A samurai who hails from Africa tears numerous assailants to shreds in a fluid, yet sterile scene as the crimson blood of his foes dyes the surrounding landscape a lurid crimson. The samurai’s own comrades can only watch on, their faces wearing a haunting mix of astonishment and horror. This is one of the defining scenes from Yasuke, a 2021 Netflix Original from studio MAPPA, and a moment that encapsulates the very nature of its titular character, who upholds his honor while trying to avoid violence in a world that despises him.

The historical Yasuke was a mostly forgotten figure in Japanese history. He was the first foreigner to achieve the rank of Samurai, a feat that only became possible under the reign of warlord Oda Nobunaga. As such, it’s tragic that, when the discussion of samurai who were born outside of Japan arises, the most recurrent image is that of Tom Cruise’s problematic portrayal as a savior of the nation in The Last Samurai (2003).

A Black samurai clashes with a heavily armored warrior, their blades crossing in combat.

Yasuke shines a light to its titular samurai in a dazzling blend of east and west, that extends from its story to its production. The series was directed by LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters, Children of Ether), with character designs by Takeshi Koike (Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) and a soundtrack by Flying Lotus.

The show  focuses on the titular Yasuke, a follower of Oda Nobunaga who was born into suffering. As a former slave, his experiences linger even twenty years later, rising to the surface in the form of alcoholism, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Rather than portray him as a slicing, dicing machine coated in Black paint, though, Yasuke paints the samurai as a layered, deeply broken character.

The titular warrior’s numerous facets are often brought about by the series’ secondary cast. Apprentice samurai Ichiro and young psychic Saki highlight his softer side, while Nobunaga serves to highlight Yasuke’s existence as a foreigner who appropriated the culture and lore of an adopted homeland. Female samurai Natsumaru, meanwhile, is a peer who shares an understanding that changes to the cultural norms will always face resistance, as they fight to bring about the same . And though Nobunaga, himself, holds a progressive viewpoint (for the time), the two are often treated as interloping threats to the establishment.

A women with black hair wearing a red kimono looks down with a pensive expression.

On the flip side, Catholic priest Abraham proves to be a compelling individual, in his villainous portrayal.  It’s a depiction that rarely finds itself into mainstream media outside of works like The Godfather III (1990), often serving as a form of erasure of the harms inflicted by the Holy Inquisition and colonization.

It’s this character study that provides the real appeal of the Yasuke anime, providing genuine intrigue against the uneven pacing of the overall plot. The character of Yasuke, in particular, is immediately relatable to those who feel alienated from society, especially within the black community, as his pain draws from the black diaspora. His bond to Natsumaru, meanwhile, is a symbol of the allyship of African and Asian descendants, particularly when they have their backs to the wall.

A child in a black samurai helmet reassures a black samurai who appears to be in despair.

The plot, itself, tells a tale that blends elements of the mystical and technological, which playfully subverts viewer expectations for a biographical drama. Instead, it offers a similar atmosphere to 2018’s Batman Ninja and 2004’s Samurai 7, introducing a flashy and colorful gang of rivals that hearken back to Spider-Man’s iconic Sinister Six villain group. As the series progresses through its half-dozen episodes, it continually builds upon itself, building up to a climactic finale with a presence that would put some Hollywood blockbusters to shame.

Still, be it by purpose or accident, Yasuke’s greatest influences are iconic samurai films, crafted by legends like Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi. When the mercenary mecha Haruto (Darren Criss) questions what it means to be human, it invokes images of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Likewise, the human interactions, including fighting, point to the many ways that Kurosawa and Kobayashi, each by their own methods, brought humanity to samurai and those who existed within and around their spheres. The final battle is one where sacrifices are made on both sides, and human costs are great as a ragtag group defends their homeland from strong invading forces, which harkens back to the classic Seven Samurai (1954).

Two swordsmen clash in combat, as a massive yellow robot intervenes.

If there were a real downside to the storytelling, it would be that Yasuke doesn’t have enough time to really tell a consistent story. The episodes vary wildly in pace, and numerous plot threads fail to resolve by the end of the series. These issues could have been rectified, had the series run for eight episodes instead of six.

Flying Lotus’ soundtrack for the series is both ethereal and layered, providing a tone that vastly differs from other action series of its ilk. He makes use of the same model of keyboard Vangelis used for 1982’s Blade Runner, lending a sound that’s both otherworldly, yet familiar. It’s a clever nod that pays homage to a work of cinematic art that was heavily influenced by Japanese culture which, in turn, influenced many anime and other works of art in its own right.

A samurai and a brown-haired woman with black face paint stare in shock at an offscreen threat.

The world of Yasuke is given life by a stellar voice cast. The iconic samurai, himself, is played by LaKeith Stanfield, whose Academy nominated talents for his work on Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) lend a real gravitas to the role. His portrayal of the character is nuanced and raw, bringing different facets of the character to life as time and trauma begin to weigh upon him. The secondary cast brings a similar liveliness to the experience, with Natsumaru (played by Ming-Na Wen), Criss, and Nobunaga Oda (Takehiro Hira).

Yasuke doesn’t set out to be a documentary, nor does it aim to be a biopic. Rather, it exists to entertain, and succeeds in this task admirably. Though not the most even ride, the brilliant soundtrack, spectacular set pieces, and vibrant characters ensure that this samurai tale is one that’s well worth watching.