Reviews

‘Yasuke’ Review

If you are looking for the article on Yasuke, the man, you can find it here.

WARNING!: We will be talking about the anime show in depth. A spoiler alert is now in place.

Yasuke, the Black Samurai (Netflix)

Yasuke, the anime named after the legendary African samurai, came to Netflix on April 29, 2021. It is relatively short, only having six episodes, each only being about thirty minutes in length. It is rated TV-MA for violence, suicide, and gore (so of course, viewer discretion is advised). It is a historical fantasy, with more emphasis on the fantasy aspect with Gundam suits, transformations, and magic. The story for the anime takes place 20 years after the Honnōji Incident (twenty years from then puts the year at 1602) and Yasuke lives his life as a boatsman who gets brought back to the battlefield while protecting a young girl, Saki, who has special powers.

In my anime reviews, I do not look at the artwork nor its execution (to an extent). Many other people cover that already. Since I look at these more from a historical angle, I tend to go about them either one of two ways. If the anime is more historical in nature, I look on how close to history it follows. If the anime is loosely based off of history, then I look for the historical “Easter eggs” that would go over most causal viewers heads. Since this is loosely based off of Yasuke and his life under Nobunaga, I will be diving into the interesting things this anime brings up.

Yasuke: The Black Samurai

Yasuke in the anime, ‘Yasuke’

Yasuke is a mysterious figure in Japanese history. We do not have a lot on him to begin with but that gives the creators a little bit more freedom with the character. Every fact we have about Yasuke is showcased in the anime, starting with his introduction. While historically Oda Nobunaga and Yasuke did not meet at a port in 1579, they did meet and Nobunaga did have him washed (although records state it was to make sure his skin color was genuine). Impressed by him, Nobunaga took him in.

In the anime, Nobunaga asks Yasuke what his name was, to which he replies: Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloi. This confuses Nobunaga (and most likely anyone else watching the anime) to which the merchant comes up behind and explains that the Yao people are a very proud people. This is significant. While I cannot find anything on the name, the nod to him being a Yao is noteworthy. It has been theorized by historians that he could have been a Yao and that the name “Yasuke” was a combination of “Yao” and the popular Japanese male suffix “suke”.

Later on, Yasuke is seen trying to help Nobunaga take over the Iga clan which resulted in the Tenshō Iga War in 1581. While there are no records indicating that Yasuke was there, it is interesting to note. Instead of going for the Battle of Tenmokuzan in 1582, a battle that most people claim that Yasuke fought at, the creators of this anime focus on one of the bloodiest campaigns in Nobunaga’s quest for power. I do have one issue with the Iga Campaign, but I will mention that later on.

At the beginning of the anime, we see Yasuke and Nobunaga alone at Honnōji. Yasuke believes that they could still win, but Nobunaga knows he has been beaten and asks Yasuke to be his second, an act that haunts Yasuke for the rest of his life. Inspiration for this might have came from African Samurai: The True Story of a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan (2019) by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard. There is a similar scene in the beginning of the book where Yasuke, Nobunaga, and Ranmaru were alone together in the inner room of Honnōji before Nobunaga committed seppuku. Ranmaru acts as Nobunaga’s second while Yasuke acts as Ranmaru’s second and is charged with bringing Nobunaga’s head to his son, Oda Nobutada. Watching this anime, I believe African Samurai was a big inspiration, mainly due to the latter half of the book talking about other African men who were recorded in other accounts after Honnōji, who could have been Yasuke.

Lastly, there is an acknowledgment of what happened to Yasuke after Honnōji. Yasuke and Saki meet up with a man who fought under Nobunaga alongside Yasuke named Morisuke. He is amazed to see Yasuke alive who recounts how he heard that Yasuke joined Nobutada to fight the Akechi, but lost and was captured then returned to the Jesuits. From there, he managed to escape. It has been recorded that Yasuke was present during the Honnōji Incident, but was with Nobunaga’s son, Nobutada, who was staying at Nijō Castle in Kyōto. It has also been recorded that his life was spared by Mitsuhide, who returned him to the Jesuits, but from there, Yasuke’s fate is a mystery.

Oda Nobunaga, Mori Ranmaru, and Akechi Mitsuhide: the Oda Trio

From left to right: Akechi Mitsuhide, Oda Nobunaga, and Mori Ranmaru, as they appear in ‘Yasuke’

It is always interesting to see how the figures of the Sengoku Jidai are viewed outside my little bubble of Samurai Warriors and Sengoku BASARA. Once you see them a certain way for so long, it is hard to see them portrayed differently. Nevertheless, Yasuke delivers well when it comes to Oda Nobunaga, Mori Ranmaru, and Akechi Mitsuhide.

Starting with Oda, we see a man who is trying to bring about a new, stronger, and better Japan. This seems like a more realistic approach to the man everyone knows as the “Demon King”. The creators of the anime really focused on Nobunaga’s love for foreign things: attire, drink, and of course, his interest in Yasuke. He almost comes across as a revolutionary man for he is accused of abandoning tradition and having servants be equals (Mitsuhide referring to Yasuke) and welcoming to foreigners. It is possible that Japan under Nobunaga would have looked a lot different than it did under Tokugawa Ieyasu, but we will never know. It is interesting to see the small details about Nobunaga as well, such as his like of wine and even a golden skull goblet, referencing the time Nobunaga took the skulls of his brother-in-law, Azai Nagamasa, and allies and turned their skulls into sake cups. Azai Nagamasa betrayed him when Nobunaga attacked the Asakura clan, a long time ally of the Azai. He would be defeated alongside the Asakura at the Siege of Odani Castle in 1573. There is also his relationship with Mori Ranmaru.

While he has a small part in this anime, Mori Ranmaru stood out to me the most. I know legends speak of this young page’s beauty, but they took that legend and ran with it in this anime. His hair frames his face, eyes are dreamy, and face is pure. The anime also makes a nod to the homosexual relationship Ranmaru and Nobunaga had with one another. The type of relationship was more of a master and apprentice relationship that, if the boy agreed, could turn sexual but only continued until the boy reached adulthood. Stories about Nobunaga and Ranmaru’s relationship began to surface more in the Edo Period and has been depicted as more of a romance in pop culture. Yasuke acknowledges this and drops some not so subtle hints, such as Nobunaga taking Ranmaru by the hand and leading into another room. I think that speaks for itself.

Then there is the Honnōji Incident. Nobunaga asks Yasuke if Ranmaru was safe, to which he replies that they managed to sneak him out back and put him on a boat. This struck me as odd, for historically, it has been said that Ranmaru perished at Honnōji either dying to protect his lord or committing seppuku after assisting his lord with his suicide. After going further into the anime and seeing the type of relationship they are going for, perhaps it was Nobunaga’s last act of love for the boy. It is just a theory, but it seems credible.

Then there is Akechi Mitsuhide. It took me a good minute to figure out which one he was for the anime does not really introduce you to people in a typical fashion. You can go for episodes not knowing who they were. After figuring out who he was, we begin to see his personality come out. Needless to say, Mitsuhide is a traditionalist and he comes across as racist too. He keeps telling Yasuke throughout the series that he will always be a servant and that the Oda clan is losing respect from the other daimyō because Nobunaga is welcoming foreigners and women into his ranks (more on the women later). When we find out later that Akechi Mitsuhide is the Dark General, Mitsuhide gets angry that Yasuke outsmarted him on the battlefield and admits that he betrayed Nobunaga because he was too welcoming to people like Yasuke. Mitsuhide comes across as a very unlikable figure due to his bigoted outlook on life. Instead of seeing the gifts that Yasuke brings to the table, he proceeds to belittle him, mainly out of jealousy. Considering how proud of a man Mitsuhide was on top of the known remarks he has made about Yasuke, I felt like this was a decent representation, especially in light of the anime. While we do not know Mitsuhide’s true reasons for betrayal and in some other pop culture references he comes across as more sympathetic, I feel like for the context of the anime, Mitsuhide’s representation was perfect.

The Problem with Natsumaru

Natsumaru in her armor in ‘Yasuke’

Natsumaru is a female warrior, known as an onna-bugeisha, who serves under the Oda clan. While I was focused on who she might have been based on (the red armor made me think Ii Naotora, but then her ties to the Iga made me think Mochizuki Chiyome) another question came into my mind: why are they acting like a female warrior was such an uncommon thing? Women, especially women of higher classes like the samurai, were trained to fight and to defend themselves in case of an attack on their household. In most cases, the men were away at a battle, so if their castle was attacked, it was up to the women to defend them. Some women even became heads of their clan, the most notable figures being Ii Naotora (1530s?-1582) and Tachibana Ginchiyo (1569-1602). While it was nice to see that the onna-bugeisha are getting more representation in pop culture, I feel like Natsumaru was constantly downplayed. Women fought during the Sengoku Jidai, and it was not as uncommon as the anime made it out to be.

An Overplayed Trope that Needs to Die

Father Abraham reveals his true form in ‘Yasuke’

Every time I see a Catholic priest in television shows or movies anymore, I know exactly how it is going to end. They always look so innocent in the beginning, but then you learn they have some sort of skeleton in their closet, usually child molestation. Yasuke is no different. One of the first people they come across in the anime who is after Saki is Father Abraham, a missionary (most likely a Jesuit) who had been searching Japan for a girl with special powers to take back to Europe with him so that he can train her to use her powers on behalf of the Catholic Church. We find out later that he has similar powers himself and has no problem using violence or even killing people in God’s name. I felt like this was too obvious considering how overplayed this trope is and maybe he was thrown in to establish the Christian presence in Japan during this time, but it just seemed too predictable and overused and I think they would have been better off introducing the main bad guy, The Daimyō, sooner.

The Historical Inaccuracy That Cannot Be Ignored

Yasuke fighting the Iga in ‘Yasuke’

The one thing that bothered me about this anime the most was who they said the commander was for the Iga clan. The name they kept dropping for the commander was Hattori Hanzō, one of the most famous ninjas. However, Hattori Hanzō was not the leader of the Iga clan. Hattori Hanzō (1542?-1596) was a famous ninja, yes, but he served under Tokugawa Ieyasu, an ally of Oda Nobunaga’s. Why would they name Hattori Hanzō as the leader of the Iga? That title would go to Momochi Sadayū (also known as Momochi Tanba), who was the leader of the Iga clan. I guess because Hattori Hanzō is more known to people, the creators went with that name, but as someone who knows the history of this era, it was bothersome to say the least.

The Daimyō: Hōjō Masako

The Daimyō in ‘Yasuke’

During the latter half of the anime, we are introduced to a character only known as The Daimyō. This confused me at first, but I thought it was just a name they were using for Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was the most powerful man in Japan in 1602, just one year away from becoming shōgun. The Daimyō is a woman though, and we do not learn her true identity until the end of the anime. She is actually Hōjō Masako, and yes, she is a real Japanese figure. Hōjō Masako (1157-1225) was the wife to Japan’s first shōgun, Minamoto no Yoritomo and is known as the “Nun Shōgun”. She helped bring the Hōjō clan from a small clan in Izu to regents to the shōgun. She was an extremely influential woman who was known for attacking her husband’s many lovers and she was known to be ruthless, ambitious and even a successful leader. Her efforts threw the Hōjō into power, which can be seen in the anime. I am not sure why they picked her to be The Daimyō, especially since the events in the anime take place nearly 400 years after her death. Her influence could be the culprit, for rumors began to spring up about 500 years later that she was the one who killed her husband out of jealousy by detaching her spirit and haunting him to his death.(1) Perhaps when more comes out about the anime, we might get some more behind-the-scenes information on their inspiration for things.

The Revelation at the End

Ōta Gyūichi about to execute a child for challenging his honor in ‘Yasuke’

At the very end of the anime, we find a man standing by Natsumaru’s grave. Yasuke comes up beside him and the man instantly remembers who he is: he is the man that saved him from Ōta Gyūichi while they were at the Nanban trade port. Not going to lie, my mouth fell open at this one. This is a figure most people would not know who he is, so this was definitely for us history buffs out there. Ōta Gyūichi (1527-1614) served under Oda Nobunaga and was known for penning the Shinchō kōki, also known as The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga to English readers. There is very little information on him out there because he was the one literally writing history. He is also significant because it is in his writings that we learn of Yasuke. The first meeting between the two, Yasuke and Nobunaga, is documented in his account and it is the one most historians use today to confirm Yasuke’s existence. It was an unexpected shoutout, but it was also well deserved and it showed me that the creators did some significant research while making this anime.

Final Thoughts

Yasuke fighting hard in ‘Yasuke’

If you have three hours to kill and you want a fun time: go watch this anime. Yasuke is a beautiful anime with a trippy opening sequence and one of the best soundtracks an anime has had in recent years. While sometimes it can leave you asking, “Who is that?” and “What’s going on?”, it does tie everything together in the end with a little bit of mystery to keep you guessing. Will it lead to a second season? Not sure at this point, but it will be welcomed to see what they do with Yasuke in the future.

Sources

  1. “Masako Hojo (1157-1225) The Nun Shogun”. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/masako-hojo (last visited 4/30/2021)

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