Yasuke has been found, and it’s none other than Chadwick Boseman.
Deadline broke the news on Tuesday. The project has been in works for the past few years, originally being set up at Lionsgate with producer Erik Feig. Now, it’s with Feig’s Picturestart, where it will be produced with Mike De Luca’s De Luca Productions, Stephen L’Heureux’s Solipsist, Logan Coles’ X●ception Content and Boseman. If you remember correctly, MGM also has a Yasuke project set up as well.
“The legend of Yasuke is one of history’s best-kept secrets, the only person of non-Asian origin to become a samurai. That’s not just an action movie, that’s a cultural event, an exchange, and I am excited to be part of it,” said Boseman.
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 a 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 he 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.
Among Boseman’s immediate upcoming projects is the crime drama, 21 Bridges.
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for CinemaCon