When word first came out that MAPPA (Dorohedoro, Jujutsu Kaisen) was partnering with Netflix to produce an anime about the African samurai Yasuke with Lakeith Stanfield voicing him, I was incredibly excited. Along with LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters) as the creator/director and Flying Lotus providing the score, I figured Yasuke would be one of the best anime to come out of 2021. Sadly, the series was not the period-piece action series I thought it would be, featuring a myriad of sci-fi and fantasy elements that weigh down the story.
Yasuke follows the historical African samurai in an alternate 16th century. After his master’s forces fall in a battle against the army of the Dark General, Yasuke goes into hiding, wishing to forget his former life as a samurai. He spends the next 20 years living out his days as Yassan, a reclusive boatman of a village far away from trouble. This all changes when a woman approaches him to help take her sick daughter, Saki, down the river to hopefully heal her. Little does he know that the sickness plaguing her is actually her magical abilities growing in power. Along the way, Yasuke must defend Saki and her mother from the many terrible forces coming her way due to Saki’s tremendous power.
The story of the first half of the series is split between the events of the “present” with Yasuke protecting Saki and the past, where it is shown how Yasuke became a samurai and why he wants to leave it behind. The latter is the more compelling story, as we are shown who Yasuke once was and how he became the person he is in the present. The steps toward his inevitable time as a Ronin make the story all the more tragic. Combined with jaw-dropping sword fights, the historical elements of Yasuke are easily the best parts.
The sci-fi and fantasy elements of the story, while interesting, take away from the historical elements. Seeing Yasuke fight a giant-mecha robot is cool, but it does not serve the story in any way. The magic, on the other hand, is much more connected to the overall story, seeing as most of the antagonists are after Saki because of the magical power residing inside of her. The majority of the magic present in Yasuke is cool and isn’t too detached from the rest of the story, but it seems like the show’s writing would be tighter without it.
The antagonists are a little underwritten, but seeing as the show is only six episodes long, they didn’t really need to be as complex as Yasuke. However, if the main villain’s connection to Yasuke was better developed, then the confrontation between the two would have felt more emotional.
MAPPA’s animation throughout the season is incredibly good. While not as impressive as their work on The God of High School or Jujutsu Kaisen, the animation, especially in the sword fights, was fluid and easy to follow despite the quickness of the action. Yasuke‘s art style was equally captivating, and every adult character felt larger-than-life due to how imposing they feel compared to Saki. Yasuke feels espeically gigantic, even compared to some of the enemies he faces. Thus, when enemies manage to seriously wound him, we can get a good feel for the power behind their strikes.
Flying Lotus’ score takes an approach similar to that of Ludwig Goransson’s work on Black Panther, combining traditional music representative of Japanese culture with modern hip-hop to create a unique sound. The score feels like a perfect match for the blend of history and fantasy present throughout Yasuke.
The voice acting is probably Yasuke‘s strongest element, featuring amazing talent including Lakeith Stanfield as Yasuke. Lakeith Stanfield matches Yasuke’s stoic yet remorseful attitude perfectly, while also having amazing chemistry with most of the rest of the cast, especially Maya Tanida (Saki), Takehiro Hira (Oda Nobunaga), Ming-Na Wen (Natsumaru) and William Christopher Stephens (Ahuja). The entire English cast is amazing, with even some of the more minor characters, such as Dia Frampton (Ishikawa) and Julie Marcus (Nikita), getting their time to shine. Most of the success in the dub can likely be attributed to voice director Michael Sinterniklaas (Great Pretender, Cannon Busters) and casting director Stephanie Sheh (Your Name, A Silent Voice).
Overall, Yasuke was an incredibly fun watch, despite the imbalance of genre present throughout. The voice acting, animation and score were all top notch. However, I can’t deny that I would have liked Yasuke more if it was solely a period-piece samurai story. All six episodes are currently available to stream on Netflix.