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Ethnically UNambiguous by design: mangaka Rei Hiroe speaks 
18th-Jul-2010 01:03 am
Saiyuki Gaiden: sakura of doom
We've heard all the excuses before from Shyamalan and others -- "but animanga characters look white! they're meant to be ethnically ambiguous!". The idea that Asian artists and animators and Asian audiences might not be defaulting to expecting to see white characters as the unmarked norm just doesn't seem to get through to some people, no matter how many counterexamples and detailed essays you show them about ethnic portrayals in anime and manga. So when I picked up the latest volume of Black Lagoon yesterday and saw that it included a translation of one of mangaka Rei Hiroe's "Loser's Horizon" columns from Shogakukan's Monthly Sunday GX, I thought Racebending readers might find some of his comments rather interesting.

But first of all, since I'm sure many people here aren't familiar with this series, let's start out with some pictures. Here are two of the main characters of the series: which one do you think is East Asian?

Now, you may be thinking that's a little unfair asking you to work from just one closeup image with dim lighting, when actually reading a manga or watching an anime gives you so much more information to work with. Fair enough! Let's take a closer look at these two dangerous ladies, shall we?

This is Shenhua, who's an expert with swords and throwing knives:

She's originally from Taiwan, and is a freelance assassin/bodyguard who frequently works for a Chinese triad boss. As you can see here, she has a pale complexion, very dark gray/black eyes, and glossy straight blue-black hair. While she's occasionally been seen lounging at home in Western-style casualwear, her usual working uniform, shown here, includes a red-and-gold floral-patterned qipao. Her English (or in the original, Japanese standing in for characters speaking English) is good enough to be understandable, but has numerous grammatical quirks that show it's not her native language.

This is Rebecca, Revy for short, an expert gunslinger:

She's originally from New York City, and works as part of a small underworld courier/smuggler crew of expat Americans; one of their most frequent employers is a Russian mafiya boss. As you can see here, Revy has light golden-brown eyes, dark reddish/brownish hair that's straight to slightly wavy, and a light complexion that's a shade or two darker and warmer-toned than Shenhua's skin. Revy wears casual Western-style clothes -- her typical everyday uniform consists of a cropped tank top, cutoff jean shorts, and combat boots. Her English (or Japanese-in-place-of-English) has a native speaker's fluency.

Those images are screencaps I took from the anime DVDs, but the character designs are quite faithful to the manga originals:

And the accuracy of the adaptation extends even to the coloring of their hair, skin, and eyes. Revy's hair is the only area of slight inconsistency -- sometimes it's shown as dark brown, sometimes burgundy, sometimes dark reddish-brown -- but in any case the color art never shows her with cool-toned jet black hair like Shenhua.

The anime art in that first image above, and the manga color covers shown immediately below it, are clearly working with the same consistent physical design and color palettes, so this is obviously not a case where the anime version doesn't reflect the manga creator's original vision of the characters.

So, given all that information, what ethnicities do you think these characters are intended to portray? Which one is Asian?

It's a trick question -- they're both Asian! Shenhua is Taiwan-born Chinese, and Revy is Chinese-American. And creator Rei Hiroe clearly doesn't think that Revy's comparative lack of the most stereotypical ethnic markers makes her "look white". In the translated "Loser's Horizon" column reprinted in Black Lagoon Vol. 9, he explains his thought process in developing the character:

GX: (laughs) Since we've brought it up, let's talk more about the characters. What was your reason for making Revy a Chinese-American?

Hiroe: Ethnically, I wanted Revy to be a minority. And her look isn't Caucasoid, but rather Mongoloid. I thought that would make it easier for the Japanese readers to identify with her. Easier than if it was a white woman going ballistic. If she's a Chinese-American character, she may look Chinese, but her upbringing and her roots would be American. It's interesting when there's a gap between the way she looks and her way of thinking. People like that aren't really tied down to a region, like they're rootless wanderers. She's different from normal people so I thought she'd make for a more interesting character. And obviously, she probably faces discrimination in her life. Taking all that into account, I thought her character would stand out more.

("Normal" is such a loaded word, of course, but in this context I suspect Hiroe may be referring to people who are both ethnically and culturally part of the dominant majority group in their own country; he's consistent enough about writing numerous American POC characters that I don't believe he's coming from a place of assuming all Americans are white, or white = "normal".)

So, no matter how many Western fans out there think Revy "doesn't look Asian", Hiroe clearly doesn't see her that way at all, and his work reflects that; in the thoroughly multi-ethnic, multi-national world of Black Lagoon, where characters talk about (and insult) each other's race and nationality with great frequency, no one has ever said or done anything to indicate that they thought Revy or the numerous other Japanese and Chinese characters looked white. When ethnically-based teasing and insults are directed at these characters, they're all blatantly Asian-targetted references and slurs, not white ones. When Revy is in Japan for a job, she complains because locals keep expecting she must speak the language too, and are surprised and disbelieving when they learn she's an English-speaking foreigner, not Japanese (warning, some NSFW language in those scans.) All the pieces fit consistently with the sort of storytelling you'd expect if the mangaka is working from the assumption that these characters look Asian and expects his audience will see them the same way...just like Hiroe said he did. Funny how that works, eh?
18th-Jul-2010 06:43 am (UTC)
Love Black Lagoon, great example for Racebending stuff across the board, especially with Revy. Thanks for sharing.

Just...could you not link to onemanga if possible? It's a site for the illegal distribution of artwork and writing. Copyrighted, licensed art at that. Better to promote racial equality in media without also promoting theft...even if everyone does it.
18th-Jul-2010 06:57 am (UTC)
Sorry, that was all down to my energy fizzling out at the end of a long day -- by the time I'd finished screencapping and cropping the DVD stills and hunting down all the scenes in question, I was too tired to even think about dragging my hard copies out to fuss with the scanner. I'll edit this to put in scrapbook versions of those sample pages.
18th-Jul-2010 07:04 am (UTC)
Yeah, sorry to bug you about it, I know how it is, just didn't seem right in this comm. It's cool. I do love Revy to pieces and she's an excellent example of the breaking-norm-stereotypes for race in comics and shows. It's great that the author's so cool about it - I've never actually read an interview of his.
18th-Jul-2010 07:32 am (UTC)
Nah, that was just me being too tired and brain-fried to think straight, it's a good reminder. Thanks!

Hiroe has a semi-regular column in Sunday GX, but these last two English volumes of Black Lagoon are the first time I've seen any official translations of it. They're pretty interesting -- this one in V. 9 is talking about a bunch of different random subjects, while the one back in V. 8 is focused on his thoughts about female characters.

And Black Lagoon in general is just full of interesting examples of how manga and anime portrayals often just don't mesh with some Western readers' expectations of what Asian characters are supposed to look like. Over on TV Tropes, for instance, Revy is cited as an example of mukokuseki by a troper claiming her portrayal began with "very narrow eyes" but quickly turned to this trope...which I find is a fairly baffling statement, because you can find plenty of panels in those earliest chapters where she's looking wide-eyed, and plenty of panels in the most recent chapters where her eyes are just as narrow as the sample image he cites. And that's not even going into all the other East Asian characters like Rock, Boss Chang, Takenaka, Yukio, etc. who are also frequently shown with wider eyes, or the European characters like Balalaika who are predominantly drawn with very narrow eyes. There are plenty of manga out there where there's been serious art evolution and dramatic changes in character design over the course of several volumes, but Black Lagoon really isn't one of them -- Hiroe's art style has been pretty darn consistent from the beginning.
18th-Jul-2010 08:57 am (UTC)
To me these characters don't really look all that ambiguous. I mean, I probably couldn't tell you that Shenhua was suppose to be Taiwanese, but I could totally tell that she was maybe suppose to be east of Japan. And Revy, I probably would have assumed she was suppose to be Japanese unless otherwise stated. So if anything, maybe they're ambiguously east-Asian?

Even anime/manga [hero] characters that are suppose to be white, tend to still have those east-Asian "markers"; they just aren't markers that westerners pick up on. People in the west just see that they don't have the typical "Asian markers"(as seen in the west) and can't see them as such. So, if anime/manga characters are truly ambiguous, I think they are ambiguous from a east-asian viewpoint(?) and the ambiguity that westerners seem to see, is a false one.
18th-Jul-2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
Er. Could you maybe put more of this post behind a cut? With the images, you have more NOT behind the cut than behind it, and it takes up quite a lot of flist space. :X
19th-Jul-2010 04:52 am (UTC)
Just wanted to add another suggestion. You can always create the post on your own journal, fine tune it, figure out where you want the 'cut', then go back in to "edit" and click the "HTML" tab and copy that into the HTML tab in this comm's "Post an Entry".

Idk, maybe you already know this, also it's kind of annoying submitting a post only to realize you've screwed up and now have to wait for the admin to approve it.
18th-Jul-2010 03:44 pm (UTC)
One of the reasons why I love Black Lagoon so much: aside from Cowboy Bebop, this is probably one of the most ethnically and racially diverse series out there. And the first time they introduced Revy and her nationality to the viewers, I found her all the more interesting for it.
18th-Jul-2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
One thing I noticed in Avatar, and have noticed in anime done in a similar style (Miyazaki, for example), is that adult characters and characters portrayed as more worldly tend to be drawn with smaller eyes, and are more easily read by Western viewers. Compare Toph's parents to Toph. Toph's parents look unambiguously Asian to me (so does Toph, but pretend for a moment that she doesn't). Why would Toph's Asian parents have a white daughter? The logical conclusion is that Toph has big eyes and more stylized features because she's a child, not because she's white.

Azula, Mei, and Ty Lee are all about the same age, but Ty Lee is the most cartoony and biggest-eyed of the three--to convey her bubbly personality. Of the main characters, Aang and Toph have the biggest eyes, and Zuko has the smallest. Overall, eye size and cartooniness of style correlate pretty well with age. And the main characters all visibly grow older over the course of the series.

In Tonari no Totoro, the younger daughter Mei has bigger eyes and tiny, cartoony, stylized features in a big toddler face. The older daughter Satsuki is animated in a slightly more realistic style but still with large eyes, but their father is drawn in the most realistic style, with small, almost real-life-sized eyes:


But it's set in Japan and they are all Japanese.

I think mrcab has hit the nail on the head about Westerners seeing the wrong kind of ambiguity.
18th-Jul-2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
Shorter version: people who claim the characters in Avatar are totally ambiguous are insensitive to subtle markers of ethnicity and either don't look at the adult characters or think they're spontaneously producing white children.
19th-Jul-2010 02:34 am (UTC)

I think the best example is looking at Toph and then looking at her parents. I recently rewatched season 2, and by the ep where the gaang meets Toph and her family, I was thoroughly convinced everyone involved in making/supporting the live-action had never watched the series.
19th-Jul-2010 03:35 am (UTC)
Maybe they stopped after season 1? Ugh, not much of a defense if they did, and I'm pretty sure there are S1 examples, if not as thwap-over-the-head obvious as Toph and her family. I mean, the Water Tribes are about as far from ambiguous as you can get. >:-(
19th-Jul-2010 05:12 am (UTC)
"I mean, the Water Tribes are about as far from ambiguous as you can get. >:-("

B-b-but... their-their blue eyes!
20th-Jul-2010 01:19 am (UTC)
Oh, right, only white people have eye colors other than brown, like blue and green and...yellow! Therefore everyone in Avatar is white! It couldn't possibly be symbolic or anything!
21st-Jul-2010 03:06 am (UTC)
Well, the Water Tribe is white, so it makes sense to assume that the other eye colors are like real life. As such, the Fire Nation is white because the people have red and yellow eyes, just like white people in reality.
21st-Jul-2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
19th-Jul-2010 05:10 am (UTC)
A bigger example is the main "arguement" of Aang looking white. Everyone who spouts this nonsense ignores Avatar Yangchen which is a shame because she is JUST SO AWESOME! Someone actually told me she looks white or white mixed with Asian with mostly the white features showing.
20th-Jul-2010 01:20 am (UTC)


(OMH, Avatar Yangchen is so awesome. I wish they would do a spinoff animated movie or comic or novel or ANYTHING about her, so we could learn more about the Air Nomads and also about how awesome she was.)
21st-Jul-2010 03:09 am (UTC)
YES! YES! YES! Avatar Yangchen is love! One would think that being the last Airbender, Aang would've spent more time talking to her, reminiscing on their almost-lost culture. But noooooo..... Well, at least she was the last past life that Aang talked to before making his decision regarding Ozai.

I don't even know why I like her so much because we didn't get to see much of her. I can only imagine how great she was.
21st-Jul-2010 11:05 pm (UTC)
I think there just wasn't that much time in the show--we saw the most of Roku because of his role in the current political situation.

I think she's interesting because a) she's representative of the Air Nomads, who we really don't see much of (and mostly the monks), and b) despite coming from the same spiritual tradition and culture as Aang, she came to very different conclusions about pacifism and the role of the Avatar. She just has so much potential for interesting stories.
19th-Jul-2010 04:01 am (UTC)
And not just subtlety, but relativity -- I think Matt Thorn is dead on the money when he talks about Western audiences who are used to seeing more standardized (and often strongly exaggerated/stereotyped) ethnic signifiers used across the board can get confused by how markers in manga are so often highly relative and context-dependent. Some people get hung up on hair/eye colors or eye shape as markers because they're used to seeing those things being strongly emphasized in certain standardized, consistent ways in many Western comics and cartoons. And when those features they're used to seeing as consistent markers aren't applied across the board, some folks just can't seem to connect the dots of the setting, names, statements of identity, relatives, etc., or make allowances for individual variation: the character isn't drawn in the way they're used to seeing Asian characters, therefore they must be/look white.
19th-Jul-2010 04:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, definitely!
18th-Jul-2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've noticed the same tendency in Avatar. And in many Japanese series too! And it's not just a stylish choice either, children do have bigger eyes than adults in real life too. And I really shouldn't have to point this out but yes, East Asian children too. On the other hand old Asians tend to have their eyelids droop over their eyes so that they look really small and narrow. Which you can see a lot in anime.

Older characters also tend to have bigger noses which is also true to real life, especially in East Asians who generally have very small noses so you don't really see really big ones other than in old people. Unlike white people who's noses grow long and big and pointy pretty early in their adult life and black people who have the same thing except their noses grow wide rather than protruding. Babies then again don't look all that different never mind the race: Asian|Caucasian|African Big eyes, small noses and mouths and round faces = pretty much the sign of youth in every ethnicity. Pretty much the only real difference is the colour and even that isn't as clear as in adults I think.

Back to anime though: if they actually DO want to make someone look clearly Caucasian (usually only when it's a random minor character, Caucasian main characters tend to look similar to everybody else as we know...) they look something like this. Note that the eyes aren't really bigger at all, they are just a little different shape, more angular or something. On the other hand all of them have very clearly defined noses and a long face.
19th-Jul-2010 01:32 am (UTC)
And it's not just a stylish choice either, children do have bigger eyes than adults in real life too.

Yeah, and because even "realistic" animation is a medium of stylization, these things tend to get exaggerated.

I think the thing that bugs me the most about the "ambiguous" argument, even beyond the ignoring ethnicity markers because they aren't caricatured, is the assertion that context is irrelevant. Who cares how they're dressed, what they eat, what their buildings look like, what instruments they play, what religious philosophies they have. All of that is irrelevant because they're animated.

Is this some kind of ultimate manifestation of cultural appropriation? All culture belongs to white people unless proven otherwise?

(That first baby is desperately cute, omg. The expression! And I am not much of a baby person.)
19th-Jul-2010 01:46 am (UTC)
Yep. Like western cartoons and comics exaggerate too.

And yeah, you're definitely right. 8/ It's ridiculous how the movie makers put such care into getting the settings and architecture and clothes to look "authentic Asian" but never once question putting non-Asians on those settings. Not to mention pronouncing the NAMES more "Asian". Why would you pronounce them "Asian" if the characters are not Asian? =__=
19th-Jul-2010 03:38 am (UTC)
Yep. Like western cartoons and comics exaggerate too.

No! Western cartoons are totally 100% realistic! /sarcasm

It's not even just exaggeration, but also that when stylizing, one has to leave something out. And what gets out, what gets left in, those are decisions that convey information.

It's ridiculous how the movie makers put such care into getting the settings and architecture and clothes to look "authentic Asian" but never once question putting non-Asians on those settings.

It is...kind of reminiscent of Firefly, although more egregious because while Firefly has loads of issues (some of which could have been mitigated by having more Asian actors, including in the crew), it is at least set in a universe that would logically have people of all races.
18th-Jul-2010 10:17 pm (UTC)
K, its been a while since I've watched/read manga, but I HAVE to check this shit out.
19th-Jul-2010 02:32 am (UTC)

My thoughts exactly.
19th-Jul-2010 05:55 am (UTC)
It's a really interesting series with a TON of great female characters, and a fair bit more depth of characterization and moral complexity than you might expect from something that looks like pure seinen babes-and-bullets fanservice at first glance. But fair warning, those explicit content warnings are all over this for a reason; it's extremely, graphically violent, and full of foul language including racial and gendered slurs.
19th-Jul-2010 12:43 am (UTC)
I don't know, I would've guessed Shenhua as Asian (because of her clothes), but I wouldn't have guessed any particular race for Revy. I never try to guess what race characters are based on the drawing of the physical features of the characters alone since it's pretty inconsistent across different manga. It's like, yeah, you have the occasional markers, but then you have anime/manga like Captain Tsubasa or Witch Hunter Robin where the physical features are the same for people even from different countries (well except the hair color).

If an anime/manga story is set in Japan, even if the characters have purple/red/green hair or blue/green eyes, I would assume the characters are Japanese unless otherwise stated. If not (for example set in some sort of fantasy world), I don't think physical features of drawn characters are that reliable to determine race.

19th-Jul-2010 03:35 am (UTC)
I think it shows how much context can play in a manga. Just from the ones that I read, I usually see narrow eye not as a racial indicator unless it's a manga like Crying Freeman where the artists draws in a realistic style, but more of a characteristic that indicates personality.

Characters with cooler personalities, aloof ect have narrower eyes, characters with wider eyes tend to be more emotional.

Since I haven't read this series (or seen the anime), I would need more context for Revy since her name doesn't really give any indication of her background.
19th-Jul-2010 05:41 am (UTC)
Bingo. Black Lagoon is a seinen series and while the art's somewhat more stylized than something like Crying Freeman, it's generally not super-cartoony, either. Hiroe doesn't draw his white characters in exactly the same ways he draws his Japanese and Chinese characters, but the differences he works in around the nose, jaw, chin, and face shape are fairly subtle, especially when he's drawing cute kids or pretty women -- men are a little more strongly marked (compare Benny and Boris to Rock or Mr. Chang). But he also follows the common convention of using eye shape/size as a marker of personality and age; Shenhua is fairly cool and collected, while Revy is loud and brash and hotheaded. Russian crime boss Balalaika is older than either of them and utterly cold-blooded, and her eyes are typically drawn in a size and shape much like Shenhua's.

Revy's last name has never been given in the series, but the first mention of her being Chinese comes in a very early chapter, and it's delivered as just a very matter-of-fact aside as she briefly discusses her rough childhood. But picking these two characters as examples, rather than, say, a more recent character from mainland China who dresses like a somewhat more modest version of Revy, was a deliberate choice on my part for several reasons, and it's not just because Revy's the one mentioned by name in the mangaka's interview. Shenhua was chosen because out of all the characters in this series, she's the most obvious match for some common stereotypes often seen in Western media depictions of Asian female characters, while Revy with her lighter hair, bigger eyes, etc. has a lot of features that have been cited as reasons why many A:tLA characters "don't seem Asian" -- right down to her unaccented linguistic fluency; think of the people who have tried to argue that it's wildly unreasonable to expect the A:tLA film to both hire Asian actors and have them speak with American accents, or all the casting defenders who insisted that the whitewashed casting was doubtlessly a sad necessity because there surely couldn't be enough Asian actors whose English was good enough. o_O

(Unrelated side note: ICON LOVE!)
19th-Jul-2010 01:39 am (UTC) - Japanime character are white. Deal with it.
I guessed them both as being Asian, and from the background that you gave on Rebecca, I totes knew she was Asian American. I was reading it halfway and thought, "Wait, what's Rebecca's last name?" SO I went back up and checked but it wasn't given, so I knew that even with her American background it didn't mean she'd be white, and I was right! Do I win something?

OMGZ Japanese cartoon characters totally look white even when they're modeled on real people, don't you know? Here's PUFFY's single for the cartoon Hataraki Man, based on the comic.

See how Japanese cartoon characters look white in real life?

And here's the single cover, which was drawn by the actual original comic artist! She reenvisioned PUFFY as two white girls because that's soooooo the default of Japanese style, and the cartoon renditions don't look a thing like their real counterparts!
19th-Jul-2010 06:16 am (UTC) - Re: Japanime character are white. Deal with it.
You win an omake!

19th-Jul-2010 06:28 am (UTC) - Re: Japanime character are white. Deal with it.
So that's from Black Lagoon? Ha ha, that was funny! But this isn't canon, right? I just looked up the term "omake," having never heard it before. Rebecca seems goofy than I'd imagine, but since this is a special feature, it must not be true, right?
19th-Jul-2010 06:55 am (UTC) - Re: Japanime character are white. Deal with it.
Nope. An 'omake' (meaning 'extra') is pretty much just a special 'fanservice' that is something of a thank-you gift to fans and such, and doesn't really have anything to do with actual canon.
Of course, this isn't the Revy we all know, and neither was the maid-character Roberta because both are actually hardcore BAMFs, and not all... uhh... 'girly-sweet' like this parody... ^^;
19th-Jul-2010 07:35 am (UTC) - Re: Japanime character are white. Deal with it.
Hee, yep, it's just a little parody extra that's non-spoilery because it's so out-of-character. Balalaika and her crew really are scary, Revy really is a gun nut, Rock is really not very threatening physically, and Roberta does actually wear a maid's uniform, but otherwise this isn't even remotely similar to the series canon. ;)
19th-Jul-2010 02:31 am (UTC)
Awesome, awesome post. I really appreciate you sharing.

And gawd, why have I not looked up Black Lagoon before? ♥

Thanks for the oblique rec! :D
19th-Jul-2010 07:22 am (UTC) - *likes this post, because it's a good example!... And I like Black Lagoon too.*
Best manga ever! Highly recommended, because it is not only good but at least we get a Chinese-American BAMF in the form of Revy who is awesome and not exactly stereotyped. I wish I had gotten the manga, and Rei Hiroe's artbook, in Japan (even though there is the English version, I prefer it in Japanese because it's kind of practice for me...).

And here I was trying to figure out how to counter that stupid 'anime is ambiguous' statement, and here you present one of the examples I wanted to point out!
Because as a (now casual) anime/manga fan, and stereotypically Japanese to boot, it irritated me that people just cannot see that anime and manga characters are NOT ambiguous.
Black Lagoon is one of the examples that feature a good range of diverse characters in the racial department, while also using the real world as basis for it. I was happy to see a manga that features A PC American rather then the standard 'white' variety that a lot of anime and manga only portrays. In fact, Revy is one of my favorite characters because I can relate to her somewhat, being Asian-American myself. It's also another example of an artist that did good research and made a believable world for his work, despite being a native Japanese guy.
Hiroe Rei's Black Lagoon is, again, a really good manga and a good (few) example of diversity in a manga or anime. Sometimes I imagine that it would be pretty cool if it became a live-action movie... but knowing what Hollywood does to anything that features characters of color OR any anime with an obvious Japanese cast, I'd rather stick with the manga (and the anime... which I need to watch sometime...).

19th-Jul-2010 09:19 pm (UTC) - Re: *likes this post, because it's a good example!... And I like Black Lagoon too.*
If you loved the manga, you'll definitely enjoy the anime -- the characterization and plots are all very faithful to the original, the animation is very nicely done and the voice actors and music are wonderful.

And total agreement here, as a non-fantasy series by a mangaka who's clearly a big fan of action movies from all around the world, this could work so well as a live-action adaptation if it were done right...but I really shudder to think about the whitewashing that might ensue if it were done in Hollywood.
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