The Warring States Period is one of the most fascinating conflicts in Japanese feudal history. Many media franchises, such as the “Samurai Warriors” video game series, have been inspired by it and have found popular appeal around the world. So it goes without saying that a new anime set around this time, featuring a black samurai, would generate a lot of hype in the anime community. And with talented voice acting from Lakeith Stanfield, intro from Thundercat, soundtrack from Flying Lotus and animation from Studio MAPPA, “Yasuke” seemed destined to be a summer hit.
Sadly, “Yasuke” suffers from inconsistent world-building and shoddy conspiracy, and he doesn’t live up to his expectations.
The story follows the titular Yasuke, an African man brought to 16th-century Japan by Italian Jesuit missionaries. There, he is acquired by Nobunaga Oda, one of the warlords fighting for the reunification of Japan, and he receives training as a samurai to fight for the Oda clan.
Twenty years after the defeat of the Oda clan and the ritual suicide of Nobunaga, Yasuke spends his life as a boatman in a remote Japanese village, suffering from alcoholism as he tries to erase memories of what happened to his late lord and friend.
The anime’s initial commercials seemed to suggest a historical period piece in the same vein as Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Samurai Champloo,” a cult classic also set in feudal Japan. But from the first minutes of the pilot episode, the anime is inundated with giant mecha (superhero-like robots) flying through open portals, samurai using magic to fend off a dark and technologically advanced army, and two men drinking sake as a building they are burnt and collapse around them. This happens without any context as to where this dark army came from, or who the samurai are using magic, or how those two things can happen during this time period.
And that’s just the start of the show’s problems.
The main plot of “Yasuke” does not concern the life of the protagonist in the service of Nobunaga Oda; its backstory is told in a series of flashbacks that run through the show. Rather, the plot centers on a child with a mysterious illness that Yasuke must escort to an illusory medic, while being pursued by mercenaries capable of using magic and technology as part of their combat abilities. .
And this is where another problem with the series arises: the plot that has been announcement and the plot that was shown are two different things. And while the flashbacks had their tender moments (including Yasuke finding solidarity with a female samurai hated for her gender), the main storyline was slow, twisty, and overshadowed by the subplot.
As the anime progresses, the Catholic Church and the role it plays are introduced into the story. The leader of the mercenaries, a European who wears a cross necklace, wants to capture the child because he believes she will help him control the Catholic Church and all of Europe.
But rather than exploring the role of the church in bringing Yasuke to Japan as a slave (or conversely, discussing Japanese Christians who will ultimately be persecuted by the Tokugawa shogunate), the anime falls into a trope. tired and familiar: that of the maniacal sadist who hijacks religion for his own evil ends. And while this character isn’t the main villain of the series, his presence felt like a random addition that served to further muddle the plot, rather than clarify the various moving parts of the story.
But “Yasuke’s” cardinal sin is not in the construction of the world or the antagonists. It is the fact that Yasuke himself, despite being the namesake of the series, is not the main character. As the child’s mysterious illness slowly reveals itself to be a powerful and unstable magic, Yasuke is regularly put aside to make room for his story.
Even though the series relies on flashbacks to his life and serving as the child’s bodyguard, Yasuke is relegated to the role of a supporting character in his own anime. Sometimes Yasuke’s character looks like a marketing gimmick rather than a reimagining of a real historical figure.
This is all a big disappointment, because the anime had so much potential.
MAPPA, the studio behind the hugely popular “Attack on Titan: The Final Season” and hit “Jujutsu Kaisen”, is known for an animation style that showcases dynamic characters, engaging storylines and, most importantly, scenes. epic battles. But even that, with the impressive voice acting from Stanfield and the magnificent Flying Lotus soundtrack, couldn’t save the pieces of an otherwise broken show.
And it doesn’t help that many black anime fans eagerly awaited the portrayal of an African man in a modern samurai show, only to get a mediocre story at best.
By the time the final rolled out, watching “Yasuke” seemed like a tiresome chore. It only lasts six episodes, but during that time it squeezes a lot of content into the series with little consistency. And while there are glimmers of grandeur with the gorgeous intro and atmospheric composition, the anime ends up falling flat.
As of yet, it’s unclear whether “Yasuke” will be renewed for a second season. The main story ends perfectly while leaving room for more on the road. But if the anime continues, hopefully it comes with a more sensible world-build and an engaging plot.
The pieces of a successful anime are here. They just need to be carefully arranged, and then “Yasuke” can be the great anime that it’s always been meant to be.