The undeniably amazing animation of Yasuke is another win for Studio MAPPA. Though there are 3D computer-animated scenes and characters, the creatives made a wise choice in opting for a primarily 2D animated direction here. There’s a particularly visceral impact in seeing a sword fight rendered in traditional animation that going a completely 3D route wouldn’t have been able to convey. The hand-to-hand (or sword-to-sword) fight scenes invoke Samurai Champloo vibes mixed with a subtle Jujutsu Kaisen/God of Highschool aesthetic, which the latter two should come as no surprise. Before working on Yasuke, artist Megumi Iwabuchi also provided 2D visual work for both Jujutsu Kaisen and God of Highschool.
Yasuke Season 1 Images
But while the visuals are quite compelling, the voice acting and characters themselves leave a lot to be desired. As Yasuke, Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield gives a very reserved performance as the stoic samurai haunted by his past. Instead of coming off as a tormented soul wishing to forget his dark days as a murderous samurai, Stanfield’s subdued delivery misses that mark. It’s as if his character from FX’s Atlanta, Darius, stepped into the role of Yasuke to give a very blasé performance. Being a brilliant on-screen actor doesn’t necessarily translate to being a great voice-over actor, and while Stanfield’s performance is decent, it isn’t strong enough to provoke sympathy with Yasuke’s plight.
As for the supporting cast members, each character plays out like the typical archetype we’ve seen in other anime: the reluctant hero, the child with mysterious powers, the rivals-turned-allies, the villain wanting complete dominion. It’s all on display here, but the characters feel hollow as the show never dives into their backstories or gives us insight into their motivations. We need to actually care about these characters so that whatever happens to them resonates with us on a deeper level. That’s what’s missing in Yasuke; an emotional connection to the characters. Anime like Attack on Titan, Cowboy Bebop, DragonBall Z, and many more spend entire episodes on a single character’s journey to becoming the character they are presently.
Yasuke’s backstory plays out via flashbacks showing how he went from indentured servitude to a high-ranking samurai warrior for Lord Nobunaga and the Oda clan. Unfortunately, we don’t see or learn more about Yasuke beyond that. From what we’re shown throughout the anime, Yasuke clearly believes in defending the young and the weak. There’s an altercation that takes place before he becomes a samurai where he defends a boy, which establishes Yasuke as someone who is a protector of the innocent, particularly children. This is a pattern we see throughout the series. The main story revolves around Yasuke, 20 years after abandoning the way of the samurai, picking up his sword yet again to safely deliver a young girl upriver to a special doctor. Yasuke initially declines the perilous journey, but eventually changes his mind seemingly based on the notion of “One Village”. According to Yasuke, this means that it is the duty of every man and woman in a village to make sure the children of the village are safe. (This is likely a variation of the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”)His sheer will to protect the young and the innocent possibly stem from his formative years in Africa, before his time in servitude. But we don’t get to see that aspect of his life. In the brief scene we see of Yasuke as a servant, he never quite carries himself as a man who takes orders from another. He’s noble and strong-willed. He defends those who are helpless, regardless of his master’s objections. Does he even have a master? He does, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he carries himself. What made Yasuke so resolute in his ways? We never find out, and are only shown surface-level scenarios that led to the samurai warrior seen in the anime.
Although I can’t say the overall story of Yasuke will stick with you days after binge-watching, the opening and ending theme songs most assuredly will. Grammy-nominated producer Flying Lotus lends his talents to both the songs (‘Black Gold’ and ‘Between Memories’, respectively), teaming up with Grammy Award-winner Thundercat and vocalist Niki Randa to bring these groovy, spiritual R&B tracks to life. Flying Lotus’ composition meshes perfectly with the soothing tones of his longtime collaborators, and Thundercat’s recognizable falsetto tones provide a very unique contrast to what we see in the anime. You probably won’t feel the urge to skip the intro or end credits because the songs are so catchy and soothing, serving as the proverbial calm before (and after) the storm.