Anime is where fantastical worlds exist, heroes grow and become successful in the face of adversity, and those meant for greatness unlock amazing powers. These epic journeys and escapism have connected with many American fans since the genre’s arrival to the US in the 1960s. This is especially true for Black anime fans.
Our existence consists of witnessing and experiencing constant discrimination from multiple sources while still trying to persevere. Anime offers solace from the real world for many Black nerds or “Blerds” like myself. And there’s a symbiotic relationship between Black fans/cultures and anime, with both imprinting on each other in interesting ways.
Anime’s Effect on Black Fans
Like many of my friends, anime played a huge role in my early development; I grew up in a Black family with multiple siblings and cousins invested in Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Dragon Ball Z, and Rurouni Kenshin. After-school hours were spent in Yu Gi-Oh card battles. I’d have countless conversations about the latest episodes of Yu Yu Hakusho, Digimon, Bleach, and Naruto. Now, as an adult, my love for anime remains the same. This is the case with many Black folks who grew up loving the genre.
It’s common to see a ton of Black anime cosplayers at geek/nerd conventions, some of which specifically focus on Black nerds. Fan podcasts like Sailor Moon Fan Club, Getting Animated, and Blxxk Anime are dedicated to the Japanese artform. The hosts break down a wide variety of shows and topics through a Black lens. And, there’s always fan art from Black creatives in honor of their favorite shows and characters.
Sometimes, these fans become famous people and bring their anime love to the masses. Recording artists infuse their videos with anime inspiration, like Pharrell Williams “It Girl” and The Weeknd’s Snowchild. Actor and anime fan Michael B. Jordan launched an entire clothing collection inspired by Naruto: Shippuden. RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, a rap collective heavily influenced by Kung-Fu films, produced the soundtrack to Afro Samurai.
And current hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion’s lyrics, interviews, fashion, and magazine covers continue to highlight her adoration of animes like My Hero Academia. Their appreciation of anime influences their Black fans, often encouraging those who aren’t familiar with this genre to dive in.
Black Characters and Culture in Anime
Black people’s love for anime has caused a cross-pollination between our cultural trends and current animes, specifically increased representation. For example, more Black characters are appearing onscreen in shows that aren’t by Black creators. Onyankapon (Attack on Titan), Kilik (Soul Eater), Canary (Hunter x Hunter), Atsuko Jackson (Michiko & Hatchin), Ogun Montgomery (Fire Force), and Carole (Carole and Tuesday) are a few relatively recent characters to make their mark on the genre.
It’s a departure from what many Black viewers saw in earlier decades. Fans have had to identify themselves within their favorite non-Black characters. For example, there’s an understanding among Black fans that Dragon Ball Z‘s Piccolo is Black because of his personality. Or, when there was clear Black representation, the portrayals were often problematic. Characters like the Pokémon Jinx, Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball Z, Sister Krone of The Promised Neverland, Superalloy Darkshine from One Punch Man and more were racist caricatures of Black people on screen.
It put Black anime fans in a precarious and familiar position. Black viewers have to watch entertainment with a double consciousness. We enjoy what we can while also having to reconcile the ways we are negatively highlighted. Non-Black anime creators still have strides to make with inclusion and positive depictions of Black characters; however, things are starting to change. As positive representation increases, more Black fans will gravitate towards anime productions. This can only lead to more opportunities for more Black characters with more nuanced stories.
The Present and Future of Black Anime Offerings
Black content creators are also stepping into the anime space to infuse Black culture into it. Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks is a prime example of this blend. Originally a comic strip, the show has anime’s visual stylings. Its a satirical examination of Black American experiences, culture, and media, seen through the eyes of siblings Huey and Riley Freeman and their grandfather Robert with a style and feel of anime. This influence is even more prominent in the show’s fight scenes.
For example, Huey, named after Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, has a fight scene with movie theater staff in an episode that visually and sonically takes a page from Cowboy Bepop. Riley, a satirical amalgamation of rap influences, has a profanity-laden face-off with a member of the Hateocracy. The epic showdown has elements of a battle between Naruto’s Orochimaru and Sasuke.
Twin brothers Arthell and Darnell Isom, along with fellow co-founder Henry Thurlow, created D’ART Shtajio, the first major-owned Black anime studio in Japan. The Isom twins sought to revolutionize the anime industry through mixing Western art and storytelling with Japanese animation. D’ART Shtajio incorporates Black cultural staples into anime, like the barbershop’s role in the Black community or the nuances of conversation between Black children and their parents.
Arthell, who serves as the Art Director for D’ART Shtajio, was inspired to pursue a career in anime after becoming enamored with the animation in Ghost in the Shell. He eventually sought out and received direct training from famed Ghost in the Shell art director Hiromasa Ogura. This is what happens in many genres: a fan combines their love for something with talent to impact the industry.
LeSean Thomas’ recent collaboration with Academy Award-nominee LaKeith Stanfield, Grammy Award-nominee Flying Lotus, and writer Nick Jones Jr. led to Yasuke, a sonically pleasing and visually stunning anime. Yasuke is loosely based on the history of the first African samurai; the Netflix series bridges the gaps between Black and Japanese culture and merges them for a broad-reaching work of art.
Granted, this evolving relationship between Blackness and anime comes with some negatives. The incorporation of Black characters in TV shows and movies through addition or reimagining existing characters is often met with disdain from non-Black audiences. Anime is no different and this backlash strives to limit a fantasy genre with racism’s grotesque reality.
Nevertheless, Black anime fans continue to prosper with more inclusive art, fanbases, character representation, and studios in development. We are not only consumers but also influencers, thereby changing antiquated thoughts of worlds that lack Black people but include our culture. An artform that gets to dictate the rules of reality on screen is the perfect place to escape, show up, and make an impact as a Black fan.