It’s not clear if the real Yasuke participated in the Tensho Iga War, but given his timeline, it’s certainly plausible. He is documented as fighting for Nobunaga in the Battle of Tenmokuzan the following year. It was after that battle when Yasuke met Ietada who documented it in his journal. Yasuke was present at the Honno-Ji, the temple where Nobunaga committed seppuku. In the anime, Yasuke serves as Nobunaga’s kaishakunin – the person appointed to behead whoever is undertaking seppuku. No one knows who Nobunaga’s kaishakunin really was, but by some accounts, Yasuke was charged to deliver Nobunaga’s head and sword to his son, Nobutada.
Ritual Suicide and Sacred Beheading
In cinema, as in this anime, seppuku beheadings are graphic. However, it was a sacred ritual that required an exceedingly difficult cut. That cut is still practiced, just in case, by contemporary practitioners of Iaido, the art of sword drawing and cutting. Given the hallowed nature of seppuku, a head skittering across the floor is tacky. The kaishakunin’s cut must be exact. It must sever the spine but not the windpipe, so the head falls gently into the lap. One of the last recorded instances of seppuku was by acclaimed writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). His kaishakunin failed three times attempting to make that final cut, and another had to take over.
Following the incident at Honno-Ji, the true fate of Yasuke is unclear. Yasuke did join Nobunaga’s son Nobutada, but that didn’t last long. Nobutada was forced to commit seppuku that same year. Some accounts allege that Yasuke was captured and exiled to a Jesuit mission in Kyoto. There is a story about him fighting for the Jesuits in the Battle of Okitanawate in 1582, but that is his final chapter in the history books. Yasuke takes place twenty years after the Honno-Ji but given that the anime has him battling giant robots, such liberties are allowed.
To Be a Samurai is To Serve
Despite being fantasy, Yasuke captures the essence of samurai culture well. The most notable digression is how Yasuke is constantly berated by other samurai about his servitude. The word ‘samurai’ derives from saburau, which means ‘to wait upon’ or ‘accompany,’ essentially ‘to serve.’ The legends of samurai being great warriors eclipses their fundamental role as servants to their lord. Not only did samurai serve as swordsmen, but they also performed more mundane tasks for their lords like tax collecting.
That intense dedication to servitude, a commitment to the death, is what made them legendary. Throughout Yasuke, the titular hero honors this ideal of servitude to Nobunaga, and to others, which preserves the core samurai principle. The only awkwardness is that other samurai wouldn’t berate him for such behavior. They would respect that because it’s a goal to which they all aspire.
Yasuke has been depicted in movies, books, and anime before. Last year’s African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley was a scholarly documentation of his life. And there are some children’s books including Kuro-suke by Kurusu Yoshio and Yasuke: The Legend of the African Samurai by Jamal Turner.