In every review I’ve read of Netflix’s new release, Yasuke (LeSean Thomas 2021), none has been able to express the cosmic intertwining of friendship, loyalty, and love that spans across time and space, or how we honour the memory of those around and most intimate to us. Though I will be the first to admit that I didn’t understand what this series is trying to do—it combines many different elements into what seems like a bewildering and wandering narrative. It took time (and many rewatches) to understand, but it was through an Afrofuturist lens that I began to understand the greater universe that Yasuke is connected to and draws from. Coming off of Black History Month, I want to approach this series with the care and honour it deserves as part of Black history, now and into the future.
While the anime features genre-bending elements of sci-fi, blaxploitation, fantasy, and psychic powers alongside the historical account of Yasuke (a black figure present in 16th century feudal Japan under the service of Oda Nobunaga), the fantastical imagination of Afrofuturism transforms Yasuke into a legendary Afrosamurai.
Ytasha Womack, a black scholar and Afrofuturist describes Afrofuturism as:
Both an artistic aesthetic and framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation [my emphasis] about the future rife with cultural critiques. (19)
History is reimagined through an Afrofuturist lens in order to reinsert blackness where it was erased and create space for healing in cultural memory, as related to how the Middle Passage or the Transatlantic Slave Trade e/affects those spaces. In an interview, Samuel R. Delany questions: “The notion of Afrofuturism gives rise to a troubling antinomy: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” (Dery). The legend of Yasuke is revived and reimagined, passed on from generation to generation, honouring the memory of those before us, our own lives a testament to the survival of their memory. As Yasuke says, “It is honourable. The past informs our future. It shows us who we really are.” Afrofuturism makes space to honour our blackness where it isn’t celebrated, but is instead vilified and effaced. In addition, Afrofuturism creates spaces, futures, and worlds that are filled with endless possibilities.
The opening theme song, Black Gold, (orchestrated by executive producer Flying Lotus and performed by Thundercat) reflects this:
Brought in a world A world so brand new, endless possibilities A whole new identity Can’t you see The Black Gold of the Sun
By integrating African beats that contain elements of electronica, hip hop, funk, and drum & bass that are seamlessly orchestrated alongside traditional Japanese instruments, the coalescence of these musical elements alongside other fantastical visuals is what sustains the Afrofuturist perspective we inhabit as Yasuke. While the series continuously shows the struggles that Yasuke is presented with (being a formerly enslaved Black man alienated within Japanese society), it also shows the negotiation or reconciliation of his own upbringing, Japanese culture, and people he comes to know during his time serving Nobunaga and beyond.
After establishing the expansive destruction of war and the presence of an overwhelming evil across Japan’s landscape, the opening scenes present a distraught, drunken leader, Nobunaga Oda. Oda rambles on to his retainer and samurai, Yasuke, about his downfall and the defeat of what he envisioned as a great and powerful united Japan charging into modernity under his leadership, lost in an instant. With Yasuke protesting Oda’s defeat, Oda commands Yasuke to have a last drink and appoints him as kaishakunin. After enduring the great pain of Oda committing seppuku, bound by duty to his Master to carry out and honour his last will and testament (and as a friend), Yasuke beheads Nobunaga as the nefarious Daimyo’s army closes in.
This horror and trauma haunt Yasuke twenty years later as he frantically awakes in a cold sweat. Day after day, tucked away in a small shack at the edge of a village, he relives the nightmare over and over again. Now a wandering ronin, in this life, he is an unnamed boatsman who lives just outside of the village, keeping to himself so as not to draw more attention than what he already receives, being black in a rural Japanese community.
With the past melding into the present, Yasuke is bound to the trauma he carries with him—even as he is reluctantly pulled into helping a local woman named Ichika and her mysteriously ill daughter, Saki, travel through war-torn territory to a doctor outside the village. As Yasuke gradually becomes more involved with Ichika and Saki, he recalls his personal history from first arriving in Japan that slowly intersects with his present experiences. These chance encounters that continually challenge Yasuke’s honour, as a human being and as a warrior, transform the relationships around him into camaraderie, trust, loyalty, and eventually loss—time and memory overlapping one another.
As Yasuke journeys with Ichika and Saki on the boat, they are ambushed by a group of renegade mercenaries hired by a preacher representing the Catholic church. Confronted with this violent group who demand to take Saki away, both Yasuke and Ichika protect her from the onslaught of attacks. In the struggle, triggered by the intensity of the events around her, an explosive force around Saki blows away the assailants and Yasuke—Ichikia is presumed dead shortly after. Now directionless and back where they started, without Ichika to lead the way to the doctor, the preacher makes his appearance. Hunted by the Church, which turned the villagers against Yasuke with Ichika’s death and Saki’s disappearance, Yasuke is bound and tortured after his capture as Saki tries to make her escape out of the village.
As a mirror to Ichika, Natsumaru, an Onna Bugeisha and one of Yasuke’s only (equally ranked) friends, get to know one another and train as part of Oda’s commanding generals. With the pervasiveness of whiteness, the church, and the slave trade beyond the Transatlantic, because Yasuke is black (and therefore inherently seen as inferior and less than human), he isn’t acknowledged or recognized as a samurai within Japanese culture (though he receives the same training and holds the same values that would qualify him as a samurai under the service of Nobunaga). Natsumaru, being the only woman in Oda’s high-ranking military generals, also experiences a degree of prejudice that both her and Yasuke (trauma)bond over as leaders within Oda’s military ranks. Though Oda’s vision of a modern Japan includes new people and ideas, the older, high-ranking samurai general, Mitsudhide Akechi (amongst others), see this difference as an insult to Japanese culture and tradition. As outsiders caught up in “the old way” of traditional Japanese culture and the modern one Oda is charging towards, both Yasuke and Natsumaru are directly in opposition to Mitsuhide just by existing as equals—not being recognized as such, but still being part of the same system.
As part of Nobunaga’s quest for the unification of Japan that results in the conflict and slaughter of the Iga clan, Natsumaru remarks, “Unity is not freedom. Culture has us trade one ruler for another. All we really have in this world is our individual loyalties. That is the way of the samurai.” Traditionally, samurai are those who serve a master and fight on the behalf of their values, often guided by Bushido (martial code or values), fierce loyalty, a ride or die spirit, and trained in military strategy and fighting. However, Natsumaru points out that the powerful will always find a way to rule and exploit the oppressed through whatever means or justifications.
When it is later revealed that Natsumaru betrayed Nobunaga (not only as part of the Iga clan but as Hattori Hanzo’s besshikime), she confronts Yasuke of his knowledge of her treachery on the battlefield. Yasuke, unarmed with Nasumaru blocking his way after saving his back, says that she fights with no honour and that their relationship has only been one of a “spy and a mark.” As Yasuke turns his back on Natsumaru (as he had done earlier), Natsumaru strikes at his turned back, refuting his perception of her, even if it costs her life and their relationship. Each with their own honour to defend, Yasuke kills Natsumaru in one strike—who utters the words “not all” in her final moments. Natsumaru’s death torments Yasuke as he is on the cusp of life and death, tortured by the mutant preacher after refusing to give up Saki, reliving the consequences of his actions as reality and memory surface in his subconscious. After both Yasuke and Saki survive the preachers’ treachery, Yasuke continues to do whatever he can to support Saki—acting as Ichika would have wanted and honouring her by bringing her daughter to the special doctor Morisuke, not to heal Saki but to train her.
Though Nobunaga never succeeded in his quest for the unification of Japan in his time, he is part of what Japan has become today through the legacy of his vision, as generations take up the mantle of tradition and reinvent the ways in which we reconcile our pasts with our present(s). In this timeline, we consequently live under a capitalist system historically based upon the violent legacies of plantation slavery and the decimation of Indigenous land and culture, resulting in valuing capital over life. If culture is the lens that mediates our understanding or relationality to the world and people around us, then how does what we honour (traditions, values, morals, etc.) shape who we are as individuals and collectively as a culture?
Whether embracing the toxicity of consumer culture, the rank proliferation of rape culture, or the incessant droning of grind culture, these are the things that have continued to proliferate as a result of the total domination of the Other. The continuation and glorification of “the old way” depends on the widespread environmental destruction, the objectification and degradation of women, and the dehumanization and enslavement of people of colour. These are the things we have ultimately chosen to honour as a North American culture, by perpetuating the same patterns that produce the same results and, in effect, have recreated cultural hegemony across the globe enforced by false narratives of colonial imaginaries. As the Iga clan, the mutant preacher, and Mitsuhide’s defection to the evil Daimyo’s dark army after betraying Oda demonstrate, the absolute power at any cost is what “the old way” relies on to continue to sustain itself. And any movement towards change that has the potential to jeopardize its supremacy must be quelled in any way necessary if there’s failure to assimilate into the system.
The unlimited potential found in Saki is ultimately the power that has the transformative capabilities of her psychic or spiritual connection to all things and the wholeness of being. Saki, as a powerful agent of change, is embodied in the figure of the child. Yasuke’s faith in the power of change to make a difference in a future that may be far beyond him is renewed through Saki—similar to the change that both Natsumaru and Nobunaga had once believed in. Yasuke’s code of ‘one village,’ that he first shares with Ichika, reflects this belief when he says, “Where I’m from, every man and woman cares for every child. It is our duty to make sure every child is safe.” Though he is haunted by pain and regret, Yasuke is honour bound and resolved to endure whatever the future may hold alongside Saki. But the point is that neither Yasuke nor Saki is able to do anything without the other. Even though Saki embodies the popular trope of a magical girl, without guidance and support from those around her, she would be unable to move, much less defeat an ancient dark force. By working together to defeat the evil Daimyo and the Dark General, Yasuke and Saki open up a whole other world of possibility by facing the damage and harm that the past has created in the present. In breaking these generational cycles, Yasuke shows that we can still honour the past while going beyond what was/is known to create new realities for ourselves.
Womack states that:
At its heart, Afrofuturism stretches the imagination far beyond the conventions of our time and horizons of expectation, and kicks the box of normalcy and preconceived ideas of blackness out of the solar system. Whether it’s sci-fi story lines or radical eccentricity, Afrofuturism inverts reality. Afrofuturists write their own stories. ( 27)
Far from tokenization or appropriation, Yasuke honours the reparative practices of Afrofuturism that reimagines and reclaims space for blackness to thrive, while acknowledging the pain of the past. By questioning what histories we choose to honour and how the remnants of those legacies affect us now, we are able to reflect and meditate on the paths we can continue on or choose to change and divert from. Going beyond the repetitive limitations of the slave narrative, Yasuke’s journey confronts trauma and regret in order to reconcile the pain of the past, not only with both Natsumaru and Saki’s aid but with the support of many liberating all of Japan. By believing in the power of those around him to create change, Yasuke is able to look towards an unknown but livable future for himself and the ones he loves—one where they all belong.
Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Duke University Press, 1994.
LeSean Thomas, creator. Yasuke. MAPPA, 2020.
Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture, E-book, Chicago Review Press, 2013.
“Yasuke Original Soundtrack (Official Album Stream).” YouTube, uploaded by Flying Lotus, 30 Apr 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEgF9OhC7p8&t=1157s.