(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Series: Yasuke
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: A Black ronin finds himself tasked with protecting a young girl in a fantasy-tinged, alt-history version of 16th-century feudal Japan.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: It features the inimitable LaKeith Stanfield voicing an African samurai. It’s a loose blend of real Japanese history with magic, mechs, mercenaries, and monsters. Flying Lotus provides the music. What more do you need?
Yasuke was a real historical figure, possibly the first Black man that the influential daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) Oda Nobunaga had ever seen. In a flashback to 1579, we see Yasuke clean-shaven, wearing an Elizabethan collar in a port during the Nanban trade period. This is that window of time before Japan went isolationist and confined trade with the Europeans to the island of Dejima in Nagasaki, as seen in Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
In point of fact, Yasuke comes to Japan as the slave of a Jesuit missionary, but he saves a young boy’s life and impresses Nobunaga, becoming his loyal retainer until the lord’s seppuku (ritual suicide) in the Honno-ji Incident in 1582. Here, the samurai general and assassin who prompted Nobunaga’s seppuku, Akechi Mitsuhide, is reframed as the Dark General.
The Dark General is a being of mystical powers who commands an army of rabbity mechs and possessed warriors with glowing eyes. It’s just one of the many imaginative flourishes that creator LeSean Thomas uses to bring Yasuke’s story to life in a hyper-stylized way.
Years after his lord’s death, Stanfield’s character has become a bearded boatman known as Yassan. He ferries people down the river alongside a mountain village and is now the classic self-interested ronin à la Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo. Soon, he receives the call to adventure, as heroes tend to do. And what an adventure this is: like nothing I had ever seen, and nothing you are likely to have read about in any books of Japanese history without crazy anime demons.
Though I live in Japan, I don’t have the same frame of reference for anime as, say, Rafael Motomayor, who writes our Ani-time Ani-where column. I know my Ghibli and Akira and Evangelion and whatnot, but compared to some hardcore fans, I’ve only really skimmed the surface of the wide world of anime that’s out there.
Dubbing can be dubious; when you’re choosing an audio setting, it’s sometimes a case of go Japanese or go home. A Japanese studio, MAPPA, does animate Yasuke, and Thomas is based in Tokyo; but he’s originally from the Bronx in New York City.
English is the original language for Yasuke, so you can safely watch it without English subtitles and not feel like anything is being lost in translation. Short and sweet at six episodes, this is one Japanese-American anime series that is worth a watch. Say yes to Yasuke.
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