In March, Netflix announced at Tokyo’s AnimeJapan Expo that it would launch 40 new anime titles in 2021. The original hope was to showcase the potential of anime on the streaming service, and it unsurprisingly only took a month to reach this goal. Subscribers can currently find originals such as Dota: Dragon’s Blood, Pacific Rim: The Black, with Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness also on the horizon. While having shows linked to recognizable IP is great for Netflix, it’s even better when Yasuke, a completely new anime with no fictional source material, is able to produce a world-class production with a just as thought-provoking story.
An new action-fantasy epic produced by Japanese animation studio MAAPA, with music by the critically acclaimed Flying Lotus, Yasuke is based on the historical figure of the same name. Directed and written by LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters), starring the now Academy Award-nominated LaKeith Stanfield, the series revolves around its title character: the greatest ronin never known. Yasuke struggles to maintain a peaceful existence within a war-torn feudal Japan, filled with sorcery and mechs no less. His past life of violence has lead him to becoming a boatman in a small village where he tends to people in need. When a social upheaval between warring Daimyo takes root in the land, Yasuke finds himself protecting a child with a mysterious power. Dark supernatural elements and bloodthirsty warlords soon give rise to the man once known as the ‘Black Samurai’.
When Yasuke was first announced in November 2018, it was seen as the long-awaited opportunity for a Black character to lead an anime once again, a possible spiritual successor to Afro Samurai. Netflix showed commitment to this when they simultaneously announced LeSean Thomas as the creator/showrunner. Thomas initially opted out of the historical anime as he felt restricted by the idea, but he shifted his focus to a re-imagined take of feudal Japan, complete with elements of fantasy and romance.
Both Stanfield and Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus) contributed ideas to Yasuke‘s backstory involving trauma and mental health. The two also gave input on additional characters and supernatural story elements. This 3-way collaboration brings out the best in the series. Stanfield is brilliant as Yasuke, the tonal difference displayed in his fascination with becoming a samurai and the present moment where he’s a beat-down boatman is mesmerizing. Many of the English speaking cast also do well in their roles, including Ming-Na Wen whose voice immediately jumps out as recognizable. Stanfield and Wen’s character share many scenes in flashbacks, viewers will surely be attached to their history as their chemistry feels natural.
It’s evident early on that the most thought-provoking elements of the series are found in the flashbacks that tell the story of how Yasuke came to be. The audience is shown a timeline of his pivotal moments from the past that include his beginnings as a servant whose pride intrigues the daimyo Nobunaga Oda and his admiration towards the female warrior Natsumaru. Thomas does not shy away from the conflicts that come with a Black man earning the prestigious mantle of samurai. He instead meets them head-on as philosophies of old and new clash.
Nobunaga says “How can we ever progress when our instinct is to recede.” This line echos throughout all 6 episodes for every moment that Yasuke steps towards true change, he is met by obstacles that resemble modern, real-world challenges. One of the more important antagonists of the show for example, Mitsuhide, serves as foil to Yasuke in a physical and thematic sense. Yasuke embodies change in this world and there are those who would rather see him fall, whether it’s for personal gain or loyalty to an outdated way of life. While the narrative engages the audience to soak in a gripping tale of redemption and freedom, the music also captivates on the same level.
When Flying Lotus was announced as the composer for Yasuke, there was a pre-conceived notion that the show would feature Hip hop or feel similar to Cowboy Bebop. On the contrary, Lotus brings in more left-field choices that boost the more celestial and spiritual elements of Yasuke. This is felt throughout the show, but especially in the opening and ending which are one of the more important facets of anime. Both original pieces by Lotus, titled Black Gold and Between Memories, do their part in further bringing this concept to life.
The music shines the most in the action set pieces. There is a sense of evolution that makes Yasuke feel all the more unique. Lotus wrote the music in chronological order so that it would naturally develop alongside the title character, and while this type of composing is unusual, it’s no more but a fun and intimidating challenge for Lotus. The end result leaves nothing feeling out of place, which is a big enough feat of its own. The use of electronic beats is a welcomed method as anytime hand to hand combat is shown, the viewer is put into a trance. When it comes to action in anime, the score usually tries to get the audience more passionate so their energy levels can match the characters on screen, but with Yasuke it’s as if the score wants to give the audience a peace of mind.
Another must-see, Yasuke utilizes incredible voice acting, an inspiring story, and a compelling score to produce the most unique Netflix original anime to date. While there is currently no word if the streaming service will continue to explore this world with Stanfield’s Yasuke, Thomas has mentioned previously that this series was developed with multiple seasons in mind. Going through all episodes is a breeze, and satisfied fans should wait till after the final credits. There is a tease that hints at where the story could go next, and hopefully Netflix won’t think twice on following up on that promise.