Picture a group of young guys, gorging themselves on pizza after a lengthy birthday party and watching Cartoon Network. They shout and cheer as the screen suddenly reads “Adult Swim” and plain music plays in the background. Cartoon Network’s late night anime segment, Toonami, begins, and the first anime I ever watched flashes across the screen. We watch an incredible episode of DRAGON BALL Z and all is well. That is, until a black skinned, red lipped Mr. Popo walks across the screen and someone astutely points out, “Hey Jackson, that’s you!” Everyone laughs. I’m no longer smiling.
I’ve loved anime for a significant portion of my life. While there are more professional and legitimate reasons for me to watch anime more than a standard television show, it really comes down to preference. As a black American watching a show from the other side of the world in a language I can’t understand, there isn’t much for me to identify with. This is why I always noticed moments with darker-skinned or black anime characters.
I couldn’t help but identify with some of those characters, especially as a black kid in a mostly white town. It was cool to see people like me kicking ass and saving the day. Black anime characters became my superheroes, and I idolized them. But in idolizing them, I couldn’t help but notice the stereotypes. Prejudices that started many years ago in America echo across foreign media, lingering despite how controversial they are. To preface, this article is not a call out of all anime. Quite the opposite in fact. More and more, I’m seeing positive aspects of blackness emphasized rather than stereotypes. I’ll be going over some of my favorites and some of the ones that…need some work.
Culture vs Stereotypes
Very rarely is a character in an anime explicitly identified as black, and very rarely do they even have black features like curly hair. Plenty have hair colors from white to purple, and some are veritably not white, but not clearly of any particular ethnic background. Most characters in anime are at least presumably Japanese unless otherwise stated. But there is a pretty clear distinction between tan Japanese characters and significantly darker characters. The first instance of racism that I noticed in anime is one of the more blatant ones, where the character not only looked like an animated minstrel actor, but also behaved like a stereotypical black servant in the early 20th century.
Yeah, this one isn’t hard to spot. But it’s from one of the world’s most popular anime series. Though it came to the US, Mr. Popo wasn’t an object of controversy for quite some time. But watchers eventually took notice, and Mr. Popo was changed from black to blue in the DRAGON BALL Z remake, DRAGON BALL Z KAI. But not all stereotypes stem from appearances. Cloud village ninja Killer Bee was the first black character I ever saw get major screen time in NARUTO. He’s actually somewhat of an interesting character and there are elements of his story that I think are quite positive. But because of the stereotypes, the negative aspects of his character are deserving of some scrutiny.
The most immediatly noticeable (and bad) part of Killer Bee’s character is his speech. He speaks almost entirely with what the show calls “enka rap,” a blend between traditional Japanese style and contemporary Western rap music. I have no issue with a black character being able to rap while wielding 8 swords simultaneously. I especially appreciate the blend between Western and Japanese culture.
The problem I have with Killer Bee isn’t that he raps, but that he speaks almost entirely in rap. This is something important to understand when looking at black characters in anime. Stereotypes like Mr. Popo are pretty much irredeemable, but Killer Bee had some merit. He’s incredibly strong, and his rapping, had it been toned down, could’ve been positive. There doesn’t need to be a complete removal of all elements of black culture, they just don’t need to be emphasized in negative ways or twisted into stereotypes.
There are several characters that emphasize power and strength in ways that resonate with plenty of underrepresented minority viewers. The best, or at least one of my favorites, is Afro from AFRO SAMURAI. Not only was I able to hear him voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, but I was also able to see a black man slicing his enemies into pieces with a giant sword. Afro is the last black person in Japan, and fights to become ‘Number One.’ He is noticeably followed by a manifestation of his feelings, who is almost the exact opposite of Afro and acts in a way that most would consider a stereotypical black man.
Why is this representation of stereotypes alright? AFRO SAMURAI expresses it in a way that depicts an inner conflict with Afro’s identity and goals. High emotion won’t help him get revenge. He needs to be calm and stoic to win his fights, so the constant presence of these inner emotions (named Ninja Ninja) is indicative of him trying to overcome a negative part of himself to achieve lasting success. This narrative of beating back oppression is one that a lot of people of color can see in their own lives. AFRO SAMURAI came about in part from creator Takashi Okazaki’s love for rap and hip hop, which was also big on martial arts at the time (think Wu-Tang Clan).
Okazaki created the series with Western audiences entirely in mind. In fact, the anime only aired in English with a soundtrack by Wu-Tang Clan. No version with a Japanese cast even exists. Funimation acquired the rights to the anime in 2007 and premiered it on Spike TV. It was only months later that a version with Japanese subtitles was even created. This is probably the pinnacle of a black anime, but others have done quite well too.
These other examples are worth noting, like Kaname Tousen from BLEACH or Darui from NARUTO. In the latter case, the references to black culture are amazing. Darui creates black panthers made of lightning to attack his foes. But these powerful representations that don’t engage with stereotypes simply emphasize narratives of struggle and success. Most anime have that, which is why I think there are so many parallels between it and black culture.
More than Just Fighters
I can hardly think of that many anime characters of color to begin with. Even when I can, they usually come from action anime and are (relatively) violent characters. While this is a trend now, it certainly doesn’t have to be. A personal favorite character of mine outside of shonen anime is Miyuki Ayukawa, the high spirited mechanic from BASQUASH.
BASQUASH takes place on a futuristic version of Earth with a neat version of basketball played with giant robots. While Miyuki isn’t a competitor in the tournaments (called Big Foot Basketball), she is instrumental in fixing and designing the robots. She creates mechs capable of more fluid movements, letting her friends dominate the competition. If not for her, her friends would’ve never been able to start competing, let alone do well. There aren’t too many anime characters like Miyuki. While there are black characters fulfilling non-combatant roles across multiple shows, there should definitely be more (of any gender) overall. If there are more, please tell me so I can watch them immediately.
So, What’s the Solution?
Most of the problems I have with black anime characters are negative stereotypes being portrayed, whether its exaggerated lips or actions. But I don’t put a lot of fault on Japanese anime creators. Japan, like plenty of other East Asian countries, are a lot more homogeneous than most Western countries. Due in part to years of isolationism and internal focuses, there hasn’t been much opportunity for black culture to present itself in a legitimate way to Eastern audiences. Where then, would this perception of black people come from?
As most can probably surmise, a lot of this exposure is by way of media. Someone who has never physically shaken hands with a black person will likely still be aware of media where blacks are highly represented. These media types usually fall under music (hence Takashi Okazaki’s love of hip hop) or sports. But more broadly, whatever content the West pushes outward by way of culture creates misconceptions in other countries. As a group that has historically been oppressed in nearly every Western country, black people have been presented as their oppressors saw them, with all the stereotypes attached. The depiction of Mr. Popo as a minstrel character probably wasn’t intentionally racist, but the perception that informed the character was.
I think that media is as much the solution as it is the problem, though. Increased exposure to positive narratives around black characters can overshadow the bad. If more mainstream anime stick to positive representation, the positive representation will become mainstream too. But more broadly than that, perceptions of black individuals in Western culture need to change. Anime alone can’t force that, and thankfully, most of the West is tending toward better perception.
Another solution that could possibly help is the creation of anime that deals heavily with minorities themselves. Shows like THE BOONDOCKS combine animation with black culture, but lack the Japanese style that makes them an anime. Between American shows like that and Japanese anime is a middle ground that maintains the classic anime style while mixing in gentle notes of black. While my immediate temptation is to push for more shows like AFRO SAMURAI, they’re probably not super sustainable. I’ll be content with more black characters in mainstream shows that epitomize black excellence rather than negative stereotypes.
In terms of the anime market, American audiences will only grow. Companies like Netflix are already making anime specifically for Western audiences, so it’s not too far of a stretch to get some black ones too. Characters of color should have more than just fighting roles, and there’s already some standard for strong black characters even outside of shonen anime. Most of all though, I don’t want any kid to have one of his favorite shows tainted by a relic of a racist society. Western culture aside, plenty of information is available such that anime can reconcile some of the stereotypes it presents. I looked up to black anime characters as my own personal superheroes. My only hope is that future generations can do the same.
Featured Image from ‘AFRO SAMURAI: Revenge of Kuma Volume One‘