Anime review: Yasuke’s promising, but underwhelming

Graphic by: Tyler McLean

It may be an unpopular opinion, but I love Payday bars. The salty sweet mix of the nougat and peanuts is a great combination. 

Now, imagine the company who makes them decided to take out the core aspect of the Payday bars: the peanuts. In their place, raisins are added. That would change the foundation of the bars completely. 

This is the main problem with the 2021 Netflix anime Yasuke

Yasuke had so much promise. Black-led anime are rare, but the ones we’ve had, while they’ve been good, have left us wanting more of them. When Yasuke was announced Black anime fans were thrilled. I remember being so excited seeing all the Tik-Toks promoting the show. 

But after its release, the excitement for the show had dwindled. Many of the Tik-Tokers I initially watched promote the show had nothing good to say about it after its release. The main reason is the inclusion of magic and mechas (large robots in anime, commonly controlled by a person driving inside.) 

I understand the additions. The most popular anime are loaded with magical elements, such as Dragon Ball Z, Naruto and Demon Slayer. The difference with Yasuke is that its story is based on a real person and events that really happened. Yasuke was born some time in the 1550s, his birthplace is disputed. He was enslaved as a child and sold to Portuguese traders. In 1581 he met Oda Nobunaga who took him from slavery, and made him a samurai.

Yasuke’s creator Lesean Thomas talked about adapting the story to TV in a 2021 Discussingfilm interview.

“I wanted to make it very clear that we were doing a fantastical story, a story where we sort of romanticized this historical figure,” Thomas said. 

His reasoning is understandable, but based on how the story turned out I don’t agree with the changes. 

The main story takes place years after Yasuke was a samurai. The Yasuke we see throughout the main story is older, wiser. He’s haunted by his past, in which he killed his love and the man whomade him a warrior. There are also flashbacks throughout the story where we learn about how he was placed in a position of power many believed went against Japanese tradition. 

Taking away characters’ powers would improve the story tremendously. The main antagonist of the show, The Damiyo, would feel way more threatening if her power was her influence, and authority, rather than a demonic power. 

Changes aside, I applaud this take on the interesting story of Yasuke. Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more Black people in 2020, with the pandemic in full effect, Yasuke was the representation we needed during such a crazy time. No matter how I or anyone feels about the decisions made to Yasuke, its significance can’t be denied. 

For a long time, Black anime characters were characterized based on racial stereotypes. Now, we have Black anime characters represented the right way and in leading roles. Throughout the series we are shown Yasuke’s strength, endurance, and his heart. He puts others before himself, even if he’s not perfect. 

Thomas did a great job with Yasukes character, and Lakeith Stanfield, Yasuke’s English voice, does an amazing job portraying the hero’s stoicism. He speaks in a way that makes you feel something. 

More and more anime have main characters who are Black. Naruto, Jojos Bizzare Adventures, and Bleach have such characters. Yasuke stands apart from these shows because he’s not a side character, although he can feel like one sometimes. He is the hero, and a good one at that. Yasuke laid the groundwork for more Black-led anime to build on. 

Without robots and magic, Yasuke could’ve been great. I would love for Thomas and Stanfield to produce another anime, and if Yasuke is renewed for a second season I hope that it builds on the foundation of its first to produce a story that doesn’t have a huge focus on the mechas and, the magic. 

Instead, the main focus needs to be on Yasuke and his journey returning to his life as a samurai. A story that carries over its great characters, expands its worldbuilding, gives us fewer robots and more brilliant flashbacks to Yasukes past. The mechas, more than anything, have to go. If it is renewed for a second season, Yasuke has so much potential, and I hope we get to witness the greatness that can come from this series. 

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