Wednesday, March 10, 2010

:anime: Blacks and Head Shots in Anime (Part 1)

This was originally slated to be posted in mid- to late-February for Black History Month, but the past Winter Olympics and fine-tuning pushed its start to March. Parts 2 and beyond will be published every other day.

I have been an avid fan of anime for nearly fifteen years and have watched some 370+ works along the way. As much as I have enjoyed it and so much of its stories and artistry all this time, I could not help but notice a very strange, if not disturbing, trend concerning the deaths of black (or at the very least, "dark-skinned") characters.

Anime, however fair, has been infamous for being "ultraviolent," and for featuring "inventive", spectacular, and frequent deaths. This stigma may be overwrought, but there is a sliver of truth in it, with character deaths being a rather normal occurrence in particular dramas, actioners, and other genres and as a topic of discussion on many Internet forums. The concept is not a common one in many shows in the U.S., so perhaps that in of itself lends to its notoriety. Be that as it may, given the deaths that have befallen many a character over time, there has been one, consistent pattern in the demise of black characters: nearly all of them have died from head-related fatalities, most often from a single shot to the forehead. 1

If this were a singular occurrence, I would have written it off as just another guy getting killed, but when the same thing is repeated with the same type of person, it becomes something you take notice of. Being that blacks and other people-of-color are not a usual sight in Japan, and neither terribly much so in their animated works, either, it makes you wonder why exactly such characters in an anime not only die in such a particular way, but that there is a something of a focus on it. As a person-of-color myself, I have found it concerning to see a pattern of occurrence such as this.

Prior even to starting HardDoor, I have longed to cover this issue of blacks and head shots in anime. It is something that does not appear to have gotten much attention among fans and I feel that it deserves to be brought to the front and observed. I will be focusing on five cases, detailing the situation leading to the given incident, any rationale (story-wise) behind it, and how that character was depicted in the story. In respect to the "rationale" I feel it is important to know what relevancy their fashion of death had to the story itself, though it should not be viewed as an "excuse" of any kind, as it is vital to know why the creators thought it should be carried out in the way it was. Also important is knowing how that character was shown--equally, stereotypically, racially, etc. It is hoped that taking all of these factors into consideration will lead to a better understanding and analysis of these incidents and of what may lie beyond it.

(Note: Because these cases not only involve the death(s) of a particular character(s), but can also delve deep into a show's storyline, naturally spoilers will be involved. Also, most of the titles covered here either for older teen or mature audiences.)

Case #1

Title: Blassreiter
[Official Site - Japanese, English; FUNimation]

Character: Wolf Göring

Episode: 19
[Sub - FUNimation Videos, Hulu; Dub - FUNimation Videos]

Description: Chief of XAT, a German government agency tasked with dealing with the mysterious Demoniac attacks. Black (average skin tone); ditoned (blond down the middle, black on the sides) hair. Well-built, level-headed, good leadership qualities. Well-respected by peers.

Background: The condition that turns people into the bio-tech monstrosities known as "Demoniacs" (also called "Amalgams" in the show) is contagious--and Wolf soon finds himself feeling a few peculiar symptoms. Having given orders to hunt down the Demoniacs and having witnessed their demises first-hand, the normally strong Wolf is overcome with the fear that he will end up like they have. Enter the main villain, Xargin's, herald, Beatrice (herself dark-skinned, but with a lighter tone), who seduces Wolf into accepting her "medicine", which will give him the power he needs to protect himself. As such, he helps undermine the efforts of his own men and joins in on the ambush of XAT with his new-found Amalgam abilities when their headquarters becomes infected, personally believing that he is "saving" them from destruction.

The Situation: Having switched entirely over to Xargin's side, Wolf is now the commander of his vast Demoniac army. He is fully committed to the cause and opposes the very few people left alive from the assault, and among his ward is Alvin, his team's go-to sniper from the XAT days--and one of the earliest casualties--who was personally revived as a like-suited Demoniac. Two survivors from the team, one of them now a Demoniac himself, square off against Wolf and nearly defeat him until Al provides backup. They both soon find themselves on the ropes as Wolf tries to recruit his former allies. However, memories of the past begin to stir in Al, allowing him to recognize who his friends were and what their leader did to all of them. Al redirects his rifle onto Wolf and takes off the top part of his head, causing him to stagger about. As he curses the "ungrateful humans", Hermann, the Demoniac survivor, delivers the final blow by slicing him in half. Wolf's body turns to dust, and Al, finding his coming-back-from-the-dead to be "too creepy" for him, turns his gun on himself in seclusion and blows his own head off, effectively ending his own life.

Analysis: Wolf is a very interesting character, as well as sharing a particular trait with a few others this post series. He is given a reasonably fair, even-handed portrayal both in personality and looks (e.g. not stereotypically "loud" or "token", no overemphasis on "big, round, pink lips"), and is actually treated as a normal, realistic person, rather than a caricature. It is also easy to relate to him on some level and see why he became paranoid, though of course, he went off the steep end with his actions.

This brings us to the event of his death in Episode 19. The specter of "The Traitor", and their eventual comeuppance, is a common theme among these cases: the trusted character, the bastion of justice and authority, the form of leadership suddenly becomes one of the biggest threats to the heroes and after he is confronted and defeated, retribution is meted out. Most often, in the classic sense, the character is "executed", sometimes in the traditional visage of a single shot to the head. It would seem only natural that the betrayer would pay for his crimes in the end and Wolf, for everything he had done, would fit this bill.

In conjunction with this is the fact that Demoniacs can only be killed by either being shot in the head, by another Demoniac, or by completely obliterating them. While Wolf was ultimately done in by being cleaved in half, his demise was initiated with the scalping shot to the head, which seems only logical at first. At the same time, however, the scene felt excessive in some respect. Such a statement may come as a surprise with a series like Blassreiter, where all of two characters survive and a few others die in more agonizing ways than Wolf, but the entire scene of him him lurching around with half of his head blown off felt a little more distracting than "fitting" or "affecting". I believe this was influenced by having seen previous examples of black characters being shot in the head in other anime, even if Wolf was certain to die for his betrayal and due to the show's nature. Of all of the cases, it is one of the more violent and graphic deaths (only eclipsed by one egregious case in another series). On another note, with everything in consideration, two other infected characters, Al included, died via head shots, whereas Beatrice, the only other dark-skinned character in the show, died from a stab through the heart after a pitched Demoniac battle with Hermann.

Perhaps my feelings over Wolf's death was partially influenced by the episode itself being the poorest in the series and shabbily written, as nothing seemed clicked and everything felt "off", which was quite puzzling for such a major episode. Regardless, my sentiments would have likely remained the same even if the episode were well-composed. There have been so many instances of blacks dying almost exclusively by head shots, that it would be difficult for it not to be noticed, however fitting or "par for the course" in a violent, bloody series (even if he was in his monstrous form). In spite of how his death was handled, Wolf is one of the better black characters to have appeared in an anime. His looks, personality, and role in the show were quite good and didn't fall into unfortunate caricatures. Comparatively, he could have been white and his character would have still fit in well and carry the impact he had in the story--meaning he was not treated any differently than anyone else in the show or just there for token purposes. But admittedly, being an uncommon ethnic character in an anime enhanced his profile and presence. After all, he ranked 5th in a character poll of ten on the show's website during its airing.

1. Should really read “most” or “so many”, not "nearly all”, wording I didn't notice until afterwords.  Pardon the hyperbole… [10/23/10]

[EDIT [04/24/10]: Screenshots added. (Source: FUNimation Videos, Eps. 12 and 19)]

To Part 2-->

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