(YASUKE premieres on Netflix Nordic on April 29th. Full series screened for review.)
YASUKE is easily recognizable for its influences. There’s an ample serving of LONE WOLF & CUB, a hefty amount of NINJA SCROLL, some AKIRA, and even a smattering of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION for good measure. It takes place in the waning days of the Nobunaga shogunate, but in an alternate reality, where giant mechs roam the battlefield.
The world of YASUKE is so far removed from reality that it feels weird for the storytellers even to attempt any connection to history. But attempt they do, and as such, YASUKE is lesser than the sum of its parts. It’s an occasionally exciting but mostly frustrating mess that never finds a tone or pace during its extremely short run.
Twenty years after the fall of Nobunaga, Yasuke hides away in a small village, making his living as a boatman by day and drunkard at night. When a local woman with a sick daughter begs him to take them upriver into the heart of war, Yasuke finds himself on the run with a group of hired assassins seeking the ill girl.
The basic setup is interesting, if highly traditional. The unexpected father-figure to the unimaginably powerful child was already a major hit in the west with THE MANDALORIAN, and YASUKE seems to build on that template early on. But it also wants to be a story about a fallen samurai finding themselves again, about the history of the clan wars in Japan, and about giant robots fighting wizards. At the same time, a variety of hip-hop-influenced subgenres play. It’s simply too much in too short of a period, and each different genre eats away at the other.
It doesn’t help, either, that Yasuke himself is drawn extremely thin, and for most of the series, has anything but the most threadbare personality. One episode even sees him relegated to nothing more than a punching bag, with the hope that a heavy-handed allusion to breaking the bonds of slavery will suffice in character development.
The same goes for the supporting cast, all who are caricatures best, and enigmas at worst. The main villain reveals themselves around halfway through the series, at which point everyone treats their existence as a well-known reality. There’s even a massive reality-breaking tower that stretches to the heavens, but for some reason, it’s never even referenced before it shows up out of nowhere. The world-building in YASUKE is in a constant state of flux, and as a result, nothing feels impactful or exciting. Things happen until they stop happening.
Repetitive and unengaging
Much of these problems stem from the structure, where each episode comes with its dedicated villain. Yasuke confronts them; they trade barbs, usually indicating the villain is after his ward, and then they fight. It gets old fast, and the videogame-styled pacing feels remarkably stale for a story that spans multiple decades and wars.
Now, arguably, these prolonged fight scenes would be more palatable if the animation was better. It’s also something you’d expect from MAPPA, the house behind such modern classics as ATTACK ON TITAN. But whatever the reason, YASUKE looks dire. Singular images, especially stationary ones, are perfectly pleasing. But anything involving motion, choreography, or even subtle gestures looks cheap. There’s a lot of frame recycling, and at every turn, you can see where they’ve cut corners.
Everyone is a stereotype
Then there’s the English-language dialog, which YASUKE makes clear that everyone is speaking. They resort to Japanese only to emphasize something important. This is the equivalent of seeing a Hispanic character in an American film, whose only reference to their culture is occasionally replacing an English word with a Spanish one. YASUKE clearly reveres the material it lifts from, but at times it also feels completely disconnected to it as well.
In all fairness, that short-sightedness isn’t limited to just Japan in YASUKE. A group of mercenaries each comes loaded with clunky cultural stereotyping. From the vodka-swilling giantess from Russia who can turn into a bear to the greedy West African witch doctor, each of the supporting lineups feels like a quickly gathered composite of tropes. There’s also a sentient robot, for some reason, whom the series quickly realizes breaks every fight scene and sidelines at every possible opportunity.
A missed opportunity
Not everything in YASUKE is terrible, though. LaKeith Stanfield is decent enough as the titular hero, and the music by Flying Lotus takes interesting turns where you’d least expect them. It’s also refreshing to see a story of lesser-known history, primarily featuring protagonists that rarely get a chance to be action heroes.
But these positives only highlight the missed opportunities. What little we know about the real-life Yasuke is a far more interesting story than this one. It’s a tale that doesn’t need robots or wizards or metaphysical deathmatches. All of those things feel like the storytellers aren’t interested in the history beyond simple name recognition, which itself raises many eyebrows, especially when you’re toying around with another culture.
In the end, all you get is a reasonably watchable series thanks to its short length, but nothing more. And it could have been something special.