clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Lakeith Stanfield’s Mystical ‘Yasuke’ Revisits Black History in Feudal Japan

The Netflix anime is based on the real-life Black samurai of 16th-century Japan, though the series incorporates elements of magic and lore to dizzying effect

Scott Laven/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Netflix premiered Yasuke, an anime series about a Black samurai in a strange land. The titular hero, voiced by Lakeith Stanfield, moves through scenes with a certain wooziness. He’s drunk, he’s aged, he’s disillusioned, he’s out of place: He’s a washed-up ronin with colossal stature and dark skin, the rare Black man in feudal Japan.

He also happens to be based on the real African samurai, an emancipated servant known as Yasuke, employed as a warrior by the feudal lord Oda Nobunaga during the Sengoku period when the Oda clan led a violent struggle against other lords in order to unify Japan. There’s some ambiguity in the documentation of Yasuke’s experience in Japan; he arrived as a servant to a Jesuit missionary, and from there his legend splinters into facts about his role in certain events, such as Nobunaga’s assassination (a forced suicide) in 1582, and speculation about his whereabouts in between. In flashbacks, the series dramatizes Yasuke’s service under Oda Nobunaga, who is deposed (and decapitated) in a fierce battle, sending Yasuke into a shameful retirement. He lives in a quiet village, wasting away among strangers who see him as a permanent outsider, gawking and nicknaming him “the Black boatsman.” But Yasuke forms a few crucial attachments. The young boy Ichiro runs around town wielding a bokken, begging Yasuke to train him. The desperate mother Ichika compels Yasuke to escort her daughter Saki to a doctor in the north.

Together, Yasuke, Ichika, and Saki seek a doctor, but of course the journey turns strange and violent. Saki isn’t sick, but rather magical, revealing telekinetic powers; Morisuke, the doctor, turns out to be a ronin training young, supernatural warriors to rebel against the new lord, or daimyo. Yasuke also encounters a Christian priest, Abraham, who turns out to be a demon who means to capture and kill Saki in order to absorb her powers. The series reinvigorates the Sengoku period with wild flourishes: giant robots, vengeful mutants, and magical combat on the astral plane. It’s all very busy and loud. But Yasuke remains a steady hand with a simple, silent elegance whenever called upon to draw his katana for a good old-fashioned duel.

Black artist LeSean Thomas, born in New York but now based in Tokyo, created Yasuke in collaboration with the anime studio MAPPA. Distinguished animator Takeshi Koike developed the character designs for the series; avant-garde producer Flying Lotus created the musical score. Stanfield rounds out a dream team. This isn’t his first foray into Japanese pop culture: A few years ago, the actor played the eccentric detective L in the live-action movie adaptation of the popular manga series Death Note. There’s a certain weebish distinction to Stanfield, unmistakable in his performances but also in his celebrity—and that’s whether you like him or not—that’s marked him as the first and obvious choice for a role such as Yasuke. And that’s crucial to the series, which is determined to incorporate Black pride and Japanese culture into a joint celebration. This much is clear in Thomas’s efforts to distinguish Yasuke from the beloved manga series Afro Samurai, written by Takashi Okazaki and adapted as an anime series starring Samuel L. Jackson and produced by the anime studio Gonzo. Okazaki created Afro Samurai to celebrate Black culture; Thomas created Yasuke to celebrate Japan. In the end, Netflix licensed the series in its long and fruitful campaign to dominate anime streaming in North America, competing with the likes of Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu.

In six episodes, Yasuke overwhelms the viewer with a lot of mysticism and lore, and it’s enough to make you wonder whether a more sensible account of Yasuke’s life in Japan, as unsung and remarkable as he apparently was, might have sufficed for a shonen series. The genre excesses, such as a sentient machine cracking wise and also rampaging through villages in the 17th century, lend the series a playful, ecstatic quality, but they also crowd the screen with anachronisms and concepts that the series proves too busy to explicate. The historical whimsy also complicates Thomas’s more serious efforts to make sense of Yasuke’s social stature as a Black man in feudal Japan. These are Japanese characters encountering an African immigrant in significant isolation, and sometimes they condescend to Yasuke in clueless terms, bewildered by his dark skin and wary of foreigners. More often they disparage Yasuke in far more pointed terms, regarding his dark skin as a mark of stupidity and servitude, betraying a strangely Western conception of race in a series with no Western characters. Japan is a notoriously homogeneous country, and I don’t grudge Thomas’s efforts to dramatize the hints of disrespect in Yasuke’s legacy and obscurity, I just never knew what to make of this particular dissonance in a series that revels in such deliberate and stylized ahistoricism.

Still, there’s a certain charm in Yasuke. Here’s a series, though it feels more like an outburst, that takes great joy in mashing so many sensibilities and perspectives within anime fandom (from both hemispheres) together like action figures in the sandbox: not deep, and very messy, but fun.