Yasuke takes the historic story of Japan’s only Black samurai and twists it with gundam-esque robots, soul-infused magic and demonic forces. But despite the swirling, dangerous world he lives in, we find Yasuke a husk of what he used to be — tired, hopeless and without purpose. The six-episode Netflix series follows two parallel arcs. On one end, our champion, Yasuke, is protecting humanity’s key weapons against evil. On the other, we see him finally grow back into his armor.
Yasuke is a broken character. Minutes into the show, we see that Yasuke shuns the heavy burden of his past by living a new life. It’s easier to forget, but he doesn’t forgive. Instead of being one of the most iconic samurai in Japan, our main character opts to be a boatsman. This dichotomy is a theme throughout the show, with characters both demonstrating incredible potential while also being met with cumbersome setbacks.
I can’t stand a bland, plot-crutch of a main character, and Yasuke brings a lot of complexity to make you genuinely care about his development. He’s a fierce warrior, but also a caring protector. He’s bold and brave, but gawks at his own past. Yasuke checked nearly all of the boxes I want to see in a lead: standout traits, derailing flaws and some serious swagger.
Saki is a special kid. Despite appearing weakened, we quickly learn that Saki is a key to a lock much larger than herself. When you have that pressure on a kid, you expect them to have doubts and bend a little bit. Saki does exactly that, and I appreciated the grace in writing in moments where she was scared and lost.
But looking at Saki from a plot perspective, she has swiss cheese syndrome going on — she’s riddled with backstory holes. I’m not one to rag on writers who leave us with questions, but a lot of Saki’s story isn’t answered, and that bothered me. She just is, and that didn’t sit right with me. If you can look past that, she’s a pretty interesting character.
Abraham God, where do we start with Abraham. I’m all for pinning part of the plot on the church’s historic influence in Asia, but that’s about where the stuff Abraham has going for him ends. They gave him brass knuckles. Let that sink in: Holy. Brass. Knuckles. I can’t rant much more about him without taking a detour into spoilerland, but I don’t even know what else to say. Moving on.
The Assassin Squad (Ishikawa, Haruto, Nikita, and Achoja). I’m going to group this whole crew together for the main reason that the majority of their characterizations fell into the same trap: they’re generic. Ishikawa is a masked assassin with little regard for much more than money and little more to say. Haruto is an absent-minded robotic comedic relief. Nikita is a werebear, with the stereotypical Russian accent and buff figure to match. The three of these characters felt like patchwork. Perhaps they were functional at best, but felt like they were picked from the dollar section of the character store.
The character that stood out from the bunch was Achoja, who has some richer development as the show’s only other Black character. Without spoiling much, he goes to show that giving side characters a little bit of elbow grease can earn them a meaningful spot in the show. I liked Achoja, and that’s saying something for the cast outside of the two leads.
Other Characters Being such a short series, there aren’t a ton of characters that we see fleshed out as much as our main duo. A few worth noting are the Daimyo (who had some cool villain things going on, but just needed a bit more oomf to stick with me), Morisuke (who I felt like I could have a drink with at a bar, but wouldn’t want to hang out with much more), and Natsumaru (who is dreamy and mysterious, but strong and inspiring at the same time).
There are three parts of the emotional journey through Yasuke.
First, there’s what I’ll only refer to as “badassery.” Yasuke is certifiably hardcore. He chops up 50 dudes in approximately four seconds and I smile. It’s simple, really. There are a ton of moments throughout the show that do just that and it didn’t get old.
Second, there’s some really personal ties to the character. I found myself really growing attached to Yasuke. I found myself caring about Saki. I found myself not really caring about any of the other characters outside of maybe Natsumaru. But when I did care about one of those three characters, it really drew me in. I wanted Yasuke to triumph. I wanted Suki to learn about herself. I was overjoyed to learn about Natsumaru’s relationship to Yasuke. If you can make me give a damn, that’s where the bar is set. Give me characters to cheer on and care about.
Finally, there’s the final 70% of the show where you’re sitting there confused. Where the heck did that AT-AT sized, rocket-launching robot come from? How the heck does magic work? Why is everything moving so fast? Where is my beer? Answer these questions and many more… never. The fast-based confusion and emptiness of some plot points sucked me out of my immersion. I desperately wanted to be invested in this show, these characters and the environment, but there are so many gaps that I kept fluttering in and out of “the zone” that good shows lead you into.
One episode into watching Yasuke, I took a break. When the team behind the show was fleshing out the tone, world and themes, they wanted to really pay tribute to Black cultural ties to anime. I found a pair of great videos (which I will briefly summarize, but watch them here and here) that outlined how ties between Asian and Black cultures go back to as early as the 70s. We see it now in Black anime fandoms, shows like The Boondocks and tying in music, such as hip hop.
Creators LeSean Thomas, Flying Lotus and more saw that, and being fans themselves, tried to pay homage to that. In that, they really succeeded. Yasuke is complex, dynamic and accomplishes development both independently and through other characters. Lotus mentioned that on a podcast with journalist Dylan Green, and it’s really enlightening to hear. I could go on and on about how graceful and intentional some of this is, but I’m a nerdy white dude. Lotus and Dylan explain it a lot better than I can.
Speed round: outside of that, there are some cool takes on redemption, loyalty, community ties and duty. Maybe some of it has been explored before, but this felt fresh to me. More importantly to me, it felt honest. The way the ideas were explored didn’t feel forced. Refer back to the emotion section, but I felt guided through these themes, not hand-fed them.
Netflix, you do this thing that I hate sometimes. You take this really cool show with an inspiring premise and give it a frugal allowance of screentime. Yasuke is segmented into six episodes. When you have a short show like that, you have a few options. First, you can go with the vignette style (like Heaven’s Design Team). Alternatively, you can get a nice, bite-sized plot into the series, because realistically, you’re looking at half or even a third of the length of some really artfully-done shows.
Yasuke takes neither of these approaches and dares to squeeze a huge endeavor into this shortened format. Yes, it does it, but elements suffer. In some cases, you’re breezed through scenarios. Some backstory is just lobbed out there instead of being really explored. It felt like the writers were in such a dash to get to the finish line in time that they didn’t savor the stay. I’ll give them credit for cramming a bunch into such a short, digestible series, but it’s not without its faults. In that, it’s doing too much. Keep it simple, stupid.
I’ve come full circle on Yasuke’s animation. My first impression was really tough, with crudely-drawn mid and wide shots, jittering scenes without action and a lack of consistency altogether. Looking back, I’ve warmed up to it. It less feels like it was sloppy as it initially came off and more intentional, with the saving grace being some stellar fight scenes. I was so engaged that it felt like those widescreen format black bars dropped down, the music hit differently and I knew it was going to go down. In those moments, everything was liquid. The magic was bright and stunning, the swordplay and gore were powerful and the use of nontraditional visual elements in some of the more trippy parts was welcome.
It certainly has its faults and not something I can recommend to everyone, though. I had the benefit of being able to break down some of the intricacies with Marshal and did a lot of Twittering to learn some more, but it isn’t something that was appealing off the bat. I can only imagine that will be a turn-off for other viewers. But if you can get past that or can appreciate some of the animation’s rough edges, you’ll be in for a treat during some beautifully choreographed battles.
The world of Yasuke tried to do way too much in way too little of time. Right from the opening, there’s this really eclectic landscape established where traditional samurai clash in a massive battle. But that’s not nearly cool enough, right? So let’s sprinkle on some wild stuff — and what’s cooler than flying robots and wizards and werebears?
The answer is world cohesion. Cohesion is cooler than flying robots, wizards and werebears. Please, Yasuke, give me any sort of a synergetic world.
Nothing in the universe is explained at all. They throw everything and the kitchen sink at you and go “it’s just… the way it is?” Even if looking past that is your cup of tea, there’s not much else from each location to redeem it. Yasuke’s village is forgettable, his travels feel drab and any scene with even the slightest bit of potential is scoffed at. It’s an incredibly tangled knot that is rooted in a handful of issues, not something a single change can solve.
Let’s look at the music on paper here. The entire score revolves around the creative genius of Flying Lotus, an incredibly talented, award-winning musician. But instead of just leveraging his experience in making music and, say, making him replaceable with any other of the greats, Lotus has a few things going for him — he’s involved in much more of the creative process, he’s working with talented supporting musicians and he’s a tried-and-true anime fan.
As is expected, Flying Lotus released the entire soundtrack as an album and in and of itself it’s stellar. Overall, it’s a work of in-betweens. There’s aimless dreaminess butted up against driving cinematic tracks. There’s experimental hip hop paired with traditional Japanese percussion and strings. You’ve got Niki Randa on one track and Thundercat on another. And through it all, nothing seems out of place.
On it’s own the album is stellar, but as a soundtrack, it also does its job. Nothing is repeated, and it feels like every time music is brought in, it’s tailor-fit for the scene as opposed to fitting a generic “living room scene” or “goofy character theme” role. There’s a clear connection that obviously stems from Lotus’ involvement with the overall direction. The best compliment I can give to a show’s music is that it adds to the show when it’s missing, and Yasuke earns that prestige. The soundtrack is so vibrant, robust and essential that you feel on edge without it, which says plenty about its role throughout the series.
|Category||Points Given||Points Possible|
|I am interested in the characters in the story||5||6|
|I liked the emotion the story made me feel||5||6|
|The story brings up interesting ideas||4||6|
|I felt the pacing of the show was appropriate||3||4|
|The animation in the show is beautiful||2||4|
|I am interested in the world that the story takes place in||1||3|
|I felt that the music added to the story in a meaningful way||2||3|
I’ll be honest: when I first heard that Yasuke was coming to Netflix with a star-studded creative team, I was hyped. But as I spent some time on the series, I found it was far more legwork to stay engaged than I expected, which was a serious bummer. I genuinely wanted to like the show. But alas, a silver lining isn’t enough to redeem some fundamental issues with the show. If you’re looking for a change of pace and don’t mind looking over a few plot holes, this show will probably scratch your itch. Otherwise, stick to the soundtrack.