Continuing on with Nerdy But Flirty‘s Black History Month special articles, today, I bring you an interesting, yet almost taboo, topic amongst anime and manga fans alike:
The portrayal of black characters in anime.
Contrary to popular belief, the rising of more black (read: not “dark skinned”) anime characters grows higher with every new anime that is released and every new manga that is penned. All though finding reputable black characters in anime seems a little difficult.
“What does she mean by ‘reputable’?”
Well, that should be obvious enough: I’m talking about characters that do not, in any way, portray that idiot-ass stereotype of a character with jet-black skin and huge red lips that take up half their face. And, of course, if you’re a Dragonball fan, or, yes, even a Pokémon fan, then these two characters pop straight into your mind:
None other than Mr. Popo and the Pokémon Jynx. Needless to say, these two characters came under fire for being portrayed as horribly racist, due to the fact that they both look like portrayals of blackface. And, if you’ve never heard of it, long story short, blackface is when a non-black/brown/dark-skinned person paints his or her face tar black and makes his lips look wide to “imitate” black people. While this was practiced merely for the sake of show business during the Jim Crow era, it sickens me to see people doing it now.
Case in point: Anyone hear of that absolute fucking moron hockey player and how he painted his entire body brown to go as rapper Jay-Z for Halloween? Yeah. That’s not funny. In fact, I can even give you a classic example of the ignorance that attests to blackface:
Picture it: Anime Central, 2010. A rather husky (obviously) white man decided to cosplay as Mr. Popo. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much… (actually, why lie? I was rather pissed the fuck off) until he started using urban slang, such as “Yo, yo, homie,” and when I actually heard him say, “What’s up, my n*****?” to a black friend of his, I about hit the ceiling. I yelled at him right there in the lobby of the Hyatt and told him he ought to be ashamed of himself. I told him if he wanted to dress as Mr. Popo, fine, but when you are blatantly acting “ghetto” and using racist terms, and a word I absolutely fucking hate and never say, that’s when you aren’t being funny – you’re being an ignorant, racist asshole.
That’s ultimately what I mean when I say that I am happy to have found, and made a list of, reputable, respectable, and non-insulting black and African-American characters found in anime. It means that somewhere in the middle of character creation, the mangaka and artists thought, “I want to put a black character in here. I need a reference,” and didn’t use the negative, stereotypical “blackface” characters, but actually looked at it and said, “Wow. That’s dumb. That’s not what a black person looks like.” And then I assume from there, they went to Google and actually looked up black men and women to draw their references from. I applaud you, various mangaka, who went beyond the stereotypes and gave us amazing, badass characters such as:
Bob Makihara from the manga/anime Tenjou Tenge
I’m not even going to try and hide it; with a name like “Bob”, I was like, “I CALL LAZY WRITING!” But after seeing him in action, he is, undeniably, a badass. Not only does he add some culture to the story, but the writer/creator actually goes into depth about how Bob’s fighting style is based strictly around ritualistic capoeria – and Bob himself explains that capoeria itself is a Brazililian martial art that slaves once upon a time disguised as dancing, to his girlfriend-turned-wife, Chiaki (One of the more comical moments in the story, as Chiaki constantly calls his fighting style break dancing).
Oh. And did I mention dem dreads? And they aren’t the ones that are just growing, either. These dreads are a full-blown mane (spoiler alert: he shaves them off, but grows ’em back out towards the end), and Bob explains (yet again, to his girlfriend Chiaki) the actual symbolism of his dreadlocks and the Rastafarian culture as a whole.
At first, I thought, “Oh, whoo. Action manga with a lotta ginormous boobs, panty-shots, and of course, the token black guy who can break dance.”
But my entire attitude towards Bob’s portrayal changed when it became apparent that everything he does, from the style of his hair to his fighting style, is based so deep in his culture. The creators did an amazing job bringing that to the surface, making him a trailblazer for more realistically-portrayed black people in anime and manga.
Bugnug (pronounced “Boognug”)/Dark Eyes from Crying Freeman
If anyone is wondering why she is stark naked, well, to be honest, I couldn’t find hardly any pictures of this woman fully clothed, but that’s fine because her nudity serves a purpose. In this crime-based manga, turned anime, turned live action (which was awful, in my own opinion), we are introduced to a variety of characters, many of them members of one crime syndicate or another, including ones based in Russia, China, and, yes, even Africa. Now, given the years during which Crying Freeman was developed (still at the height of the stereotypical black character portrayals), I found myself especially surprised with how tasteful the members of the Askari syndicate were portrayed (even if they did look like skinny/large brown-skinned characters who retained a lot of white features, such as the straight hair, blue eyes, etc, etc, but God bless them, they tried).
And then here comes Bugnug. Literally, I was so appalled when I saw her character, I wanted to punch creator and illustrators Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami in their faces. Hard. This amazon of a woman leaps naked from a car to attack Freeman. Now, I don’t mean she was in the middle of having sex and Freeman interrupted her – no. Just when Freeman kills who he thinks is the real leader of the Askari, this naked African woman with the build of two Amazons leaps out of the car and ambushes him.
Her design was so absurd to me in more ways than one; mainly, that she seemed to be based upon the horrific stereotype of African women as nothing more than violent killers who ran around naked, swung from trees, and were well over six-feet tall. I was literally so aghast when I saw Bugnug (BTW: Her name means anteater) I literally almost stopped watching Crying Freeman at that very moment. It was such a severe WTF moment, and such an insult, that I could hardly believe what I was watching.
All I could think was, “These morons have never seen an African woman in their entire lives.”
Now. Is it customary, in some tribes, for women to walk around bare-breasted? Yes. Mainly because it follows the principal of a woman’s breasts being sacred, and giving of life and nutrients to children. Breasts aren’t something that they cover in some of the tribes of Africa because there is no shame in having them, very much unlike how people will balk at the idea of a woman walking around topless in America and other parts of the world. It’s a cultural difference.
But Miss Bugnug didn’t depict any of of the pride African women have; and instead, was portrayed as no more than a violent beast.
…Until Freeman wins her over. Literally, mid-fight, he bites her nipple (Don’t look at me like that, I cannot make this up) and that’s all it takes for her to suddenly say, “I’m in love with you, Freeman! You have my total loyalty!” I was so out and out fed up with this episode that I almost wanted to punch my computer.
BUT. What redeemed this character for me was how her personality (and yes, her design) evolved so beautifully. Make no mistake about it: as the leader of one of Africa’s most feared crime syndicates, she has to be hardened and she has to show little compassion, especially being a woman. She’s a top assassin, and deadlier even than Freeman or any of his top asassins in his own syndicate, the 108 Dragons. But when Bugnug sheds her hardened exterior to save Freeman’s life through a blood transfusion (because every woman Freeman meets falls in love with him, and again, this is no exaggeration), I had a bit more respect for her.
Freeman then gives her the code name (something absolutely forbidden by the rules of his own gang, but for her, he makes an exception) Dark Eyes (How unique).
I was honestly believing that would have been the last I would see of Bugnug for a long time, but lo and behold, a few episodes later, Bugnug returned with a completely different design, at least physically. She is shown as a more slender woman, but with subtle muscle tone, wearing a skin-tight motorcycle racing uniform, and is, by the behest of Freeman, tracking down a dangerous assassin. She is nothing short of amazing as she performs evasive maneuvers with her motorcycle, fires a gun skillfully, and, with her beauty amplified, she is almost something of a representation of a blaxploitation vixen.
(Unfortunately (oh surprise, surprise), she gets the short end of the stick when she is raped and left to die by said dangerous assassin, but is quickly found by Freeman, the man she loves, but he has a wife along with three other women who are batshit crazy in love with him. And yes, they kiss, literally making anime and manga history as the very first scene of intimacy between an Asian male and a black woman.
(*Cue “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from the Lion King OR “Jungle Fever” by Stevie Wonder. Whichever you prefer.)
But, as a character, and a black one at that, given the time period she was created, I have to say, she is definitely one of the better attempts at portraying a black woman in anime that I have seen in a very long time (despite the attempt rubbing me the wrong way more than once). And she’s a badass assassin who is also a crime lord. Bonus points on that one.
Afro from Afro Samurai
Now this is one of my favorite black characters. Why? Because this guy is voiced by motherfucking Samuel L. Jackson. I actually would have never have found out about Afro Samurai had I not been channel surfing late one night. And suddenly, there is this black samurai with a ginormous afro, a badass sword, and a huge blunt chopping up baddies left and right. I fell in love with it, mainly because it was like a mixture of Samurai Champloo and The Boondocks. Noticably enough, he was followed by yet another black character: Ninja Ninja (also voiced by Samuel L. Jackson).
Because I had jumped in the middle of the series, I had no idea what was going on, who these characters were, or any smidgen of insight into either character’s connections with one another, so, I went out and bought the first season of Afro Samurai, and I have got to give it up to Gonzo for creating one of the most epic animes I have ever seen. There is so much character depth that you literally drown in it if you can’t keep up (or even read subtext and in between the lines).
This series (and its character) was fully inspired by creator Takashi Okazaki’s love of hip-hop and soul music, and he eventually began incorporating these elements, along with old samurai lore, to create the character Afro and the rest of the series. There is no shortage of racial tensions, as the story focuses solely on Afro being the lone black person in futuristic Japan, with a desire to get revenge and become Number 1. (Not gonna spoil this one for you.)
Case in point: The characters (as well as the creator) never miss a moment to remind Afro (or the viewers) that he is, quite possibly, the very last black man on earth. Being so, Afro refuses to act as a negative stereotype of black people (and, in fact, quite hates it), and remains cold, stoic, and indifferent many times, except towards his goal, and he is even shown trying to have compartmentalized his racial identity (as well as other emotions such as love, hatred, etc), not wanting to deal with it at all.
But, Ninja Ninja…? The walking embodiment of a negative, stereotypical black man. He’s Afro’s complete and total opposite in the sense that he’s loud, absurd, he panics a lot, and often speaks the thoughts and expresses the emotions and feelings that the emotionless and stoic Afro does not/can not. There’s a bit of a secret about Ninja Ninja, buuuuuuut…you’re gonna have to see Afro Samurai for yourself (heh heh).
Afro Samurai is, hands down, a badass. There are no two ways about it. His swordmanship is unparalleled to anyone else’s, he kills without mercy, and you often wonder what goes on inside of his head when Ninja Ninja isn’t around to express and convey that to the audience. (Again, you’re gonna really need to learn how to read subtext if you ever expect to understand this show.)
Shinobu (Real name: Scarlet Jacobs) from No More Heroes
And while we’re on the subject of samurai with afros and grudges, let me direct your attention to this babe. Shinobu, from the video game-turned-anime, No More Heroes and it’s sequel, No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle is so similar to Afro Samurai that some believe her appearance, as well as her background, was heavily inspired by Afro Samurai (including, a damn near identical character that appears in Afro Samurai as well).
Shinobu is an eighteen-year-old assassin with a grudge and a score to settle with the man who killed her father. Fierce, dangerous, sexy, and quite fashionable (her outfits are kogal and gothic lolita inspired), Shinobu has left her mark as being a girl who is not to be tangled with. Her character goes through some of the most remarkable personality changes, but she doesn’t become some lovesick little heroine, especially when the object of her affections (before she realized it was a case of mistaken identity is actually her target, Travis Touchdown (and no, I DIDN’T make that name up either). After clearing everything up, and some time later, she develops quite a crush on Mr. Touchdown (there, hurr hurr pervy joke), who becomes her teacher, with Shinobu even going so far as to call him “Sensei” or “Master”, but is often rebuffed because of the huge age difference between them (he is twenty-seven in the first game, and thirty in the next), and because he refuses to be, quote: “like the pervy teacher in a porn,” end quote.
Beautiful, intelligent, deadly, and intelligent, Shinobu is definitely one of the best portrayals of a black woman I have ever seen in any anime, or video game (but comes in second to the legendary Sheva Alomar, who hopefully makes SarahTheRebel’s list since she’s covering video games haha) [EDITOR’S NOTE: She totes does].
Kaname Tousen from Bleach
Big, black, brainy, and yes, blind as a bat, Tousen caused many Bleach readers around the world to gasp in shock (dunno why) when Tousen was revealed at last. (Again, I really don’t know why, given that Kubo isn’t afraid to have some diversity in his series, but apparently, the general reception of learning Tousen’s race was a bit of a surprise. This alone tells me how few black characters appear in manga and anime, though I’m fairly satisfied with this list so far.)
As a character, Tousen’s development is nothing short of impressive, and a show of damn good writing within the Bleach storyline. Like many characters, he has a tragic past, and a reason for his personal motto being, “I want to follow the path with the least bloodshed.” This would be a great and wonderful sentiment if his actions didn’t speak otherwise, while he followed that such-and-so, Aizen.
Tousen, obviously, has a handicap: he’s blind. But you wouldn’t even know it, given how well he functions in daily life, and the amount of strength, finesse, and skill he possesses in battle. Tousen is known for his loyalty, and will occasionally offer insight into what the others are thinking. Because of his blindness, Tousen’s other senses are heightened one-thousand percent, and he can always sense danger miles before it even arrives. He’s a skilled tactician, and definitely one of the most intelligent characters in the Bleach universe. All of that, alone, makes him a positive black anime character in my book.
Yoruichi Shihoin from Bleach
I was almost iffy about adding her to the list, because the subject of whether or not she’s black, or just a dark-skinned character, is one of the most controversial subjects regarding Bleach that has been heatedly debated. Some suggest she’s a dark-skinned Asian, while others believe that she is neither Asian nor black, but of Hispanic origin.
As for where I stand on Yoruichi’s race debate, I’m not sure. To be honest, I would go so far as to say she’s simply a dark-skinned Asian. Not because I’m hating on her, but because she was designed by Kubo, who also designed Tousen, and he made it a point to give Tousen fuller lips, and more “ethinic” hair texture. If he’d wanted to assure readers that Yoruichi was black, he could have done the same. But again, I’m not Kubo, so I honestly have no clue what race she actually could be. She could even be Brazillian, for all I know, but one thing is for sure: this brown-skinned babe’s racial origins are a heated debate amongst Bleach fans worldwide, and I feel she was worth a mention, regardless. (Because she’s freakin’ awesome.)
Miyuki Ayukawa from Basquash
Closing out our list is none other than the techie-badass Miyuki, from the anime/manga Basquash. Although people were originally ready to put her in the same “racially ambiguous” category as Yoruichi, Basquash creator Tetsuya Hayashi had this to say in an interview:
“When creating Miyuki, I thought it would be obvious that she was African-American. The dreads should have been a dead giveaway.”
And he’s right. The main reason I knew that Miyuki was, in fact, black was because of her hair. Mangaka nowadays have been incorporating more ethnic styles and textured hair into their black characters to distinguish them from other characters, and go so far as to establish their race of being black/African-American. While in the anime, she doesn’t have the more or less stereotypical fuller lips like she does in the manga, Hayashi has made it clear, both in design and words, that Miyuki is a black character.
And what a character she is! The running gag with her is her large cleavage bouncing all over the place like she was in a rodeo. While Miyuki has the face of a cute and innocent ten year old (and very much resembles Iris from the Pokémon series), she is in fact a young woman in her late teens with heaps of both sexuality and incomparable intelligence. Her role in the series is that she is a mechanic, and she has been stated to have a high IQ as well as a knowledge of physics.
She also has a very wild and out personality that masks a very sweet and softer side of her. She is the protagonist Dan’s childhood sweetheart, and has always been in love with him, although, she is in fact willing to step back like a real woman when a character named Rouge comes into the picture (BLECH). Energetic, excitable, intelligent, and of course, possessing a killer body, Miyuki makes the list of positive black anime characters who are making the anime scene more and more diverse, and straying more and more away from the negative stereotype of how black people (as well as black characters) are portrayed.
Of course there is no excuse for ignorance. If you believe that the stereotype of all black men is that they are uneducated thugs, or basketball players, and that black women are loud, bitchy, ghetto, and perpetual, promiscuous baby-makers, judging from what you’ve seen portrayed negatively in anime, manga, video games, and the media, then…
You my good reader, need to really get your head out of your ass, turn off Maury Povich, and grow a brain. Oh, and don’t be surprised to know black girls enjoy playing video games too (just sayin’).