Animation allows for a wide variety of stories to be told, even those that have been largely forgotten by history. Using the medium, artists can tell the stories of old in all-new ways that engage audiences and encourages them to learn more about the world they live in.
While this is a great phenomenon, the qualities of said stories can vary. Unfortunately, Netflix’s “Yasuke,” while having gorgeous scenery, powerful music, and some of the best action I’ve seen in recent anime, fails to deliver a memorable story or memorable characters that can do the original Black samurai story justice.
Based on the historical figure of the same name, the story takes place in a fantasy version of feudal Japan, Yasuke, who was once a samurai under the care of warlord Oda Nobunaga, has secluded himself in a small town after a huge battle that cost hundreds of lives, including Nobunaga’s.
However, when a sickly town girl, Saki, is revealed to have magical powers of some kind, he reluctantly decides to take her to a faraway doctor in order to discover what exactly she is capable of. When mercenaries start coming after Yasuke and Saki, Yasuke must delve into his past to remember the obstacles he faced while being a samurai and how he overcame them in order to face the trials ahead.
If one was to judge “Yasuke” on its looks and sounds, it is hands down a masterpiece. The show has some of the best animation and art styles I have ever seen from any anime, especially in combat scenes. Animation studio MAPPA (Yuri!!! On Ice, Kakegurui) has outdone itself with this show. Never is there a moment when the show does not look beautiful, both in moments of calm and in high-tension action scenes. When swords are being swung and wars are being fought, movements are fluid and easy to follow without the cost of momentum.
These are hands down some of the best battles I have seen in anime, and they should be taken as an example of how to handle sword fights in the future. When things are more mellow and the show takes time to breathe, the settings are all beautiful, whether in vast landscapes or inside a shamanistic temple.
There is plenty of visual flair in “Yasuke,” which is only furthered by the score, composed by producer Flying Lotus. The lo-fi music featured throughout the show is always perfect for the moods the show tries to get across, with “Black Gold,” the opening, being a song that gives off vibes of reflection and evolution, much like the show tries to get across.
Unfortunately, “Yasuke” does not have the characters or writing to back up the distinct style of the animation and music give the show. This first season only has six episodes, and it absolutely feels like it. The entire plot feels too short and rushed, with barely any elements being explored and a lack of development for the cast outside of their main arcs. The pacing saves all of the major events for the latter half of the season, which means that for around three episodes, it feels like barely anything is happening even if things are.
I found it hard to care for any of the characters’ plights from start to finish because from my perspective, the show was just going through the motions and trying to force its entire narrative into its short runtime rather than letting things happen naturally.
Moreover, when the writing is bad, a show can hope to still keep afloat with its voice acting. When it comes to LaKeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah, Sorry to Bother You) as Yasuke however, the show is sadly very hit-or-miss. Stanfield is obviously a very talented actor, as shown by his Best Supporting Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. Nevertheless, the skillset needed for live-action acting does not always translate well to animation, as there are different standards and expectations between the two mediums.
Stanfield is clearly trying to go for a mellow and disillusioned route with his take on Yasuke, but with the other voices around him being somewhat overexaggerated (as is tradition with anime), his delivery feels flat at times, especially in moments where his voice clashes with Yasuke’s on-screen expressions. In moments of energy, he does well at handling himself; whenever he acts reflective or hesitant to pick up the sword, however, his lines feel monotone.
That is not to say the show itself has bad voice acting. In fact, several side characters are very engaging to watch thanks to their voices, from the secretive Natsumaru, voiced by Ming-Na Wen (Mulan, The Mandalorian), to the oblivious powerhouse that is Haruto, voiced by Darren Criss (Glee, A Very Potter Musical). The supporting cast has just enough of a mix between cartoonish exaggeration and grounded determination to make their characters entertaining to watch, even if they have little time to develop beyond what they are first presented as.
If only the same could be said for Stanfield. There is potential for him to get better if and when Yasuke gets a second season; as it stands, however, the voicework in the show is built on a shaky foundation and is salvaged by smaller strong pillars.
Yasuke is the most prominent example of “style over substance” that I’ve seen in any project to come out of Netflix. The animation is some of the best I’ve seen out of their original programming, and the music is well-constructed to match the scenes within the show, regardless of what emotion is being channeled. It is a shame then that the story and characters blend together in my head, even after having just finished it not too long ago.
With pacing that is both too slow and too fast at times, a hollow ensemble, and iffy voice acting from its lead, Yasuke feels like it had an ambitious vision but flubbed it when it came to putting pen to paper. There is potential if the show is to continue, but if it wants to be remembered fondly, it needs more breathing room to tell its story and a more engaged-sounding performance from Stanfield. Otherwise, it risks being lost in the fold of Netflix’s animation lineup, which is not something Yasuke, both the historical figure and the show, deserve.
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