When you get a dream team together, the hope is that you’ll get something exceptional. Lakeith Stanfield is a promising talent who has been showing his skill in performances for years. Lesean Thomas is a writer and producer with an excellent pedigree. Flying Lotus is an extremely talented musician. Together the three should be able to make something incredible with Yasuke, their new Netflix series. Unfortunately, the whole of the package does not completely match the sum of its parts.
Focusing on a black samurai in 17th century Japan, Yasuke sees its titular warrior through several sections of his life. While the show begins with a massive battle and a searing loss, Yasuke is next seen as a boatsman, leaving the viewer to wonder what occurred between. As a storytelling technique, this is fine, but it seems to be that this anime could have really benefited from taking a bit more time to establish itself.
The first few minutes alone raise so many questions that you might find yourself completely disoriented by them. What appears to be a normal military conflict immediately becomes something puzzling, with purple skies, unexplained magic, and mechs suddenly thrown into the fray. That last addition is the most baffling of all, as a mech appears as a central character early on — a fact that no one in this world comments on or seems surprised by — even though this story takes place over 300 years ago.
Now, it’s clear from the jump that Yasuke is meant to be an alternate version of history, and that’s totally reasonable. However, a more faithful version of this story might have made more sense and made for a better show. Yasuke was a real person, and his story is downright fascinating. It could have made for a really cool anime even without all of the typical shonen trappings
Instead, what Yasuke delivers is a world that lacks clarity. The central struggle of the anime is that of Yasuke and a young girl he must protect as he ferries her to her destination. Soon, though, the two are accosted by a team of superhuman enemies. One can turn into a bear; another is a robot. We are offered little explanation for how they came to be or where they got these powers, and, again, no one seems surprised by them.
Further, character motivations seem to be unclear at best, bending and bowing to the conveniences and contrivances of the plot at every turn. A central villain is set up as “seeking power to stop a war in his country.” He’s a Catholic priest, though. Not to suggest that the Vatican has never been involved in conflicts before, they absolutely have. It’s just we’re never given any more information about this character before he abruptly leaves the story.
This pattern follows throughout Yasuke. Characters arrive and leave the show with little fanfare, and some seem to disappear into the background along the way. Again, it’s worth mentioning that the plot, with its many characters and motivations, would probably have been improved greatly by taking a bit more time to tell this story. As it stands, things sometimes move so fast that viewers will find themselves gobsmacked. A couple of times, I went back to previous episodes to see if I missed something, only to find that my memory was correct.
Another example of this comes later in the story, where a group introduced as a small resistance suddenly appears to have thousands of soldiers behind it with no explanation. These abrupt shifts and changes make the story feel hastily thrown together, something not to Yasuke‘s advantage in a medium well known for taking its time to properly set up a story before delivering the epic punch-ups that follow.
Still, despite its uneven storytelling, Yasuke does boast some strengths. The music from Flying Lotus gives the show a unique flavor from other anime, and the main theme song is boss as hell. Yasuke is also animated by MAPPA, the studio responsible for the thrilling Jujutsu Kaisen and the latest season of Attack on Titan. Naturally, this means the quality of the animation is jaw-dropping, a major boon for the show.
Finally, there’s Lakeith Stanfield. A fantastic actor, Stanfield might have nonetheless benefited from some more direction as a vocal performer. He doesn’t seem to be giving it his all here as Yasuke sometimes comes across as wooden, and his emotions can be hard to assert through the performance.
Thus Yasuke feels like a middling effort, even with all of the influences and trappings that should make for a classic anime series. However, with an open ending, maybe a second season could make for a more compelling and evenly keeled show. As it stands, Yasuke falls short of greatness in its first season, and the anime ends up disappointing as a result.