Leaning into the West: The Portrayal of Black Figures in Manga

Ever since the introduction of the Cartoon Network Programming block, Toonami in the mid to late 90s along with the previous groundwork that has been done before that, Anime and Manga have become increasingly popular over here in the West. Rightfully so as works such as Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho (writer’s personal favorite), Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, and more have enriching universes that captivate millions of people across the globe let alone over here in the Americas. However, one thing that has been synonymous with especially older works in particular is that of the often shaky portrayals of Black characters in these media, often toting the line between have a good character and having aspects of tokenization and pigeon holing black cultural aspects of the west and the diaspora as well. This article will go through some examples of flawed portrayals as well as a couple good portrayals.

Firstly, we’ll start with Dragon Ball, as while the series is ever iconic, it is not without it’s flaws and one of them is how Toriyama has previously drawn his black male figures, often sporting a very black-face, minstrel show-esc appearance. For immediate examples, look no further than these two characters that were in the franchise since the Red Ribbon and Piccolo arc’s respectively, none other than Staff-Officer Black and Mr. Popo. It’s no secret that Toriyama is very much influenced by not only kung-fu movies but western movies as well when it comes to a lot of the conventions of Dragon Ball’s universe, with Staff-Officer Black, he designs him with overly exaggerated lips akin to a minstrel show character. While Black himself is not an off-shoot character, serving as a primary threat to Goku midway through the arc, this design looking back shows how ingrained the western design philosophies of black characters in comics and animation were even in the 80s.

Popo is definitely the most infamous of the two. Popo is introduced along with Kami right after Goku defeats the Demon King Piccolo in what at that time was the most high stakes situation in the series. Popo and Kami serve as Goku’s trainers for the next 4 years up until time skips towards the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai (or the 23rd World Martial Arts Tournament in the Dub) where he fights King Piccolo’s offspring, Piccolo Jr. Popo’s design is very akin to the design of the Pokemon Jynx, who would come later in 1996. Both characters have very dark skin whilst sporting overly large lips, once again, very reminiscent of a minstrel show character, showing how limited some of Japan’s design conventions were when it came to drawing black characters in their stories, despite both Jynx and Popo not being humans themselves. Popo’s skin color even got changed from jet black to blue when 4-Kids and Ocean would first air Dragon Ball Z, the sequel series in the early 90s, which would only happen in those early versions of the western dubs of Dragon Ball.

There are other examples of either minstrel designs or aspects of black American culture, like Hip-Hop being appropriated within black characters as well. The character of Killer Bee in Naruto is an amalgamation of both. While Killer Bee himself, beyond these aspects, is a fun and engaging character on his own, part of his character is speaking in rap rhyme, which while not crazy here has influenced other more obnoxious examples of this in other series’. Killer Bee’s design also brings in another contentious aspects of designing black characters, hairstyling. Often times, the only hairstyles that you will see in black characters animated by non-black artists is the slick back braids you see on Killer Bee and the 4th Raikage, an afro, or for males just being bald like with Staff-Officer Black. Sometimes, you will see locs or other styles, but usually, they are conjoined to these defaults.

As I mentioned, there are some examples of good portrayals of black characters in manga. A great one being that of the character Rock Lock in My Hero Academia, who is a minor character first appear in the Shie Hissaikai (or Overhaul) arc of the series. His character design is great and he is written very well as a character on his own, being a hero who learns overtime to respect our main protagonist, Deku, and actively helps in the fight against the antagonist, Overhaul and his associates. You also have Chocolove McDonnell from Shaman King, who while designed in the manga in a minstrel style with his lips (which are removed in the 2021 anime series), is not only written well and has great agency as a character, but is fun and becomes an integral part of the story along with the main character, Yoh Asakura and the other main characters.

The point that I want to drive home is that in the past, manga and anime have depicted black characters and caricatures in very flawed, minstrel likenesses, which is indicative of western design philosophies from animation’s inception in the 30s. However, overtime, as both mediums have become ever more popular in the west, more and more series have strayed away from the minstrel caricature, adapting more well rounded designs and well written characters.

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