Hey hey all you Heroes and Travelers out there today I’m bringing you all another super special awesome OWLS post!! Back in December I mentioned that I’d joined OWLS: Otaku Warriors of Liberty and Self-Respect, a group of bloggers and vloggers that hope to spread a message of acceptance and understanding through thoughtful community activism!
So, in order to spread our message of self acceptance and tolerance, we’ve decided to hold Monthly Blog Tours! During Blog Tours, we each write individual theme posts on our blogs that promote our group’s values, with a bit of an otaku twist. April’s Blog Tour topic is Colors!
The Importance of Colors
I have been waiting for this topic since the moment I joined OWLS and it’s not because I wanted to go on a tirade about the unequal treatment of people of color in the media, that has been done before, by better writers than myself. As a black nerd and an otaku I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people of color shoehorned into roles that continue to promote dated ideals by people that have no idea what it’s like to live as one of the marginalized masses. Even my beloved anime has fallen prey to some pretty damning portrayals of people of color and it breaks my heart, so I’m writing this post not to rant, but to make you all aware of the problems from the prospective of a person of color. So enough with the lecture, here’s the official OWLS prompt:
We are all part of one race, the human race. “Colors” refers to people of color in anime. For this monthly topic, we will be discussing how people of color or characters of different “races” (a literal alien race) are represented in anime. Some topics we are considering is the dangers of stereotyping, bi-racial characters, and the importance of racial inclusion.
So far we’ve had posts from Matt, and Venus with each blogger putting their own spin on the topic and now it’s my turn! For this month’s post, I’m expanding on a post I wrote back in February about the portrayals of people of color, particularly Black and brown characters, in anime. I wanted to look specifically at the portrayal of the shinobi of the Hidden Cloud Village in Masashi Kishimoto’s shounen anime Naruto: Shippuden.
The portrayal of Black characters in the media
Generally speaking, Black individuals are usually portrayed in an number of ways each with their own varying degrees of acceptability, but the most pervasive portrayals are as follows:
- Comic relief- usually ready with some snappy one liner or has a recurring quirk that makes them stand out from the rest of the cast.
- Angry/Confrontational- quick to fly into a rage or start up an argument, typically seen as a threat.
- Athletic/Physically Fit- sporty, at the peak of physical perfection
- Strong Willed- a strong mental fortitude, able to withstand almost anything that comes their way.
- Chill/Easy-going- the person that just goes with the flow no matter what the situation is.
Now don’t get me wrong, these aren’t all bad characteristics to have, they only become a problem when creators choose to rely on only a single attribute when developing Black characters. So when I see a character that is only described as being strong willed or who’s only role is to provide gut busting one liners, it frustrates me to no end. Because real people aren’t that one dimensional, so, why is it that the characters in the media we consume seem to always wind up being one off characters? Am I missing something? Of course, you all are probably wondering what this has to do with Naruto, well, I say all this to set the foundation for my thoughts about the shinobi of Hidden Cloud Village.
First, I should clarify that as a whole, I am actually pretty impressed with the portrayal of the shinobi of the Hidden Cloud Village, save one especially grating issue that I will save for later on in this post, because I have some very strong feelings about it… But, I digress, as a Black woman, I really enjoyed seeing a village full an elite group of Black shinobi! They weren’t just throw away minority characters that were there one day and gone the next, the shinobi of Kumogakure, are key players in the events surrounding the Fourth Shinobi War and its aftermath.
However, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, on one hand this was a bold move on Kishimoto’s part, as I am not aware of another anime featuring a cast of Black characters on such a large scale as this prior to Shippuden (please correct me if I’m wrong), especially in a series as well known as Naruto. On the other hand, having a non-Black creator creating the narrative for Black characters opens the characters and the narrative to unintentional bias. That is of course not to say that a non-Black individual isn’t capable of creating well rounded Black characters, it can and has been done, I just find that characters created by individuals without knowledge of the cultural norms and mannerisms of the people they are portraying tend to rely heavily on other media for inspiration, which in and of it itself is problematic. Since, the media has been known to fudge the facts when it comes to people of color in general. So now that I have a bit of the foundation laid out for you guys, I want to go into more detail about how Black characters are portrayed in Naruto: Shippuden.
The True Meaning of Power
In the second half of the Naruto series we are introduced to Killer B ( known as Killer Bee in the Viz manga) and the shinobi of Kumogakure, a village revered as one of the five great shinobi nations. Nestled at the heart of a mountain range and shrouded in mist, Kumogakure is a veritable fortress. The shinobi from this village are renowned for their unparalleled power and fortitude, they even possess the second most powerful tailed beast, the Eight-Tails. The are poised as some of the most formidable shinobi in the entire world… and a majority of them happen to be Black. Yes, let that sink in, some of the most powerful shinobi in the entire series and they are people of color!
When the media is constantly bombarding us with negative images of Black and brown individuals, in their narrative, Black individuals are either poor, criminals, or both. Positive images of Black individuals are few and far between, so to see characters that look like me being depicted as proud, strong, capable, and prosperous… mind blowing! While the Village has had a rather antagonistic relationship with the rest of the shinobi community, namely Konoha, the people of Kumogakure are a proud people that are aware of their considerable strength.
This is especially evident in the portrayal of Kumogakure‘s jinchuriki, Killer B. Despite my gripes about the guy, even I can admit that he is a shining example of a Black character done right! He is confident in his abilities as a shinobi, but that doesn’t mean that he abuses that power. Where most jinchuriki view their status as a curse, Killer B takes pride in the fact that he possesses the power of a tailed beast, but he doesn’t let that power consume him, nor does he try to suppress it. Instead, he accepts it as a part of him and becomes one of the first jinchuriki to coexist peacefully with their tailed beast, in turn he is able to wield it’s considerable power without causing harm to himself or others. That’s not to say that he didn’t suffer because of his status as Kumogakure‘s jinchuriki, he was treated much the same as the other jinchuriki, however instead of folding under the weight of the burden he managed to keep a positive outlook on life.
Killer B’s true power isn’t physical, it’s his ability to stay true to himself no matter what obstacles stand in his way. He doesn’t compromise his integrity for anyone, sure he’s a bit over zealous and just a bit impulsive, but when it counts Killer B will stop at nothing to protect those that are important to him. This is a common trait among shinobi of Kumogakure, they shoulder on against adversity even if that means they are considered dangerous. Their resilience mirrors that of people of color here in the States and globally that persevere despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them and I think that’s what really appealed to me about these characters.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
However, Kishimoto’s depiction of people of color is not without it’s shortcomings. I can usually overlook some of the more blatant negative stereotypes, but there is one thing that bugged me to no end about Killer B, and that is his rapping. I get it, he wants to be a rapper, he used his rhymes as a way to cope with the burden of being a jinchuriki…. however, that doesn’t stop me from feeling some type of way about it. Of all the things Killer B could do in his spare time, rapping, really? By making Killer B a rapper, Kishimoto undermines all of the positive attributes of Killer B’s personality.
What the whole-, here you have a strong, capable character and you make him a rapper… why? Was there something wrong with having a powerful Black character that didn’t rap? Is this what they think all Black people do in their spare time? Whatever the intention, I found the whole thing messed up and unnecessary.
Then there’s the fact that Kumogakure has had a history of conflict with Konoha, sure they eventually become allies during the Fourth Shinobi War. Shinobi have been in conflict for years, but to pit the only village shown to have shinobi of color against the home of the titular character, you create this whole messy light vs dark conflict that shouldn’t even exist. Kumogakure’s quest for power has a lot to do with the Fourth Raikage’s own personal belief that power is everything, but even that is problematic. A stable Black leader and he’s a militant, power hungry man with a short temper… yeah, no…
Well guys, that’s all I have to say about colors in Naruto Shippuden and I really hope you all enjoyed reading my post!!
I am always grateful to see positive portrayals of Black characters in anime or any media for that matter. Of course no portrayal is perfect, there will always be some degree of bias that manages to creep in to even the most progressive portrayals. I have my fair share of gripes about Killer B and the Hidden Cloud Village, but I view them as step in the right direction for the way Black characters are depicted in anime. We need more positive examples of people of color not just in anime, but in all forms of media, if not to educate the world at large about POC’s, then for people of color, so that they can have access to positive images of themselves in the media they love.
There is still a month’s worth of Blog Tour stops left in April, next up is Rai from Rai’s Anime Blog so definitely be on the look out for that posts in the coming days!! Also if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the Official OWLS Twitter account @OWLSbloggers and the Official OWLS Blog, to stay up to date on all OWLS news and announcements!
If you are interested in becoming a member of the OWLS team, please feel free to fill out the contact form, HERE! So don’t be afraid to reach out to any of us on our blogs, on twitter, or at the contact page to learn more about us!! You just need an open mind and a willingness to have fun!