When it comes to anime, Netflix’s biggest hits include titles like “Demon Slayer”, “Haikyuu” and the insanely popular “Attack on Titan”. Not long ago, though, the streaming service made the jump from anime curation to original content creation. While the service has yet to earn its shonen pedigree on par with that of Japan’s programming, it has still managed to deliver some absolute gems over the years. Some of our favourites include Warren Ellis’ “Castlevania”, “Blood of Zeus” and “The Way of the Househusband”. Each property bringing their own distinct style while honouring the proud traditional of anime.
So what new curiosity has Netflix brought to the wondrous world of anime? Enter LeSean Thomas’ “Yasuke”. A medieval fantasy series about Japan’s first African samurai. The man, the legend, the myth. Yasuke. Does Thomas’ reimagining of the black samurai’s life bring honour to Netflix’s original catalogue? Or will it be a stain on its reputation? Let’s get into it!
Interestingly enough, there actually is a real historical figure called Yasuke. An African slave who was purchased by Japan’s greatest conqueror, Nobunaga Oda during the Sengoku period. From then on, Yasuke goes on to serve beside Oda. Earning his respect and eventually gaining the right to call himself a samurai. After Nobunaga’s fall though, he is defeated in battle and given to a Christian church in Kyoto. That’s where his story ends as far as history is concerned. The thing is…LeSean Thomas is not too concern with historical accuracy.
For the most part, Yasuke’s history and origins are kept in tact. His character, however, serves as an excuse to include whackier and zannier external elements. Holy crap, where do we even begin?! His journey through Japan will see him encounter Russian werebears, sentient robots, evil witches and magical mutants. The main plot has Yasuke escorting a young but powerful mutant named Saki to a doctor in an effort to save her adoptive mother. Along the way, the two of them get wrapped up in a struggle that could determine the fate of all Japan, if not the world.
“Yasuke” consists of six 30-minute long episodes in its first season. For what it’s worth, it manages to pack a ton of fun and action in its relatively short runtime. The aspect “Yasuke” struggles the most with is focus. The narrative is frankly all over the place. Too busy jumping from one large action set-piece to another, never taking the time to properly flesh out its world and characters.
The only one exempted from this issue seems to be the titular character. If the series was solely locked on Yasuke’s journey and perspective, then this problem wouldn’t be so glaring. Unfortunately, a lot of the screen-time is dedicated to secondary characters like Saki, who doesn’t leave much of an impact. She embodies the typical chosen-one trope that we’ve seen a million times before. Less of that and more Yasuke, please.
The animation work in “Yasuke” is top-notch. MAPPA studios, the one behind the final season of “Attack on Titan”, delivers on gorgeously gory fight scenes. The frenetic energy and fluidity of the swordplay here makes for a wonderful ballet of blood and death. It is endlessly satisfying to see Yasuke cut down wave after wave of baddies with his trusty katana. It brought us straight back to our days of watching “Afro Samurai” and “Samurai Champloo” on the Animax channel. “Yasuke” aims to make full use of its R-rating in its glorious dance of steel and bone.
It’s a lot less engaging when it dips into the realm of its alternate Japanese setting. Sure “Afro” had the occasional world-breaking with gunslinging pistols but there was a thematic resonance to it. The clash of the old Bushido way and the rising tide of modernity. “Yasuke”, however, seems content to have spectacle for spectacle sake. It completely lost us when it brought in the concept of magic, mutations and artificially intelligent robots. None of it serving any greater reason beyond giving Yasuke more interesting things to carve up. Sometimes, less is more and restraint goes a long way in establishing mood and atmosphere.
When it comes to the hotly debated topic of subbed-or-dubbed anime, we tend to fall in the former category. We believe it’s better to engage the medium in its original cultural and linguistic context for a purer experience. For Netflix’s “Yasuke”, we wholeheartedly endorse the English dub. Lakeith Stanfield from “Judas and the Black Messiah” does a fantastic job as Yasuke. A world-weary samurai who has seen the horrors of war and witnessed the death of his master, Nobunaga.
Stanfield brings an aged weight and gravitas to the character of Yasuke. He bounces between respectful decorum and dry humour seamlessly. His deep but soothing voice brilliantly matches the stoic face of the samurai portrayed on screen. In scenes that require Yasuke to be emotionally charged though, there is a mild auditory and visual dissonance. Sometimes, it feels like Stanfield is holding back in terms of his emotional range. To be fair, he is quite new to the world of anime-dubs. Actors like Phil Lamarr who voiced the Samurai Jack had set a high bar. Let’s hope in time, Stanfield will be able to match Lamarr’s depth.
As far as Netflix original animes come, “Yasuke” doesn’t quite reach the high-bar that the service has provided over the years. It certainly tries with excellent visual flair and an admirable effort on the part of actor Lakeith Stanfield. Unfortunately, its scattered-brain plot and limited characterisation hampers the series from ever reaching the heights of its betters. This is the classic case of style over substance. If you are a casual fan of anime or are simply curious, there’s some fun to be had in “Yasuke”. If you’re a hardcore otaku, don’t expect to be blown away with what you see here. Nonetheless, you can now catch it on Netflix today!
So what do you think of Netflix’s “Yasuke”? Did the series make you want to dive deeper into the history of Japan’s first black samurai? What anime series should we review next? Be sure to let us know in the comments down below!
Netflix's "Yasuke" Season 1 Review
As far as Netflix original animes come, "Yasuke" doesn't quite reach the high-bar that the service has provided over the years. It certainly tries with excellent visual flair and an admirable effort on the part of actor Lakeith Stanfield. Unfortunately, its scattered-brain plot and limited characterization hampers the series from ever reaching the heights its betters.
- Netflix's "Yasuke" Season 1 Review