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An Introduction to Korean Dramas (for anime fans)

I’ve been meaning to write this article for a while now and with the popularity of Squid Game, I guess I can’t put it off any longer. When I’m late to finishing an anime for review, it’s often due to a Korean drama (or K-drama), most commonly at 16 1-hour episodes per series (some series will do 32 half-hour episodes). I particularly want to talk about this ever-growing genre for anime fans, as I feel there is crossover appeal. You would be surprised by how many K-dramas are adaptations of manhwa/webtoons or manga.

Before I get into my recommendations on which series you should begin with when diving into the world of kimchi slaps, let’s go over some of the tropes and the prevailing themes. Anime fans of all people should know how weird a genre could be to outsiders in the face of very peculiar tropes. How do you explain nosebleeds to any sane person?

When one says anime, 9 out of 10 out people will think of a shounen action series, whether standard battle anime or an isekai. For K-dramas, the most common genre is the romantic comedy. Now, this isn’t like the vapid Hollywood romantic comedy. A Korean rom-com will often involve a supernatural element. For example, My Love from the Star features a romance between a spoilt celebrity actress and an immortal alien stuck on Earth waiting for the next ride home. Legend of the Blue Sea is a romance about a conman and a mermaid, with a dash of reincarnation thrown in. Ah yes, reincarnation is a strong theme in K-dramas. Just as a shounen protagonist is secretly related to one of the most important people in the world, a K-drama couple will have an air of reincarnation, a whiff of ancient memories, and a past so dramatic that you could spin another series out of it.

Reincarnation brings us neatly to the second most popular genre: the historical drama. Sudden quiz: in which period do most historical anime take place? That’s right, the Edo period. The time of the Nobunaga, Tokugawa, and the bloody samurai wars. For Korea, we have the Joseon period. If you have ever seen a picture of a Korean in historical dress, it is almost certainly from this period. Within this genre, one can find myriad sub-genres. Unlike most Edo series, which are about samurai wars (understandable), Joseon series range from war stories to political dramas to slice of life. Sungkyunkwan Scandal follows a girl who disguises herself as a boy to study with the high class boys. You can see where that story is going. Because of this variety, you can pick a style you prefer – modern, historical, supernatural, etc. – and enjoy a vast library of dramas from different subgenres.

I should note here that the term “drama” often means “Korean drama series” and not a dramatic story. Everything is a “drama.”

If you prefer something more “normal,” there are plenty of contemporary romances and dramas without any supernatural element whatsoever. One can also delve into profession specific series such as detective mysteries, law procedurals, and medical dramas – although, the medical accuracy leaves something to be desired. Regardless of the genre, there is usually a strong romance element. In fact, you don’t even need to specify “romance” in the genre line. Romance is assumed.

Thankfully, romances is K-dramas are a ton of fun. I love them. Call it cheesy, call it old fashioned, doesn’t matter – it’s good fun. Most K-dramas have a wholesome quality to them, which I would wager is their biggest appeal. Mind you, there are plenty as serious and dramatic as you would find anywhere in the world – often in the form of a dynastic historical epic such as the 62-episode The Great Queen Seondeok – but the majority have an aim to please with happy endings and all the fuzzy feelings.

Common tropes you’ll see in romances are the “back hug” – hugging someone from the back in surprise, followed by circular dolly shot in slow motion with repeat cuts – the upgraded back hug in the form of a piggyback, the dramatic kiss (the champion of repeat cuts), and confessing to someone, only to realise they have passed out drunk. That brings me to another point. Where anime is largely for a teenaged audience, K-dramas (and Chinese, Japanese, etc.) are for adults. Instead of a high school romance, it’s in university. Instead of a part-time job anime, it’s an office setting. As such, and due to the prevalence of it in Korean culture, there is a fair bit of drinking alcohol. However, unless its drama drama, they keep it light-hearted and for comedic effect.

Two tropes very much in common with anime are the childhood friend and the love triangle. K-dramas throw an extra twist into the mix by usually making the childhood friend a secret. One party will not realise that this person they see every day is from their past. Sometimes it is even the core of the premise, as seen in She Was Pretty, where a rich and cute kid grows up into a poor and “ugly” woman, while her fat friend grew into a successful and handsome man. He doesn’t recognise her, fooled by the pretty substitute sent in her place.

The childhood friend tends to be in the non-supernatural romances with a love triangle (equally likely to be two guys after one woman or two women after one guy). The supernatural romance, on the other hand, will have two opposites interested in the same person (usually two guys after one woman here), one good and one evil – or rather, one anti-hero with an eventual good heart inside because everyone loves a bad boy. If the supernatural guy is meant to be isolated (exile, for example) then the other guy will be an ordinary human for contrast yet not stand a chance in this relationship. Don’t be surprised if the supernatural guy starts the story by wanting to kill the woman either. Of course, he will save her in an impossible manner later.

I want pause here to touch on one of the recurring negatives in K-dramas. There are negatives, like every medium, more of which I’ll get to later. For now, I refer to the stoic love interest. I don’t know why, but some drama writers equate having no personality to being cool. Far too often for my liking, the male love interest will be as bland as a grey concrete wall with nothing to attract someone apart from his looks (of course, he’s too cool for his looks as well). Meanwhile, the female protagonist will be an excellent character full of life and personality. They’re trying to go for “opposites attract” but the opposite of lively isn’t boring. My Love from the Star, a favourite of mine, sadly has this one weakness.

Friends or enemies to lovers is a common romantic scenario, one that I particularly enjoy. Rich meets poor is common too, often with the poor character on a scholarship to attend the same institute as the rich love interest, or the poor one works for the rich one’s company. For some reason, the poor person will often have a rooftop flat. Class divide and wealth inequality between the “chaebols” (families that run the largest conglomerates in Korea) and everyone else is a prevalent theme.

With rich families come strict parents. Rarely does one see a K-drama without a strict parent or two. The richer the love interest, the stricter and nastier the parent. And boy can they get nasty! It’s usually the mother because she makes for a more entertaining character. She will get catty, gossip about their child’s love interest, throw in a bitch slap or two, and outright break the law to no consequence (see chaebols). They have some great actresses to play these villainous mothers. Like Umbridge, you loathe them yet wouldn’t have it any other way. When it’s the father, he’s strict in the business sense, which isn’t as fun.

For the not so fun, let’s talk about common negatives of K-dramas. To me, the drawn out middle acts are the reason most likely to make me drop a show. In your standard story, act one has all the setup, the excitement of characters meets, stakes establishing, threads beginning, and so on. This takes about 25% of the run time or 4 out of 16 episodes. The third act – episodes 13 to 16 – have all the pay offs and a heightened pace as everything comes to a head. Those middle eight episodes, however, and at an hour each, are where a series is likely to lose me. In the boring series, I always get the feeling that the series has 16 episodes because that’s what the TV station mandates, not because the story is that long, and so they have to drag it out in the middle. For a rom-com, this means the couple almost getting together but then not by the end of each episode, interfered in increasingly convoluted ways.

On the flip side, one positive about K-dramas is the lack of sequels and endlessly running stories. You can start something and know that in a few months you will have the ending. No decade-long commitment needed. When you do see two seasons, they’re usually half-length each.

Also, when it is a good series, you power through so easily because K-dramas are master classes in end of episode cliffhangers. No matter the genre, when done well, you simply have to watch the next episode. Eight episodes later before you even realise it.

In the same vein as the wheel spinning of the middle act, writers use amnesia as a plot device to interrupt story progress all too often. Furthermore, the amnesia can occur from the slightest bump on the head and isn’t consistent at all. You know it’s going to magically get better in X number of episodes (X = how many episodes they need to stall) and proceedings will pick up from just before the amnesia. Rarely do they do this device well. These days, I tend to skip through until the amnesia is forgotten.

If the third act has an amnesia equivalent, it is the final episode tragedy. Maybe the love interest has to live overseas out of nowhere; perhaps someone dies; or maybe the villain rises from the dead one last time after the case is solved. Regardless, something will occur in the final episode with little to no setup for a bit of extra drama, only to resolve in the same episode before a happy ending. Honestly, you could cut this final incident out and you wouldn’t notice it was missing, narratively.

Then we have the product placement. No product is more synonymous with K-dramas than Subway – yes, the sandwich place. Rich or poor, everyone in Korea eats at Subway, or so K-dramas would have you believe. Romantic date? You bet Subway is an option. It’s a meme at this point. Humidifiers. Oh my god, the humidifiers. Whenever someone is hospitalised (naturally, they don’t look at all ill, for it wouldn’t look attractive), expect to find a humidifier on the bedside table. There is a fair bit of this in contemporary series and sometimes the product placement is particularly clunky. The worst case I can recall is The King: Eternal Monarch, where said king in a parallel Korea would pull out this LED therapy mask at the start of a scene, do nothing with it, and then put it away. Almost every episode. That series was atrocious with the sheer number of products front and centre in the camera.

Lastly, I have to mention a negative pet peeve of mine. I should warn you, this is really petty. I can’t stand the way they bite their spoons when eating rice. That clack of teeth on metal is worse than nails on a chalkboard. Add to that the tendency to talk with a mouth full of food. Makes me recoil every time. Eating a meal together is a favourite Korean past time and moment of bonding, so as you can imagine, biting spoons happens a lot.

Right, enough of my pettiness. I have briefly introduced the world of K-dramas. Time for some recommendations to get you started. You can likely find these on some streaming service or other depending on your location.

The perfect introduction for anime fans: W – Two Worlds

A woman finds herself inside her father’s famous webtoon, where she saves the protagonist’s life and changes the course of the story.

W was one of my first K-dramas and the first I binged. Featuring an intriguing plot, a fast pace, good characters, and a story you’d find in anime, this is easily my go-to recommendation for newcomers. The mechanics of the webtoon world are brilliant and make for such an interesting series. The villain too, which I won’t spoil, is a fantastic and creative threat.

For fans of the “sudden girlfriend appearance” romance: Legend of the Blue Sea

A wealthy conman stumbles upon a real mermaid, not that he suspects her of being anything more than a lost weirdo. This fun rom-com features my favourite lead actress, Jun Ji-hyun (also featured in My Love from the Star). The fish out of water humour from her is pure joy to me. Legend of the Blue Sea has many of the tropes I mentioned, such as reincarnation, seen in full effect here. Also starring is Lee Min-ho, the highest paid actor in K-dramas (not sure if still the case). He’s had mixed receptions from me. I first saw him in Boys Over Flowers (based on the shoujo manga of the same name) and his performance was atrocious, though the series in general sucked. Much better in Legend of the Blue Sea.

For the better live action adaptation: Naeil’s Cantabile

A musical perfectionist of prodigious talent comes face to face with an anarchist of music, a woman of talent, sure, but no sense of structure, following the rules, or doing anything according to how music meant to be played! Where were we?

Sound familiar? This is the Korean live action adaptation of the manga Nodame Cantabile, which made for an anime I love starring one of the best anime couples of all time. Naeil’s Cantabile is how you should adapt manga to live action. It doesn’t try to be a manga or anime in real life. That never works, as demonstrated perfectly by the inferior Japanese live action adaptation of this same manga. Naeil’s Cantabile changes details to fit Korean culture and real life, yet maintains that same dynamic between the characters and that same fun tone. This is better than any scene-for-scene adaptation could hope to achieve.

For a true opposites attract series: Crash Landing on You

A workaholic woman and CEO of a large company gets carried away by the wind while paragliding and crash lands over the border in North Korea, where a high ranking officer finds her. Hiding out in his village, all manner of culture shock and comedy hijinks occur in this rom-com. I would say this has the best K-drama couple, in all likelihood.

The scenario sounds crazy, but they execute it well and there is a serious edge to it regarding the North and South conflict. Love Crash Landing on You!

For fans of Kaiji: Squid Game

A gambling addict enters a contest of life or death with hundreds of other addicts to win the money need to pay off his debts. While not as good as Kaiji, the currently popular Squid Game is an easy recommendation if you want something on the more brutal side. Feel good this isn’t.

For slice of life fans: Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast

Now, I’m cheating a little here since this isn’t a K-drama. Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast (a.k.a. Hyori’s Homestay) is about Hyori, a real celebrity, and her husband who invite strangers from the public to stay with them at their home on Jeju Island, a paradise holiday destination for Koreans and foreigners alike. They don’t know who will visit – the producers screen applications – but they need to be ordinary people with a bit of conversation to share. This couple just wants to meet people. This isn’t a minor celebrity either. Hyori is a massive star of screen and music. Not only that, but they “hire” an assistant to help with the guests and that assistant will be another celebrity you could never imagine doing housework. Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast is the slice of life show that all slice of life shows strive to be, whether real or fictional.

Now, you’re probably imagining something trashy like Big Brother or Real Housewives. This is the polar opposite. For as trashy as those shows are, Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast is wholesome, honest, and kind hearted.

My favourite aspect is the pets. The cats and dogs are so adorable – eight of them! The best of them all is Mimi, who lives on the dining table. She will sit there and stare at you eating all day if needed.

If you ever need to watch something to feel better, Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast is the ultimate pick-me-up.

There are plenty more great series to watch but these are a good place to start. Enjoy!

(Don’t tell anyone but this article was late because I was watching Squid Game.)

Golden Boy – the manga is so much worse

Japanese Title: Golden Boy

Related: Golden Boy (anime)

Genre: Comedy Ecchi Harem

Length: 104 chapters (10 volumes)



  • The first few chapters made a good anime


  • All garbage past the first few chapters
  • Art gets lazier as the series progresses
  • Messy and unfocused arcs

Golden Boy is best known for being a fun six-episode ecchi comedy about university dropout Kintaro, who travels around Japan working various jobs (coincidentally under women) to learn new skills and broaden his horizons. “Study! Study! Study!” is his motto. While browsing for something to read a while back, I came across the Golden Boy manga and added it to the list, curious to see how the source material fared. After all, I enjoyed the anime and most of the manga’s 104 chapters wouldn’t have made it to the screen.

Good heavens. What a disaster.

The premise at first is of Kintaro doing this variety of jobs, incompetent at every one of them yet his hard working nature and determination makes him a force for good after a whirlwind of chaos. These chapters, the basis for the anime, are done with in the first volume. Afterwards, Golden Boy goes into longer “arcs” with Kintaro spending more time in one location doing a single job. The education aspect quickly falls to the wayside. It pretends to keep up the premise but none of the quality in that first volume remains.

Scenarios instead devolve into being all about sex fetishes. It gets quite graphic, though not in that erotic way. I believe it was meant to be erotic but this artist isn’t good, so it looks janky and it only grows worse. Sometimes the art is intentionally bad for comedy, though you’ll be waiting for when it gets good. Basic elements such as aligning the features of someone’s face is too difficult a task here. Character sizes aren’t even consistent from one panel to the next on the same page. It’s just ugly in general. You’re unlikely to find titillation. More importantly, the writing is terrible.

Golden Boy works best in single-chapter stories, where the author can extract all humorous material of any given scenario and move on before it gets old. The longer arcs are an absolute drag to get to through and painfully unfunny. A central problem is that they put the sex first and the work experience second, whereas the single chapters did it the other way around. The sex comedy isn’t funny when it so overt. Honestly, I’m not even sure if it’s meant to be a joke half of the time.

Alright, Kintaro is going to learn to be a more seductive dancer by becoming this woman’s slave and watching her have sex. Silly premise but it’s just a gag. Wait, you’re going to repeat it over and over and over and over and over and over. (Release me from this pain.) Later arcs repeat earlier material as well. Golden Boy anime versus manga is a great lesson in the benefit of keeping it brief.

Some arcs even try to “educate” the audience on love, romance, and relationships. However, it’s the worst advice to give anyone. You may be thinking, “But Kintaro is an idiot and this is a comedy manga. Of course the advice isn’t meant to be taken seriously.” I thought that as well until I realised these are the moral conclusions of the arcs and nothing contradictory occurs.

I have never seen such a disparity in quality between adaptation and source material than seen with Golden Boy. To have one version be better than the other to some degree or vice versa is expected, but for it to be this bad is astonishing. No wonder they only made six episodes.

Art – Low

Story – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. Watch the Golden Boy anime instead.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Eating Crab with a Snow Woman – or the importance of build-up

Japanese Title: Yukionna to Kani wo Kuu


Genre: Drama

Length: 69 chapters (8 volumes)



  • The art is quite nice


  • The big twist undermines everything
  • Several-volume tangent with other irrelevant women

A man intent on killing himself wishes to fulfil one last item on his bucket list before kicking the bucket. He wants to travel north to Hokkaido and eat the best crab. Unfortunately, a loser like him doesn’t have the money for such a trip or such an expensive crab. And so, he decides to rob a rich housewife. Much to his surprise though, she offers not just the money he needs but also her body and company on the journey.

The road trip that follows is one of sightseeing, sex, and food with no concern for the future. Try as they might to celebrate, questions from the past and their private lives invade this last hurrah, entwining two strangers in a bond closer than what they had signed up for.

The premise has a good hook. He’s a piece of shit and we soon see that she is one as well, both of them broken by life and trying to end their grief in each other’s bodies. Classic literary novels very much inspired Eating Crab with a Snow Woman, primarily No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai, a Japanese classic and second bestseller of all-time in Japan (also featured in the anime Aoi Bungaku).

I don’t recommend this manga. I can’t fully explain why without going into spoilers, as the big twist undoes this story. So, if you are interested in reading Eating Crab with a Snow Woman yourself, do not read further in this review until you are done.

Okay, before we go on, I need to talk about the main inspiration for this series since it is relevant. No Longer Human is a quasi-autobiographical work about a man suffering from depression, distancing from society, and suicide. It’s a seriously depressing novel. Dazai drowned himself along with his mistress shortly after the release of this book.

The woman in this manga presents herself as a lonely wife betrayed by her successful husband, who has an affair – one similar in circumstance to when he first got with this woman – and leaves her with all the money she could want but none of the love. Her husband even used her holiday plans with his mistress instead. She goes along with the protagonist to escape it all and ends up falling in love with him. However, just before the suicide (they are to drown), when he gets cold feet, we learn that none of her story is relevant to her feelings. In truth, she is fanatically in love with her author husband and wants to kill herself like in his book (inspired by Dazai’s work) so that the attention garnered when the “reality is stranger and more dramatic than fiction,” it will propel him into literary history like Osamu Dazai.

He was her teacher and wrote a literary novel she admired under a pen name, which she figured out. He was much older than her, of course, and they started an affair. She did everything to support his career, including selling herself. He soon realised that she didn’t love him the person – she loved him as the future literary great. Interesting concept. Should have been laid throughout the story and not in a single chapter towards the end. This would allow us to see how she is playing this guy to achieve her dream.

This story highlights the importance of building up to a twist. When you don’t have the build-up, a final act twist will feel as if the writer changed their mind at the last minute. Yes, the twist can fit the world but does it fit the story? Take for instance Jurassic Park and image we are entering the final act, where the writer suddenly decides that the best twist would be to reveal that everything was just a virtual reality simulation. This twist doesn’t break anything but it does make for a rubbish story. Furthermore, it undermines the theme of humanity pushing too far at “playing God” with the resurrection of the dinosaurs, given now that the park wasn’t real. See what I mean? You could have a great VR story about a dinosaur park; however, the story and themes would need to be nothing like Jurassic Park from the start.

There are other moments of pain in Eating Crab with a Snow Woman as well. While he’s beating up the husband for driving the woman to suicide, she “rises from the dead” and catches up to them. This guy lay beside her “dead” body for hours and never noticed she was alive. Rubbish.

The worst section prior to the final act is this tangent lasting several volumes, where the man separates from the woman by accident and can’t find his way back to the hotel. This scenario is itself stupid enough, only then for it to waste our time as some random woman picks him up. She takes in this homeless guy and we meet several of her friends, get to know about her life, and so on, nothing of which is engaging or relevant to the grander story. Honestly, it feels like filler for the author to stall while she figures out the ending (see my Jurassic Park analogy for what happened next).

The twist isn’t infeasible. All it needed was build up in the first half of the story. While you’re at it, cut the entire side story with those other women. This could have been a great tragic manga.

Art – High

Story – Low

Recommendation: Don’t bother. The final twist of Eating Crab with a Snow Woman is so contrary to the story prior that it kills all value. The happy ending is unearned too.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Record of Ragnarok – I wish the apocalypse would come after watching this

Japanese Title: Shuumatsu no Walküre


Related: Record of Ragnarok 2nd Season (TBR)

Similar: Yu Yu Hakusho


Kengan Ashura


Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Fantasy

Length: 12 episodes



  • Adam representing humanity in combat is a novel idea


  • Slide show animation most of the time
  • Atrocious structuring of action and backstory
  • Asinine dialogue
  • Every fight is an ass-pull due to setup

(Request an anime for review here.)

Record of Ragnarok would be the worst anime I have seen of 2021 if not for Ex-Arm. So bad is this anime that I started it before my previous eight or so reviews and couldn’t finish it until now, when forced to.

The premise of Record of Ragnarok is the decision on the fate of mankind. The gods, which comprise Norse, Hindu, Greek, Christian, and more, have decided that humanity isn’t worth keep around anymore due to all of the conflicts, so they want to wipe everyone out. However, the Valkyrie Brunhilde busts into the assembly and proposes to give the people a fighting chance in a tournament against the gods, a series of 13 one-on-one battles. The gods agree.

The structure for Record of Ragnarok is straight into a tournament arc with backstories slotted in. And here we have a core pillar of what makes this anime so terrible. Each fight follows the same routine. The two contestants step up to much fanfare and commentary (none of it useful), they fight for a minute, pause, go into one fighter’s backstory, unpause, followed by another minute of combat, pause, now time for the other fighter’s backstory, unpause, one more minute of combat. If the fight isn’t over at this point (i.e. we need to drag this out for another episode), go into backstory part two and repeat proceedings. It’s astonishing how little action there is in this action series.

Not that the action is anything to write to your parents about. Pacing issues aside, these fights have no real tension despite the humanity ending stakes because we don’t know these characters, their abilities, nor how they fight beforehand. As such, each new technique feels pulled out of thin air. Need this guy to win? Well, he has this new almighty attack. But wait, the other guy is meant to win? Well, he now has a new attack he should have just started with. Ragnarok could work if it were a proper story with character arcs, build-up, and an actual narrative. With what they have here, it would be better to do a series of two-minute animations show casing “what if” fights – Thor versus Lu Bu, Zeus versus Adam (of the Bible), and so on. Give them flashy animation with references to the lore. Short and sweet.

Animation. That reminds me. Did I mention that the backstory segments are almost entirely slideshows? You might assume this is to save the budget for the divine action. Well, you’d be wrong! The action is barely more than a slideshow outside of a few cuts. The amount of time opponents spend staring at each other is creepy.

Accompanying this flat action is the worst sideline commentary I have heard in a battle anime. It isn’t easy to make expository commentary engaging yet I wager anyone could do better than this. The dialogue in general is bottom of the sceptic tank. Episode one has Brunhilde swear. Her assistant – worst character in this shitshow – comments on the swearing and Brunhilde replies, “I said what I said.” That’s where you should drop Record of Ragnarok.

Now we arrive at the characters. I don’t care about changing these mythological beings. They can be whatever you want. However, if you are going to deviate from the common expectations, then you have more work to do to establish their new personalities, ideologies, and philosophies. As seen in the God of War games, for instance. These in Record of Ragnarok aren’t characters. They’re nothing. They may as well not base them on mythology. Aphrodite is the perfect example. The camera makes a big deal of her from the beginning – of course, you and I know the real reason for this – but she does nothing throughout. The camera keeps cutting to her and on occasion she might make a pointless comment such as, “Oh my,” or, “I like the look of him.” Worthless.

Record of Ragnarok is rubbish. No simpler way of putting it. Sure, the manga might be better, though unless the story, and structure, and characters, and combat flow are different, I can’t see it being anything more than pulp action.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. The manga must surely be an improvement if the premise interests you.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)


Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None


Awful DialogueHollow World BuildingHorrendous ActionPoor PacingShallowUgly Artistic DesignUseless Side Cast

Yasuke – why the mechs?

Japanese Title: Yasuke


Similar: Ninja Scroll

Afro Samurai

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit


Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Fantasy

Length: 6 episodes



  • Great animation
  • Lo-fi beats you can study to


  • Thin on character
  • What’s with the robots?

(Request an anime for review here.)

Did you know that an African man served under Nobunaga in 16th century Japan? He arrived as a slave to an Italian missionary before Nobunaga bought him, fascinated by the look and strength of this foreigner. A letter from the time indicates Yasuke was likely the first black person Nobunaga had ever seen, as he had his servants try to clean the “ink” off as if his skin colour was some prank.

The historical character of Yasuke is the basis for this anime of the same name. In this, he is a samurai ronin, masterless after the death of Nobunaga. If you’ve never heard the story of Nobunaga, it is a fascinating one though for another time (I recommend the documentary series Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan to start). Short version: he was one of Japan’s greatest warriors, nicknamed the “Demon King,” and set events in motion to unify the nation. There’s a reason so many anime feature him as a character. As for Yasuke, there is no indication that he received the rank of samurai, but he was a warrior for Nobunaga by all accounts.

Historical accuracy isn’t a cornerstone of Yasuke, which is clear from the opening scene as a massive battle takes place involving samurai mechs and magic. I was disappointed to see these, for I had hoped this anime would be more historical drama and less action fantasy. Yasuke isn’t action fantasy – it is only action fantasy. That fact may be a selling point to some. However, I find it to be the greatest weakness. Let’s explore.

After a brief prologue chronicling the death of Nobunaga, we cut to Yasuke in a quiet mountain village living the life a drunk recluse. He has lost his master and purpose. He keeps to himself as he trades fish and rides on his boat along the river to survive. All of this changes when a local songstress asks for his help in getting her magically ailing daughter to a special doctor in the north. In war country.

On their tail is a group of foreign mercenaries led by a psychotic Catholic priest, including a giant shapeshifting Russian woman, an assassin, a Nigerien shaman, and a robot. From here on, the series is about ninety percent action. While the action looks great outside of the occasional messiness (might be intentional to represent the chaos of battle), there isn’t much more to it. The lack of character is particularly noticeable, further highlighted with every flashback to Yasuke’s past under Nobunaga. The present day will pause – usually when Yasuke is asleep, since most flashbacks are dream sequences – and rewind to a key moment. And just as that moment is getting interesting, he wakes up and we are off to the next fight. The action isn’t spectacular enough to carry.

That historical account of having his skin cleaned is in the story, yet there isn’t enough. What happened next? Can we have more dialogue between Yasuke and Nobunaga to know them as people first, action stars later? This depiction of Nobunaga differs from historical accounts as well, so take the time to convey his ideology and how it became that way. In truth, he’s barely in the show. He’s in plenty of scenes, all of them too brief. The most appealing element of this story is Yasuke’s past, which happens to be the lowest priority. Below is an art piece from the era likely depicting Yasuke versus a local in a sumo match, an event also glimpsed in Yasuke. I wish it were more than a glimpse. This anime seems to pay lip service to the real Yasuke, the biggest draw of the story.

The supporting cast don’t fare better either. The magic girl is little more than a magic girl with a headstrong personality. You won’t care for her as you would a Ghibli child. Her mother dies early to no emotional impact. The mercenaries are a tad more realised though only to the point of action characters.

Speaking of the mercenaries, the robot brings up another issue. What on Earth is with the technology? This world has samurai mechs and a fully autonomous self-aware robot, yet everything else is Edo period Japan. This detail has to be the laziest world building I have ever seen. My issue isn’t the robots in ancient Japan. Couldn’t care less. I’ve read crazier fictional worlds. However, if there is a robot more advanced than any technology in our modern day, why is the rest of society as it was? If I didn’t know better, I would say someone edited him into Yasuke to see if anyone would notice the odd one out. I mean, why?

There is a lack of attention to small narrative details as well. For example, Yasuke is accused of killing the girl’s mother. The villagers he lived with believe it because they mistrust him as a foreigner. Who tells them of the murder? A group of psychotic looking foreigners and a robot. Someone even points out the absurdity of the claim and the story still rolls with it! Come on, I’m trying to find the good in this but you aren’t making it easy.

If you sit back and “switch your brain off” as some like to put it, Yasuke is an alright action anime. At six episodes in length, it isn’t a large commitment. Any longer at this quality and it would rapidly grow thin on me. Want something better in action fantasy? Go for Ninja Scroll. Want more drama with that mysticism of a magic child? Moribito is waiting for you. Yasuke is a watch and forget for me. A drama anime on Yasuke’s life is still open for a studio to adapt, by the way. Anyone?

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For action fantasy fans only. With nothing but flashy action to recommend itself, Yasuke is for a specific audience. I’m probably being too generous.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None