In de-celebration of the release of The Last Airbender
- I made up that word, "de-celebration;" I like it - I'm slightly-editing and reposting a comment I made responding to an fairly ill-advised post over at The Comics Journal
a while ago.
Sorry to be jumping all over Roland Kelts again a couple months after the fact; he's obviously not the only person who's been saying stuff like this, but he does happen to be one I was responding to when I originally wrote it.
The art form of Anime in and of itself is what's causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it. It's part of the art form. [...] If there's an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there ... take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.
- M. Night Shyamalan
Why do so many characters in Japanese art forms - anime and manga - appear to be ethnically Western?
The short answer is thanks to Frederik L. Schodt, author of Dreamland Japan, who notes that Western notions of beauty began to influence Japanese artists as early as the Meiji restoration (late 19th C). It's also true, as Schodt notes, that the big saucer eyes of Western-looking characters made it easier for artists to express the nuances of deep emotion. And Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern Japanese comics and animation, was particularly keen to create characters that were 'stateless' - appealing to a global audience.*
- Roland Kelts
Regarding the question of whether manga artists intentionally draw characters to look either white or "neutral" - there's no such thing as "ethnically Western," and "white" is not the same thing as "stateless" - I'd suggest reading Matt Thorn's essay "The Face of the Other"
. The short version is that they don't - people in Caucasian-dominated-societies think that manga characters look white because we consider white the ethnic default, while Japanese people think that the characters look Japanese for the same reason.
(I can confirm this from my own experience teaching in Japan - Japanese kids think manga and anime characters look Japanese. They don't think they look white. Only Westerners think that.)
Beyond that, the idea that most manga artists are deliberately trying
to make their characters look white is a little incredible. There may be a few
Japanese artists who are deeply concerned with the accessibility of their works to a non-ethnically-Japanese audience, but if these guys had, like, a conference? The conference would be a very small one where everybody looked slightly sad all the time. Probably they couldn't afford a really good hotel, the panels keep devolving into people reciting racist things their editors have said, and there's this one doujinka guy who just showed up so he could accuse everyone else of sympathizing with those dirty Brazilians who took his day job. Yukito Kishiro didn't come because he's been hospitalized for depression again.
And I got distracted there, but uh, it's a little like saying that, you know, because a lot of novels by white Americans don't have people on the covers - they have cars or lipstick or cats or something - white American authors as a whole are desperately interested in making it possible for a non-white audience to read their characters as their own ethnicity.
Anyone believe that? Make that argument for me! I am interested in your ideas.
Regardless, Avatar was not an anime - it was American-produced - so this stuff's irrelevant. The show's settings are pretty unambiguously derived from China, Japan, Korea, and pre-colonial North America. I just don't see how one can make an argument that these characters were originally intended to be white.
Hollywood, of course, requires major bank to get a story to the screens and cinemas across the U.S. and the world. And major bank means promised returns. Caucasian leads are virtually a necessity to guarantee that a film isn't a flop in the hinterlands of the US—and overseas. Can't hedge your bets with millions in tow.
- Roland Kelts
Probably the best counter-argument to this suggestion is to wave around a large picture of Will Smith. In fact, I intend to solve all my problems in this fashion from today forward.
Few Japanese actors can speak English fluently, and those few who can are often too old for the roles they might play (Ken Watanabe being the perfect example). Do Asian source stories like anime need Asian actors to deliver the aura properly? And if so: Where to find them?
- Roland Kelts
The suggestion that the casting directors somehow "couldn't find" Asian or Native American actors who spoke English is pretty silly. Native Americans living in the US and Canada are
known for their persistent habit of speaking English, and I would suspect
that there are quite a few Asian-American actors in California. You could even import some from other states, or even countries! If you can't find any in, say, Japan or China (HINT: you can) there are other
exotic foreign lands with Asian people in them, like Canada, or Australia! They speak English in those places, too. I mean, there is no shortage here.
And anyway, the original casting call made it clear that they were primarily interested in white actors. So I think it's very, very risky to argue that they didn't deliberately choose to cast the heroes as white and the villains as non-white - and if you want to do so, I think you need to think carefully about why
you want that to be the case.
About a quarter of the United States is non-white, but that's not something that's reflected in the ethnicities of characters in movies and TV, particularly the stuff aimed at kids - unless it's, say, a problem story about drug addiction or gang violence or something, the hero is almost always going to be Caucasian. If you want to claim that the casting of Avatar wasn't racist, you first have to be able to explain why this keeps happening, over and over and over. It's pointless to talk about "casting the best person" for the role, because in general, Hollywood doesn't do that. It casts the best white person.
Avatar was very good, very successful, and very unusual
for an American-produced kids' show, in that it had an entirely non-white cast. This was one of the only shows that did that. There were a lot of kids who never
got to see themselves as the heroes who this show made really happy. It's special to a lot of people. I'm going to leave it as a mental exercise to figure out what this movie's casting tells those kids.
- or, okay, maybe I won't. I recall an Asian woman saying that her nephew had seen the pictures of the actors, and was scared that it meant he and his friends couldn't "play Avatar" anymore, because it was for white people.
* If anyone has any actual sources, aside from Frederik L. Schodt, for this persistent claim that Tezuka tried to draw his characters as looking white, then I'd be interested in knowing what they are. I don't think that I've ever seen the idea attributed to any text but Dreamland Japan,
and unless I'm missing something, Schodt doesn't
make that claim. The closest I've found are a couple of lines on page 61:
Tezuka drew large eyes, and when he began drawing for girls' romance comics he further exaggerated this tendency. Tezuka, and the other men and later women artists who followed him, found that a Caucasian look, with dewy, saucer-shaped eyes, was extremely popular among young readers and that the bigger the eyes, the easier it was to depict emotions.
- Frederik L. Schodt, Dreamland Japan, p. 61
What we have here is Schodt's
opinion, not Tezuka's. If there's evidence that Tezuka considered the way he drew eyes to be "Caucasian-looking," it's not cited here.
(I'm reading this on Google Books, which doesn't have the endnotes, so I invoke the power of the internet: if anyone has access to a copy of the book, could you check to see if there's anything there that looks relevant?)
Now, in deciding how much weight we want to give Schodt's own analysis, I think we need to look at the rest of this chapter. On the next page, page 62, he explains that improved nutrition and the use of chairs are making Japanese people healthier, which makes them look whiter, because healthy people look white. This claim is also apparently unsourced; that is because it is insane.
Though this may be the strangest thing that Schodt says about race in DL, he does say a lot
of strange things about race; the whole chapter is extremely bizarre. For this reason, I kind of don't think it's a good idea for people to keep using DL as a source in these kinds of discussions. At least at the time at which he wrote this book, race clearly wasn't a subject with which Schodt was prepared to deal.