We gotta talk about Netflix and Lesean Thomas' newly released original anime, "Yasuke". Unfortunately, that's where my first qualms for the series lay, in the word "original". Some aspects of the show are certainly unique, and thus qualifying it as "original", but 2 episodes into a 6 episode series and I couldn't help but notice how derivative the plot and characters seemed to be. By the end of the show, I was convinced; Yasuke is a contrived mediocre show at best. But before I really get into it, I'd like to give Studio Mappa a shoutout for the great animation and Flying Lotus for his artistry on the soundtrack.
While I won't spoil any plot details in this review, I will critique the exact points in which Yasuke fell flat for me. First, the story is too simple for the level of sophistication that the source material deserves. For those unaware, Yasuke was an African man brought to Japan whom would eventually become a retainer to then daimyo, Oda Nobunaga in the late 1500s.
Watching this show, you wouldn't know how this plays into our hero's central narrative at all. This intrinsic element acts as a mere primer for the inevitable escort mission Yasuke finds himself on for the duration of the show, which by-the-way, has the faintest of relationships to Yasuke's personal connections to the world the showrunners have established. Which brings me to the second problem, "surrogate father escorts young girl across a dangerous land" trope. Maybe the sheer amount of content created over the past decade has skewed my views a bit, but this particular trope is so tired. SO many IPs from various industries have used this time and again with much better results i.e., Logan, The Last of Us, Lone Wolf and Cub, etc.(that's just the L's!"). But sure, lets approach this from an objective perspective and greenlight this plot device. As you can imagine, these two characters are intended to be polar opposites that should eventually compliment each other by the end of the show. They progress the story in a way that allows their hijinks to develop a kinship capable of spawning some sort of epic team-up by the end of the finale.
Unfortunately a lot of the time spent between these two characters is wasted, since Yasuke is a brooding and pensive character that I wouldn't call "one dimensional", but flat nonetheless. I would like to give Lakeith Stanfield and Jun Soejima credit for lending their voices to the role. Their contribution certainly made Yasuke a more likeable character(even more so in Japanese), so I honestly think this might be a script issue. For the sake of argument, I think Afro Samurai has more personality than Yasuke, which is pretty impressive considering Afro doesn't say much of anything. However, its the characters that surround Afro that do much of this heavy lifting since they are reacting to Afro's beats. Yasuke lacks this type of supporting cast in certain areas of the show, so it made it difficult to really sympathize with his struggles vicariously through others or even personally as a black man.
Finally, my last gripe would be "consistency and focus". Yasuke is all over the place. From story to art direction, Yasuke lacks focus. Occasionally, the audience is treated to flashback sequences that explore the mystery of Yasuke's history and intrapersonal relationships, which I personally found to be some of the highlights of the show, but there vague connections to the current timeline leave much to be desired. I often found myself wanting to know more Yasuke's time under Nobunaga opposed to the fetch quest we inevitably return to. Lastly, I understand the creative desire to mix high fantasy and technology elements into a historical setting, but I think this decision ultimately diminishes the significance of what it means to be Yasuke, i.e. black in this ancient time period and foreign land.
If there are 10 meter tall robots and half bear people walking around, who really cares if our protagonist is black. At this point Yasuke's complexion is most useful as a conversation starter at best. This is probably the anime's most egregious offense, the complete overshadowing of historical reference for mass appeal? Accessibility? He could literally be any other color and it wouldn't have changed much of the story at all, so it feels quite clear that we are riding the diversity wagon for this. Which, to be clear, diversity and representation are noble goals to strive towards, but this can easily be considered pandering in unskilled hands. Considering that a lot of the producers for this series are black I'm quite disappointed at how badly they fumbled this project. I was originally quite excited for Yasuke, but it seems the importance of his story got lost in the shuffle of trying to make it stand amongst the great anime that inspired it. In the end, we received a tepid story that missed its mark in highlighting one of history's forgotten legends.
Have you watched Yasuke? What did you think? What would you have done to improve the show? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. As always, don't forget to like and share this post. Keep it locked for more, peace!