Black representation, appearance in Japanese pop culture

Noah Washington
Noah Washington is a black nerd since birth and a media entrepreneur major at Georgia State University. He loves everything in from “Ant-man” to “Z-Gundam” He has written for the SCADCONNECTOR, as well as written exposés and held TV interviews. – Photo courtesy of NNPA




With the release of Netflix’s Cannon Busters, we go back to the age-old conversation of representation of African Americans in anime. The most well known characters in Japanese pop culture have often been represented with European features and fairer skin tones such as Naruto, Ichigo, Luffy or Spike Spiegel. Even in live-action adaptations, some have been played by Caucasian actors.

And Black characters written into a storyline, their features are often exaggerated or they are made into a stereotype, most infamously with Mr. Popo of Dragon Ball fame; his dark as night skin and big red lips are reminiscent of Blackface.

This issue extends outside of classic cartoon anime. Japanese video games are also guilty of unequal and stereotypical representation. There are many different types of representation and all of these entertainment companies are missing the mark on all of them.

The closest thing we have to a fair representation is in Aaron Mcgruder’s The Boondocks. Yes, I know that it is not considered an anime, but it has anime influences, and development by Madhouse Studios made it the closest thing we have o an enjoyable anime with a predominantly Black-filled cast.

Unfortunately though, as much as I enjoyed it and how it cleverly portrays stereotypes, they are stereotypes nonetheless.

Cannon Busters, part of Netflix’s anime initiative to bring about more original content, was recently released and I have to say the quality of it and the writing are outstanding.

It has all the qualities of a traditional anime, giant mecha’s, over the top protagonists, and a dramatic impossible plot. But I am disappointed with it in one aspect. The anime has Black warriors, a Black prince, a Black king and most importantly a Black hero named Odin. I see Odin as a double-edged sword.

This presented a chance to show off powerful deities with African origins, since there are plenty to choose from in the Yoruba and Egyptian pantheon. On the other side of this problem is the fact that, as a Black man, Odin is depicted as a powerful larger than life figure that has traditionally looked like a grizzled Caucasian male with an eye patch.

Video games also have their own role in this dilemma. Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy are two of the most popular video game series and have cemented themselves in American pop culture.

Kingdom Hearts is a joint venture with Disney Interactive and Square Enix. The third entry in the series was released early this year and is good overall, but yet again another missed opportunity.

Several Disney worlds were featured in the game, but the easy slam-dunk world that is missing is The Princess and the Frog. For some fans, this was a disappointment.

It is overflowing with the themes of dark vs. light, love conquers all, magic (good and bad), and whimsically simple-minded villains. The Bayou would have made a great location for the main characters to play around in, you could have even turned them into frogs like the design mechanic that was done when the characters went to see Simba from the Lion King in Kingdom Hearts II which visualized them as lions.

Final Fantasy faces a different issue. More than 13 games make up the series and there have hardly been a handful of memorable characters. Barret Wallace and Sazh Katzroy are Black, but practically the same characters. They both use guns as their main style of fighting and have operated as comic relief at various points in the main story.

Sazh is a mild-mannered character that represents a big problem. He isn’t a bad character, but it’s what he is constantly carrying around with him: A Chocobo.

Chocobo’s are like horses, but look like large chicks and to any uninformed viewer, kind of cute. But to the informed, it carries the stereotype that Black people love chicken – an insulting character choice.

Barret Wallace, on the other hand, is made to look like a stereotype, a muscled up Black man with a gun.

I hope they treat Barrett a cut above his old self in the Final Fantasy VII remake set to release March 3, 2020. I just want a Black character that has a slim muscular build who carries around an awe-inspiring sword that one day my kids would want to dress up as for Halloween.

Are these stereotypes an issue of the Japanese studios not interacting enough with people of African heritage or is it a matter of malevolence?

We notice the trend of African American stereotypes even outside of Japanese anime and video game culture. On IMDB the character is listed as Hiroki Tanaka, a Japanese name. Is this a commentary on how Asian Americans are allowed opportunities that African Americans are not? Is this a way for Jordan Peele to say that the Japanese see African people the same way Caucasians do? Or is this a way of saying that the Japanese identify with Caucasian Americans more than the other marginalized and oppressed groups due to their colonization by the English?

We as Black nerds are entitled to characters that we can identify with and our children can take pride in. Growing up, I loved Goku, Cloud and Sora. But it would have been nice to have a stalwart and cool character that looked like me that I could identify with and look up to.

The good news is that the release of Marvel’s Black Panther brings in a new era of representation that does not have stereotypes anywhere around it. The bad news is that there is not a character of color that stands out in the world of anime like Goku or Naruto.


Noah Washington is a black nerd since birth and a media entrepreneur major at Georgia State University. He loves everything in from “Ant-man” to “Z-Gundam” He has written for the SCADCONNECTOR, as well as written exposés and held TV interviews.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.