Few samurai stories feel as relevant today as Yasuke, the famous “Black Samurai” who served as retainer for Oda Nobunaga. But despite Yasuke’s place in Japanese history, there are few concrete historical accounts of him. So when the Netflix anime was announced earlier this year, I was excited to see how they would fill in the gaps in his story.
Turns out they did so with giant mechas.
There are a lot of things to enjoy about the Yasuke anime. The music is brilliant, and most of the action scenes are fluid and exciting. At only six episodes long, it is an easy one to binge. The fantastical elements work well to tell an exaggerated account of Yasuke’s tale. However, there are a couple of places that keep this show from being the classic it could have been.
I’ll be avoiding major spoilers here, but be warned that there will be some plot discussion below.
Poor pacing undermines Yasuke’s story
Six episodes, or just under three hours of runtime, is more than enough to tell a good story. However, there are moments in Yasuke that feel rushed and give the impression that there are whole episodes left on the cutting room floor — particularly with regard to the young girl at the centre of the story, Saki.
Saki is in possession of magical powers that could threaten the power dynamic in this version of Sengoku Japan. She is equal parts plot device and character, with Yasuke having the role of her protector. However, her power quickly eclipses his own impressive skill with a sword. The result is an unclear dynamic between the two, with her saving him more often than he manages to protect her.
The show doesn’t give Saki the time to feel like someone who ever struggled with her powers, and it is not the only time where the pacing of the story undermines the good parts of Yasuke. Early in the show a group of mercenaries are in pursuit of Saki, attempting to capture her so that her power can be used for vaguely described but likely nefarious purposes in Europe.
There are good moments between them, particularly involving the frequently malfunctioning robot in the crew. When their initial quest falls short due to their employer meeting a brutal end, they find their way back into the plot at a crucial time. Some of them don’t make it out of the decisive battle, and their deaths are meant to have an emotional weight to them. However, the editing of the show only gives us a surface level understanding of their relationships and their characters, causing what could be noble sacrifices to fall flat.
Yasuke left me with the distinct impression that the show’s run was cut from nine episodes to six at some point during the development process. It needed another handful of episodes to let the characters breathe and develop into something more fleshed out on the screen. Conversely, it could have been well-served by stripping it back to a two-hour movie, tightening it up and giving us a quicker paced story. Either one could have worked well, but the six-episode run feels like the worst of both worlds. It doesn’t give the characters space to grow, yet it still somehow feels bloated at times.
None of this is to say that the show isn’t a fun reimagining of Yasuke’s story. The acting, music and action are all solid, along with some fun character designs that take full advantage of the fantastical take on the tale. It is worth spending an afternoon watching the show simply for a taste of what makes Yasuke a fascinating figure in Japanese history, but it falls short of where it could have been with a bit more time on the screen. It leaves me wanting more, and not in a good way.
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