As part of Netflix’s initiative to expand its vast catalogue of anime titles–adding 40 shows to its platform this year–the streaming service released the ever so anticipated series “Yasuke” on Apr. 29. Created by LeSean Thomas (the man responsible for the smash hit “Black Dynamite”), the show’s premise is quite loosely based on the scarcely documented life of an African samurai of the same namesake. What makes this prolific man’s story so interesting to history buffs and Hollywood alike is the fact that he was the very first foreigner to Japan that was given the title of a samurai–even fighting alongside the country’s lauded leader Oda Nobunaga. Though Yasuke wasn’t fighting ginormous robots or magic wielding foes during his time in 16th century Japan, the show makes an effort to expound upon his actual historical past through flashback vignettes. Here’s the real story:
According to records in Histoire ecclésiastique des isles et royaumes du Japon, the samurai was brought from Mozambique. Accompanying a renowned Jesuit missionary by the name of Alessandro Valignano, Yasuke was said to have landed in Japan sometime around 1579 through the way of India. There’s much room for speculation regarding his life before Japan with historians torn on whether or not he was brought to the country as a slave. As it is presumed that Yasuke was hired by Valignano as his bodyguard, people like Thomas Lockley–who is the author of “African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan”–believe that at the very least, he was free upon arriving in Japan.
“Personally I don’t think he was a slave in any sense of the word, I think he was a free actor,” Lockley explains in an interview with Time magazine. He goes on to hypothesize the possibility of Yasuke being a military slave but adds that Yasuke, “probably got his freedom before meeting Valignano.”
He was greeted with a spectacle upon arriving in the county’s then capital, Kyoto. As it was the first time for most Japanese citizens to have seen a person of Yasuke’s skin tone or size, crowds gathered to witness his presence.
“When Yasuke got to Kyoto, there was a massive riot,” says Lockley, “People wanted to see him and be in his presence.”
The commotion was so eminent, rooftops collapsed onto people under the weight of numerous onlookers. His staggering stature caught the attention of feudal lord Oda Nobunaga. Often dubbed the Great Unifier for his legacy of taking out other daimyos to unite the country, Nobunaga ordered for Yasuke to be washed down with the assumptions that his skin was painted. When his skin color was retained, the leader concluded that he was a god sent to Japan from the heavens and threw a massive feast in his honor. Because of Yasuke’s strong grasp of the Japanese language and engaging conversation skills, Nobunaga took quite a liking to the foreigner, often dining with him and a selective group of Japan’s higher echelon. Within a few days, Yasuke was historically given the title of samurai. Along with this ground-breaking opportunity, Yasuke was also granted him with his own house and a ceremonial katana.
Though it can be inferred that Yasuke played a major role in many battles under Nobunaga, the most prominent was the iconic Honnō-ji Incident. This 1582 battle saw the devastating betrayal of Nobunaga’s general Akechi Mitsuhide attacking the lord in the Honnō-ji temple while he was scarcely protected. His 13,000 troops surrounding them and setting the temple on fire, Nobunaga saw no other option than to commit seppuku—the act of suicide through cutting through one’s abdomen. In ancient tradition, it’s said that the head of a lord committing this act was to be decapitated by a close friend to honor him. As there is no known record of the attack, it’s unknown who exactly did the act. While many historians claim that it was Nobunaga’s attendant, Mori Ranmaru, Lockley believes that it was in fact Yasuke.
“If Akechi, the enemy, had gotten the head and he’d been able to hold up the head, he would have had a powerful symbol of legitimacy,” Lockley tells Time, “Yasuke, therefore, by escaping with the head, could have been seen and has been seen as changing Japanese history.”
Right after the death of Nobunaga, Yasuke escaped the temple to assist the departed lord’s eldest son Oda Nobutada at the Nijō Palace. There, though was more protected than his father, Mitsuhide’s troops overtook the palace. This forced Nobutada to perish in the same suicidal fate as Nobunaga. Yasuke was captured by the opposing forces, but interestingly was not killed because of his race. The defeated samurai was instead sent to a Jesuit missionary home, somewhat making his story come full circle. After these events, Yasuke’s name didn’t show up in any historical records ever again, living the latter half of his life as a mystery.
Seeing as how nothing is known about Yasuke’s life after Nobunaga’s reign, LeSean Thomas didn’t necessarily have too much to work with when developing “Yasuke” for Netflix. Fittingly, the anime takes place after the 1586 Honnō-ji Incident, giving the staff writers lots of leeway when it comes to storytelling. Inspired by illustrations of Yasuke in the Kurusu Yoshio 1968 children’s book, “Kuro-suke,” Thomas didn’t want to produce your standard biopic. He instead pitched the idea to Netflix as an “alternate fantastical Japan during the feudal era” chocked full of mystic powered battles and Godzilla sized mechas.
“The story, just like the passionate creative team, transcends borders, cultures and languages and is one that we’re so proud to tell at Netflix and share with the world,” says Thomas in a March Netflix report.”
With animation by the prolific Japanese studio, MAPPA and a soundtrack by Grammy nominated musician Flying Lotus, it’s clear that “Yasuke” is a compilation of some serious international efforts. While the show may stir far from the true story, it’s a great commemoration of this truly historical figure.
“Yasuke” is available to stream on Netflix.
By Omar Letson