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Who Was the Legendary Black Samurai YASUKE?

Netflix’s new anime series Yasuke is one of our most anticipated shows of the year. The gorgeous new show features LaKeith Stanfield voicing the titular character, and it looks like an epic historical adventure. But did you know that the series is based on a real historical figure? Yep, Yasuke was a real life Black samurai who became a legend in Feudal Japan. Before the series starts, here’s a primer on what you need to know!

Who was Yasuke?
Yasuke the Black samurai is shown on the battlefield in Netflix's new anime based on the real life figure

Netflix

The legend of the Black samurai is iconic in Japan. Yasuke has long been a figure of much mystique and drama in the country, portrayed in both kids books and folklore. But the story has been generally lesser known outside of Japan… until now. The release of the Netflix anime and a 2017 announcement that the now late Chadwick Boseman would be playing the legendary figure in a live action film raised its profile and introduced the story to a much wider audience. As noted in a BBC article, Yasuke first arrived in Japan in 1579 alongside a Jesuit leader Alessandro Valignano. It’s disputed whether or not Valignano enslaved Yasuke. But what isn’t questioned is that within a year of the two arriving in Japan, Yasuke had become the first non-Japanese person to ever reach the rank of Samurai.

It’s here that his legend cemented itself. Yasuke served under Oda Nobunaga. According to records, he already spoke Japanese and found favor under the powerful Japanese daimyō. The pair shared a love of poetry and theater, and Yasuke took the place as a close confidante of the eccentric leader. He fought alongside Nobunaga; when the “Great Unifier” was later overthrown only a few years after Yasuke’s arrival, Yasuke delivered his decapitated head and sword to his heir. But despite his loyalty and Samurai rank, Yasuke found himself exiled after the death of the man who had given him his title. That’s where records of him end. But his legend still lives on nearly 500 years later.

How much will the show take from his life?
Yasuke is comforted by a young girl wearing his helmet

Netflix

Seeing as the show is a fantasy series, we can guess it takes a lot of liberties. This version of Yasuke’s tale has mechs and magic, as well as monsters galore. (Which was probably not the case in Feudal Japan.) In an official statement, creator LeSean Thomas expanded on his vision for the show. “Yasuke is a fascinating, mysterious figure in Japanese history that’s drawn a growing interest in today’s media over the decades. I first learned of Yasuke’s role in Japanese history over a decade or so. The children’s book, Kuro-suke by Kurusu Yoshio, featured images that piqued my curiosity. To eventually learn that he wasn’t just a fictional character, but a real person, was exciting material for an adventure story. I’m so excited for both longtime fans and newcomers to enjoy our reimagined take on this historical figure.”

“Reimagined” is the most important word there in regards to this question. Yasuke clearly inspired the team, but the show is a fantasy reimagining. Still, it has a deeply personal aspect for Thomas. He said, “There is a serendipitous nature about this project, how an African-American man goes to Japan to live and work amongst the very best in Japanese anime to create an anime about an African who goes to Japan to live amongst the Japanese elite and become a warrior.”

Yasuke hits Netflix on April 29.

Featured Image: Netflix