Do you see yourself in anime? Do the characters represent you? Stereotypes and caricatures were used to stand for non-Japanese characters from the ’60s thru the ’80s. This was common practice in other media around the world as well. Black anime characters suffered from poor character design, which mimicked blackface. Anime has long used large oval lips and small black pupils for comedic effect. It becomes unintentionally offensive with a dark skin tone. The character Superalloy Blackluster from One Punch Man is a recent example. Despite their looks, these characters have depth and range. Sadly, poor designs make them less appealing and hard to watch. I want to look at the best five African American and Black characters in anime. Whether the lead or supporting, the best characters have the looks and ability to stand alone.
5. Coffee (Cowboy Bebop)
Cowboy Bebop has many memorable one-shot characters. Coffee is no different. Like the hot beverage, she is strong and has looks that will keep you up all night. This may be why she makes the “best of” lists and is a fan favorite. In the episode “Mushroom Samba,” Coffee is a bounty hunter looking for a man named Domino Walker, who sells illegal mushrooms. She has the misfortune that Ed and Ein insert themselves into the hunt, causing her trouble.
Coffee’s design and name are an homage to the movie Coffy, starring Pam Grier. The first female blaxploitation star played a woman seeking revenge against drug dealers. Coffee’s black leather outfit, afro, and Grier’s strength and confidence, give her a hard coolness. This is clear when she walks onto the screen during her intro.
4. Claudia LaSalle (Macross)
Claudia LaSalle is the ultimate best friend and girlfriend. She is the intelligent, loyal, spunky second lieutenant of the space fortress Macross. Her duties include navigation and weapons, but she also handles bridge command. When not in battle, Claudia gives relationship advice to crew member Misa Hayase, who is in a love triangle. Claudia’s defining moment comes after the death of her boyfriend, ace pilot Roy Focker. Wounded in a dogfight, he wanted to be with her one last time and died with her by his side. Claudia stayed strong, becoming a guiding light for those around her.
3. Dutch (Black Lagoon)
Black Lagoon’s Dutch is the best boss in the world. He’s a laid-back philosophical man of mystery who never removes his shades. In Roanapur, where crime is king, being a professional earns respect, and Dutch has that respect. As a transporter, he works with the major organized crime groups, who are quick to use his services. A man of his word and a natural negotiator, Dutch prefers to talk things out instead of using violence. In his philosophy, nothing is worse than a mindless killer, and staying in control makes your actions meaningful. A lesson he tries to teach his hot-headed crew member, Revy.
2. Carole Stanley (Carole & Tuesday)
Carole Stanley is the soulful pianist of Carole and Tuesday. As an Earth-born orphan living on Mars, Carole had a rough start in life. She was bullied in school but stood up for herself. In her recollections, she was more violent than necessary. Despite her inner strength, she was lonely. Carole had no close friends and spent her time bouncing from one part-time job to another. When she meets Tuesday, she finds a friend who understands her loneliness. Their bond enables them to realize their dream of being musicians.
1. Pyunma (Cyborg 009)
Pyunma (also 008) is the aquatic ace of Cyborg 009 and one of the earliest black superheroes in manga and anime. His manga origins depict him as a slave, but he’s a former guerrilla fighter in the anime. In both origin stories, the Black Ghost Organization kidnaps him from Kenya (the Muamba Republic in the 2001 series) and turns him into a cyborg. His cyborg abilities grant him increased speed and lung capacity while underwater. In addition, his days as a guerrilla fighter make him a skilled tactician. Pyunma values his humanity and sees his body as human. At one point, he became depressed after a skin upgrade gave him blue scales. His design coincidentally resembled Silver Age Aquaman. He eventually embraced his new look because it made him strong enough to protect his friends. Pyunma also helps people in his homeland by providing humanitarian aid.
Pyunma made the number one spot because he’s a man of many faces. His design history represents the journey of black anime characters. Since 1966, there have been Cyborg 009 movies and television shows. In the original manga, he had a blackface caricature design. This design slightly changed for the 1966 and 1967 movies. They used a brown skin tone, but his large lips remained. Pyunma’s blackface continued in both the 1968 and 1979 television series. Thankfully, this changed for the 1980 movie Legend of the Super Galaxy (Defenders of the Vortex). Jeff Segal (GoBots) consulted for the movie and suggested a redesign. This redesign based on actor Sidney Poitier resulted in smaller lips, grayish skin, and more natural facial features.
The 2001 television series, The Cyborg Soldier, updated Pyunma again. Now with grayish brown skin and blondish hair. This is the look most modern fans are familiar with, and a version of this was used for the Cyborg 009 VS. Devilman (2015) series too. Production I.G. has done Pyunma the most justice. Both 009 Re:Cyborg (2012) and Call of Justice (2016) movies gave Pyunma a realistic and modern feel. Despite the CGI work, Pyunma looks like the hero he has always been.
A New Day
These five black anime characters show the progress anime has made in black representation. Each character has depth, avoids being stereotyped, and is uplifting for others to watch. Whenever someone watches anime and sees someone who represents them, they should feel good. My first time was with Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier. It was great seeing a multicultural team of heroes fighting for world peace. Especially when one of them was black like me. Creators and directors like Shinichiro Watanabe have created shows with diverse characters and settings. These series allow viewers to connect with more characters and immerse themselves fully into the world.