Thierry Gloris and Emiliano Zarcone attempt to resuscitate Yasuke, a slave elevated to the rank of samurai in 16th-century Japan, whose history remains poorly documented.
It is a strange object which has just been published by Editions Delcourt. On the cover, an oversized figure, skin oscillating between brown and mauve, frowning eyebrows, takes off a frightening samurai helmet. On the back, we find the same one, the almost naked torso, built like a bodybuilder. We expect a strange mix of Ken the survivor, WWE (professional wrestling), and Japanese feudal history …
The interior is almost more surprising. In comics, the Frenchman Thierry Gloris (screenplay) and the Italian Emiliano Zarcone (drawing), try to give a little consistency to the incredible but true destiny of Yasuke, black servant of an Italian Jesuit, torn from his village, in Mozambique, and who landed in Japan in 1579.
A little less than three years ago, the improbable journey of the black warrior had inspired the Franco-Ivorian author and journalist Serge Bilé, who had drawn from it a popular historical work: Yasuke (published by Owen Publishing). An exhibition, “Yasuke, the samurai slave”, was also organized in 2018, in Yaoundé, and presented paintings by Raimi Sewado.
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A project that is both exhilarating and frustrating
The comic book project is both exhilarating and frustrating. Thierry Gloris and Emiliano Zarcone have already worked together, notably on the series Fields of honor (also published by Delcourt), which tells, in each volume, a historic battle. We are therefore not surprised to find in their latest publication many war scenes, teeming with details. Feudal Japan, its architecture, its complex customs, its uniforms, are resuscitated with great realism and dynamism. And we feel that each box has been the subject of a long documentation.
The apprentice samurai, finally not present, passes in the background
But the exercise has its limits. The complex intrigues that play out between the powerful are known and well transcribed in the comic book which focuses on Oda Nobunaga, ambitious warlord and first unifier of Japan. Yasuke’s trajectory remains unclear. The authors are therefore obliged to embroider fictional scenes on a historical narrative … And the samurai apprentice, ultimately not very present, goes into the background of the power struggles between Japanese lords.
Oddly enough, the comic also puts aside some of the few known elements about Kurusan (literally, “Mr. Black”). It is known that the arrival on the archipelago of this ebony-skinned man, a curiosity for the Japanese of the time, created scenes of rioting, the population breaking down the doors of an inn where he had refugee to be able to look at him. He was even taken a bath and rubbed vigorously to make sure his skin was black, and that it was not a white make-up.
The Japanese take a blank look, free from racial prejudice, on this “giant”
The fact remains that, as in Serge Bilé’s work, we see that the Japanese, and in particular the military governor Oda Nobunaga, take a blank look, free from racial prejudices, on this “giant” (1.88 m, almost 30 centimeters taller than the average Japanese at the time). Oda Nobunaga keeps him by his side to ensure his protection.
A real hero
This is perhaps what appeals today, at a time when fictions, since Black Panther, strive more and more to write stories around powerful … but imaginary blacks. Yasuke is real enough to give historical veracity to the story, and his biography has enough gray areas to associate romantic episodes with it. Volume 2, to be published, should come to support the legend a little more, and focus, we hope, on this extraordinary character.