LaKeith Stanfield voices the Black samurai Yasuke.

A Study in Distractions — “Yasuke”

“Yasuke” is based on an African man who came to Japan with Jesuit traders. His circumstances and position are unclear, and the show refers to him as a “servant” at this point. Once in Japan, he entered the service of legendary warlord Nobunaga, and became a samurai. That’s about where the anime’s historical accuracy ends.

This isn’t necessarily a problem – the series dives into a fantasy battle from the opening scene. Giant robots lay waste to soldiers as sorcerers conjure devastating attacks in response. It lets you know that “Yasuke” isn’t really going to be recounting history.

Most of “Yasuke” takes place after Yasuke himself has gone into hiding. It’s 20 years later and he’s known as the “Black boatman”. He takes people up and down the river and fishes along the way. Traumatized by his time in battle, he spends his free time drinking or sleeping. He’s charged with taking a girl upriver to see a doctor. Needless to say, things go haywire from there.

The problem with the show rests in its world-building. There’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to incorporating anime cliches. That’s fun at first, but becomes increasingly overwhelming and distracting. It’s a six episode series and outside of two fight scenes, Yasuke himself has nothing to do outside of drink or be tortured for the first three episodes.

For a show ostensibly created to celebrate a Black samurai, it feels frustrating. He certainly wasn’t the only Black person in Japan at the time, but he’s the only one we know of who broke through its considerable racism and achieved such high social status in a very hierarchical military culture. In those first three episodes, we get flashbacks where Yasuke trains, fights, and discusses honor and loyalty. Those flashbacks are great. The storyline that takes place in the present, however, mostly sees him drink and get tortured.

There may’ve been more for him to do, but the show is too intent on shoveling in trope after trope that don’t have to do with him. Like I said, it’s fun to recognize them at first. Yet none of them are contextualized or even very consistent. You see, the Mongols invaded Japan using giant robots, forcing Japan to adopt the tech as their own to defend themselves, except giant robots are sometimes magical constructs and sometimes technological ones, and sometimes mecha operated by a pilot and sometimes not, and who knows which and does any of it matter because I’m not sure even the show knows.

And then there’s a werewolf, and then there’s an African sorcerer, and then there’s a wise-cracking robot, and then there’s a woman with a scythe who’s maybe a mecha pilot one time in the fifth episode, and then they work for an agent of the Catholic Church who’s a mutant with biomass powers but he also has electric powers and oh! he can also can turn his mouth into that series of teeth that the worms from “Dune” have, and then the Daimyo is an evil psychic spider, and then there’s a Dark Samurai infused with powers that do something, but he glows purple real well, and then there’s astral projection, and then, and then, and then.

With each new “and then”, I got excited about how brimming the world was with the intersections of all these things, until I realized none really mattered. None were ever filled in. Their presence in the world isn’t given reason. They’re all present, for no particular reason. The voice cast does a good job with these characters, but the writing needed to have fewer of them or provide them more substance.

The series details Yasuke’s past in beautiful ways for three episodes, and LaKeith Stanfield does some great work as a young, idealistic Yasuke and a burnt out, traumatized older one. There are nuances of the character that carry through, but a worldview that’s been damaged. It’s a good thing Stanfield does this level of work, because the rest of the show doesn’t. It weaves his story in the present in such a way that sidelines Yasuke in exchange for world-building. That’s fine, but then that world-building doesn’t mean anything. Nothing is shaped out of it. It’s good for a few meta one-liners, but many of them fall flat and they aren’t central enough to build into something larger. We’ve traded Yasuke and his story for a pile-on of elements the show never treats as very important.

For the first three episodes, “Yasuke” relies on balancing his arc in the past against his arc in the present, without ever giving him an arc in the present beyond getting drunk and being tortured. It hardly feels like a celebration or recognition of him, but even if these aren’t what we’re looking for, what is given us feels needlessly counter-productive and cruel.

The last three episodes leave the flashbacks behind and progress the current story. Here, Yasuke has considerably more agency and the show capitalizes on those flashbacks in some resonant ways. I really wish the series had found a way to focus on the flashbacks from the first three episodes, and the present-tense storyline from the last three episodes, with all that wasted time in the first three episodes cut down.

But it’s an action anime, I’m taking it too seriously? Sure, but the lack of context and consistency saturates the action scenes. Let’s take the good first: the sword fights themselves are stylish and communicate in a way that makes following them feel easy. We can watch Yasuke fight, dodge, counter, and then follow the movement of his sword all the way through to someone’s head being chopped off, the camera spinning around the world in relation. There’s a groundedness and great sense of choreography – particularly for what anime enables our POV to follow in a cogent way.

Then comes the robot. The fight and chase scenes he’s involved in have very little geography. Characters fly around in ways that completely lose the viewer’s sense of direction and strategy. If we can’t follow what the pursued and pursuing are thinking and why they take a certain action, then it doesn’t matter how many energy blasts you’ve got, the scene lacks consequence. Of course, anime has a long history of abstracting fight scenes so that geography disappears altogether, and this can be really striking – but this doesn’t describe the approach here. Instead, these are grounded fights and chases – they just aren’t done well.

This also expands into the battle scenes, where landscape and geographical features are only included once they’re needed for a plot point. You’re ambushing from the forest? I guess there was a convenient forest on both sides of their army the whole time, OK. You’re blasting through a chunk of mountain to bring an army in? OK, so there was mountain there the whole time, I guess. The more elements a fight, chase, or battle includes, the more the sense of “and then, and then, and then” takes over.

Many may show up for the music, and it is by far the show’s standout strength. The electronic/hip hop artist Flying Lotus designs an expressive landscape of yearning synths and soft yet driving drum hits. There are moments that are reminiscent of Vangelis’s work in “Blade Runner”, but Flying Lotus also shifts easily into a unique blend of hauntology, hip hop, and Japanese instrumentation that often rises toward heroic darkwave themes for the fights. There are even clever synth callbacks to Ennio Morricone in moments of stand-off and rising tension. I don’t know how much I’d recommend the show, but the score has an argument as one of the best ever made for a series. It does so much heavy lifting that I think it kept the show’s emotion alive for me after the rest of it had already burned through my patience.

The animation is a mixed bag because it’s often sabotaged by editing decisions. Japanese studio MAPPA do some really detailed work, with early backgrounds of Yasuke’s village standing out as beautiful. The presentations of astral projection and sorcery are well done, with a sense of impact and consequence. There are some towering moments of otherworldly weirdness with the show’s big bad.

That brings us to the robots/constructs/mecha, which can be impressive when they’re actually shown in relation to characters, but are often isolated to their own shots that don’t relate to the battle, fight, or chase scene at hand. I don’t mean to double down on criticizing the robot element here – I was excited at its inclusion at first – but the show never defines any element of how they function or intersect in a fight, while relying on them in half the fights. Worse yet, it leans on cutting to them in isolation or in a completely different area. They’re not linked up to an element of the action scene where the viewer is already anchored, so whatever they do ends up being confusing until one of the characters notices, ‘oh hey, they just did xyz’ or you catch up and just figure it yourself. There’s a reason the trailers avoid showing most of the sci-fi elements: they just don’t work.

Character designs can feel like they come from different eras, which should be a strength but can also stress the sense of wanting more context and world-building from all the different elements crammed together. There are also a few times scenes feel missing, where a character just Hudson Hawks from one place in one scene into a completely different place in the next without the interstitial scripting that connects them.

Would I recommend “Yasuke”? I’m fifty-fifty. The symbolism’s strong in a lot of moments. Then it gets distracted by one-liners, many of which don’t work or are overly familiar. The flashback story of the first three episodes is strong, with a genuine sense of character and texture that made me want to see this element expanded. The last three episodes feel a bit rushed and could have supported more meat to this part of the story, but they’re overall good.

On the other hand, that sense of being rushed only makes me more frustrated with all the wasted time in the present-tense story of the first three episodes. Even as the show got more consistent in its final episodes, I felt like my patience had already been wasted. I wasn’t sure if I was finishing the show because I wanted to see what happened, or because I’d already invested an hour-and-a-half and figured I may as well finish the last hour-and-a-half. I’m glad I finished it, but its early misfires also made me bristle any time I felt the series was getting distracted or focusing on unexplained, throwaway characters again.

The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach isn’t a bad one. I’ve enjoyed it in series and movies that are far worse than this, so why didn’t I enjoy it here? If I’ve defended “Vagrant Queen” or “Flash Gordon”, how can I possibly criticize something that is more artful and substantive like “Yasuke”? Those may be worse, but they didn’t lose the thread of their stories or characters. They didn’t sideline their stories and characters in ways that wasted viewers’ time.

“Yasuke” doesn’t ground the huge range of elements it wants to throw in, it just keeps throwing more in. Neither does it pursue something abstracted, surreal, or meta enough to use these elements as texture on which you can imprint larger meanings. There are a lot of anime series that handle such a wide range of elements in more directed ways than this. They may not always have the elements of social consciousness that “Yasuke” has, but even when “Yasuke” brings them up, it can’t focus on them very long when a robot needs to deliver a one-liner you’ve heard 20 times before. At the same time, it’s not like there are many anime series entrusted to Black creators like LeSean Thomas, and that representation gives the series an off-the-screen importance that other shows lack.

“Yasuke” has good characters, some good action, and phenomenal music, but with incredibly inconsistent and distracted storytelling. Countless elements are thrown in, a lot of them with writing that doesn’t hold up to the standard of the writing of the main characters. There’s no sense of consistency to the things that establish consequence. Some scenes arrive without context, powers are all over the place, and even the features and geography of a battle will change as the plot suddenly requires the landscape to be different for something new to happen. Moderate distances are too great to travel one minute, while great distances are then traversed in no time when the series realizes it only has 30 minutes to wrap things up.

None of this is enough to topple “Yasuke”, which is borderline shocking and speaks to how good certain elements like the music, acting, and much of the animation are. Yet the series never feels very steady either. There’s a story here that it wants to tell, and that’s fun to see, but there are so many distractions and excesses that it feels like Thomas is often more interested in these than in the core plot and hero…and that risks us following the storyteller’s lead and becoming less interested in the plot and hero, too. All that we’re left with is those distractions, which aren’t going to hold our attention. When the show finally does get more interested in Yasuke, his agency, and his story, I couldn’t feel comfortable putting that initial trust and emotional investment back into it all.

You can watch “Yasuke” on Netflix.

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