May 2, 2021, 6:00 a.m.
The new Netflix animated series Yasuke is an imaginative mess. Set in 16th century Japan, it shows mechs, magic, evil Jesuits, zombie samurai and Lovecraftian evils from outside of space-time. There is a lot of blood spurting and confused references to mutilated codes of honor. It’s less history than half-cooked genre sludge.
However, there is one aspect of the series that is historically correct: the main character voiced by LaKeith Stanfield. Yasuke, a towering African man who became the first black samurai in Japanese history, was a real person. Its story is fascinating – so much so that you wonder why producer LeSean Thomas and Japanese animation studio MAPPA decided it was necessary to throw all the tech and magic on it. Still, the addenda and variations may be inevitable. Yasuke’s story has been told many times, and each tale has relied on relatively sparse historical data to create a Yasuke whose sword serves the narrator’s particular historical moment.
The real Yasuke was likely born in Mozambique, Ethiopia, or Sudan in the 1550s. As a boy he would have been kidnapped and enslaved and sold to Portuguese traders. He became a soldier or a fighter and probably received at least a temporary emancipation. He entered the service of Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit missionary, and in 1579 accompanied Valignano as a bodyguard on his mission to Japan. He seems to have learned the language quickly.
In 1581, Yasuke Oda Nobunaga was introduced, the Japanese lord who was well on the way to reuniting Japan. Nobunaga – who loved European fashion and foreign knowledge – was intrigued by Yasuke’s skin color. He had never seen a black man before and initially assumed the paint was some kind of ink that would wipe off.
Nobunaga was so enthusiastic about Yasuke that he took him into his own service. Eventually Nobunaga made Yasuke a full samurai with his own household and servants. Yasuke fought with Nobunaga in several battles, including his last when Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed him and forced Nobunaga to commit ritual seppuku. Mitsuhide did not kill Yasuke, however. Instead, he returned Yasuke to the Jesuit mission, probably to gain European support. This is the last safe mention of Yasuke in historical records.
This historical record is sparse. A number of Jesuit sources mention Yasuke. So does the chronicle of Lord Nobunaga by Ota Gyuichi, one of the administrators of Nobunaga, in which Yasuke is mostly treated as a passing curiosity that illustrates Nobunaga’s curiosity and generosity.
Yasuke’s story was largely forgotten in Japan for about 300 years afterwards. The modern audience was first introduced to him in 1968 in Yoshio Kurusu’s children’s book Kurosuke, which was illustrated by Mita Genjiro. Kurusu still lives on Yasuke’s exotic difference; It contains a scene in which Nobunaga tries to wipe off Yasuke’s pigment. But it is also inspired by contemporary African freedom movements. In an afterword, she denigrates “European empires, fat merchants and bearded generals” who have cut up Africa. Passages in which Yasuke remembers and misses his homeland evoke a burgeoning African nationalism that undoubtedly found resonance in a Japan under US occupation. (Yasuke has also become a popular character in US children’s books.)
Another important novel about Yasuke in Japanese is Shusaku Endo’s 1973 novel Kuronbo. Endo is much less likable to Yasuke than Kurusu, portraying him as a confused sucker who relies on a girl named Yuki to mother him. Endo appears to have been influenced by racist depictions of black people, perhaps particularly in Hergé’s series The Adventures of Tintin, which was very popular in Japan. The title of the novel is also a Japanese racial fraud, which corresponds somewhat to the English n-word.
A very different black samurai is depicted in Marc Olden’s 1974 Black Samurai. It is not clear whether Olden, who was African American, knew about Yasuke or whether he himself came up with the idea of the first black samurai. His novel is set in the 1970s and shows Robert Sand, a black US soldier on vacation in Japan, who goes to the aid of an older man who is being harassed by white racists. The man is a sensei who doesn’t need Sand’s help. But he admires the soldier’s bravery and trains him. The story is a pulp thriller influenced by the blaxploitation genre and the Black Power movement. (Olden had also written a biography of black activist Angela Davis.) If Yasuke was a source, he went from being a footnote in history to being an icon of black empowerment, regularly and satisfactorily beating the snot of openly racist white people.
Since the 1990s, Yasuke has appeared regularly in Japanese popular culture in various fictionalized forms. For example, he appears in the 2011 anime Hyouge Mono and 2017 in the video game Nioh.
In English, Yasuke was the subject of an excellent popular biography by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard entitled African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a legendary black warrior in feudal Japan. The book, published in 2019 (which provided a wealth of information for this article) attempts to place Yasuke in a global context after his journey from Africa through (possibly) India and Europe and to East Asia. Lockas and Girards Yasuke is a cosmopolitan man who speaks a dozen languages fluently and whose travels have familiarized him with heavy artillery tactics better than virtually anyone else in Japan. Yasuke is not a curiosity, but a representative of the broader, diverse global culture and economy in which Japan was and is embedded.
You can also see glimmers of this global Yasuke in the new Netflix animation series. Yasuke is one of several immigrants living in Japan throughout history. There is a Jesuit mastermind, a Russian werewolf and an African wizard, among others. This diversity stands in contrast to a Japanese ethnonationalism that has more to do with contemporary US racial politics than with the relatively open Japan of the time. Nobunaga’s decision to promote Yasuke in this narrative was extremely controversial, violating “the old ways” (an arc before the Make America Great Again movement), and resulted in an essentially fascist rebellion.
An anti-fascist Yasuke sounds pretty interesting. Unfortunately, the anime gets sidetracked and focuses on the story of Saki (voiced by Maya Tanida), a chosen and stereotypical magical girl with great power. She is the one with fate; Yasuke is there to help her and not the other way around.
The anime’s uncertainty about how to center Yasuke in its own story is frustrating. But it is perhaps a sign that Yasuke remains a character who is difficult to fit into the standard understanding of the past or present, whether American or Japanese or – as in this case – collaborative. A black samurai continues to exceed expectations some 400 years after arriving in Japan. Hopefully he will get into trouble and inspire the creators for another year or five.