Netflix is retelling the lost tale of Japan’s first African samurai

Move aside, Tom Cruise.
Move aside, Tom Cruise.
Image: Netflix
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Black-centered stories are finding fertile and profitable ground on screens across Asia, judging by the success in the region of blockbuster movies like Marvel’s Black Panther and Disney-Pixar’s Oscar-nominated Soul. Netflix’s newest Japanese anime series, set to debut globally on April 29, hopes to ride this wave. Based on a true story, Yasuke shines a spotlight on the remarkable rags-to-riches tale of Japan’s first Black samurai.

Although Yasuke is a forgotten and fabled figure, his real-life journey from stolen slave to star samurai is ripe for Hollywood.

Little is known about Japan’s first foreign samurai, one of only nine. But historians believe Yasuke was abducted from his home—some speculate present-day Mozambique—and auctioned off to the Italian Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano during the 16th century.

When Yasuke arrived on the shores of Kyoto at 24 or 25 years old as Father Valignano’s slave and personal bodyguard, onlookers fought to get a glimpse of the first African to ever step foot in the country. According to letters from Portuguese missionary Luis Frois and a 17th-century book called The History of the Church of Japan, cited in an account of Yasuke by Japanese historian Tetsushi Furukawa, Yasuke was a towering 6-foot-2 tall man with skin like an “ox” or “charcoal.” Even servants tried to scrub the “black ink” off of him. Eventually, his stature caught the attention of warlord Oda Nobunaga, who promoted him to the sacred samurai class, the highest-ranking social caste in war-torn feudal Japan.

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Image: Netflix

From 1581 to 1592, Yasuke served Nobunaga who praised his strength, describing his might as that of 10 men. But after Nobunaga’s death, Japan’s new leaders looked down on Yasuke, calling him an “animal” before returning him to the European missionaries and his story was forgotten, says Furukawa, a history professor at Otani University and editor of the Japan Black Studies Association. He and a group of scholars tried to unearth Yasuke’s buried history, but academic records are scant.

That is where Yasuke’s true tale ends and Netflix’s supernatural six-episode series begins. The action-filled anime, set in an alternative world of science fiction and fantasy, is steeped with magic and robots. The show, which took three years to make, follows an African samurai warrior who returns to his life of violence in order to protect a mysterious girl from dark forces.

A growing legion of Blerds, or Black nerds, are praising Yasuke’s arrival. Anime suffers from a “real dearth of Blacks” and “the depictions of Blacks or of people made to resemble Blacks are drawn with exaggerated and imagined physical features of Blackness,” says Garrett Washington, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Washington researches modern and traditional Japan and the broader interplay of race, religion and nation in East Asia. He welcomes an anime that draws more nuanced portrayals of Black characters and the array of Black experiences across Japanese society. “There has long been a question of legitimacy, of a Black person actually belonging in Japan,” he says. “But this kind of historical fiction can help demonstrate that Blacks have been a part of Japan’s history and have their place in Japan just like anyone else.”

The world is watching more anime, a $24 billion industry with massive global appeal. Streaming giants HBO Max and Disney+ want a slice of that pie too. Just last year, Netflix invested hundreds of millions and dedicated an entire creative team to the genre. According to Netflix, more than 100 million households around the globe watched at least one anime title on its service in 2020, up by 50 percent from the year before.

Yasuke is also well-positioned to move beyond the silver screen. A live-action film was slated to star Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman before the late actor’s untimely death. The movie project is now scrapped, but the legend and lore of Yasuke could still live to fight another day.