AJ Valerio’s interest in anime developed at a young age. They would pretend-fight, do Naruto runs, throw Kamehamehas from Dragon Ball with their friends, which led them to find their hobbies and passions. From sewing to drawing and everything in between, anime, a Japanese animation art form, has been woven into their life.
“I started cosplaying when I was in high school, so what people thought of you at that age was REALLY important,” Valerio, a 26-year-old Filipino Canadian based in Toronto, said. “Back then, cosplaying was all about looking like the character you’re cosplaying, down to the skin tone.”
Valerio remembers only being able to count the number of anime characters with tanned skin on one hand. So, at the time, their choice of characters to cosplay was minimal.
“Eventually, I got myself to break away from cosplaying within my skin tone and start to cosplay my favourite characters – most of whom were light-skinned. But, I had anonymous commenters on Tumblr sending me messages saying, ‘Cool cosplay, but that character isn’t Black.’
“I was already really self-conscious of the fact that I was a dark-skinned Asian person, and the idea of having to limit myself to cosplaying the token brown person didn’t sit right with me.”
Anime’s popularity has risen dramatically in the last two decades, but only recently has the online audience been perceived as diverse from a cultural, racial and gender perspective. Many individuals from different backgrounds engage and express their love for anime on social media.
Hundreds of new anime shows are released every year; however, many fans feel like the content they consume doesn’t represent them. Despite the fanbase including many individuals from these communities, the genre still lacks gender-diverse and female, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and LGBTQ2S+ characters.
When discussing diverse representation in a space like anime, we can look at several aspects: Is there any representation of different communities to begin with? Is that representation accurate and effective? Lastly, if those two are present, what is the intent behind it?
“Anime provides the diversity of cultural conversation. A form of entertainment from another culture is positively interacting with other cultures, which enables society to break down the dividing borders,” Prof. Nor Azlili Hassan from the University of Tunku Abdul Rahman in Kampar, Malaysia said. She specializes in ethnicity, gender, and social media research, and in 2016 co-wrote a research study on anime and its effects on college students.
“Yet, not all representation is a good representation,” Hassan said. “The representation that we’ve seen of the BIPOC communities was racist and stereotypical. There are still existing negative attitudes towards Black people, which can lead to offensive and problematic portrayals of them in anime.”
The history and growth of anime
Anime is an art form based on Japanese culture; you can trace it to the early 1900s and the start of Japanese film. Its original content came in the form of drawings, painting directly on film and even paper cut-outs. However, anime was not popularized until after the Second World War.
Toei, now considered the first modern anime company, was founded on Oct 1, 1949. The industry rapidly grew when Japan’s entertainment industry shifted to TV during the 1960s. Some early hits included Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke, the first-ever anime to be released in the U.S., as well as Rashōmon, Sally the Witch and Cyborg 009.
Shows like Naruto, Bleach, Inuyasha and Death Note, Princess Mononoke, and Sailor Moon helped build and pioneer the anime community in the western world.
These days, Attack on Titan and One Piece are shows with fans across the globe. A few months back, Olympic athletes Miltiadis Tentoglou, a Greek track and field runner, and Payton Otterdahl, an American shot-put athlete, went viral for making references to One Piece during their medal celebrations.
Last year, streaming giant Netflix stated that more than 100 million households had streamed anime movies or TV shows in a press release. Viewership on their platform for anime grew by 50 per cent from October 2019 to October 2020. Anime shows like Baki and Seven Deadly Sins were in the top 10 lists of most-watched shows in almost 70 different countries.
Netflix has broken out as a leader in the streaming era by adding a vast selection of anime to their library. They
Jared Ross, a Black creator in the anime community, thinks Black writers and creators are starting to get more recognition in the industry.
“We have way more black creators getting in the studios and writing rooms,” Ross, a 27-year-old African American influencer and content creator, said. “Especially in the voice-acting scene, you got all types of up-and-coming voice actors and artists working alongside big production companies.
“So, I would say it’s getting better.”
Ross said he tries to make a conscious effort to support other Black as well as female creators in the community. He’s amassed more than a quarter-million followers on TikTok under the handle AnimexSundays.
In late 2020, Arthell Isom made history by founding Japan’s first-ever black-owned anime studio D’Art Shtajio, located in Tokyo, Japan. Thus far, they’ve aided in producing Netflix’s popular show Castlevania and a music video for artist The Weeknd titled The Weeknd: Snowchild, which was an animated production. Other projects include It Was a Good Day: Hustle & Motivate, Tephlon Funk, Xogenasys, which feature BIPOC characters and many more.
As the animation industry develops globally, more opportunities for women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities could grow alongside it.
Shinichiro Watanabe, the creator of Cowboy Bebop, made the show predicated on the inclusion of multi-ethnic representation in his content. His use of jazz music is an homage to Black musicians he loved. The show, set in a futuristic space-centred world, gave room for characters of diverse backgrounds to be featured. In November, Netflix will release its live-action adaptation starring John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda on Nov 19.
Anime and animation: a blending of cultures
“So I think this is an interesting shift because the culture of millennials and Gen Z and beyond is changing,” Priya Kumar, a 36-year-old Research Fellow at Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration and Integration, said. She also researches the intersection of data, feminism and digital diasporas and online identity politics.
“As we also start to mix our hyphenated identities more and more, we ask, ‘What culture are we designing as Canadians?’ We’re in this grey area right now, in which we struggle with the idea of expression and harming people with it. It’s something that I think our culture is changing.”
Anime has influenced animation in the western world. American animation has drawn inspiration and copied over stylizations and sensibilities from anime. There are parallels between the two industries where we can see that they draw concepts and culture from each other.
Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Samurai Jack, Castlevania and Teen Titans are prime examples, and both industries are beginning to blend as fans digest content that we now call “animated shows.”
Kumar said there are lessons both industries need to learn in order for their work to reflect their increasingly diverse audiences.
“I’m a kid from the 1980s and a brown woman,” Kumar said. “Growing up and understanding that there were white actors, having accents, like Apu from the Simpsons, was the culture that Canada and America absorbed. I would argue this is where we should think about representation and who represents what. Playing a role in changing the discourse of who we’re allowed to represent and how.”
Kumar believes that the animation industry and its actors are beginning to see that accurate representation is essential. She points out that white actors from recent memory have stepped away from their roles and started to bypass opportunities to play BIPOC characters voluntarily. Mike Henry, who played Cleveland Brown for 22 years on Family Guy, stepped down from his role in 2020.
Another layer of diversity in anime: Gender
In terms of writing, animation and production, the industry is dominated by men. Historically, anime has done a questionable job with the representation of women.
Creators commonly depict women in anime with exaggerated body proportions and a lack of intelligence to reach a broader audience of male viewers. It’s become normal to have the female characters only aid or complement the male lead and character development.
“Female characters in particular, if they’re bossy or assertive, they’re seen as undesirable. It’s not always the material itself in some situations; it’s the mindset of the community,” Valerio said. “Female characters are super sexualized, or their only storyline is a love interest for a male character. But some new shows are developing female leads well, like Jujutsu Kaisen and The Legend of Korra.”
In Jujutsu Kaisen and The Legend of Korra, the female characters are not heavily sexualized. The story is centred around them while giving them adequate screen time and character development.
In The Legend of Korra, female characters are well written and make up a majority of the cast. Korra, the main character, is fierce and quick to protect her friends. Alongside her are characters like Asami, a brilliant woman with knowledge of technology and science that aids the cast in overcoming their struggles.
Despite a lack of quality representation, the anime industry does have a shortlist of shows that take diverse approaches to their content. Shows like One Piece, Cowboy Bepop, Jourmangand, The Legend of Korra, Fruits Basket, Sailor Moon and Ghost in The Shell are anime shows with some of the best representations of women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, with a wide variety of characters and cultures in non-stereotyped ways.
Indigenous representation in anime: almost non-existent
Indigenous representation in anime is paralleled to their representation in most other facets of media; the communities aren’t given much thought, or if so, they’re relegated to stereotypes.
“It’s easier to think of moments from watching anime that make me feel excluded regarding my Indigenous heritage, to be perfectly honest,” Maemaengwahn Fam-Ducharme, a 28-year-old Ojibwe and Chinese who is a dental assistant based in Toronto and part of the anime cosplay community said. “The representation of North American Indigenous people in anime is already very sparse, and what representation there is tends to not be great.”
She remembers watching Dragon Ball when she was young and seeing Indigenous characters portrayed stereotypically through their design and speech. She mentions almost giving up watching an anime show called My Hero Academia after introducing a pro hero named “Native” dressed in a chief costume that she describes looked like it was from Spirit Halloween.
“To most people, that would be a little blip and nothing more, but to me, it felt like a huge insult. The world at large still doesn’t see the Indigenous community, as people and it’s evident in the way media portrays us.
“It’s frustrating. But I do have to point out some little bright spots. While I know it’s not technically anime, I had this amazing moment watching Avatar the Last Airbender as a kid. I think seeing Katara was the first time I saw a mainstream character who looked like me, and I could connect to them as an Indigenous woman, and it was a positive representation! From what I remember reading about the making of ATLAB the Water Tribe, it was based on Indigenous, Inuit, and Mongolian cultures. I could see and feel that,” Fam-Ducharme said.
Valerio said they also have noticed small changes in the community.
“I now cosplay a lot of characters outside of my skin tone, but I notice that the work that gets a lot more attention and praise is when I cosplay characters with the same skin tone as me.”
“I don’t get comments about me being too dark for a certain character these days, but my skin has lightened up considerably over the past couple of years. The last thing I can recall was from about two or three years ago when someone called me the N-word version of a character.”
Valerio believes that Black cosplayers within the community have received a vast amount of harassment. They said some had been called the “Black version” or “ghetto version” of the characters they cosplayed.
“The issue of race and diversity have definitely improved a lot over the years, and I commend the community for that growth, but there is still a LOT that needs to be done.”