One thing I love about anime conventions is the way they enabled me to meet J-List fans every year to chat and catch up with them. Once a girl approached me at Otakon to talk about her future plans to study in Japan, and we became email friends. She was black and asked me to recommend a black anime character that she might cosplay.
I was confused at first, wondering why she would want to limit herself to only black anime characters? I could think of nothing cooler than a unique re-imagining of a character like Sailor Moon or whoever with different skin color. It got me thinking about the special place dark-skinned characters have in the anime we love to watch.
Black Culture in Japan
First I’d like to explain a bit about how black culture filters into Japan as a person who lives here. In the same way that most people reading this were all drawn to the fresh and new “exotic” culture that anime presented us with, many Japanese are fascinated with black culture — specifically Amerian black music, movie and fashion culture. Sometimes Japanese imitate the physical appearance of black people in ways that might not always be viewed as appropriate in all countries, such as the Bubblegum Brothers back in the 80s…though no harm is ever intended by the Japanese.
Naturally, the various forms of black-influenced music have made a mark in Japan, and I’ve been to hip-hop clubs in Tokyo and even semi-rural Gunma that were really rocking. J-List’s doujinshi and game manager is a former hip-hop artist, and has some albums up on iTunes if you’re curious about what Japanese hip-hop sounds like.
Is There a Connection Between GALs and Black Culture?
Not directly. The social phenomenon of gyaru culture came as an off-shoot from the legendary career of singer Amuro Namie, who exploded onto the JPOP scene in the early 90s and inspired a generation of girls called アムラー Amullers, who tried to copy her style in every detail. I have fond memories of the summer of 1995, when pretty much every girl in Tokyo was doing へそ出し heso-dashi, exposing her belly button in a sexy way, just like Amuro did. The fashion trend took on a life of its own, becoming known as kogyaru, which eventually got shortened to “GAL” (gyaru) today.
Though it might be an urban legend, Amuro Namie is widely believed to be a quarter black, and part of her attraction is her mysterious coloring.
The Japanese Sometimes Struggle to Understand Black Culture
Naturally, black culture is distant from Japan, both culturally as well as geographically, and mistakes are bound to be made. In Japan, there’s a tradition of Japanese-bilingual foreigners become minor media stars on television, and one of the most famous was Anton Wicky. An emigrée from Sri Lanka famous for passing the entrance exam to Tokyo University… not the easy version for foreigners but the super-hard test that native Japanese have to take. I’ve met “Wicky-san” (as everyone calls him) and he told me that basically, 100% of Japanese ask him where in Africa Sri Lanka is located.
The takeaway is that the farther away a country is from you culturally or geographically, the harder it is to make out the finer details, and the easier it is to make errors. This is similar to the way people in California might have more affinity for the different kinds of cuisine found across Asia, but if you’re in Minnesota, everything might get reduced to whatever’s available at Panda Express.
Are All Dark-Skinned Anime Characters Black?
I asked J-List’s fans to share their favorite black anime characters and got a lot of good feedback. But while there are many dark-skinned anime characters who have great character designs, a lot of these darker characters don’t count as black anime characters for various reasons. Some examples:
- There’s a tradition of describing dark-skinned anime characters as being from “a south-seas island” which is usually a generic fictional place somewhere to the south of Japan. So Choi from Tamako Market or Umiko from New Game (who is specifically from Okinawa) are not considered here.
- If the characters are an interdimensional alien-like Dark Washu from Tenchi, or a dark elf like Yaoi Ro Dushi from Gate, or a literal Goddess like Urd from Ah! My Goddess, they’re not on the list.
- If their character design is so stylized that there’s no reason to think the characters are intended to have a link to Africa, like Villetta Nu from Code Geass, I might leave them off the list.
This is very subjective, I know. Apologies in advance if your favorite character isn’t in the list!
The 15 Most Iconic Black Anime Characters
One of the cooler characters from Stardust crusaders.
Ymir and Onyankopon
Attack on Titan is an incredible anime, and sports two black anime characters, Ymir and Onynkopon.
An adorable maid who has a secret for you. I did not expect to be writing about D’Arc in back-to-back blog posts today!
Since anime is a stylized world where things like purple hair and isekai worlds are possible, Japanese people born in Japan with Japanese names and identities, yet who are 197 cm / 6’4″ tall black basketball players, are also possible. It’s cool because this character exists in real life, in the form of Rui Hachimura, a Japan-born half-Beninese player who is kicking butt in the NBA and bringing a lot of attention to the sport by Japanese fans.
Another example of a stylized character who appears black despite having a Japanese name, Umibozu (aka Ijuin Hayato) is a mercenary famous for shooting bazookas at his enemies. Although he’s big and scary, he’s naturally as harmless as a kitten.
From Basquash!, an anime created by Macross-creator Shoji Kawamori.
Another adorable fan favorite!
When I watched Carole & Tuesday, I was floored by the incredible beauty of the world the anime presented and felt I could only compare it to the works of Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe. Naturally, the anime was created by him.
Speaking of Cowboy Bebop, another popular black anime character is bounty hunter Jet Black.
The first black anime character fans of my generation encountered was Claudia from Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, aka Robotech. She was a super tragic character because we had to watch her deal with the death of her lover Roy Fokker, which was nothing we’d ever seen in animation up to this point.
Before he made Evangelion, Hideki Anno created Nadia, a fun anime with great sci-fi themes and shout-outs to other anime series.
Atsuko Jackson and Michiko Malandro
If anyone knows Quentin Tarantino, can you make sure he’s seen Michiko and Hatchin? Thanks!
One of the first black anime characters that most fans will have encountered, Anthy is always at the side of Utena, and made a lot of girls question their sexuality.
No surprise who would be the final entry on this list. The best thing about Afro Samurai is that it’s based on a true story. In 1579 a slave named Yasuke was brought to Japan with some Italian Jesuit missionaries, where he caught the eye of Nobunaga Oda, the first of Japan’s “unifiers” and a man known for his fascination with rare things from foreign lands. The man was taken Nobunaga’s service and given samurai swords. When Nobunaga was attacked by a disloyal underling, Yasuke fought to defend his lord, and after his death went to defend Nobunaga’s son.
Thanks for reading this post on the top black anime characters. Did we miss your favorite character? Post them below, or tell us on Twitter!
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