Samurai, and sorcerers and robots. Oh my!
“Yasuke,” Netflix’s new animated series by MAPPA, which focuses on a fictionalized version of the famous Black samurai of the same name, includes all of these in a relatively short run of 6 30-minute episodes, in which the whys and mechanics of the world aren’t addressed and don’t really matter, but the story sure is cool.
Yasuke (originally named Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloi, and voiced by Lakeith Stanfield) originally was an African slave to Jesuit missionaries who came to Japan in an alternate-reality 16th-century. Yasuke proves his skills at combat early on, and gains the respect and admiration of Oda Nobunaga (Takehiro Hira), a Japanese warlord who sought to unite Japan, and Lord Nobunaga decides to take Yasuke on as a vassal. Despite being a Black man looked down upon by the traditionalists serving Lord Nobunaga, Yasuke is widely regarded as the most skilled person serving him, second only to the lady Samurai Natsumaru (Ming-Na Wen).
All of this is revealed slowly to the viewer in flashbacks, as we meet Yasuke years after his glory days, as during the first few episodes, he lives a quiet life alone as a boatsman. We learn that Lord Nobunaga failed years ago, and Yasuke has survived, leaving his life as a samurai behind. That all changes when he comes into contact with Saki (Maya Tanida), a girl with magical powers being hunted down by mercenaries (including a robot!) hired by a demonic priest named Abraham (Dan Donohue) and later a sorceress named Yami no Daimyō (Amy Hill), who sees Saki as a threat, and who was responsible for killing Lord Nobunaga. Seeing Saki in distress brings Yasuke out of retirement, as he helps protect the girl from the forces of evil.
Yasuke is a great protagonist, being both smart and wise, but also extremely skilled at the blade. He always tries to talk things out and resolve conflicts before they turn violent, only fighting when absolutely necessary, but he also has a bloodlust that, if explored further in a second season, could be his fatal flaw. Yasuke has the contradictory traits of both valuing human life but also enjoying the thrill of taking it in combat, which gives him some complexity. When he does commit to a cause, he commits hard, but at the same time, he does legitimately enjoy having a quiet life, which sets him apart from other anime/adult animation protagonists.
Saki is naive, but persistent, and is actually very useful in the series, with her powers being central to standing up to the Daimyō. While she’s nowhere near as complex as Yasuke, she’s not as annoying as most child protagonists, and I like how Yasuke serves as a surrogate father figure to her, often teaching her lessons not only about combat but life.
In the villains department, despite being in the series for a shorter time, I felt like Abraham was a far better villain than the Daimyō. Abraham is a corrupted priest who wants to use Saki to take control of the Catholic Church, twisting religion to suit his own needs, which is much more than we got from the Daimyō, who acts just like a warlord hungry for power, and nothing else, with no greater philosophy or unique outlook on the world. The Daimyō does use magic and can tap into other planes of existence, but she uses her abilities like blunt instruments to beat her foes into submission.
We also have a small cast of antiheroes in the form of the mercenaries Abraham hires, who eventually change sides when Yasuke’s allies offer them more money. They are comprised of Ishikawa (Dia Frampton), a scythe and knives specialist; Haruto (Darren Criss), a self-aware robot; Nikita (Julie Marcus) a Russian werebear; and Ahuja (William Christopher Stephens) an African shaman who is a magic user. While I wish we could see more of them, they’re a welcome addition to the cast, each with their own quirks and charms.
As a whole, 6 30-minute episodes does “Yasuke” injustice, as the show has some really likeable and interesting characters and concepts that we just see far too little of. Maybe it will benefit from more episodes in future seasons, much like Netflix’s “Castlevania” show benefitted from (Season 1 of “Castevania” barely sets up Act 1 of its overall story).
“Yasuke” Season 1 is a great start to the show, and while it does tell a mostly complete story, it just needed more time to flesh everything out.
“Yasuke” Season 1 gets a 7.8/10