Matt Ross London
Thanks to a scarcity of official records, the story of Yasuke – an African samurai who fought for Japanese daimyo Oda Nobunaga – remains something of a mystery. While the documented history of this mysterious warrior runs to little more than a few entries in the history of feudal Japan, a new anime from Netflix opts for an enthusiastically … liberal … use of artistic license as the basis for a six-part series created by LeSean Thomas (“Black Dynamite,” “Cannon Busters”) and animated by Japanese studio MAPPA.
Still haunted by the assassination of Nobunaga (who was betrayed during the fabled Honnō-ji incident in Kyoto in 1582), one of his former samurai, Yasuke, lives a quiet life as a boatman in a remote village. When Saki, a young girl with mysterious powers, finds herself on the run from supernatural warriors and fiendish warlords, the reluctant hero promises to keep her safe and finds himself drawn into a world of magical battles, gore-heavy duels and warring sorcerers. Yasuke (voiced in the English version by LaKeith Stanfield) is a taciturn hero, and while the story of his journey from slave to samurai – told in flashbacks during the main narrative – is backed up by real-life accounts, the plot of “Yasuke” doesn’t concern itself with such empirical details. Thomas’s alternate take on 16th century Japan includes shapeshifting were-bears, hulking robotic mechs, mutant priests and even a magical shaman.
It’s a heady mix, but one that can be a little jarring. For one thing, Yasuke’s skin color causes much consternation among the people he meets – but those same characters don’t even flinch at a quick-talking robot, a 10ft warrior bear or a giant battle between telekinetic sorcerers. And as the story builds towards the final showdown, the main character becomes a mere narrative vehicle, traipsing from one fantastical battle to the next. “Yasuke” is a gory, over-the-top action-fest – but anyone hoping to learn more about a fascinating real-world samurai will find little here to satisfy their appetite.