The only African Samurai to Have ever Existed

Japan is not a place one would usually associate with immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. Yet in the late 16th century Japan’s most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga, had a black page who was not only a cultural curiosity but also served as Nobunaga’s bodyguard and was granted the prestigious rank of Samurai. His name was Yasuke, and he was the FIRST and ONLY black samurai. Brought to Japan by a Jesuit missionary as a slave, before he ended up serving the famous warlord Oda Nobunaga. Yasuke even did battle with Nobunaga’s enemies, proving his worth as a samurai warrior. Though his time as a warrior was brief, the man still has a special place in Japanese history.

Taken from his home somewhere in central or western Africa, Yasuke was sold to a Jesuit priest by the name of Alessandro Valignano. In 1579, Father Valignano went on a missionary trip to Japan, taking Yasuke along for help, and when the slave arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun, he caused quite a stir especially because he stood over 2 meters (6 ft) tall, which was a contrast of the homogeneous Japanese population.

Several years later, word of the newcomer reached Oda Nobunaga, a powerful figure who was responsible for the eventual unification of Japan. Curious to meet this celebrity, Nobunaga invited Valignano and Yasuke to visit him in 1581. When the warlord finally met the 26- or 27-year-old slave, he was quite impressed by his looks and stature. Later, he even claimed Yasuke was stronger than 10 men. The two were able to converse, as Yasuke had learned quite a bit of Japanese during the past few years. However, Nobunaga wasn’t quite convinced that Yasuke’s skin color was genuine and had him stripped and washed just to make sure. When his servants failed to scrub away Yasuke’s blackness, he declared Yasuke as his vassal and dubbed him with the Japanese name he has been known with ever since.

As Nobunaga’s retainer, Yasuke found more freedom than he’d had in years. Technically, he was still a servant, but now he was eating at a table with his peers and earning money for his work. Sometimes he even ate with Nobunaga himself, something that would’ve never happened with a European master. However, his service to Nobunaga didn’t last very long. Eventually, the warlord was betrayed by one of his best generals, a man by the name of Akechi Mitsuhide. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined his son, Oda Nobutada and helped defend a castle against Mitsuhide’s forces. Unfortunately, the fortress was eventually overrun, and Yasuke had to surrender to the enemy. However, Mitsuhide didn’t consider this “beast” to be a real samurai. Instead of giving him a warrior’s death, he sent him to a Jesuit church in Kyoto . . . where Yasuke mysteriously disappeared.

No one knows what happened next to the African samurai, but perhaps he spent the rest of his days wandering Japan as a black ronin, fighting villains and righting wrongs. The Legend of Yasuke lives on.

How We Created the Concept

I am not such a movie and series fan,  I am more into documentaries. But when I do watch a movie it must be I checked out the synopsis first then made the decision to watch it. I have always loved Samurai movies because of the intelligence and skill they display, and I am a big history freak too. Some time last year I was watching 47 Ronin, a 2013 Samurai movie starring Keanu Reeves and thoughts began to run, "how about telling a Samurai story one of these days! How about looking at the history of these people and how the Samurais began!"

I started digging. The internet has always been a great library for any kind of information. In the process of my research, I came across something beautiful. There was actually an African Samurai who existed. The ONLY black Samurai to have ever existed, and I thought, wow! I just landed on a diamond mine. I dug dipper but now with better direction, I wanted to tell his story.

After getting a good chunk of information that I felt was viable enough to get me going, I started putting the concept together. My friend, Jesse Mutakiwa came to mind as a possible lead. I shared the idea with him and he was super amped. We started looking for costume. He happened to have a friend who he could get the costume from but we had to wait.  As we waited, I brought in another friend. Ernest Murihe. He is a set designer. He came in with ideas of how we could create the set for the shoot. It took us about 3 months from the idea to actualization on set. By that time we had the Bokken, a practice weapon for the Japanese sword arts, and a Navy blue Hakama, the attire worn by the Samurai.

3 days before the shoot, another idea popped up. I wanted to bring out the character as a real bad ass guy. So one of the things that would contribute to that was creating a very rugged look. The only thing that was coming to mind was a smoke machine to create a smoky effect that would "dirt-en" the set. We did not have the luxury of hiring one. The following day I saw one of the cleaners in my estate cleaning the stairs and was startled by how the dust was moving from the ground, and thought, if I could only find a way of maybe collecting that dust in bulk! But I couldn't. So what else could I use instead of dust that could still give me the effect I was looking for. BABY POWDER! Yes. I quickly rushed to the nearby supermarket and got myself enough of it to "spoil" as I tested with it. It worked. It was a eureka moment!

It was amazing seeing an idea move from a smoke machine, to dust, to baby powder and still work. The rest of the stuff happened on post-production. I used Cinema 4D to create the lighting effects and Photoshop was my main tool for compositing.

Lessons learnt

1. Do not go getting a smoke machine when you can use baby powder! Unless it is really necessary.

2. The truth, nobody is always inspired. Not me and probably not the artists you aspire to be like, who craft ingenious masterpieces. Passionate individuals are especially cursed as the waves of up and down swing greater than average. The exhilarating high that you get from creating invariably leads to a resounding low or a disappointment when the latest project fails to meet your expectations.

What separates artists who stand out from those that fade away is perseverance – the ones who continually innovate and create in spite of any challenging obstacles and work with WHATEVER they have.


STARRING - Jesse Intare Mutakiwa as Yasuke
SET DESIGNER - Ernest Ziro Murihe
COSTUME - Jungsun Park

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