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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 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.
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 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 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 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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