Over the past few years, Netflix has been ramping up its anime vaults with old classics for fans of the beloved Japanese animation style; subscribers can watch anything from Naruto to Hunter x Hunter at any moment. Yasuke, the newest original anime offering from Netflix, will tackle the genre from a fascinating new perspective, blending fantasy and history to tell the story of Japan's first Black samurai.
Yasuke follows the extraordinary redemption story of Yasuke (voiced by Lakeith Stanfield), a lonely and wandering samurai who discovers his purpose when he crosses paths with a young girl gifted with supernatural powers. Together, he and his powerful mentee encounter frightening enemies, each new fight unlocking a level of strength neither of them knew they had.
It's your standard anime fare — an Odyssean journey, epic fight sequences, and lots of bloodshed — but told through a unique vantage point because Yasuke is Black. His experience in 16th century feudal Japan is shaped by his Blackness, marked by microaggressions ("Did you tattoo your whole body?") and blatant, in your face racism ("A person like you will never be anything more than a servant!").
The plot of Yasuke is actually inspired by and loosely based on the true story of Yasuke, the first Black samurai in Japan. Historical accounts of his life (laid out in detail in Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Giraud's African Samurai: The True Story of a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan) reveal that Yasuke was born somewhere in East Africa (possibly Mozambique or Sudan) in the early 1500s before being trafficked and forced into slavery in India. There, he be trained to become a soldier and expert fighter until being hired to serve as a bodyguard for Jesuit missionaries.
In 1579, Yasuke arrived on the shores of Japan's former capital Kyoto with the missionaries, stunning locals who had never seen a Black person before. Warlord Nobunaga Oda was impressed by Yasuke, believing him to be a god among men, and quickly took a liking to the new arrival; he became a member of Oda's exclusive entourage of soldiers and would fight on behalf of the warlord in local military campaigns for power. As one of Oda's samurai and the first Black samurai, Yasuke gained notoriety and status.
Unfortunately, Yasuke's comfortable position within Oda's ranks wouldn't last long. When the warlord's efforts to increase his power in came to a sudden end in the Battle of Honno-ji Temple, Oda decided to end his own life rather than admit his defeat, invoking the ancient samurai code of honor and impaling himself with his own sword. The death of Oda left Yasuke without a master and a leader, leaving him to wander the country as a ronin. Little to nothing is known of the samurai's last days.
For people who aren't already fans of anime, the idea of diving into the genre might be intimidating. However, creator LeSean Thomas hopes that the fact that Yasuke is based on a real person with a rich, but little-known, legacy will be the draw. Sure, it's a cartoon full of demons, bloodshed, and explorations of the astral plane, but at its core, Yasuke is just a story about a Black man trying to find his own path as an outsider.
"We love fish-out-of-water stories," Thomas explained in conversation with AnimeNewsNetwork.com. "And we just don't really get to see that from a particularly Black lens because of the history of cinema, the history of animation, and where African-Americans were positioned at the beginning of that event at that time, historically."
"I hope that people experience Yasuke as their first anime," Thomas continued. "I want someone to say, 'Yasuke was the first anime I watched. It had the Black Samurai, and it was entertaining! Are there more anime like this?'"
Yasuke is now available for streaming, only on Netflix.