Yasuke Anime Series Review Is Faithful To Classic Samurai Stories
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Review: Yasuke Is Faithful To Classic Samurai Stories While Successfully Blending Fantasy And Anime Tropes

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BY April 30, 2021

From its marketing, Yasuke looked like your typical action-adventure anime. The Yasuke official trailer focused on the show’s more fantastical and genre elements. Which were great. But this Yasuke anime series review will show how the series is more philosophical and pensive than that. Which is more in line with the classic Samurai stories or movies, than many fantasy anime. But there’s a lot of anime elements to love here as well. So check out this spoiler-free Yasuke anime series review. 

Netflix’s New Original Anime From A Real-Life Legend

Yasuke anime series review Fire. Image via Netflix.

As I briefly touched upon the trailer’s release, Yasuke is actually a story based on a true legend. While the specifics of the origins vary, the legend speaks of one of the first-ever Black men in Japan, indoctrinated into the ways of the Samurai thanks to an eccentric autocrat. The story of Yasuke follows how a powerful Lord, never having seen a Black man, takes an interest in Yasuke. Welcoming him into his clan, the Lord bestows the training and respect of a Samurai warrior onto Yasuke. History then can’t agree on how Yasuke lived out the rest of his life, with multiple accounts from various sources. 

The legendary story is so popular, that the fan-favorite Afro Samurai series, also featuring a Black Samurai was directly inspired by the legend of Yasuke. Other mediums such as books and games have featured a character like Yasuke, but no medium has actually adapted the Yasuke story into its own film or TV content. And what’s where this Yasuke anime series review of Netflix’s new original series comes in. 

Yasuke Anime Series Review Has To Balance The Show’s Tone

Yasuke anime series review Samurai. Image via Netflix.

I’ll preface this Yasuke anime series review with the disclaimer that the new show is less anime, and more along the lines of classic Samurai films, such as from Akira Kurosawa. The reason I mention this is because the focus of the show is more on the character-driven story of the titular Yasuke. It’s less on the incredibly gorgeous and stunning action sequences and, even the highly intriguing world that they’ve built into the story. 

The Yasuke anime series is about the rise, fall and redemption of the titular character. The series is set in 1800’s Feudal Japan and unfolds through present-day story and flashbacks to the past, 20 years apart. The story begins with a drunk and world-weary older Black boatsman, going about his mundane life in a small town. We get flashbacks of his past as a Samurai Warrior who was on the losing side of an incredible battle. 

The Story Makes Great Use Of An Existing Formula 

Redemption. Image via Netflix.

Sequestering himself away from the world, the boatsman gets a request to ferry a sick young girl through dangerous territory. What follows is how this man with a haunted past has to face his worst fears and return to the world he left behind, for the sake of an innocent life. It’s very much the reluctant hero trope that we’ve seen a lot. 

But Yasuke is an incredible series because the story’s focus is on that character development, and, and not using it as a framing for the larger, action-packed story. Each episode goes back and forth between the flashbacks and the present day, to better contextualize whatever obstacles Yasuke’s dealing with in the present day. Yasuke’s inner struggle is the main plot with everything serving as a device to drive him to redemption. 

Despite Its Substance, The Action Bits Are No Slouch

Yasuke anime series review Mech. Image via Netflix.

Even without the emotional core of the series, it’s still got a lot to keep general audiences interested. Some incredible anime-style action sequences accompany the soulful episodes. It’s not that surprising given that the animation studio behind Yasuke is none other than the famed Mappa Studio. Mappa is responsible for such other anime like God Of High School and Attack On Titan. While another studio like Powerhouse Animation’s action techniques seen in shows like Seis Manos and Castlevania are more real-world base movements, Mappa is more cinematic. Similarly, the action of Yasuke is high flying, huge in scope, and totally unrealistic in the best way possible. 

And given the number of interesting characters, that’s not really too surprising. When a show has a smart-aleck giant robot, a bitter Shaman and a seemingly Russian, Amazon-looking mercenary that can turn into a huge bear on command, the action has to be good. Even more so when the giant battle sequences feature armies of regular Samurai, complimented by Sorcerers who make regular arrows into energy blasts. And even bigger mechanized robots at their flank. It’s all too surreal to process, especially seeing how little exposition there is about all these things. But at the same time, Yasuke’s inner story is what you’re meant invest in, not how mechs can exist in a Feudal era with sorcerers. Those aspects are just set dressing; incredible set dressing at that, but still servicing the smaller story. And that’s probably my only complaint. 

This Yasuke Anime Series Review Would’ve Been Perfect With More World Building

Yasuke anime series review Samurai. Image via Netflix.

While I understand that the series is aptly about Yasuke, and it’s a personal story set against this massive world, I wanted more of the world. The mish-mash of ancient Japan, magic Shamans, and sorcerers along with advanced technological, and potentially sentient robots needed more explanation. Besides a throwaway line about the technology being acquired from conquest, Yasuke doesn’t provide that. I would love to know how this fusion of mystical and machine came together. How old world met the new world to create this never-before-seen potpourri of awesome.

Given that Yasuke is also a personal story, the pacing at times is lacking. While the show does a great job of blending the slow character moments with requisite action set pieces, there are still long stretches of quiet. Which doesn’t sit too well against the more interesting backdrop; at least for this reviewer. 

The Voice Cast Is Top Notch

Yasuke anime series review Intro Image via Netflix.

Yasuke is voiced by LaKeith Stanfield who is incredible. Very rarely do voice actors really stand out unless it’s an existing famous celebrity. Whereas Stanfield, through his voice acting alone, can portray two different versions of the same character from past to present. The older Yasuke is very much tired with the world, while the younger one is strong, idealistic and energized. Stanfield is able to play both through just voice alone, and it enhances the series so much more. Complimenting him is Ming-Na Wen in a significant role as Natsumaru. 

Yasuke is a commendable addition to Netflix’s ever-expanding anime library. And it’s truly one of a kind. It’s an anime that is very loyal to the tone and atmosphere of old-world Japan, while still successfully blending more fantasy elements into that setting. 

The Yasuke anime series is now streaming on Netflix. 

How did you feel about this slower and more contemplative anime series from Netflix? Let me know in the comments below.

Featured image via Netflix. 

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Shah Shahid is an entertainment writer, movie critic (so he thinks), host of the Split Screen Podcast (on Apple Podcasts & everywhere else) and filmy father on a mission to educate his girls on decades of film history. Armed with uncontrollable sarcasm and cautious optimism, Shah loves discussing film, television and comic book content until his wife’s eyes glaze over. So save her by engaging him on his own blog at BlankPageBeatdown.com or on Twitter @theshahshahid.

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