Review: ‘Yasuke’ Reclaims a Black Samurai From History

“Yasuke” does a lot of leaping, both between decades and among modes. In his youth, the protagonist arrives in Japan as a trader’s servant, joins Nobunaga’s service and faces hostility from nativists who consider the elevation of an outsider like him to be a betrayal of their culture. In the present, he is roused from retirement — as all retired sword-slingers must be roused — by a cross-country quest, escorting Saki (Maya Tanida), a village girl whose burgeoning mystical powers could liberate the terrorized country if they don’t get her killed first.

The journey introduces a series of colorful villains, including a magic-wielding western priest (Dan Donohue) and the quasi-arachnid Daimyo (a sumptuously wicked Amy Hill). But in past and present, Yasuke also contends with forces hostile to him as a foreigner, and with a history of losses and betrayals.

Stanfield, an actor whose strength is in his reserve, modulates deftly between the idealistic young samurai and the hard-bitten elder. (Supporting players include Ming-Na Wen as a female samurai who shares an outsider’s bond with Yasuke, and Darren Criss as a mercenary robot with a heart, or at least a C.P.U., of gold.)

The true stars of “Yasuke,” however, are its visual and aural landscapes. The battle scenes are copiously bloody, but the animation, from the studio MAPPA, has a lonesome beauty that matches the protagonist’s temperament. And it’s all pulled together by a scintillating, jazz-inflected electronic score by Flying Lotus, who is also an executive producer. (His frequent collaborator Thundercat sings the haunting opening theme, “Black Gold.”) Vibe, in a short animated season, counts for a lot, and there’s an otherworldliness here that befits the fabulist story of an African expat in Japan spun by a Black American creator.

But I must return to the magic and robots. “Yasuke” is an action adventure at heart, and in its excited rush to layer twists, genre elements and mythology in six half-hour episodes, it feels hurried and overstuffed. Is this a story of an outsider in a rigid national culture? A character study of a battle-scarred warrior overcoming his regrets? A mystical epic of an anointed child against an ultimate evil?

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