At the height of the quarantine when COVID-19 was at its worst, my routine consisted of a rotation of three shows: “HunterxHunter,” “My Hero Academia,” and “Fairytale.” They were anime shows suggested to me by my sister. I tried to get into anime once, but I let myself believe it wasn’t for me.
I didn’t see myself as the anime-watching “type.” However, one show in particular, “Code Geass,” made me desire more of these storylines that helped me forget I was a rising senior in the midst of a pandemic.
Nearly a year later, I am proud to consider myself a beginner level weeb (non-Japanese anime nerd). My cousin, noticing my progression, excitedly invited me into a Facebook group specifically for Black anime nerds.
What I realized, in this ever-growing group, was just how many Black people shared an interest in this Japanese art form. People from all over the U.S. gathered in the online space to debate, laugh and debrief. Occasionally, someone would announce their birthday and a flood of birthday wishes would meet them in the comments.
It wasn’t just a place for politics but a real community. After recognizing how passionate Black people were about anime, I asked a few members for their input on the subject.
What is Anime?
Anime is a traditionally Japanese style of animation adapted from original storylines or manga (Japanese comics). Camera movement, sharp angle shots, character design, and cinematic qualities tend to be different between anime and your average cartoon. The dialogue is dramatic, the boobs are huge, the plot never thins, your favorite characters die and fight scenes take up to a whole season. There’s way more to it but it’s worth every minute.
Anime’s 25-minute episodes made their impression on American culture. Some examples include cyberpunk film Akira, (about a biker gang leader whose friend acquires special powers following a motorcycle crash and incites chaos). “Pokémon,” “Dragon Ball Z,” and “Naruto” became popular anime shows in America as television became more mainstream and accessible.
Where do Viewers Access Anime?
“Toonami” was one of the main hubs for watching anime on television in the early 2000s. Episodes came on in the afternoon during the week until they began to appear on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, broadcasting episodes at night.
“I got into anime because of my aunt. When she was 13 and I was about 4 or 5 we would watch “Megaman” and “Sailor Moon” before school. My dad introduced me to “Dragon Ball Z” and I would watch “Pokémon” with my mom and brother. Didn’t realize it was all anime until I was 12 and the craze hit America hard,” said Darren Sears.
Though integrated into western culture, anime remains a niche interest. If you Google search “anime fans” or “anime cosplay,” you will most likely come across multiple pictures of white people. The fandom, at least in the U.S., is represented mostly by the white community as it is for other sci-fi and fantasy-based genres of interest. However, Black people make up a significant amount of the anime fandom.
“My dad used to watch anime and superhero cartoons when I was a child. My bedtime stories were comprised of “X-Men” and “Pokémon” more than “Cinderella,” so I guess you can say it was part of my destiny,” said Adrianna Ford.
Black Representation in Anime
Although, older anime lacked proper representation for Black characters. Japanese creators designed Black characters much like how white people in America designed caricatures: big red lips, big nose, big ears and up to no good.
“This is a huge part of older anime that hasn’t aged well. However, it was an old part of American animation as well. It makes me appreciate characters that are thoughtfully done to break the stereotype. It doesn’t hurt that one of the strongest villages in Naruto is made up of almost entirely black people with amazing arcs or that in Bleach one of the baddest females is Yourichi. It takes time for culture to change, both good and bad. We live, we learn, we grow,” said Sears.
Even with the release of The Promised Neverland (a horror story about an orphanage), the one Black woman character was undoubtedly terrifying in how she towered over the children, ran heavy footed and laughed like a maniac all while resembling the caricature of a “mammy.” Racism continued to linger even when Black people tried to escape reality into the world of Japanese fantasy.
“Seeing piccaninnies while Goku is at the Martial Arts tournament, or a black villain being the dumbest character in the whole franchise can be disheartening and painful from time to time. However, I think a lot of the characters made back in the day were made with a lack of awareness…I think that sometimes those racist portrayals are made without fully understanding the history behind them here,” said Ford.
The anime lovers in the Black community are even more niche than the general Western/American communities. Black people, internally and externally, have an established culture of shared interests and cultural staples in areas such as music, forms of dance, literature, fashion, film and food.
It’s common for Black children to have seen Friday or know the words to a classic cookout song like Maze’s “Never Let Go” by a certain age. Contrary to popular belief, you can still be your authentic Black self while also knowing the words (kind of) to your favorite anime intro.
“I am 32 so when I grew up liking anime was not accepted in the mainstream generally and definitely not within the Black community. It did feel conflicting because I wasn’t into the things “accepted” by the Black community so it almost makes you question your blackness,” said Akilah Hunte.
These cultural traditions have left little room for consideration of how dynamic blackness is and how it can intertwine with other cultural mediums such as anime and Asian art forms. The Wu-Tang Clan is a prime example of the cross-cultural blending between Black and Asian cultures.
The Wu-Tang Clan
The rap group’s name was inspired by Shaolin and Wu Tang, a 1983 Hong Kong martial arts film. Ghostface Killah named himself after a kung fu character from another Hong Kong movie, Mystery of Chessboxing (Ninja Checkmate). Their music even referenced kung fu films including my personal favorite “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” — The RZA opens the track with a sample from “Executioners from Shaolin.” Now, they are known as one of the best rap groups of all time.
“I think the uniqueness we bring can herald similarities to the Black kung fu community of the 70s. Even then, there was a subculture of our race in that interest, and I believe it follows suit with anime. We have an interest that I think we consider exotic, that also gives us another way to view the world that does not sit between MLK Blvd and Thurgood Marshall Dr.,” said Rodney Goff Jr.
Additionally, Black anime and anime-like shows have become amplified amongst the group of Black anime nerds. Afro Samurai is manga turned anime, mixing Japanese animation with Black cultural influences and music. In designing the characters, Takashi Okazaki was inspired by hip hop and soul.
The main character, Afro, is a Black man with a massive afro above his headband, depicted with detail in his facial structure and the rugged lines to texture his hair. Afro is voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, one of the most renowned actors of his generation. The soundtrack is produced by RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Boondocks mimicked much of the character design and camera movement of anime style. Creator Aaron McGruder was inspired by anime shows including “Cowboy Bebop” and “Samurai Champloo” when creating the show. The show was widely recognized, quoted, and referenced for its forward humor and its honesty when addressing real world issues.
One of the most remembered episodes, “The Trial of R. Kelly,” called out the R&B singer for being guilty of sexual abuse and mocked his supporters who attended the trial. Although not authentically Japanese, the “The Boondocks” quickly became one of the most popular animated shows among the Black community.
YouTubers like King Vader and Mark Phillips helped promote Black interest in anime by creating parodies of anime shows with all Black casts gaining millions of views per video. King Vader’s “Hood Naruto Pt. 3” reached 25 million views on YouTube, featuring a dance battle, graphics, and costumes derived from the show.
These videos and comic skits opened up the possibility of combining the goofy humor Black people with a completely unrelated genre. Also, it’s something that is unique to Black people.
Anime Fandom in the Black Community
Even as blackness publicly collaborates with the Japanese art form, Black anime fans are the unicorns in the Black community. It’s difficult to fathom our culture being influenced by another that is so perpendicular to ours. That’s why Black anime fans have created their own safe spaces of support including private Facebook groups to discuss shows, share cosplay and build community with people all around the country.
“What I find very unique about the Black anime community is how open we are as people and our willingness to come to share our stories of how anime has changed our lives or even kept us out of trouble. Also, when talking to a black anime fan we can form an instant connection and become friends instantly,” said Kyle Battle.
Black anime nerds have begun emerging into the public eye. Actor Michael B. Jordan answered 73 questions with Vogue on YouTube, attracting 13 million views as he vented about his favorite anime shows and showed off his merchandise. Rapper Megan Thee Stallion covered the front page of Paper Magazine in the cosplay of popular character Todoroki from “My Hero Academia.”
She talks openly about the shows she enjoys as well as sneaking in references in her song lyrics. Megan also collaborated with anime streaming platform Crunchyroll to release an exclusive set of merchandise with an anime design of herself.
D’ART Studio and The Weeknd
Black culture’s influence on anime continues to expand beyond the American borders. Japan has now opened the first Black-owned anime studio, D’ART Shtajio, curated by twins Arthell and Darnell Isom. Arthell had initial experience as a contributing animator to anime including Bleach and Ghost in the Shell. Now Black creators have a space to seek out to collaborate American and Japanese animation forms.
Singer The Weeknd reached out to D’ART to produce the music video for his song “Snowfall.” The studio also released an anime teaser this year for the new comic series “Tephlon Funk” described as a “love letter to the five boroughs of New York.” Creator Stephane Metayer, from Queens N.Y., was inspired by classic NY-based Black films like Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn.” The piece includes a complimenting soundtrack produced by hip hop artist Fat Jon, which is available via Spotify
Black people have made a substantial impact on anime as anime has had an impact on them. Not only does it prove the duality and creativity of Black art, it also forces the world to realize Black people can exist in other spaces than those assigned to them by society. The future of anime will now have a permanent, ongoing collaboration with Black culture as it has for decades already.
“The Black anime community is a force to be reckoned with. We know our stuff and we have a unique view on the genre. For the most part we are respectful of others’ opinions and strive more to make our voice heard,” said Sears.