History is Overshadowed in Netflix’s Yasuke

The legend of Yasuke sounds like it was tailor-made to be adapted into an anime. A real-life African man who traveled to Japan and served under Oda Nobunaga as history’s first Black samurai. Yasuke has been a part of popular culture in Japan for hundreds of years, but it’s only recently that he debuted in his first anime. Netflix‘s Yasuke was created by Cannon Busters creator LeSean Thomas and animated by Studio MAPPA with character designs by Takeshi Koike. The show takes place in an alternate version of 16th century Japan where magic and robots exist. While scores of people have eagerly awaited the day when the story of Yasuke would become an anime, the end result is a disappointment. Yasuke is a middling anime that squanders its extremely rich historical source material.

The series takes place 20 years after the last known historical records for the real-life Yasuke. The story of the real-life Yasuke as we know it is reduced to backstory told through flashbacks. Of course with any historical fiction, a certain level of fabrication and creative liberty is to be expected. Especially in a case like Yasuke’s where much of the available information is in the realm of speculation and debate. But the extent to which Yasuke expands upon its historical basis makes me question why this character even had to be Yasuke in the first place. The creators of Yasuke seemed to have little interest in the real-life history and culture surrounding the titular historical hero. Everything about the setting that should have been the main event feels like nothing more than set dressing.

Both the real-life and fictional Yasuke lived in the Sengoku Period of Japan. There’s a lot of material that could have been taken from the history of this period, both plot-wise and thematically. It was a time defined by war and revolution as Japan unified and laid the groundwork for the Edo Period. What would really be interesting is to explore how Yasuke would have fit into that point in history: As one of, if not the only, Black person in the entire nation at the period accepted as a samurai and serving under Oda Nobunaga, one of the Sengoku Period’s “Great Uniters.” How does it feel to be in the center of the action in molding the future of a place you’re an outsider to? We are shown that many Japanese are unwilling to accept him as one of them, but this is very surface-level. Unfortunately, the show does not put much stock in the historical and cultural happenings of the time.

Other series like Rurouni Kenshin and Gintama have taken Japanese history and used it as the basis for their story and characters. But these shows are much more committed to using the historical settings to their advantage. In Gintama, the events surrounding the end of the Edo Period such as the sword ban and forceful opening of the country to the world are integral components of the plot and the characters. Kenshin, meanwhile, is motivated by the desire to atone for his murderous actions at the end of the Edo Period, disillusioned by the government he helped establish. These are stories where the Japanese cultural and historical context are inalienable. But in Yasuke, the decision to place it in Sengoku Period and its protagonist are almost entirely aesthetic. In terms of actual narrative substance, we could replace Japan with a fictional nation, and Yasuke with a fictional warrior, and it would still be essentially the same show.

History is Overshadowed in Netflix's Yasuke

Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s largest historical figures, is barely seen here. After he dies in the very first episode, he’s only in a handful of scenes. He’s characterized as being an egalitarian who accepts Yasuke and Natsumaru with open arms into his inner circle despite the protests from his other companions. It’s implied that this attitude of his is influenced by his romantic relationship with his male retainer Ranmaru. But what is really missing is any development of the relationship between Nobunaga and Yasuke. The scenes they do share together convey very little outside of the formality demanded of their official roles as lord and subject. This makes the extraordinary amount of trust and respect that the show tells us these two hold for each other feel unearned. Yasuke lacked scenes that would show how these two interact and relate on a more intimate human level. The anime original character Natsumaru, who is Yasuke’s love interest and is connected to his mission in the show’s present time, also feels underdeveloped, which dulled the impact of what should have been very powerful moments between them.

There isn’t much to say about Yasuke’s personality. He’s the standard archetype of an older man who was a warrior in a former life, but comes out of retirement for one last time when he is needed. It’s something that’s been done many times before, and there’s little that feels specific to a character who is supposed to be the real-life Yasuke. There are so many things that could have been explored but weren’t. We hear him quote a Bible verse, but we don’t know how he feels about his time with the Jesuits. Does he take their lessons of Christianity to heart, or was it just rote memorization of something forced upon him? Does he resent his experience with the Europeans? How does he feel about the differing philosophies of the Japanese serving under their feudal lord versus how he was treated by the Europeans? The closest we get to any thematic significance given to Yasuke’s situation is his opponents constantly telling him that he was born a servant and will always be a servant.

History is Overshadowed in Netflix's Yasuke

Mitsuhide, who in both the show and real life was the betrayer who led to Nobunaga’s downfall, would have made the perfect main antagonist for the series. The show presents the motivations for his heel turn as resentment for Nobunaga valuing Yasuke over himself. Mitsuhide is an older man. He’s a strict traditionalist who sees that times are changing and is desperate not to be left behind. Despite the historical precedent and the great job the show does of setting up his motivations, he really doesn’t amount to all that much in the end. Instead, the role of the main villain is taken by a magical monster named the Dark Daimyo whose motivations are just a hair better than “evil for the sake of evil.” Mitsuhide’s own motivations are even somewhat neutered by Yasuke insisting on multiple occasions that he’s been corrupted by the power and influence of the Daimyo. His final confrontation with Yasuke was unremarkable and lacked the emotional catharsis that such an encounter rightfully should have had.

History is Overshadowed in Netflix's Yasuke

I’m not totally against the idea of including sci-fi and fantasy elements into this story. But what sours me on it in Yasuke is how superficial they feel. They work as cool visuals and something to spice up fights, but there’s little below the surface. In the world of Netflix‘s Yasuke, mech suits and magic users are staple components in the military, and have been for about 300 years (assuming the Mongol invasion of Japan happened the same time in the show as it did in real life). But their presence has left the rest of the country untouched. If these sorts of things have been so widespread for so long, it would only make sense for them to trickle into other parts of society. Perhaps these 16th-century villages would have robot waiters in their taverns, or streets lit up by magical lights. But nothing like that is in Yasuke. Even restricted to the military, you might expect motorized vehicles and wireless communication. We don’t even see widespread use of firearms, which Japanese militaries actually used extensively during that time in real life. Outside of military/fight scenes, day-to-day life seems exactly the same as the real 16th century. Much of the sci-fi/fantasy elements feel tacked on for the sake of being cool without much thought into how they should affect the rest of the setting. This is another way in which I would contrast the show to Gintama. Gintama also packs robots and magic into a historical Japanese setting, but they don’t feel superficial because it was considered how their presence would affect the day-to-day operation of the world.

Yasuke is not the Yasuke anime that I’ve been waiting for. All the things that would have done the real-life legend justice are either used too sparingly or left out altogether. The creators of Yasuke have expressed plans for the continuation of this series, so it’s possible for improvements to happen. But as it stands, Netflix‘s Yasuke is an average anime for a most certainly not average historical figure.

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