The above picture did it. This was the image that broke the representation camel’s back. I was with my family in San Francisco’s Japantown where we stumbled upon a mini faire of artists hawking all things influenced by anime and manga1. It was astonishing. All ages, colors, and genders — there were few demographics not represented — milled about. Artists sold t-shirts, buttons, posters and postcards, handmade mecha figures, and independently produced films and comics. And there was cosplay — lots and lots of cosplay. Needless to say, money was spent.
The more we looked around, the more I had to acknowledge that most of the items for sell were just so white. You’d figure that something generated from a Japanese cultural context would look more… Japanese. Despite many of the characters having Japanese or other API names, many of them looked uncompromisingly Western. A note: I love this stuff, but am not particularly a superfan.
My love of the various genres begins with the Macross (1982) franchise, through the Akira film (1988) and extends through their extended relations: Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) and The Legend of Korra (2012-2014). There are a few other things in there like the Death Note film (2006) and manga (2003) and, of course, Godzilla — but this really is not my purview2.
Out of about twenty stalls, the “African-American Batbaby Girl on a Trike” was the only representation of blackness that we saw. It was among several postcards depicting Pokémon-esque monsters and magical teenaged girls. I bought two. The artist, who I would love to credit but could not read her signature on the back of the card, was this very timid white girl who looked at me, like, “Of course there is a black Batbaby girl on a tricycle.” As a parent of an African-American, Jamaican, Filipina, and Puerto Rican daughter, I’m particularly ravenous for images in Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and all of their cousins that include her image in an explicit way. Pickings are very slim. So, when I saw this, I flipped.
As we returned home, my enthusiasm began to fade. As I interrogated this feeling, I had buyer’s remorse. This remorse began with the following question: Could there ever be a global cultural movement — rivaling anime/manga/j-pop/kawaii — but hailing from the perspective of the African-Diaspora?
I spoke with a friend of mine about this, and he offered up hip-hop as a prime example. I countered that anime and manga still get associated with Japan (even when folks making it are not Japanese) but every time African-diasporic culture has an influence, it automatically becomes world culture. We simultaneously entered a tiny depression after our conversation.
After we recovered, I asked the question again. I asked him to consider the question under the following guidelines: It is vitally important that you attempt to answer this question from the reality of the existing cultural artifacts, and not engage in knee-jerk reactionary rhetoric.
Here is how I framed my answer to him: “I have had many occasions to bob and weave amongst otaku and it is a profound sub-culture. There is music, slang, food (snacks), technology use, animation; what we call comic books, conventions — and as commercial as it is, it seems to be the most equitable (sub)-culture that I have borne witness to. Folks of every stripe participate. The HAVE built a fictional solar system, created fictional methods of transportation, and are exploring this fictional realm, but their fiction has real world implications. Hip-hop was that, for a time, but now we have ‘I got baking soda!!’”
Other cultures seem to have mastered the art of leading from and reifying their culture, especially my Mexicano/as.
And despite these cultural artifacts being universal, they don’t lose any of their Mexican-ness. Anything from the African-Diaspora is akin to a grenade: It explodes. Transforms everything around it, but is then quickly forgotten — folks only interested in the effect, not the source. But anime/manga is so profoundly different.
I’ve known kids with zero future prospects (and even less social acumen) fall into the manga/anime orbit, and then ask their people to get them a sewing machine — not seeing a needle or thread prior to this epiphany. They then spend close to a year constructing a costume that they wear at the next convention, and become someone new: lauded, and loved, and praised for a skill they did not have the previous year.
- I know that anime and manga are art forms, not genres, but if I said there was so much sentai stuff there, most folks wouldn’t have any idea what I was trying to address. So, for the sake of this essay, anime and manga will be used as lazy signifiers that encompass big ass monsters (Kaiju) to demons (Akuma) to super-teams (the aforementioned sentai) to big ass robots (Mecha) and beyond. ↩
- If anyone can point me to an article about the European-ing of manga and anime, I would be very appreciative. ↩