R E V I E W – A N I M E
Ayaan Shams Siddiquee
As a person who’s been watching anime and writing angry MAL reviews for a while now, a certain bias I seem to have picked up is steering clear of series with the “Netflix Original Anime” tag. Netflix’s collection of original anime tends to be wholly different from traditional Japanese anime — with far more visible capitalisation on flashy trends, curated for a more international audience.
Even so, the trailer and premise of Yasuke intrigued me (yes, I’m a dedicated fan of Vinland Saga, how did you know?) enough to keep it on my radar regardless of the Netflix Original tag. However, calling the series a mere letdown would be an understatement.
Set in feudal Japan in the late 1500s, Yasuke (supposedly) revolves around a real-life figure by the same name, the first and only Black samurai in the history of Japan. The show starts off rather strongly, during the climactic final battle of lord Oda Nobunaga with Yasuke fighting by his side. The untimely betrayal of his general, Akechi Mitsuhide — who is reintroduced later on in the series — led to Nobunaga committing ritual Seppuku (honourary suicide), an event which would haunt Yasuke for years to come.
The post-timeskip period, in which the central story is set in, is a loose depiction of Yasuke’s stoic life as a boatsman 20 years after the war. Things are shaken up when Saki, the secondary lead role in the series, requires “treatment” from a doctor in a different land.
The stark portrayal of the traditional samurai code of honour at the beginning led me to think that the historical depiction in Yasuke may actually be consistent throughout. To my disappointment, the vast majority of the show seemed to dwell on an original and ecstatic plot — devoid of its historical semblance — set in an alternate reality full of irrelevant fantastical elements which were jammed into an already saturated storyline with little-to-no narrative cohesion.
From the get-go, multiple characters were introduced to the story without prior foreshadowing, context, or explanation. None of them were really fleshed out enough to impose any moral significance to the plot. As a result, it was difficult to sympathise with anyone regardless of their deaths, illnesses, or struggles.
However, Yasuke, as the title character, did carry out and pay homage to the historical ronin. The back-and-forth flashbacks he had during the first three episodes outlined some of the key moments during his time as a dignified samurai. They also provided some valuable insight into Yasuke’s gradual rise within the shogunate along with Nobunaga’s relatively open-mindedness by showing, not telling. Plot devices weren’t abruptly enforced — rather, the first half of the show did a good job at dramatising the historical aspects while staying congruent to the primary plot.
Unfortunately, everything from there onwards went downhill. The six-episode-long series had little noteworthy aspects and sadly enough, unique characterisation wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t long before Yasuke fit the conventional “overpowered action hero slicing through hordes of disposable cannon fodder progressing to boss fights” archetype.
What’s worse is the series’ oddball approach to making Yasuke the centre of the narrative. Saki’s hidden powers were brought out to the open quickly and it was clear that she possessed the ability to protect herself. Yasuke was criminally sidelined from there on as the core narrative roughly shifted to Saki’s journey of attaining control over her mystic powers.
Beyond pure spectacle, the inclusion of supernatural elements didn’t fit. Accurately portrayed by IndieWire, “Why does a sentient robot mercenary even need money? Why do samurai fight with katanas when there are piloted mechas and powerful magic users who could annihilate them in an instant? Where did the godlike leader of the evil Dark Army acquire her nigh omniscient powers?”
The loopholes in the storytelling were further exacerbated by the lack of any underlying narratives which could account for the nonsensical theatrics. The pacing was clearly all over the place during the final two episodes. If only the creators had spent as much time characterising Ichika, Aburahamu, and the others as they did drawing out the final battle, the show could’ve been so much more.
As for the characters involved, it’s the same as mentioned before — since none of them were fleshed out enough, they didn’t make much sense. Killing off the supporting female roles left and right didn’t help improve the situation either. On a personal level, the African shaman and the robot mercenary were two of my favourite characters. The shaman stayed true to the very end — he came for money, and he got money (a lot of it). The comedic essence, courtesy of our huge hunk of mecha, wasn’t too repetitive or forced — it felt much smoother compared to the other antics.
There’s not much to say about the visuals or voice acting. They were both terribly sub-par. The animation wasn’t the smoothest, which is a shame since Studio MAPPA were the ones behind it. Compared to Jujutsu Kaisen which was animated by the same studio, things in Yasuke were much less fluid and far more gloomy. The music didn’t add much in terms of hype and was often buried beneath layers of screaming and effects.
To conclude, I wish I spent the time I invested in Yasuke finishing Oyasumi Punpun, but knowing myself, that probably won’t happen any time soon. At the end of the day, Yasuke remains yet another disappointing anime series with high potential.
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.