest takes on added meaning for the samurai, given that Ichika’s necklace pendant is the same one that Natsumaru wore years earlier, and the man whose help Saki seeks is actually another figure from Yasuke’s past. Moreover, Saki herself is anything but ordinary; rather, she’s a girl with tremendous (if as-yet-untapped) magical powers. Thus, Yasuke gradually reveals the grander import of its hero’s undertaking, vacillating between now and then with a fluidity that keeps the action brisk and the surprises constant.
Yasuke’s outsider status remains front-and-center throughout the ensuing adventure, which has him protecting Saki against not only the aforementioned bandits, but also their employer, a zealous Priest with mutant gifts and a taste for torture. Yasuke must also face off against imposing warriors blessed with supernatural abilities by Daimyo (Amy Hill), an ancient creature who’s envisioned as a witch with tendrils that extend from every part of her body. As eventually becomes clear, Daimyo covets Saki because the girl’s powers will grant her another century of life, as well as allow her to spread her darkness to every corner of Japan. Yasuke is having none of that, however, given that he soon develops a paternal bond with Saki—even as her formidable skills often wind up saving him from mortal danger.
Yasuke’s somewhat straightforward narrative is energized by a wealth of intriguing specifics, and by an eclectic formal design that’s in tune with its larger themes. MAPPA studios’ animation is colorful, vibrant and dynamic; there’s a swift sharpness to characters’ clashing movements, and a lyrical trippiness to the series’ more out-there magical moments and detours to the astral plane. Even better is the Tangerine Dream-ish score by Flying Lotus, which melds ethereal electronica and jazzy horns with Japanese instruments and melodies in a manner that feels at home for a multicultural story that synthesizes the old and the new. Accompanied by Thundercat, Flying Lotus’ soundtrack is one of Yasuke’s consistent highlights, setting unexpectedly romantic and gloomy moods for a fable that’s often drenched in crimson gore, as director Thomas punctuates showdowns with brutal decapitations, disembowelments, and bodies being literally split in two—both horizontally and vertically.
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.
A stand-alone affair that’s primed for future installments—think an alterna-reality Zatoichi—Yasuke is a sci-fi samurai saga that proves the value of diversity within a conventional framework. At once familiar and novel, it remixes disparate parts into a coherent whole, providing a new twist on the archetypal samurai hero. Not to mention that, when it gets down to fighting business, it downright slays.