Not a lot to say about Netflix’s “Yasuke”

Sorry that there wasn’t a review last week. I was very busy and very tired. But let’s jump straight into this week’s review.

I am a goddamn sucker for the found family trope, especially the “Badass Adoptive Father” trope. Like I just love the idea of a master assassin or former soldier just suddenly being like,

“Yes. This is my child now.”

So, I was pretty excited when I heard that was going to be the focus of Yasuke; I was a little less excited about the sci-fi/fantasy setting the world was in, but whatever. And I couldn’t believe it. I ended up liking the mish-mashed world more than the relationship between the titular Yasuke and the super-powered Saki.

Which isn’t that hard, to be honest. I felt like the series was too focused on spectacle rather than actual characterization.

The series takes place in an alternate 16th century Japan; there’s magic and robots. But the main character is the very real historical figure, Yasuke, a former slave turned samurai who fought under Oda Nobunaga. 

Years later, he is retired and living in a small village – and is then tasked with taking the ill Saki to a mysterious doctor. On their journey, Yasuke has to confront his past so they can defeat the Daimyo.

It’s….a lot. And none of it really works in my opinion.

A Fantastic Mess

So, this series takes place in the 16th century but there’s magic and mechas? It sounds cool and looks cool – but it just doesn’t work. I haven’t seen that many shows combine these ideas so ostentatiously. I accepted it; suspension of disbelief and there’s no way to accept the narrative without acknowledging the basic premise.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I think this idea could work; but for me, Yasuke doesn’t do it. Like only the bad guys have robots? But there’s no electricity for most people? No trains?  No cell phones? No cars? I have so many questions about how this world works.

The robots are obviously just a “rule of cool” kind of thing. The magic shit with werebears, telekinesis, and all that – fine. That’s fine.

I can buy the magic existing and the world not being too different. But I can’t buy magic and advanced technology existing and then having most of 16th century Japan be 16th century Japan.

If there are hyper-intelligent robots, why did the slave trade even happen? Yasuke was enslaved by the Jesuits – that’s a basic premise of the story but historically speaking — the advancement of technology helped lead to the end of the slave trade….

I’m definitely overthinking this. I know from research that the producer LeSean Thomas didn’t want to do a straight-up biopic because other samurai had their own fantasy series.

I am probably being too hard on this. I probably am overthinking the implications of technology at this time. I know I’m not supposed to be thinking about it. I wish I could turn that part of my brain off.

But to be fair this isn’t a real criticism of the series – more just my views on world-building and setting. I can see that people would think this is awesome – but at the end of the day – it’s just really not my thing.

The Many Styles of “Yasuke.”

The show has a very distinct style which I appreciate, even if I don’t like it. The animation, at the very least for the mouths, is odd. It looks like it was dubbed into English – when I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. The mouths simply aren’t moving right.

And it bothered me during the whole season. Especially since I don’t know if this was a purposeful choice or just…bad animating because I’m pretty sure the series was written in English.

However, a distinctive element I found very interesting though was the music. The musician Steven Ellison, AKA Flying Lotus, was one of the executive producers for the anime. He composed the soundtrack for the entire anime. Which is impressive. 

According to interviews, Flying Lotus stated that he went for a “more synthesizer-inspired sound mixed with Japanese percussion, African percussion, and hip-hop elements.”

This gives the music a very anachronistic feel – which works well with its mishmashed fantasy-sci-fi setting. He could have gone with jazz or hip-hop style alone, but I’m glad he didn’t. I don’t think it would have stood out quite as much or gone along as well with the setting.

It’s important that this is a distinctively Black story and that the series has Black people involved in every step. Because ultimately, Yasuke is a Black story. I know there’s a huge community of Black people who love anime and have their own culture surrounding it – and fthis is probably the first time there’s been an African main protagonist in an anime series.

So obviously it represents something very important to Black anime fans.

I understand the stylistic choices and I think they’re good for the story they were trying to tell -but I don’t know if I like it. It’s one of those things that’s good, but not really for me. But there are parts I have to objectively criticize.

The character designs aren’t bad; certainly, they don’t all look like they belong in the same show – but it isn’t egregious. I didn’t like Saki’s design though; I feel like they went  too far into giving her that “sweet innocent look.” The pink clothes, the doe-like eyes…for some reason it bothers me. 

Fatales Femmes 

There are quite a few female characters in the series – but most of them…are villains. Nothing wrong with a good female villain but when the majority of your female characters are sexualized villainesses and your lone female protagonist is an idealized young girl -that’s an issue.

Like they couldn’t bother to make Saki a real character, with real wants, desires, and needs. Instead, she’s more of a human MacGuffin, only existing to get Yasuke into the adventure and to make her sympathetic.

Saki could honestly be replaced with a non-verbal Grogu-like character and not a lot would change plot-wise. Hell – Grogu is a more interesting character than Saki. Because Saki isn’t a fully-developed character she and Yasuke never really seem to connect. When they do bond, it seems to come out of nowhere with no development.

But that’s nothing compared to how the other female characters get treated in this series. Because even though there are quite a few, there are some major issues.

I like the variety in the assassins and how it turns out the Daimyo is also a woman – but honestly, none of them really get any characterization either. I couldn’t tell you anything about the Daimyo other than they seem to be the personification of evil, and basically, nothing about the assassins other than their loyalty is to money.

Even then – I don’t understand why they all chose to sacrifice themselves for Yasuke and Saki. It was said they were promised more money – but I don’t understand why they suddenly;y had a change of heart.

Like – why sacrifice yourselves for these people?

It just doesn’t make sense to me. Like everyone except Yasuke is underdeveloped in this show. And that’s just not exciting. The fighting and battles weren’t enough to make up for it in my opinion.

The show has a lot of flash and pizzaz but it didn’t really leave me satisfied.

I can see why people would enjoy this series. There are a lot of cool things about it – and I know many who would like the mishmash historic setting. It’s just not for me. Factors like the sexism, weird voice acting, and lip movements were definitely things that I couldn’t ignore.

I’m glad Yasuke is becoming a more popular figure in pop culture – because he has a truly interesting story. And it’s good that he’s being celebrated like this. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want a more historically accurate biopic version of his story. Preferably animated, but I will take an Akira Kurosawa style samurai film too.

If they can make that another found family trope – even better.

And that’s the scoop.


Grade:  C+


Year of release: 2021

Length: 6 episodes, 28-30 minutes

Producer: Matthew Shattuck

Directors: LeSean Thomas, Takeru Satou

Story by: LeSean Thomas, Flying Lotus

Screenplay by: Nick Jones Jr, Alex Larsen

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