There are three reasons I tend to open Netflix. I either need background noise, something to binge over a weekend, or curated content based upon long-established interests. Very rarely do I proactively seek out a series. Yasuke changed this familiar pattern to one of seeking something new — doing so alongside scores of other people (many Black people, especially). As I saw more and more social media traction of Yasuke images and clips, I felt something familiar. I remember the moment I stepped into a crowded street to see Black Panther. I recall the sound of excited voices, the smell of food (both purchased and snuck), and the bright sight of Black faces everywhere I looked.
Regardless of your opinion on the anime, this is important. Yasuke is a digital appearance of what was previously a mostly in-person phenomenon. For Netflix, it’s an instance of a new concept breaking into a big space. To consumers, it’s an example of a collective desire taking form. For anime, it’s a bold experiment that makes me think of shows like Afro Samurai.
If you haven’t heard of it yet, here’s a quick overview of Yasuke. The story follows the titular character, a 16th-century samurai of African descent. Yasuke served under Oda Nobunaga, a powerful feudal lord (“Daimyo”) who sought to unify Japan. Yasuke premiered April 30th on Netflix. The series is short — only clocking in at six episodes — but that doesn’t mean it’s not deep. Despite sometimes falling short, Yasuke is undoubtedly fantastic. Through a combination of interesting twists to history, experimental music from Flying Lotus, and action, the story keeps attention. There is room for improvement of course, but even that has powerful implications for Black anime-related projects.
Blending History and Fiction
One of the most notable ways Yasuke creates its narrative is by mixing fantasy with history. Not much is known about the real-life Yasuke and writer LeSean Thomas uses this to his advantage. As with his other shows, like Cannon Busters, Thomas excels at placing fiction within broadly recognizable stories. Most viewers know of samurai. Almost anyone can picture sword warfare. Even the average world history class probably mentions Monguls.
These mundane details are enhanced; Samurai are joined by spiritual magic-wielding mages and the Monguls now dominated Asia via powered robot mechs rather than military prowess alone. As a result, the story has natural exposition and takes advantage of our common knowledge to jump right into more interesting concepts. Yasuke as a character follows this same pattern, introducing the main focus, his Blackness, into an established world of tradition, hierarchy, and ritual practice.
Even more, his timely overlap in appearing as a Black man during crucial conflicts in Japan parallels how Black communities fell in love with anime in the first place. Black American connections to anime, East Asia, and all of its media stems from the beginning of the hip-hop era following the civil rights movement. As theaters began spreading to less wealthy areas, they began screening cheap Kung Fu movies to cut costs.
Black Americans found themselves accessing a cool form of art that, while not Black, wasn’t white. The visual, acrobatic, and powerful aesthetic of these films merged with a nascent hip-hop identity. Eventually, this spread beyond Chinese Kung Fu films into anime as well. Black viewers found themselves a form of media in which the antagonist was the imperialist and the colonizer — and the non-white protagonist won with righteously justified violence against them.
Sound and Racial Perception
Sound takes this perception and adds incredible depth. Flying Lotus is already known for a funky, futuristic, almost psychedelic sound. Not only does this enhance the natural wonder of the many spiritual and magical scenes of Yasuke, but it sets a tone. The music tells the audience not to expect the usual. It connects a Japanese historical setting with an African-derived “it takes a village” mindset.
Additionally, the anime has a unique relationship with language. Unlike most anime, which is recorded in Japanese and later dubbed to English, Yasuke has the reverse. American actors like Yasuke voice actor LaKeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” “Judas and the Black Messiah”) are the original, English, voice cast. Japanese is the dub in this case (I’m sure the sub vs dub debaters have a field day with that one).
Having watched portions of the show in both versions, the difference is interesting. The English occasionally uses Japanese phrases or words to accentuate certain scenes. Obviously, the English version is able to cast well-known Black American actors. This is certainly an important component of the series’ popularity; as viewers, we tend to trust novel ideas more when familiar names as attached to them.
Beyond that, the mixing of Japanese and English is something I don’t see very often. Personally, I did not find it all that effective, especially in comparison to the complete Japanese. But, this creates a possibility other anime might think about at some point. Frequently, Japanese dialogue in English dubs sounds awkward. English dialogue in Japanese shows is often the same. This is not a fault of the actors; just a limitation of human speech’s nativity. Perhaps future projects might mix this dialogue with native speakers on both fronts.
Where it Falls Short
This linguistic trope is one of several issues with the story. For one, the history. Many of the fantasy elements to history add to the storyline. The main antagonist uses spiritual magic and that’s a component of combat in the show. It’s something incredibly mystical and Japanese that Yasuke has to both embrace and overcome to survive. That’s incredibly unique and clever. The robots, however, feel unnecessary. They’re out of place in a world without modern technology and don’t seem like they add much value.
Additionally, as many have pointed out online, the anime often felt somewhat rushed. I couldn’t help but think as I finished: “I wish this show had just 1 or 2 more episodes to smooth everything out.” I don’t think I’m alone in saying it struggled with pacing, especially toward the second half.
Crucially, I don’t think these issues make the anime something unwatchable. Yasuke is unique, and received tremendous hype from anime fans. That necessarily makes it have to live up to a wildly high bar. While it didn’t fully meet that bar, it did create a unique story. I think that far too often we get so caught up in not getting the 11/10 anime we expected that we forget what we did get. Yasuke delivered something visually exciting with an excellent soundtrack and interesting plotline. While my initial reaction after finishing was disappointment, I think the conversation and precedent holds value.
And the critique even begs the question: why does anime need to be the paragon of historical accuracy? The most popular anime of all time are creative takes on centuries-old myths and histories. Many anime that escape from history should be that — escapism.
A Strong Foundation Nevertheless
Overall, Yasuke is cool. It’s a cool anime with a cool concept and cool fights. Sure it isn’t the multi-million dollar blockbuster one might expect for the level of excitement around it, but that’s fine. Perhaps years down the line Yasuke will be remembered and praised for the first of many Black anime projects. The first rappers to add martial arts to their sets were probably laughed at and mocked. But now, no one would dare say that hip-hop and East Asian martial arts don’t have a deep connection.
The excitement around Yasuke was important because it tapped into a pattern of boisterous celebration and happiness. It feels good to see more Black people in new places. It feels really good to know people want us there. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it feels fantastic to know even Netflix will pay good money to keep us there.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix.