Entertainment

Netflix's 'Yasuke' Is a Fascinating Historial Anime With Distracting Sci-Fi Elements

The story of the first Black samurai, voiced by LaKeith Stanfield, needed to dig more into its own main character.

Netflix
Netflix
Netflix

The surprising subject of the latest Netflix anime is the real-life historical figure Yasuke, known as the first Black samurai, an African servant-turned-samurai recruited by Japanese feudal lord Oda Nobunaga in the 16th century. The show offers a fascinating take on an enigmatic and famous figure in Japanese history, but unfortunately, it also gets diluted with fantastical sci-fi window dressing that ends up distracting from the emotional journey of the titular character.

The series picks up 20 years after Yasuke, voiced by LaKeith Stanfield who also serves as a producer, abandoned the way of the samurai following the death of daimyo Oda Nobunaga. (For more on Nobunaga’s violent mission to reunite Japan, watch Netflix’s recent historical docuseries Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan.) Yasuke is forced to pick up his sword again in order to safely deliver a young girl to a special doctor, all the while protecting her from the mercenaries and armies that are after her for her special powers. Though Yasuke’s life is surrounded by mystery, the anime isn’t really interested in filling in the gaps. Creator and series director LeSean Thomas, who previously made Netflix’s Cannon Busters, plays out the backstory of the main character through superficial flashbacks that are short and to the point. Where those interested in a more biographical anime may be disappointed by that, the series does a good-enough job of servicing the present story of Yasuke grappling with the loss of his mentor and the role he played in his suicide.Where the flashbacks do serve a bigger purpose is in creating a poignant juxtaposition between how Yasuke is treated when under the protection of his lord, and how commoners treat him when in anonymity. Whether it’s comments from jealous military commanders alluding to his background as a slave, or subtle stares by people on the streets of a small town, the anime doesn’t shy away from making alienation and othering a key aspect of Yasuke and the day-to-day life of its main character. Stanfield shoulders much of the show’s emotional weight, giving a reserved and subdued performance, one that doesn’t bring Yasuke’s torment to the surface but trudges in his resigned world-weariness and feelings of guilt over his past. As Kambole Campbell wrote for Cartoon Brew, the more fantastical elements like the robots and demons “serve a thematic purpose, emphasizing the absurdity that people treat Yasuke, and not these other outlandish characters, with suspicion.”

Indeed, this is one of the most unique aspects of Yasuke, and what makes it such a push forward for the medium. Sure, we’ve had Black characters in anime before, but the track record hasn’t been great when it comes to non-caricature portrayals. Yasuke not only treats its Black protagonist as a complex character, but it makes sure to pay attention to how the world reacts to Yasuke because of the colour of his skin, and how he reacts in response. When a Jesuit priest arrives in a small town accusing Yasuke of murder, the townspeople are quick to believe him, a foreigner, despite having lived with Yasuke for years. No one bats an eye at the giant robot blasting ice beams out of his hands, but everyone stares at the Black man just minding his own business.

Unfortunately, the magical and sci-fi parts of the show don’t serve much beyond a pretty-looking gimmick. We’ve had anime combine period pieces with fantasy and sci-fi before with shows like Samurai 7, or even the supernatural sci-fi epic reimagination of the life of Alexander the Great, Reign: The Conqueror, but at least those shows explored the ramifications of magic and the supernatural in their worlds. Yasuke features astral planes, sorcerers, and even giant robots, but it doesn’t seem like it matters in this world. Other than showing the use of magic during a historical battle, there’s no indication that the world would be any different or that history would have changed with the existence of robots or magic (or why all other technology remains the same).

Netflix
Netflix
Netflix

Still, even if it’s superfluous, the show looks great. Acclaimed anime studio MAPPA, who recently tackled the smash hit Jujutsu Kaisen and the highly anticipated final season of Attack on Titan, infuses Yasuke with fast-paced and energetic action. Sadly, some of the bigger battle sequences become a mishmash of ill-defined mechas and sorcerers shooting magic beams that make it hard to follow what’s going on, with the CG characters looking weightless and detached. Far better are the one-on-one sword fights, which don’t reach the levels of fluidity or choreography of something like Jujutsu Kaisen, but still make for a compelling and at times even meditative action anime full of gory decapitations.

Still, the score composed by Grammy-nominated producer Flying Lotus, especially the title track made in collaboration with Thundercat, mixes traditional Japanese instruments with soothing synths as well as hip hop to create a sound we normally don’t hear in anime, but which perfectly fits the blend between the fantastical and the historical in Yasuke.

Making a show about such an enigmatic yet fascinating figure like Yasuke is a daunting task, so one can forgive the writers and directors for wanting to combine everything they grew up loving into one show. At its worst, Yasuke feels like a golden opportunity tarnished by distractions that take away from what already makes it unique. At its best, Yasuke is an anime that pushes the envelope in terms of representation and the type of stories told in animation. Even if we don’t get more episodes or another story about the Black samurai, Yasuke repeatedly makes the case for its existence, and more episodes and stories like it.

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Rafael Motamayor is a contributor to Thrillist.

Entertainment

Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.

Victoria

Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.

Queensland

BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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