Netflix is not exactly known for its wealth of quality programming, but there are a few areas where it delivers: music documentaries, BBQ-based cooking competitions and anime. Yasuke is a prime example of the latter, a rich and exciting new series based on the eponymous “Black Samurai” of 16th century Japan. The six-episode season introduces Yasuke (LaKeith Stanfield) as he protects a sick girl with mysterious powers (Maya Tanida) from an eccentric band of mercenaries.
At first glance the show resembles a fusion of the Samuel L. Jackson anime Afro Samurai, Keanu Reeves flop 47 Ronin and Takashi Miike bloodbath Blade of the Immortal. Thankfully Yasuke proves much greater than the sum of its parts. More coherent than much of the genre, it benefits from a grounded story and characters while also being progressively psychedelic. Clearly establishing its themes and backstory gives the show licence to indulge in comedy robots and Russian werewolves.
The first half of the show has as its villains a predatory Catholic preacher and the tyranny of racism, which sees our hero scapegoated, traded and degraded by those who believe that “servants will always be servants.” As an African American based in Tokyo, series creator LeSean Thomas (Black Dynamite, The Boondocks) has a unique perspective on the outcast samurai, whose visceral trauma from racism resonates all too strongly in the present day.
Also serving as producer is virtuoso DJ and gore aficionado Flying Lotus, his immersive soundtrack blending proggy hip-hop beats with traditional Japanese music – while featuring his regular collaborator Thundercat on the theme tune Black Gold. The standard of animation is as high as we have come to expect from Netflix and MAPPA (Attack on Titan) productions, with love for the Japanese scenery, history and culture rendered in every colourful frame.
This convergence of creative forces contains all the violence, politics and humour we crave in mature anime, and has us screaming “Yas” to a second season.
Yasuke is released on Netflix on 29th April 2021.
Watch the trailer for Yasuke here: