Sunday, September 26, 2010

:anime: Blacks and Head Shots in Anime (Part 7 - Final)

<--To Part 6

Over the past six parts, we have explored the pattern of dark-skinned characters dying from head wounds in anime. We have also seen a number of peculiar traits shared among them and tried to place them in proper perspective with the issue, as well as history and culture. Yet, the question prevails as to why they die in such a particular way, beyond just story conventions.

How a character was designed, stereotypically or not, did not seem to influence their deaths from a head wound. Some cases were more gratuitous than others, but there did not appear to be a correlation between the degree of violence displayed and design (ex. the more offensively-designed Coffee received an excessive death, yet the more respectable-looking Bear was the only one to receive two shots to the head). Considering past depictions of black people as "beasts", not every dark-skinned character transformed into a monster, and even for the ones that did, they were not necessarily the only characters on their own shows to die from a head wound.

One of the dilemmas of researching a topic outside of one's native language is that you will eventually reach a roadblock in how far you can uncover what you want. With a limited knowledge of Japanese on my part and a lack of awareness of the subject in general, finding deeper information of its origins becomes hard to come by. However, this does not mean that we can't still gather a general idea of it. Although many of the elements above were discredited as primary reasons for the deaths, their historical and cultural connections may still yield some clues in helping generate a hypothesis.

Given the homogeneous composition of the Japanese population, as well as its history of isolation, interactions with people of color is not as common as in countries with heavier populations, such as the United States. And as touched upon in Part 2, it also means that there has been a lacking grasp of the troubled history that those people have had in the U.S. and elsewhere with racial caricatures (blackface, exaggerated facial features) and stereotypical depictions in media, among others. It was largely through media of the past that helped shaped the idea of what a "black person" is, and while present-day material has improved from the early 20th century, media continues to shape the perception of how they look and act to the Japanese.

There are a few examples of this across time. In 2006, popular a cappella group The Gospellers joined forces with '80s act RATS & STAR in a side project to form "The Gosperats", who performed soul and doo wop songs in blackface as homage to music of that period. A similar incident also occurred when a clip went viral on the Internet of a comedic auditionee donning blackface makeup on a Japanese talent show to resemble Louis Armstrong while he sang his classic "What a Wonderful World", replete with his signature mannerisms and trumpet. A more "classic" stereotypical image could be seen as far back as the 1960's in Shotaro Ishinomori's influential manga Cyborg 009, where one of the characters--hailing from Africa--possessed many of the same monkey-like features one would see on old media posters and drawings in United States and elsewhere (interestingly, in future depictions, his image was updated to remove the offensive elements and look more like a real African person (or person, period)). Another case involved African-American MMA fighter Bob Sapp, a very large and popular figure in Japan, who was interviewed on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. He was subsequently confronted by the host, himself African-American, about his playing-along with his image as a "beast" (also his nickname), where he would act the part and voraciously tear away at pieces of chicken with his teeth when offered up by fans. Sapp's defense was that he did it for entertainment purposes, no different from Michael Clarke Duncan playing an ape in the then-recent remake of Planet of the Apes (2001).

Logged experiences from blacks who have traveled to or worked in Japan seem to exhibit some common aspects. For the most part, the perception of blacks there is born largely from the view of foreigners in general, as the Japanese tend to be kind towards them, but harbor pre-conceived notions of who they are, much of which originates from what they've seen in the movies, TV, and news from outside their border. Concerning blacks, the range of beliefs seem very familiar to what is portrayed in the U.S., some positive (i.e. "athletic", "cool", "energetic/full of vitality", gifted in entertainment), some negative (i.e. delinquency, "ghetto"/"gangsta" image, laziness). For a country unaccustomed to blacks, it may be as close as any may get to an actual encounter, even if, like most stereotypes, those attributes are embellished upon or largely false when imposed on the group as a whole.

It is also through this rather limited scope of view that one likely cannot grasp what could be considered questionable or offensive to the other, expressly when given conflicting past and present ideals, or when they appeal to the adopting culture's sensibilities. For example, "sambo" or "darky" figures, though a contentious image in the U.S., remain popular in Japan, where their often "cutesy" appearances appeal to the country's adoration of "cute" and "adorable" items and has, thus, sold well (though the attraction is not limited to Japan, as they hold esteem in Mexico and elsewhere, including among some in the U.S., where older items can fetch a good deal of money). Aided by technological advances and increased access to people and things beyond Japan via the Internet, the younger generation has generally been more accepting of other races, yet it has also sparked an interesting side-effect in what that admiration can father. For example, in an attempt to emulate their favorite black singers or stars, some have been known to get dark tans and wear elaborate makeup and clothes to emulate their appearances, as well as adopting their "manner of speak" and a few of their lingoes and euphemisms.

In some instances, it can stretch to questionable lengths. This was the case with the music video for singer Mika Nakashima's gospel-tinged song, "Cry No More". In it, she treks through what looks to be an old Southern U.S. town (with a cotton blossom in hand), past a mural of black musicians and through a field of cotton, where she is shown singing in. This is also interspersed with footage of her singing in a small chapel decked in the kind of formal dress you would normally see women in a black church wear, lightly pantomiming their mannerisms (having attended a black church for years, I would know...). On the surface, it may not seem terribly offensive or racist (Nakashima has shown in the past to have a definite affection for black artists and their music), but where particulars of the church scenes and especially the cotton may seem like a well-intentioned homage to African-American culture from someone outside of the U.S., to someone here, it is more worrisome and cringe-enducing as it looks shortsighted and stereotypical. A similar dilemma can be found in the anime Turn A Gundam, where the main character (the Gundam franchise's only dark-skinned lead) works undercover as a servant (butler/chauffeur-type) for a wealthy Caucasian family after being saved from drowning when he was younger. Peculiar is that the story takes place in an anachronistic era drawing from the designs of many others--among them, the American Civil War. While placing him in a role of servitude could be seen as a nod to American history from the creator's end, the image of a "slave" or any black in servitude in a non-historic setting (and even so) is a very sensitive issue in the U.S., and is especially a sore spot among African-Americans.

With the restricted, imported view of blacks, as well as the adoption of certain aspects and elements concerning them, it would not be out-of-question to consider if the pattern of dark-skinned anime characters dying via head wound was borne from the same vein. Major stereotypes of the past have showed up in some of the cases, such as the "big pink lips", while possible (but perhaps more coincidental) off-shoots of them, such as the "monstrous transformation" (from the "beast" stereotype), were also noted. While there does not appear to be a correlation between such physical appearances and manner of death, it is still curious seeing some of those traits emerge, given history. Of greater frequency and interest is the "Traitor" motif, which turned up in three out of the five cases and a few other times in Part 6. Compared to the other traits, its origin is harder to pinpoint due to its lack of historical correlation with blacks (or dark-skinned people in general) either in or outside of Japan, but while it normally fit in with a story's particular theme (such as "loyalty" and "trust": major ones in Blassreiter and Gungrave), it is up to debate as to how much race still factors into it. The trait and the consequence that befalls the character (i.e. an execution-style death for betrayal) seems more universal in scope than ethnically-specific, yet it is particularly interesting seeing the number of dark-skinned characters associated with it in anime. In that same respect, the same can be said of the number of dark-skinned characters who died from shots or stabs to the center of their foreheads. Even if they were villains and more prone to dying than a protagonist would, it remains a stark wonder the regularity of the demise met. Given the past historic examples of stereotypes, the affinity between cases, and the penchant the Japanese have for following patterns and tradition, the inclination towards media (particularly from the outside) being the birthplace of the head shots seems strong, but there is little direct evidence in the way of history or elsewhere concerning it, making this solely a hypothesis on it.

In spite (or because) of this, there are still a few questions to be asked regarding this. Given what was discussed above and at various points in the cases, do some Japanese believe that "bad" (or even "untrustworthy" or "disloyal") dark-skinned people get shot in the head? If so, where did they get this from? A news item? A movie or comic? "Word of mouth"? Perhaps from an old fable involving some dark entity (odd as it may sound, humanoid characters with dark skin have been used in fantasy tales to represent those hailing from "dark" or alternate worlds opposite of the protagonist's own)? Even though most of the characters in the cases were villains, is there some belief that dark-skinned people in general die from head wounds on a frequent basis? While it is impossible to gauge the response of every person, every animator, and every producer, they are still worthwhile questions to at least ask oneself and to keep a discerning eye on. One of the primary purposes of this series is to raise awareness of this pattern, as well as to shed some light upon its peculiarities. It is not in its intention or my own to say "stop watching such-and-such shows," as to what effects it may (or may not) have on your viewing habits is ultimately something that lies with you, the reader. I do, however, hope that it affects how you objectively watch anime--especially when dark-skinned characters are involved--and that your eyes are kept open to what is being portrayed.

Before closing, I would like to apologize for the use of the terms "black" and "dark-skinned" interchangeably during the course of this series, notably with title, "Blacks and Head Shots in Anime". Not every dark-skinned person is or considers themselves to be "black" (e.g. of African descent, such as African-American), and while all of the characters from Parts 1-5 are either more clearly or inferred to be so (Coffee may be of Caribbean descent, but it is never made apparent), Part 6 featured characters black, Middle Eastern, and Indian, making "dark-skinned" more appropriate. This error in terminology was something I had not realized until shortly after I started, so I tried to apply the latter as often as possible thereafter. The definition of what makes oneself "black" has been dicey at times, and discussions about it have been spirited, to say the least. I decided to stay more along "traditional" routes in the one I employed here, even though it itself is not entirely perfect. Regardless, I prefer using the more general "dark-skinned", as it better encompasses the issue at large.

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