Yasuke: Culture, Tradition and Identity

•May 1, 2021 • Leave a Comment

I binged the entirety of the 6 episode Netflix Original Anime Series Yasuke yesterday from famed Director LeSean Thomas (Legend of Korra, Canon Busters, The Boondocks). I went into the show with pretty tame expectations mostly because of the interview he had with Anime News Network in which he said “This show is largely for casuals, you know what I mean? Just full disclosure, and I might get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t make anime for hardcore anime fans. It’s not a slight against hardcore anime fans. Hardcore anime fans already know what they like.” suffice to say, it was much better than I expected and had a lot more anime-esque tropes for a causal experience than I thought.

It merged Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Classical Samurai Action, it also had its fair share of extended limbs and tentacle like monsters which would feel right at home in the classic 80’s early 90’s OVAs that made anime popular back in the day. This rendition of the Yasuke is not an attempt at a Biopic style retelling of the adventures that the Black Samurai went through, but more of an attempt at divulging into what it must have been like for him to live through that experience in a fantasy universe with mystical powers and advanced AI Mechs.

The old meets the new and the traditional merges with the contemporary both in genre and in the story telling aspect of the show. Yasuke, is a former servant turned Samurai for Oda Nobunaga himself at the height of his powers and quest to unite Japan. This version of Nobunaga values honor, strength and loyalty above all else. He is also quite progressive, apart from Yasuke he also has a female commanding officer in his ranks. He forgoes tradition to focus on his ultimate goal of uniting Japan around this progressive banner. Some older ranking officials of his army do not approve of Nobunaga’s liberal ways and lament the fact that they may be stuck in the past.

One of the things I found remarkable about the show is how it didn’t shy away from the issue of race and cultural integration. When we are first introduced to our protagonist, after his first big fight, Nobunaga asks that he takes a bath, assuming that his darker skin may be dirt. he also asks for his name to which he responds with “Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloi”, Nobunaga incapable of pronouncing his name opts to give him the name Yasuke, the name by which History now remembers him. Its a little bit sad and funny that this practice still exists to this day. BIPOC are keen enough to learn the names of people from various cultures but the same level of courtesy is often not reciprocated. A very recent example would be British actress with Zimbabwean roots Thandiwe Newton who for her entire career had gone by Thandie.

Taking advantage of the fantasy and sci-fi setting Yasuke has a very diverse cast of supporting characters which includes a werebear lady who seems to come from Eastern Europe, A shaman from Benin and the comic relief character of the show my personal favourite, an AI prototype robot. At one point in the series one of the antagonists, a cultist priest from western Europe uses Yasuke’s identity as a black man to get the people of his community to rally against him. Stoking the flame of his “otherness” to separate him from the community he had spent the latter half of his life assimilating into.

This mish mash of cultures within the storytelling, genre and characters and visuals is accompanied by a beautiful hip hop/electronic soundtrack from producer Flying Lotus. The music in the show is what stand out the most and it really comes into its own during the action sequences. As an audience we are accustomed to hearing particular kinds of scores related to Samurai Action or Mecha Anime, so when Flying Lotus’ chillhop beats drop during an intense sword fight, it sticks out just as much a Black Samurai would in feudal Japan.

Yasuke was a fun show that Im not entirely sure I would place in the casual anime for starters section of my library. The ease of access thanks to Netflix and the marketing may help it along though.

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•June 23, 2020 • Enter your password to view comments.

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