As America reckons with its racial history, creators have found ways to bring obscure stories to light. New and underreported stories have been given a chance to see the light of day, and popular figures within the acting community lend their support to getting these stories made. Fresh off his Oscar nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah, actor Lakeith Stanfield lends his voice and charisma to a new anime series from Netflix. Created by Lesean Thomas, Yasuke tells the fictionalized story of real-life black samurai from 16th century Japan. Adapting his story to fit within the traditions of Japanese animation traditions, Thomas and Stanfield create a series that crackles with energy and awe-inspiring visuals.
Yasuke opens with a war of survival. Yasuke (Stanfield) serves the feudal lord Nobunaga Oda (Takehiro Hira) as he attempts to unite Japan for the first time in history. Stirred awake by a series of nightmares, Yasuke awakens in a shack decades after the battle. Alone and aging in solitude, he has found himself on the fringes of society. Working as a boatman, Yasuke agrees to ferry a young girl and her mother up the river. When attacked, Yasuke must watch over the extraordinarily gifted Saki (Maya Tanida). The two embark on a journey to find Saki someone to train her to use her powers for good.
Thomas, a Legend of Korra and Black Dynamite veteran, approaches Yasuke as a story without limits. While the real Yasuke did not fight robots or mythical creatures, Thomas elevates the folk hero to superhero status. Mech suited warriors, demons from other dimensions, and warlords emerge from the shadows to kill our heroes. Yasuke meets them head-on, and the series embraces the violence with cartoonish levels of blood. Characters are shredded and violated, disappearing beneath misty rivers of blood. Multiple times during the series, characters point to a simple truth: there is only pain and blood in this world. Yet, the heart of the show begs for an optimistic view of the world.
Embedded within the story of Yasuke is a direct confrontation of racism. Characters that support Yasuke find themselves in mortal peril. However, they instead lean into an ideology based on empathy, compassion, and inclusivity. Whether Yasuke is defended by young girls or powerful warlords, the human connections he establishes create loyalty. When possible, the series examines ideologies and dialogues that divide instead of build communities. The series never shies away from the racism the samurai experiences, and its direct approach makes for richer storytelling at every turn.
Perhaps the most alluring aspect of the series is how it embraces animation as a medium. The focus on music, colors, and otherworldly visuals separate Yasuke from many of its contemporaries. The series utilizes neons to create a visual palette that riffs on Miami Vice instead of traditional anime. The directors often strip the show of its dialogue, letting the music and visuals tell the story through Fantasia-inspired sequences. At its most innovative, Yasuke is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Perhaps the biggest complaint one could level against Yasuke is its short-run (only six episodes). The highs of the series are undeniable, and its animation is some of the best no display in 2021. Stanfield may lend his voice to add credibility to the series, but Yasuke quickly pays off that trust. The deeply emotional and visually spectacular series is one of Netflix’s most exciting shows to date.