Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why Do They Look White?

People often ask: why do characters in anime look white?  The answer is because you come from a majority white country, and due to the tropes of animation.  Most of the time, anime characters are not drawn to look white; they are cartoons and cartoons are meant to be cyphers.   Understanding the implied ethnicity of a cartoon character comes down to a conversation between the audience and the creator, just like all art.  Cartoons, be they western or Japanese employ a visual language known to the creator.  Visual languages are constructed through context, and the audience may miss an awful lot of the language if they do not share the creator’s context, leading to misunderstandings.  This happens to all art.  The audience brings their own context to the piece.  If you have the same context as the creator, you are likely to understand them more easily.  But we Westerners bring our own context when we watch foreign media, and vice versa.   Animation is a global medium now, and animators influence each other from opposite ends of the globe.
One of the more peculiar discoveries I have made recently is that a lot of white supremacists are anime fans.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The reason is simple, and often delivered with pride but no self-awareness:  they think anime characters are drawn to look white, meaning the Japanese think white is the ideal human.  In other words, white supremacists think anime is supportive of their ideology.   No one ever credits bigots with an abundance of thought, but that is a misconception about anime I have heard from even the most well-meaning people.  It comes down to interpreting imagery.  To most Americans, and plenty of other westerners, being a ‘white person’ is due to pale, fair skin.  Well, plenty of people from Northeast Asia have fair skin, not just Japanese.  Not so long ago, Americans and British refused to recognize the Irish as ‘white.’  To bring the conversation back to cartoons, consider these characters:
What race are they?  Keeping in mind, none of the above characters are suffering from hepatitis, or any other ailment that causes jaundice.  In cartooning, what does yellow skin usually mean?
The Simpsons are white, even though they have yellow skin.  And bug eyes.  To say nothing of the hair.  How do we know the Simpsons are white?  For starters, they are depicted living in a predominantly white-millieu: Suburban middle America, and are shown in contrast to characters from other races such as South Asian (Apu), black (Carl), Hispanic (Bumblebee Man), and East Asian (various bit players like Akira, proprietor of “The Happy Sumo” restaurant and the entire population of Japan seen in the episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo”).  Matt Groening colored his characters yellow because he hates the pigment used to depict white characters in TV cartoons.  Viewers may wonder about the off-the-wall designs on The Simpsons, but we accept it because it is a cartoon.  Is Japanese animation really any different? 
            But all this begs the question, why do people think anime characters look like white people?  Sometimes, it is due to a lack of understanding of the context given in anime.  Sometimes, the characters are indeed meant to be white, such as Relena Peacecraft from the science-fiction anime show Gundam Wing, who is explicitly shown to be European by birth.  If you have seen the show, or followed that link, you know Relena’s depiction is really not any different from characters who are explicitly depicted Japanese.  Compare Kamiya Kaoru from the show Rurouni Kenshin, set in 1870s Japan.  Kaoru and Relena both have large, expressive blue eyes, narrow chins, and light skin.  Relena has light brown hair, and Kaoru’s hair is purplish-black.  I think the design similarities between Kaoru and Relena are not about a literal appearance, but are rather meant to communicate something about their characters.  We are meant to see Relena and Kaoru, and rather than see a European and a Japanese, see energetic, intelligent girls who are more capable than they appear because they are teenagers who have been forced to grow up quickly and take on adult responsibilities. 
            Over time, artists tend to visit the same wells and produce similar projects.  One of the most successful anime shows was a production called World Masterpiece Theater.  World Masterpiece Theater took famous stories from around the world and made animated television from it.  The most successful seasons of the show tended to draw on western sources like Anne of Green Gables, Les Miserables and The Brothers Grimm.  Remember that Walt Disney Studios drew on The Brothers Grimm very frequently too, and still enjoys incredible popularity in Japan as well.  I would ask you to compare some more art.  Please go back and look at Kaoru and Relena again.  Now what do you think of this:

Do you see any similarities?  Could it be that Japanese cartoon characters seem to resemble ‘white’ people because the designers take inspiration from the most important American animators?  The answer is yes.  If you watch a Disney animated film and an anime production back to back, the similarities in technique and design will be more apparent.  For example, the similarities in appearance between Princess Aurora here and Relena and Kaoru are not due to race, but once again about the characters.  Aurora is a teenager, so her appearance is meant to indicate youthfulness and energy.  If you take another look, you will notice a lot of the designs presented here by way of example are also simple.  Animation is a lot of work, and when you have an entire world to populate by hand, the animators need to use some kind of visual shorthand. 

            Why do anime characters look white?  There are a lot of reasons.  Japanese animators have and sometimes still do consciously copy Western designs, use the same visual languages to present and develop characters, and we view all of this through our own cultural and personal contexts which inform our interpretations.  The next time you sit down to watch a movie or television show, keep all of these things in mind.  All art works this way.

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