Netflix’s samurai epic which embroiders upon the historical story of an African samurai in feudal Japan impresses with its style.
I give Netflix a third swing at grabbing me with one of their original programs. The movies Stowaway and The Mitchells Vs. The Machines both struck out, so it’s make or break here. Luckily, this ahistorical take on a historical figure swings big. Its fantasy elements and visceral action immediately impressed me, making me think of Yasuke as a love letter to classics like Cowboy Bebop, Ninja Scroll, and Afro Samurai. Hooked by the first episode, I wanted to know if it could keep up the pace and pass our Binge or Purge test.
In feudal Japan, a samurai warrior of African descent living in exile as a simple boatman must return to his life of swords and violence in order to protect a mysterious girl from dark forces.
A (little) History
While not in the least necessary to enjoying the show, I found it fascinating to learn about the historical figure of Yasuke. While his actual name and origins are lost to time, he was a real person, from contemporaneous accounts most likely from Mozambique, traveling with the Portuguese merchants who capitalized on Japan’s fitful opening to trade in the mid 1500’s. He caught the eye of the famous warlord Oda Nobunaga (likely the first black person he and many of his court had ever seen) and eventually recruited him to his court, giving him the Japanese name of Yasuke.
Yasuke was present during some of the most important moments of the era, including many of Nobunaga’s battles to unify the island under his control. He was even present when Nobunaga was betrayed and forced to commit ritual suicide. He rallied to the banner of Nobunaga’s kinsmen and so was present when Nobunaga’s eldest son was likewise defeated. From there he vanishes into legend.
In another bitter disappointment, it was reported that Chadwick Boseman was slated to play a live-action version of Yasuke in a movie before his passing. Man, every day is another reminder of all of the things we lost with his tragic death.
Episode 1: Ronin
20 years after the fall of Oda Nobunaga, Yasuke (LaKeith Stanfield) travels with Ichika and her daughter Saki to take the girl to a special doctor. Yasuke recalls the time he was recruited by Nobunaga. On their journey they are attacked by a group of mercenaries sent by the daimyo to capture Saki for her special powers.
Episode one quickly establishes what kind of tale we’re going to witness. We get the fateful battle at the Honno-Ji temple where Nobunaga made his last stand after a former general turned against him. Both sides employ magic, incredible physical powers, and even giant mech suits. Fantasy it is, then. We also see quite a bit of bloodshed, so the title earns its TV-MA rating.
From there we move forward 20 years and meet the rest of the cast that will fill this arc. There is a young boy desperate to impress Yasuke with his warrior spirit, who happens to be staying with a mysterious singer and her ill daughter. It does a good job of establishing the setting and introducing the characters before ramping back up into a big climax as Yasuke and company are ambushed by super-powered mercenaries. The interlude helps ground the events so we’re not always up to our eyeballs in fantasy elements, and gives some time to learn about Yasuke in flashbacks.
Episode 2: The Old Way
With Ichika missing, Yasuke and Saki return to the village with the mercenaries in pursuit. Yasuke remembers his service to Nobunaga in his goal to unify Japan. Yasuke is soon confronted by the mercenaries after he refuses to hand over Saki.
The second episode is mainly back-fill time for the story, accomplished by more flashbacks. We do get a tavern brawl with Yasuke and the mercs, but its not nearly as expansive as the first episode and the artwork is a bit less dynamic than earlier fights. The flashbacks continue to be the strong point as Yasuke’s adventures with Nobunaga are more epic in nature.
Episode 3: Mortal Sins
Yasuke is falsely accused of murdering Ichika, resulting in him being held and tortured by the man behind the mercenaries, Abraham, while Saki is being tracked down by his forces. Saki’s power grows and she manages to aid Yasuke.
This episode initially left me cold. The mini-boss, Abraham, is a pretty cliched “evil cardinal” character that really doesn’t bring anything interesting to the game. He also always smiles like a creeper. How is anyone ever fooled by these evil priest characters when they always look like the word sadist came to life and put on a frock? Abraham also sidelines the other mercs, who are way more interesting. Likewise, we’re mostly following Saki, as Yasuke is out of commission, and she is likewise a stock anime character who lacks Yasuke’s intrigue.
The second half of the episode is a bit better, though, and saves it. We get another poignant flashback which explains why Yasuke is risking his anonymity for Saki, and showcases his prowess on the battlefield. The final fight with Abraham is lackluster, but does reveal another layer of evil above and beyond him, so it tidily finishes the opening arc while giving a hint at what’s next.
Binge or Purge?
Yasuke is not uniformly great, but it has enough pieces in place that I can see greatness around the corner. The main character is interesting and I like his flashback scenes a lot. The rest of the cast needs work, but the mercenaries are all solid and just as interesting as Yasuke. When the series wants to, it can flash its muscle in both style and action sequences. There’s a lot of things still shrouded in fog, but the bits revealed so far mostly grab my attention.