Japan has long produced visual media that has captivated readers and viewers for decades. Manga and anime are two classic mediums through which fantastical worlds and profound characters come to life. Of all the hundreds of thousands of characters that exist in these worlds, there are a handful that share a close resemblance to African Americans. Though these characters are not always explicitly identified as black, they are heavily coded as black or Afro-descended. The aesthetic of black coded characters in anime and manga reflect the same ideologies of black males in U.S media and society. Popular series like Naruto and Samurai Champloo both use tropes of black males and demonstrate common ideas about their masculinity and how they are read by others. Hip hop is the vehicle through which Japan understands American blackness which manifests itself in various ways in Japanese media.
Naruto has become one of the most globally successful and easily recognizable manga series spanning over 15 years of publication. In the ninja world, there are five independent nations, each lead by the respective leader known as Kage. The northern most land is known as the Land of Lightning and at its center is the capital, Kumogakure or the Village Hidden in the Cloud. The inhabitants of this village are heavily coded as being black or of African descent. They have darker skin tones, fuller facial features in their lips and nose, and resemble black people in mannerism and speech. The leaders of the Hidden Cloud Village are known as the Raikage. These shinobi have been acknowledged by the members of the village because of their tremendous power and ability to lead. Of the five Raikage, the Third Raikage is known to be the greatest Raikage and shinobi the village has ever produced.
The Third Raikage, known primarily by his title, is considered a superhuman even within a world of super powerful people. His physical stature and chakra prowess were legendary. According to Naruto Wiki, The Third Raikage stands at an imposing 205 centimeters (6’7’’) and weighs approximately 105.1 kilograms (231 lbs). He would use his chakra to create a protective cloak around himself that amplifies his strength, speed, and mass far beyond normal human limits. The Third Raikage’s incredible body and endurance enabled him to accomplish almost impossible feats. During his life he single handedly and without armor, fought a monstrous creature known as the Eight Tails and thwarted its rampages several times. If that isn’t enough of a testament of his power, during a mission, he and his team were surrounded by some ten thousand enemy shinobi that he single handedly fought in order for his team to escape. He fought this army for three consecutive days and nights before he was finally killed. The Third Raikage depiction in the manga as superhuman reflects patterns of how black men are thought of in the media.
The visual aesthetic of the Third Raikage is a reflection of the different ideas the black male body is communicated through the media. His muscular build and towering height intimidates all who meet him on the battlefield. In chapter 554 of the manga, the Third Raikage is reanimated and used as a tool of war. He is encountered by a shinobi, whom he had known while he was alive named Motoi, who says to him, “You are so strong it’s frightening.” The black male body in popular media are typically seen as being superhuman. Their bodies, no matter their size, are sites of danger and ferociousness, and these sentiments are authenticated by physical adornments like tattoos, scars, and bruises. According to Nicole Fleetwood, “in the context of blackness and masculinity, authenticity imbues the subject with a mythic sense of virility, danger, and physicality.” As mentioned earlier, the Third Raikage frequently fought a beast called the Eight Tails to protect the village. On one of these occasions the Third Raikage injured himself during the fight, piercing his lightning armor, leaving a scar on his chest. This scar is the only visible sign of an injury on the Raikage’s body after a lifetime of fighting.
The Third Raikage also has a tattoo on his left arm, which contains the power of black lightning, another ability of his body. These adornments authenticate the Raikage’s masculinity as a black coded character, thus transmitting the same narrative of danger that is applied to black male bodies in real life. This perceived danger of the black male body is demonstrated in ABC News’ interview with Darren Wilson about the shooting of Mike Brown. In the interview, Wilson describes Brown as he approached the car as being “a demon” and immediately felt as if he was in danger. When Brown finally made contact, Wilson spoke on how strong Brown was — “I felt the immense power he had” — which made him believe that he had no other alternative but to use deadly force. This superhuman ideology of black men is actively and consciously portrayed by the Third Raikage and other black coded male characters in manga and anime.
Samurai Champloo, a popular Japanese anime series by director Shinichiro Watanabe, focuses on the journey of three people searching Japan during the Edo period for “the samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Of these three, the character Mugen is the most erratic and flamboyant in the group. Mugen, as he is drawn by the creators, is heavily coded as black. Mugen is brown skinned with messy, brown hair in an afro-styled shape. The clothes he wears are baggy and loose fitting, highly reminiscent of the hip hop inspired fashion of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Mugen’s personality and fighting style are heavily rooted in blackness as well. According to Champloo Wikia, Mugen is “rude, lewd, vulgar, and nihilistic, Mugen is something of an antihero. He is fond of fighting and has a tendency to pick fights for petty reasons.”
In terms of how he fights, Mugen uses a lot of b-boy dancing type movement in combination with martial arts and swordplay. This blend of style creates movements such as spins, kicks, flips, quick slash, and other wildly unpredictable attacks. Mugen’s fighting ability is directly tied to his physicality. As his weapon suggests, he uses direct combat as well as hand-to-hand combat when necessary to deal with confrontation. This eagerness of Mugen — ready to fight at a moments notice and his uses of violence to resolve problems — is a reflection of an ideal of black masculinity.
In her book We Real Cool, bell hooks discusses a story about Frederick Douglass. He did not feel his manhood affirmed by intellectual progress. It was affirmed when he fought man to man with the slave overseer.” This struggle was a “turning point” in Douglass’ life:
…it rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty. It brought up my Baltimore dreams and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after the fight. I was nothing before — I was a man now.
In this instance we read that Douglass gets his manhood affirmed by fighting another man. This reveals much about how black men’s masculinity is inherently tied to violence in some capacity. In a later chapter, hooks says that “long before any young black male acts violent, he is born into a culture that identifies patriarchal masculinity by the will to do violence. Showing aggression is the simplest way to assert patriarchal manhood.” Being aggressive is expected of black males as the only means of communication for their emotions and to show that they are “real men.” This sentiment is echoed in an essay titled “Notes from a Former Homophobe” when the writer says:
one way that masculinity and manhood was learned and proven was through fighting… In the environment that I was raised in there was always an emphasis on masculinity and manhood as evidenced through one’s ability to physically control the body and actions of others.
Mugen exhibits this idea multiple time through the series. Whenever he is faced with an emotionally charged situation, he immediately draws his weapon and attacks. In episode 13 titled “Misguided Miscreants,” figures from Mugen’s past catch up with him. It is revealed that Mugen was born on Ryukyu island, a place where criminals were sent for exile. There he met siblings, Mukuro and Koza, two of the other young people from the island. Eventually the three of them become involved with a band of pirates that stole goods and money being transported by sea, killing everyone they stole from in the process. Mukuro eventually becomes the leader of the pirates and his greed grows tremendously. He and Koza create a plan to frame Mugen for an assassination so they could keep a higher share of the bounty. The plot was successful and Mugen was caught by the local authorities. They attempted to execute Mugen by fire squad but he survives the encounter. Upon learning of the truth about what happened that day, Mugen immediately draws his weapon and kills everyone in the pirate gang.
He is injured several times during the melee; however, he does not lose momentum in his rampage. After the bloodbath, he returns to Jin and Fuu but does not speak on what happened to in his past any further. According to hooks:
Taught to believe that a real male is fearless, insensitive, egocentric, and invulnerable a black man blocks out all emotions that interfere with this “cool” pose.
Mugen demonstrates this idea in this episode centered on his personal story. Black masculinity is established and reinforced by violent behavior and rejecting any kind of emotional expression through conducive means.
As previously mentioned, the black male body is seen as a site of inherent danger and violence. Similar to the Third Raikage, Mugen exhibits behaviors and mannerisms that reflect real life beliefs of black men. This narrative of the dangerous black man manifested itself when 22-year old Darren Hunt was murdered by the police. The police in Salt Lake City responded to a report that Hunt was acting “suspiciously.” They approached Hunt in a predominantly white neighborhood when they say he lunged at them with a sword. They began shooting at Hunt, causing him to flee. Wounded, he made it a few feet away before he was shot and killed. One of the officers said he knew he had to stop Mr. Hunt before he was able to hurt or kill someone. Former prosecutor Kent Morgan said in response to this case:
You must have immediate danger to someone in the vicinity… You can’t just say, ‘Well, he’s armed and he’s running away maybe he’ll hurt somebody,’ that’s not a reason to shoot someone.
There are images of Hunt that day where he was dressed similarly to Mugen, leaving many to believe he was cosplaying. Hunt, at that moment, unfortunately embodied the same fear and danger that Mugen evokes in the anime. Hunt, being a black man with a weapon in a white neighborhood, immediately provoked a sense of “danger” to those around. Hunt was seen as being “dangerous and violent” and “needed to be stopped.” This false narrative has been within the United States for centuries; however, these ideas have found their way to Japan and are reflected in their media as well.
The performance of black masculinity in manga and anime calls into question how it is viewed in Japanese culture. Both of the series mentioned here are Japanese in origin, and we see similar tropes of black coded male characters in each series. According to Nina Cornyetz:
Pre-World War II images of Africans and African Americans that circulated in Japan were fettered by the binarism of ‘black equals savage’ and ‘white equals civilization.’
Such delineations buttressed the Japanese racial ideology that had represented darker Asians as inferior. John G. Russell has argued convincingly that images of American blacks in Japan have frequently reproduced American racialist stereotypes, evidenced by the popularity of The Story of Little Black Sambo, and the modern yet still reductive portrayals of African Americans as “sexual objects, studs, and quintessential performers.”
Black bodies in Japan are viewed in similar fashions as they were in America because of the colonial history of the country after the second World War. These ideas of black male bodies are then translated in the manga and anime series that are produced with black coded characters present. We can find evidence of American ideas of black bodies in various characters from other anime and manga series, like Dragonball Z and Pokemon, as reflection of performances of blackface.
Cornyetz, in this article, speaks on how hip hop transmits images of African Americans in Japan which in turn gets reproduced in Japanese culture. Applying this to manga and anime, we see how in both the Naruto and Samurai Champloo series, hip hop is attributed to black coded characters. As mentioned previously, Mugen is heavily influenced by hip hop fashion and dancing. His fighting style resembles elements of breaking; his clothes baggy and loose fitting. In Naruto, there is a character named Killer B, the adopted son of the Third Raikage, who is heavily coded as black as well.
Killer B, from the moment he is introduced, speaks in raps, rhyming his words to convey his thoughts and opinions. While he does this, he uses different hand gestures similar to how DJs scratch records and how rappers move while rhyming. In both series when Mugen and Killer B are speaking at times there is hip hop playing in the background with scratches and bass lines similar to freestyling beats. We see how blackness and hip hop — as they are portrayed in America — are present in Japan and the media that is produced there. Black aesthetics are globally transmitted and represented in Japanese culture, thus representation of black bodies and the culture associated with them are apparent as well.
We see how blackness in popular Japanese media is portrayed by the black coded characters created in manga and anime. Ideas of black men possessing superhuman strength has been prevalent in American society’s thinking when linked to criminality and the justification of excessive force used in those cases. In manga and anime, this idea is applied to black coded male characters to create fearsome and powerful characters like the Third Raikage. Black men’s alleged susceptibility to fighting and conflict has long been an idea reinforced in black males from childhood. They are expected to use force to express their emotions and never vocalize them. Mugen from Samurai Champloo demonstrates this idea of black male’s violent tendencies in his story as well as his silence after his violent episode. Black masculinity as portrayed in Japanese media parallels the same problematic sentiments that exist in American thinking. Black masculinity routinely falls into the same category, globally representing and reinforcing the same narrative.