Review: ‘Yasuke’ Reclaims a Black Samurai From History

A partial list of the marvels in Netflix’s samurai anime series “Yasuke” includes sorcerers, a shape-shifting woman-bear, astral-plane duels and giant robots in feudal-era Japan. But the novelty that its characters are most surprised to encounter is a Black man who speaks Japanese.

Yasuke (Lakeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”) is a real-life figure, an African who in the 1500s served under the shogun Nobunaga Oda (Takehiro Hira), who came close to unifying Japan under his rule. (On their first meeting, Nobunaga assumes that the hue of the man’s skin must be inked on.)

“Yasuke,” whose six-episode first season arrives Thursday, is loosely based in its title character’s history. (Very loosely based; I refer you again to the giant robots.) But if you are expecting a sober historical drama, this artful genre mash-up from LeSean Thomas (“Cannon Busters”) offers both less than that and an eye-popping amount more.

After an opening combat sequence — a wizardry- and laser-enhanced version of an actual 1582 battle in which Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his officers — “Yasuke” jumps forward 20 years. The former samurai, his lord dead and his cause defeated, is now an anonymous ronin in a small riverside village, where he spends his days alone on a fishing boat or at the bottom of a bottle. “A true warrior above all else prays for peace,” he says, shooing off a local boy who begs him for sword training.

“Yasuke” does a lot of leaping, both between decades and among modes. In his youth, the protagonist arrives in Japan as a trader’s servant, joins Nobunaga’s service and faces hostility from nativists who consider the elevation of an outsider like him to be a betrayal of their culture. In the present, he is roused from retirement — as all retired sword-slingers must be roused — by a cross-country quest, escorting Saki (Maya Tanida), a village girl whose burgeoning mystical powers could liberate the terrorized country if they don’t get her killed first.

The journey introduces a series of colorful villains, including a magic-wielding western priest (Dan Donohue) and the quasi-arachnid Daimyo (a sumptuously wicked Amy Hill). But in past and present, Yasuke also contends with forces hostile to him as a foreigner, and with a history of losses and betrayals.

Stanfield, an actor whose strength is in his reserve, modulates deftly between the idealistic young samurai and the hard-bitten elder. (Supporting players include Ming-Na Wen as a female samurai who shares an outsider’s bond with Yasuke, and Darren Criss as a mercenary robot with a heart, or at least a C.P.U., of gold.)

The true stars of “Yasuke,” however, are its visual and aural landscapes. The battle scenes are copiously bloody, but the animation, from the studio MAPPA, has a lonesome beauty that matches the protagonist’s temperament. And it’s all pulled together by a scintillating, jazz-inflected electronic score by Flying Lotus, who is also an executive producer. (His frequent collaborator Thundercat sings the haunting opening theme, “Black Gold.”) Vibe, in a short animated season, counts for a lot, and there’s an otherworldliness here that befits the fabulist story of an African expat in Japan spun by a Black American creator.

But I must return to the magic and robots. “Yasuke” is an action adventure at heart, and in its excited rush to layer twists, genre elements and mythology in six half-hour episodes, it feels hurried and overstuffed. Is this a story of an outsider in a rigid national culture? A character study of a battle-scarred warrior overcoming his regrets? A mystical epic of an anointed child against an ultimate evil?

It’s all of those, and with a couple more episodes’ space to breathe, the parts might have coexisted and bolstered one another. As it is, the quieter and more novel aspects of “Yasuke” get drowned out by its louder, less distinctive action story lines. There seems to be a lot of untapped potential in the protagonist’s history, or alternative history, that goes unrealized by pressing him into a relatively conventional magical-child-against-evil story arc.

Still, there’s a lot to see and hear and like in this story: the balletic swordplay, the hallucinatory visions of psychic combat, the subtler battles between competing conceptions of honor. By fancifully filling the gaps of history, “Yasuke” has created an intriguing hero, even if you may end it wanting to know him a little better.

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