The story of Yasuke is a classic samurai tale with mystery and cultural twists that seem to have been continually overlooked when it comes to being made into a live action production. The real life of this samurai trailblazer has gained some success over the years but nothing quite comes close to encapsulating who he actually was in the history of Japan. Anime series have come and gone: some hitting the target–in their own way– while others missed the mark.
In a sense, the opportunity to truly delve into his life has not been seized or at least–fully realized… and though many of us have been teased with glimpses into his significance and more or less–have a basic outline of who he was, we’re still waiting for his story to be told.
On January 4, 2007, Afro-Samurai aired its first episode starring renowned actor, Samuel L. Jackson. The premise of this new anime was inspired by director Takashi Okazaki’s love of hip hop and soul music and it was rumored to be inspired by the original Afro-Samurai, Yasuke. It took place during a futuristic feudal Japan. The show and the manga were highly successful and even featured other film icons like Lucy Liu and Mark Hamill.
Afro Samurai was later adapted into an online mini-series that mashed up with an equally successful, Samurai Champloo–also known for its soulful hiphop samurai fights— and accrued a quick following by Team Red Pro. It was so successful that even Shing02 (rap artist known for Battlecry) performed at the premiere.
In 2019, it was announced that Chadwick Boseman was in line to play Yasuke in an upcoming film which is allegedly still in development with PICTURESTART, an absolutely fitting title for Boseman’s repertoire of historical and fictional trailblazers prior to his passing from colon cancer. The film, though it won’t star our beloved T’challa, is continuing its process but with no information on who will star, produce, and direct it. This left many fans of Boseman and Afro-Samurai crushed.
This was a story that was such a standout that he even was a boss in the video game, Nioh (2017).
Finally, in 2021 Yasuke, a brand new anime, was released… but the highly anticipated re-telling (starring LaKeith Stanfield as our main protagonist) left viewers and anime fans wanting absolutely no-more with criticism over the titular character’s inferiority complex, unnecessarily comical antagonists, and a hugely underwhelming villain.
With so much build-up, the show was easily forgotten, even though the opening theme by acclaimed instrumentalist, Flying Lotus, in partnership with the notoriously psychedelic indie bassist, Thundercat, is still one of Flying Lotus’s most played tracks.
LeSean Tomas took the directorial choice to begin the story years after Yasuke served under Nobunaga making the story more of a redemption tail whose potential seemed interesting on blueprint but was never fully realized for viewers.
As many reviews pointed out, the real life of the Black Samurai needs not be embellished with sorcery, superpowers and spiderlike supervillains. His life is already brimming with untapped potential, mystery, cultural richness, and an unexpected success story that unfolded at a pivotal time in Japan.
Yasuke’s arrival in Japan dates back to 1529–the circumstances of which, we still do not know. Time reports that some believed him to have the strength of 10 men and be over 6 feet tall (though this is highly unlikely). His history is undeniably thought-provoking, with just enough mystery for directors and producers to fill in the gaps with gripping subplot. The speculation of the possible circumstances that brought him to Japan has left so much up to the imagination. Speculation of his origin has gravitated from East African to Mozambique.
The dynamic of an African immigrant climbing the military ranks of a brutal daimyo (feudal lord) like Oda Nobunaga’s, moreover, whose specific origins are still unknown to viewers and anime fans alike is a gold-mine of a storyline that requires very little exaggeration–if any at all.
The context of Yasuke’s life as a legendary samurai not only tells the tail of immigration and war, but also provides us a look into the ruthlessness of Japan’s Kamakura and Edo periods with so much history, culture, and socio-political juxtaposition to explore. What was life like as a minority African in a Japanese military during a brutal dictatorship?
One can only imagine the state of Japan and the dialogue that existed between a Black Samurai with mysterious origins and the most powerful daimyo in Japanese history whose head, Yasuke himself, retrieves during an ambush to keep it from falling into the hands of Akechi Mitsuhide (Nobunaga’s assassin). Akechi’s story is almost as fascinating when we examine the plot that led to Nobunaga’s demise. He served Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the wandering shogun (a military ruler) being his epithet.
After Yasuke served under Nobunaga (who committed sepuku– the act of taking one’s own life to preserve their honor), he turned his allegiance to Oda Nobutada, Nobunaga’s son. The continuation his story lends an opportunity for expansion on the histories of those he came in contact with. Perhaps a film could become a saga… or even a series.
So much potential remains to be realized when we piece together the moments that made Yasuke’s life in feudal Japan so riveting, intricate and enigmatic.