An “Alternative” to “Stories Tinged by White Privilege”: Exploring the ‘Black Anime’ Trend
“The notion that we should all be… ‘just human’ under the framework of white supremacy has usually meant that subordinate groups must surrender their identities”
- bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism
“To be heard is to be known”, argues Postcolonial author Joane Sharp, and nowhere is this more resonant than with those who have to struggle for this right to begin with. Myself, as a white British male brought up in a country whose representations of heroism look not a lot unlike my own, surrendering my identity and difference in order to be heard is not a struggle I have particularly had to deal with. For many, however, these images of power not only do not represent them, but actively stand for their negation. It is in this context that the medium of Japanese animation (‘anime’), and it’s potentially surprising yet well-substantiated appeal to Black communities in Western countries, can be read as one site of resistance against these supervillainous global relations of power.
A ‘Black Anime’ Trend?
The concentration of anime fanbases in Black communities in Western countries is widely referenced in online circles- from Genius’ series documenting anime references in hip hop tracks, to Onike Brown’s 2020 article ‘How Black Fans Contribute to Anime’s Widespread Popularity’. Remarkably few of these reference quantifiable viewership statistics which, if sought out, actually do seem to substantiate the trend. One recent American viewership poll finds that both Hispanic and African-American communities are almost twice as likely to express “very favourable” opinions towards the cultural product than White respondents. Another found that African-Americans were three times as likely to list anime series Dragon Ball as their favourite ‘cartoon’ overall.
An unlikely starting point in attempting to understand this peculiar cross-cultural alliance can be found in one episode of podcast Fun With Dumb, featuring discussion between Carl Jones and Brian Ash, producers of ‘black anime’ series The Boondocks, and hosts Dumbfoundead and Nocando. For Jones and Ash, these relationships spring out of an “identity-crisis” in Western media, with Asian films providing a “non-white alternative structure”, or what Nocando terms an “alternative” to “stories tinged by white privilege”. In contrast, Nocando describes the Superman series as “boring because it is struggle-free”- decidedly more detached from the Black experience in America. They also remind listeners that this is by no means a new phenomenon, with Nocando reminiscing on his father’s obsession with ‘60’s anime Speed Racer or the Wu-Tang Clan’s fascination with Kung-fu films in the early ‘90’s. In fact, the Wu-Tang’s spiritual guide RZA himself credits a lot of the group’s early direction to knowledge gained from these films and even extends to Dragon Ball Z, arguing that it “represents the journey of the Black man in America”. For each, these themes of struggle and alternatives to Western narrative structures are central to explaining the relationship between anime and Black communities in Western countries and, to my surprise, this was echoed in my own discussions with contemporary British hip hop artists Sidders and Renelle 893:
Images and representations of heroism are clearly powerful but the roots of this cross-cultural alliance seems to reach even deeper into the thematic focuses of the anime medium itself. In order to find out exactly what makes anime stories so uniquely appealing, we need to engage with Nocando’s own contrast between the titular American superhero Superman and Dragon Ball’s Goku.
A Battle of Global Proportions: Goku vs. Superman
At first glance, Goku and Superman share many similarities. Both appear as aliens crash landing on Earth and both possess extraordinary power by virtue of their superhuman backgrounds. However, whilst Superman arrives as what comic book expert Lauren Karp terms the “ultimate immigrant”, he is soon co-opted into American nationalism and even fights under the star-spangled banner in a fictional retelling of World War 2. Meanwhile, Dragon Ball’s Earth is decidedly more detached from reality, populated by the fictional cities ‘East City’ and ‘West City’ and all manner of non-human inhabitants.
There is an interesting history behind this divergence: where Superman initially appeared as a hero for “depression-era labourers”, saving individuals from unfair working treatments and scrupulous industrialists, the ensuing Cold War saw concerns that the Man of Steel could lend support to Communism and a range of constraints were immediately placed on the series. Led by the decidedly villainous-sounding Dr. Wertham, these Comic Codes banned the“disrespect for authority” that initially made Superman popular and saw series creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster being duped out of the rights to their own narrative. Superman soon became more of a “flag with a face” than a true saviour of the people.
Meanwhile, the anime medium emerged in a wildly different societal context, gaining revolutionary significance in the Japanese student protests of the 60s and 70s. Suddenly finding themselves in one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth, the youth of Japan’s dynamic post-war environment began to rebel against pressures to grow up and work long hours. Social historian Keigo Okonogi details how, as “adult came to have the additional meaning of conservative”, “students started to read instead children’s and adolescents comics, more or less adopting the comic medium as their own”, referring to themselves as the “moratorium people” after their so-called dead-end futures.
It is here that Nocando’s off-the-cuff comments on the “boring” narrative structure of Superman take on a much deeper significance. Despite sharing similar inspirations in progenitors of animation such as Walt Disney, the growth of the comic book medium invited a spate of nationalist constraints that were simply not present in their Japanese manga counterparts. Nocando and company were clearly on the mark when they argued that, on some level, anime can offer a “non-white alternative structure” to Western audiences- but as for the centrality of ‘struggle’? To answer this we need to dive into the heroes’ motivations for action themselves.
‘Great Power’ Comes With What ‘Great Responsibility’, Exactly?
The phrase ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ is now universally associated with Marvel posterboy Spiderman, but very few are aware of the addage’s more divisive roots. First appearing in French Revolution documentation on the birth of the new Republic, this conceptual association between ‘great power’ and ‘great responsibility’ has since made appearances in speeches by President William McKinley and Prime Minister Winston Churchill before landing in the mouth of beloved meme-lord Spidey. Viewed against this background, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ begins to sound an awful lot like a sugar-coated “white man’s burden”.
By contrast, Goku quips “power comes in response to a need not a desire” in Dragon Ball Z’s episode 95. Where Spiderman’s motivations for action are firmly rooted in Western political discourse and the politics of power (exogenously given, no less), Goku stands for the struggle to attain that power itself. As so eloquently put by Renelle 893, it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to see how, in Western societies where many ethnic minorities have to struggle simply to be heard let alone thrive, the supernaturally-bestowed power of heroes such as Superman and Spiderman could come as a turn-off. In many ways, the narrative centrality of ‘great power’ and ‘great responsibility’ in American comic books can be read as the fantasy equivalent of ‘white people problems’.
The Power of Being ‘Heard’
These themes come full-circle in The Boondocks series from which this article lifts its title. Described by creator Aaron McGruder as “our attempt at anime, but very, very black”, the Boondocks borrows heavily from the anime medium in its collaboration with renowned Japanese Animation studio Madhouse and fluid anime-style movements. With its skits on Oprah Winfrey, R. Kelly and many more, it is this grafting of African-American experience onto an anime aesthetic that is particularly useful in answering the matter in question.
Cultural theorists Tia Tyree and Adrian Krishnasamy argue that the series “speaks on resistance, liberation, peace and harmony, and does so in the language of African-Americans- Ebonics”. Moreover, this takes place through the manifestation of the distinct African-American concept of ‘nommo’- defined by Tyree and Krishnasamy as “the instrumental power of speech to bring forth African-American selfhood and the Black experience”. Given the anime medium’s starkly non-Western appearance on Western TV screens and unique focus on ‘struggle’, compounded by the centrality of storytelling to the African-American tradition itself, series such as the Boondocks can be read as powerfully fulfilling the call to be ‘heard’ and ‘known’ outlined at the onset of this article. Much like fans such as Renelle 893, Sidders and Nocando, the Boondocks’ Aaron McGruder clearly found one way of being ‘heard’ in the anime medium amidst a cultural environment dominated by supernaturally-privileged Western superheroes.
In an increasingly globalised age where borrowing from cultural mediums across the globe is easier than ever before, more and more these sites of resistance and cross-pollinating international encounters take place in plain sight. As Netflix’s drive to “grow anime productions” kicks into gear with a range of internationally-produced anime series, this unique relationship between the Eastern medium and Black communities in Western countries comes as a reminder that there is power in being heard. The unspoken function of presenting characters such as Superman as the icon of greatness is that power and success ends up looking and sounding like them- buff white guys with chiselled jawlines, basically. By listening to the experiences of Sidders, Renelle and countless others, as well as the attempts of creators such as McGruder to do things differently, we can begin to realise a world in which the images of success don’t look so… one-dimensional.
It must be mentioned that, being a White British male brought up in a country that (on the whole) represents people who look and sound like me, these voices and experiences are fundamentally not my own. However, insofar as I have spent the last four years studying cultural sites of resistance in all its various forms and have been lucky enough to be given even some small platform to tell these stories, I hope that articles such as these can be read as propelling rather than hijacking the experiences voiced by Renelle, Sidders, Nocando, McGruder and countless others. After all, in an increasingly globalised and porous world, it is these voices that are only set to grow more relevant- not my own.
Article written by Solomon PM
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