When “Yasuke” is looking backwards toward its protagonist’s regrets, it’s infusing genre-bending elements—sci-fi, Blacksploitation, Western, and fantasy—that similarly work against tradition. Thomas fills the series with a villainous shapeshifting bear, a quirky futuristic mech, an African witch doctor, and other mystical beings. A torturous Jesuit priest, bordering on the grotesque, acts as an ode to Catholicism’s aims of converting the Japanese during the 16th century. Sika travels to a vibrant tripped out Astral Plane. And dark hallucinogenic magic pervades.
Thomas’ show can often create whiplash through these sharp tonal and visual shifts: at points we see classic samurai duels and technologically advanced cannon blasts in the same frame. The story also makes little sense and feels convoluted. And there are too many minor monsters hunting Yasuke and company for any of them to make a discernible impact. But, oh, the bloody swordplay is consistently enthralling. Pinkish purple vistas of Japan’s landscape, animated to startling clarity, serve as the backdrop to Yasuke’s gushing slaughters. With eye-popping fluidly, he cuts down his opponents in the breadth of a single slash, causing their insides to explode across the screen.
The decapitations are plentiful; the exposing of guts heaps even greater rewards. The large set pieces, which sees vast armies descending upon our heroes, who are holed up in a fortified stronghold, brings reminders of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” An ending tear-jerking epilogue harks to “The Last Samurai.” Throughout it all, Stanfield’s laid-back voice oscillates between weary and fiery, holding the wide emotional swings of this latest MAPPA studio (“Attack on Titan” and “Banana Fish”) creation together.
To the tune of six brisk half-hour length episodes, Thomas’ “Yasuke” hits the spot for any anime lover while offering new subversions to the samurai genre. It raises questions regarding racism and sexism. And it never shies away from real ruthlessness. While the story features a few too many dots that need connecting, “Yasuke” connects in every other way for maximum bloody impact.
All six episodes screened for review. “Yasuke” premieres on Netflix on April 29.