Lionsgate Is Developing an Action-Drama Film on Yasuke – The First Black Samurai

"Yasuke" by South African artist Nicola Roos

“Yasuke” by South African artist Nicola Roos

Yasuke (believed to have lived during the 1500s) was a samurai of black African origin who served under the Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1581 and 1582. The name “Yasuke” was granted to him by Nobunaga, although why and when is unclear. His original name is unknown – or, at least, there’s no record of it (none that’s been found at this time); so it is unclear if Yasuke is a Japanese rendering of his previous name, or a wholly new name granted by his lord.

According to various write-ups on Yasuke, he could’ve been from Mozambique, Angola or Ethiopia. There is no definite consensus on his origins. In fact, his background is shrouded in mystery.

Yasuke is said to have arrived in Japan in 1579 in the service of an Italian Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano, and caused something of a sensation because of his black skin, which was still foreign to the Japanese at the time. It’s said that, in one event, several people were crushed to death while clamoring to get a look at him. In japan, he met warlord Nobunaga who suspected that the dark color of his skin was ink and not natural. Nobunaga reportedly had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin. Satisfied that he was in fact black, Nobunaga took deep interest in Yasuke eventually, and he was allowed to enter Nobunaga’s service, which is when available documentation on Yasuke’s life seems to really begin.

He was described as healthy and good-looking with a pleasant demeanor. He was also said to be tall (at least 6 ft. 2 in.) and very strong, and was likely an intimidating presence for the Japanese at the time. He would rapidly rise in favor and status, until his became Nobunaga’s chief warrior, given his own residence and a ceremonial katana by Nobunaga.

Nobunaga made Yasuke his bodyguard. He was eventually made a samurai in 1581 and stationed at Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. During this time, he learned to speak Japanese fluently as well.

Yasuke’s career as a samurai would not last long, however. In 1582, Nobunaga’s general, Mitsuhide, tried to overthrow him in a coup. Mitsuhide stormed the temple where Nobunaga was staying in Kyoto. Nobunaga, convinced of his imminent defeat at the hands of his treacherous general, committed Seppuku, ritual suicide. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke fled to the Azuchi castle and entered the service of Nobunaga’s son Odo Nobutada. His son however also committed suicide after suffering defeat at the hands of Mitsuhide.

Victorious, Mitsuhide dismissed Yasuke as “a beast” and not a true samurai, because he wasn’t Japanese. Yasuke apparently offered his sword to Mitsuhide, as was customary, and returned to the service of the Jesuit Valignano, before soon falling into obscurity.

Now that you have a little bit of his story, you should know that, announced today, Lionsgate has put into development, a feature film based on Yasuke’s life, with “Highlander” creator Gregory Widen on board to script the project which they are currently calling “Black Samurai.”

Described as an action drama, Mike De Luca and Stephen L’Heureux are producing, and the film is a co-production between Solipsist Films and De Luca Productions.

“[Black Samurai] is based on the true story of an African whose journey to Japan comes with conflicting background stories,” Gregory Widen tells Deadline, who first reported the news today. “The one I’ve chosen is that he was a slave soldier after the fall of Abysinnian Bengal, a black kingdom run by Ethiopians. He was sold into slavery and found himself in the care of Alessandro Valignano, an Italian missionary. They formed a bond, and when there were complications in Rome, he was sent to Japan and took Yasuke with him. There he met Oda Nobunaga, who was interested in all Western things, and through a series of bizarre events, the Jesuit left Yasukie with the warlord.”

Based on the fact that little is actually known with certainty about Yasuke, any number of story paths can be taken. Widen’s quote above suggests he plans to incorporate some of what has been mostly accepted as fact, while taking creative liberties with the parts of Yasuke’s story for which there is little documentation.

This is most definitely a project! Lionsgate doesn’t have an ETA on it at this time, but there’s a potential star making role for an up-and-coming young black actor.

Stay tuned…

You’ll find several different interpretations of Yasuke’s appearance online. The sculpture at the top of this post is by South African artist Nicola Roos.

28 Comments

  1. The story sounds very intriguing and needs to be told. It’s just I have a gut feeling that it’s going to have a white saviour sacrifice. Something just doesn’t seem to work well. Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know.

    • Not sure why you would think so, considering their would have been no whites or other foreigners around. Japan was extremely isolated at this time. But, I suppose Hollywood could shoehorn one in. I sure the hell hope not. As a foreigner living in Japan, I like my samurai historicals as realistic and “pure” (for the lack of a better term). Have a great weekend.

      • Actually, Japan did not become isolated at this time, and Dutch, Portuguese, and Papal representatives were in country at the time.

        This period was called sengogu jidaii, and the isolation would come have the shogun in 1602, Tokugawa began to change the country.

        So during 1575 or so, Europeans were trading with Japan, and in country. Tanegeshima to be precise I believe. This is why it was said, Oda embraced the west, and he was seen always in western style armour.

  2. Yasuke was not a slave and our research proves it. Such lazy thinking. More Hollywierdness. A black man in ancient times can only be a slave.

    This is why I chose to develop my Yasuke/Yasufe project in Japan and East Africa.

    • Thank you I wanted to write a storyline before this sad news which I’m sure will depict black people in the small box Hollywood has historically done time after time.. I guess Matt Damon might get a audition at least as well…lol

    • Hey, I’m working on a script for a class based on Yasuke. Do you here have any sources or information, you could link me? Or we could possibly exchange emails and aid my research. All the information, I’ve come across on my own is all similar to the Hollywood portrayal or something like it. I would like to write the most historical accurate script if at all possible and it seems, you have a strong idea of the story.. Thanks!

  3. What doesn’t work in my opinion, is the history of the world of the 15th century is more complex than one imagines and the Jesuits have manipulated that history. They totally discount African history in the telling of these tales.

  4. “I dreamt of worldly success once.”
    ― Miyamoto Musashi

    “New eras don’t come about because of swords, they’re created by the people who wield them. ”
    ― Nobuhiro Watsuki

    “You can always die. It’s living that takes real courage.” – Himura Kenshin”

  5. Sounds like he will essentially be a servant to Whites and Japanese. And it’s very telling that out of all his possible origins (since his true history is unknown) the writers chose to make him…a slave. Won’t be paying for this one.

    • I’ll cosign this statement. Well said. They had my interest since this *seemed* like an interesting “based on a true story” story but her. You take the lazy, unimaginative route of “oh, he was a slave” then you lose me quite quickly.

  6. “Sounds like he will essentially be a servant to Whites and Japanese. And it’s very telling that out of all his possible origins (since his true history is unknown) the writers chose to make him…a slave. ”

    This sums up my thoughts exactly.

  7. I read somewhere that a Japanese filmmaker is developing a Yasuke movie…fortunately. (I’ll try to dig up the info.) A Japanese filmmaker making it in the Japanese entertainment industry will do it more justice without all the Hollywood/American baggage. It IS essentially a Japanese story, after all. I’d rather we get a “Tasogare Seibei” (The Twilight Samurai) sensibility than a “The Last Samurai” one.

    • There’s apparently a period of Ethiopian/African rulers in the bengal part of India. that may be what he’s referring to. But the timelines do not match up (close, but there seem to be gaps ) and no apparent relation or connection between Bengal and yasuke”s actual background. Seems that Hollywood liberties are 2 just fill in something exciting 4 whatever parts of the story that are not confirmed. But adding that to this story seems to just make the narrative more confusing

  8. Um, I wonder how Asian Americans will feel about another story of a foreigner going to an Asian land and being super successful in their culture.

    This is an interesting story but maybe we should have a story that is centered around Asians starring Asian-Americans/Asians from Hollywood first?

  9. The only creativity they should implement, is with special effects. They should leave it historically correct even if there are gaps, or keep searching until they find a better answer to their research. Don’t be in such a rush. Try presenting it as a documentary first, on the History channel or Discovery. But don’t discredit your finding with creativity for missing periods. I think it would ruin things and confuse the audience as to what is and is not fictional.

  10. Why so negative. Yasuke probably went to Japan as a servant of a Jesuit priest. What ever his position in Ethiopia – once acquired by a Jesuit, it is unlikely he would have remained a slave. Which, of course would not have been the case if he had remained in Africa or the Middle East.
    In Japan at this time there were a number of small European trading outposts – primarily dominated by the Portuguese and we have a number of examples of Europeans becoming samurai – the most famous being an Englishman. This story was dramatized by James Clavell in both a book and tv series called Shogun.

  11. I’ve already written this screenplay as “Under One Sky” and had it sent to some studios. I smell a rat that someone’s pulling one over on me. I’ve already registered my idea and script with the WGA West in 2013, so I’m fighting hard for it.
    I’ve poured my heart and soul into this screenplay over 5 years and will damned if I let some Hollywood ass yet again screw over the new guy!! >:(

    • I have seen a few TV drama proposals and feature screenplays about Yasuke the past 12 years.

      Also in 1980, actors Howard E. Rollins, Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr. tried to interest Paramount to greenlight the Yasuke story while the popularity of Shotgun (Richard Chamberlain) was peaking, but Paramount wasn’t interested.

      There are over 50 films about Marilyn Monroe, so there’s room for everyone to tell Yasuke’s story. So don’t let the Lionsgate project prevent you from selling yours.

  12. It’s historical fact that most high ranking Samurai were black Africans. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Takeda Shingen – All black. These facts don’t fit the Japanese narrative of their racial makeup, so scholars suppress the facts in Japan.

    • Where is your evidence – that most high ranking Samurai were black? This was a extremely conservative culture that viewed the west with grave suspicion and eventually great hostility.

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