Wednesday, May 19, 2010

:anime: Blacks and Head Shots in Anime (Part 5)

<--To Part 4 | Part 6-->

(Note: As always, 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 are either for older teen or mature audiences.)

Case #5

Title: A Wind Named Amnesia

Character: No name given.

Format: Film

Description: Robot operator/apparent priest of the city's "god." Balding afro cut; wears a garish attire with tights, a fur cape, long black nails, two (apparently) bone-adorned necklaces (and an additional jewel-laced one closest to his neck), and large beads grapevined around his arms. Semi-realistic features (i.e. facial structure, average-sized lips, and complexion). Looks like a normal man in an outfit crossed between a wrestler and a witch doctor (though much more of the latter).

Background: One day, circa 1997, a wind blew across the earth that caused everyone to lose all of their memories and anything they had learned. With humanity reduced to nothing more than wild animals, the world quickly devolved into a chaotic state. A young man, roaming feral like everyone else, comes across a large building where a boy in a wheelchair is being attacked by a large, hulking man with physic powers and wires coming out of his body. Instinctively, the young man tries to help the boy by tossing rocks at the crazed figure, but he is slammed into a tree by a psychic wave. As he goes to finish him off, the boy shoots the man in the head from behind and kills him. Johnny, as he is called, befriends the young man and takes him to the research facility that was housed in the building.

Both he and the large man that he fought were part of a military experiment in creating human weapons, but while he was engineered for destruction, Johnny was purposed with an expansive memory and had a computer implanted within his brain to handle it, essentially making him immune to the "The Wind's" effects. Johnny makes use of the facility's computer system to restore the young man's intellect and gives him hand-on teaching in how to read, write, and fend for himself. He comes to give him the name of "Wataru," meaning "traveler" in Japanese, as it would be fitting of his task to go throughout and reteach humanity, in hopes of leading them onto the right path. Some time afterwards, after learning a number of skills such as firing a gun, astronomy, knowing the right foods to eat, even how to have fun, Johnny grows weak and passes away, leaving Wataru to carry on the task given to him.

The Situation: Wataru's travels lead him through the nigh-unrecognizable San Francisco in 1999, where he becomes the unwitting target of an automated assault robot still assigned with securing its rough streets (its pilot apparently died after The Wind hit). He also crosses paths with an ethereal woman named Sophia, who befriends him and suggests they escape before the robot he disabled repairs itself and follows suit. Their trip leads them south to Los Angeles, where they encounter a girl on the run from a gang of men. She is rescued by a larger, bulky man, but he is shot by one of the marauders. Before things get out of hand, Wataru shoots the gun out of the assailant's hand and scares them away. Wataru tries to get through to the girl's agitated protector in vain, but Sophia calms him with the touch of her palm. As the pair rest from their ordeal, Sophia reveals from the information she culled from them that the girl, "Sue", was to be married to her people's god the next day. And like all of the "brides" offered, it also meant that she would be sacrificed as a means of appeasement to it.

Wataru decides there to save Sue and "Little John" and take them along. The following morning, the four travel to the beach for some relaxation and Sue finds a white dress on the way back in town. Wataru stops to gather some food and drinks, but as he returned, the pair had already left. Sophia tells him that Sue was going through with the sacrifice, out of concern that some other girl might die in her stead. Upset, Wataru goes after her, arriving at the wedding ceremony at nightfall. Sophia informs him that the "god" the people worship is actually a "computerized urban construction robot" designed to raze old buildings for newer ones. The machine has an array of arms and lasers that it uses to conduct its task, which are now set on cutting through anything it pleases. Proceeding over the ceremony (and the robot itself) is a garishly-dressed black man with tights, long nails, and a fancy cape, who gestures to the crowd to present the bride.

As she is brought forth, Little John breaks through and fights off her handlers. Wataru jumps in to provide back up, but Sue begins to walk towards the robot. Little John is soon overwhelmed and subdued, but as Sue turns back to help him, the "god" starts to move and begins to shoot and crush people indiscriminately. Everyone runs away in a panic as its operator laughs maniacally, but as Wataru guides her through the commotion, Sue tearfully lets go of his hand, still too worried about the consequences of leaving. She runs toward the machine and outreaches her hand, pleading for it to stop, only to be shot in the chest moments later by one of the lasers. Wataru, enraged, points his gun at the cockpit and fires a single round into it and directly into the center of the operator's forehead, killing him instantly. The bullet exits through the other side of his head and hits part of the machine's circuitry, causing a chain reaction that damages it and stops it from functioning. The "god" soon falls into a deep crevasse in the earth and is destroyed.

As morning comes, Wataru teaches Little John how to use a rifle and open a can of food before continuing his journey with Sophia. He attaches an "LAPD Sheriff" badge that Little John always carried in his pocket for reasons forgotten (along with a photo of him in uniform with a familiar-looking teen girl embracing him), which serves as his "badge of leadership". He expresses to him that though Sue is gone and he will never know anyone like her again, he should care for others like he did for her. With that, Little John stood before the survivors and raised his gun in the air, and the crowd rushed to their new leader in jubilation.

Analysis: The death of the black robot operator in A Wind Named Amnesia was the first time I had witnessed a dark-skinned character killed by a shot through the head. It also ranks as one of the more graphic of the cases--second only to the previous one in 3-D Magical Play--as what looks to be his brain matter can be seen exiting out of his head along with a lengthy spray of blood. As such, it, too, ranks as one of the more gratuitous of the cases--again, second only to 3-D Magical Play--with the scene shown in dramatic slow-motion, moment-by-moment, from the bullet breaking through the glass window, to it spinning towards him right up to its entry, and then spraying out of the back of his head.

Amnesia does not shy away from showing bloody, graphic content or death, to say the least, but in a film where a group of people get gunned down in a torrent of crimson firepower, where "death" itself is a central theme, and even where someone is shown being pureed by an airplane propeller in a quick scene, the visage of a man about to literally get his brains blown out at a steady "frame by frame" pace will stand out more than those other parts. That he was black added an additional layer of amazement, since it was uncommon to find someone like him in an anime. In that same vein, it was also sublime to see that very character get shot in the head in spectacular fashion. It took me aback at first sight, though I just chalked it up to the movie being uncompromisingly violent, like a number of films and one-shot OVAs from the mid-80s to the mid-90s (Amnesia was made in 1993). After seeing a similar act in 3-D Magical Play (also in slow-motion) and later in Gungrave, I began to take more notice of what I would soon discover to be as a pattern with an all-too-frequent and singular end.

Across the five cases covered, we have seen the common link of dark-skinned characters dying from head wounds, most of which from a single shot to the center of the forehead. While we have discussed the reoccurring trait of "The Traitor" among some, there is one in particular that connects them all: all of the characters are antagonists. Not in most, if any, of the anime mentioned here or in any other that I can recall have ever shown a dark-skinned protagonist or background character die from such wounds. If one died from a projectile weapon, it would most likely be to the chest--not much different from anyone else regardless of color.

More broadly, there seems to be little distinction between how a non-villainous dark-skinned character dies from one that is light-skinned. For example, in Mobile Suit Gundam F91, Arthur dies after being thrown against a wall from an explosion--not by shrapnel to the head or errant gunfire--and in RahXephon, Jean-Patrick dies after his escape pod is crushed. In addition, a black solider in Blood: The Last Vampire (of which Blood+ was adapted from), is shown being grabbed by a Chiropteran in a tree and ravaged, though that part is not completely depicted on-screen.

However, there may also be the rare instance where an antagonistic dark-skinned character dies from something other than a head shot. For instance, "Black King," an underground mafioso in Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2, is shown dead from a shot to the heart after he and many others are killed during a battle that erupts inside a building. In addition, Mobile Suit Gundam 00's Daryl died after his mecha was destroyed and Getter Robo Armageddon's Dr. Cohen (though an alien in disguise) perishes after the biomechanical ship he and his partner-in-crime transformed into is destroyed.

Though rarities exist, there remains a far greater consistency with head shots. Concerning Amnesia, we have a maniacal black man destroying everything around him who gets shot as to stop the machine and the mayhem, as he was the one controlling it. From a plot standpoint, including Wataru being armed with the only capable weapon around (a handgun), it would make sense that the only real way of stopping the machine would be to kill its operator. In that position, he dies for the sake of plot advancement and that's that, like any other antagonist.

And yet, that is similar to how Wolf--a black villain--dies in Blassreiter (though he was ultimately finished off by being cleaved in half), how James--a black villian--dies in Blood+, how Bear--a black villain--dies in Gungrave (stopped once by a bullet, finished off by another), and how Coffee--a black villain--dies in 3-D Magical Play. All of them villains. All of them black. And every single one of them shot (or in James' case, stabbed) in the head, primarily in the center of their forehead (with the exception of Wolf, who had the top part of his head taken off from behind). There can be rationales and plot relevancies that can be levied in many of those cases, even as antagonists, but the fact remains that there is a continual standard when it comes to dark-skinned characters dying.

In the common sense of a "story," the villain/antagonist will often die at the end or will need to die in order for the hero/protagonist to move along with their quest. That these dark-skinned types die, much less exist, is not so much the problem as the distinctive way they do, as some may be compelled to believe, with reason. As a whole, black antagonists have been a source of controversy in the U.S., specifically if they are the main ones in a story or if they fall into social stereotypes (i.e. drug dealers, gang members). This stems in part from works in the early 20th century and before that portrayed African-American men as fools or beasts that terrorized society and white women or hypersexual black women that seduced white men from their wives, as seen in films like Birth of a Nation and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927). With the proliferation of media and the growth of the civil rights movement, the depiction of African-Americans in film improved, but the racial stereotypes of old fell way to new ones, born from the growing view (and reality) of blacks living in crime-filled, inner-city environments.

The image and stigma of the "black criminal" came into focus in the 2001 film Training Day, when some questioned Denzel Washington winning the "Best Actor" Oscar--the first black man to do so--for playing a corrupt, cutthroat narcotics officer (on a side note, his character dies in a hail of gunfire at the end after failing to come through on a deal). While image problems still exist among dark-skinned antagonists (e.g. drug-dealing, gangs), I do not believe having black antagonists in a story is the problem here or among the cases, so long as they do not fall into those stereotypes and are given as fair a shake as any other. I feel having such characters provides an opportunity to counter those old, racist views and bring an amount of versatility and even respect to the presentation of people of color by providing ones that don't act like thugs or gangbangers.

For example, Washington's character was far from being a one-dimensional derelict and turned out to be a good, compelling one. With perhaps the slight exceptions of Coffee and the robot operator, most of the characters in the cases are respectable ones treated fairly and on a level field with the others in their shows. Now, that isn't to say that the their skin color did not play a role in how they die, and that is the main crux of this entire feature. When observing all of this, the history of blacks' portrayal in media might be invoked in some minds, especially in something from a foreign country with very few minorities to speak of (Japan). Yet, with the overall good depiction of the dark-skinned characters in the anime covered, villainous or not, then the bulk of the issue lies in how those antagonizing ones are being killed--and if possible, why.

Being one of those individuals, we hearken back to the case of the robot operator. The uncanny link between the deaths and the number of those characters in question being "traitors" may very well be at play here, as he it could be argued that he betrayed the people he apparently had some clout over at the ceremony and began killing anyone in sight. There is also the matter of the operator's wrestler/witch doctor-like wardrobe that, while fitting of his "priest" role in an uncivilized land somewhat, could be seen as racially insensitive on some level. There was an old stereotype of African-Americans being depicted as wild "bush people" and savages in media works and publications in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. With his claw-like nails, gaudy cape, and a necklace adorned by what looked like bone fragments, it stands within reason that one could be drawn to that image association. Less offensive are his facial features, which rank among the better and more "realistic" around, and his skin tone is of a general shade of brown frequently used for animated black characters. His more "modern"-looking face offsets his outfit to some degree and, personally, his design is less off-putting than Coffee's was.

While the robot operator's death could be argued as the most graphic or most gratuitous, it stands out less against the amount of violence and dour nature in A Wind Named Amnesia. This is what ultimately differentiates itself from 3-D Magical Play's case with Coffee, whose form of demise badly juxtaposed with the rest of the anime and truly felt unwarranted and out-of-place. That is not to excuse what occurred in Amnesia, though, as the glorified slow-motion of the bullet's trajectory enhanced the moment of death to the wrong effect, even if the director was trying to paint as a "cool" scene. It was my first time seeing a black man get shot like that in an anime, and the slow-motion generated a feeling of uneasiness, even though the film never shied from violence. While I doubt there were any racial intentions behind the staff's actions, I am not completely certain there wasn't anything born of institutionalized thinking or insensitivity either, nor can I say anything about the novel the film was based on, since I have never read it and do not know how closely the film follows it. Japan has a culture driven by tradition and trends/patterns, so part of the issue may be lie there, as evident with cases beyond these five discussed.

[NOTE: Screenshot Source: DVDs]

To Part 6-->

No comments:

Post a Comment