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Black History: A Little Grace for Mr Popo

Black History: A Little Grace for Mr Popo


The Evolution of Black Characters in Animation from West to East

The most memorable whisper passed across the fifth-grade playground of my youth was the existence of four secret characters in the classic fighting game “Street Fighter II.” Not only did the rumor turn out to be true, but it is also a lesser-known aspect of Mike Tyson’s legacy: He appeared as one of the bosses. If a player had enough skill to make it past the initial part of the game, they’d face a boxer named Balrog. However, if you examined the character screen where the bust of the character was placed, you’d see what was clearly a rendering of Mike Tyson.Paired with the character’s movie set, you have a clear, unlicensed interpretation of Iron Mike.

While I didn’t have the language to describe what representation in media meant when I first learned about the character’s inclusion to the roster in 1992, I knew his appearance meant that there was a chance we’d see more representation in media with nerd niches. Even Tyson wasn’t aware of this fact until an ESPN interview in 2019. In awe of this revelation, Tyson gave his blessing and expressed how flattered he was to be a part of such a culture-shifting IP.

One would be forgiven, however, if one looked at a recent render of the character and failed to see a resemblance. The picture of Balrog shown to Tyson was from the original game released in June 1992. One wonders what he would have thought if he had seen the most recent designs from 2016s “Street Fighter V” because the character appears as a devolution from the original.

Balrog’s modern look distances itself from resembling Tyson and leans into a more monstrous appearance with a wide nose, bulging eyes, and thick lips. The philosophy behind pushing the character design in this direction is valid, moving it further away from Tyson — who gets zero royalties for his image being used — and moving it closer to fitting the name Balrog. Still, the choices made for his 2016 version approach a dangerous threshold, making me wonder why these types of designs still appear in animation and games.

Noticing the Pattern

Written almost twenty years ago, one of the most influential articles on the representation of race in anime is an Op-Ed by Carole Boston Weatherford titled, “Japan’s bigoted exports to kids.” Much of the article puts into perspective what it means to be an African American mother who buys Pokémon or Dragon Ball Z toys for her kids — toys with imagery that is beyond problematic and finds itself clearly in the realm of bigotry.

She wrote that Jynx, Pokémon #124, “has decidedly human features: jet-black skin, protruding pink lips, gaping eyes, a straight blonde mane, and a full figure complete with cleavage and wiggly hips. In her pink gown, Jynx is a dead ringer for an obese drag queen.” While some have argued that Jynx is inspired by Yuki-onna, a Japanese mythological figure associated with the ideas of winter, snow, and tragic love, the character design doesn’t show any kind of influence from the more traditional character. Nintendo’s only adjustment was to change Jynx’s color palette from black to deep purple. In an interview in 2021 on Rob Kent’s YouTube channel, Weatherford rightfully accepted credit for the change.

The Mr. Popo of It All

Weatherford also acknowledged that there was no change for another character she mentioned, Mr. Popo from “Dragon Ball Z.” In her article, she wrote that Mr. Popo is a “rotund, turban-clad genie with pointy ears and jet-black skin, shiny white eyes, and, yes, big red lips.” She referred to him as a Sambo character and likened both his and Jynx’s inclusion in modern works of art to a teacher reading “The Story of Little Black Sambo” in the classroom after its ban in the late 1980s.

Mr. Popo’s character design is a bit of a lightning rod when it comes to the conversation of race in anime. While many argue the character isn’t meant to be Black, something that seems to be true, one can’t deny that his appearance is problematic and had never been outwardly addressed until Weatherford’s Op-Ed, but there is something very interesting about the situation centered around Weatherford’s characterization of Mr. Popo as a “Sambo” character.

A Sambo character is an archetype made famous in minstrelsy. Minstrelsy is a vaudevillian variety show performed on stage and screen from the 1800s to about the 1960s where sometimes Black, but more often, non-Black people painted themselves black and portrayed demeaning caricatures of American Black culture.

Weatherford is not alone in her disappointment. “Dragon Ball Z” was a battering ram of a show scheduled to hit every afternoon after school at 4 p.m. The story had a degree of escalation and animated action that Western audiences haven’t seen to that point in after-school programming. The show quickly became a global hit, so it felt like a cold slap to the face to see a character of Mr. Popo’s design suddenly appear on screen. Much like Weatherford articulates, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how people in Japan saw us? Why did the manga-ka, Akira Toriyama, design Mr. Popo this way, and how was that allowed on screen?

Mickey Mouse the Minstrel

To find the answer to these questions, we have to go back to “Astro Boy.” While not the first anime ever created, it is considered to be the foundation for the most popular genre of anime known as “sh?nen.” Sh?nen essentially translates into “young adult,” as in young adult novels popular in America but with pictures. Its creator, Osamu Tezuka, credited Mickey Mouse as a big influence — but not the look you may be thinking of.

This was a young Mickey covered in an article on Mel Magazine’s website, Mickey Mouse Proves You Can’t Erase the Racism of Blackface by Zaron Barnett III. The original Mickey is the one Barnett puts under a microscope. This Mickey is prone to making some risky decisions.

For example, the article mentions 1929’s “The Haunted House.” During the opening scene when the lights go out, you can still see Mickey’s gloves and the outline of his face where he cries out, “Mammy!,” which is a reference to a famous minstrel song by the same name and a minstrel archetype. In another example, “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” both Mickey and Minnie perform a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in blackface. Both animations are still available on YouTube.

While not a one-to-one recreation, the style and designs of Osamu Tezuka’s characters show a clear connection to early Disney cartoons in the stylized noses and eyes of his characters — Dr. Tenma from his own “Astro Boy,” for example, is essentially a humanized rooster. The influence of American animation on Tezuka’s style is clear.

Barnett, with the help of “Birth of an Industry” author Nicolas Sammond, exposed that minstrelsy has always been at the heart of American animation. If this is to be believed, then the roots of what’s wrong with the design and depiction of Black characters stem from American animation. “American animation is actually in many of its most enduring incarnations an integral part of the ongoing iconographic and performative traditions of blackface. Mickey Mouse isn’t like a minstrel; he is a minstrel.”

Mickey Mouse – This was a young Mickey covered in an article on Mel Magazine’s website, Mickey Mouse Proves You Can’t Erase the Racism of Blackface by Zaron Barnett III.


Atop Kami’s Lookout

When “Astro Boy” was done, Tezuka’s place atop the mountain was replaced by one of his biggest fans, Akira Toriyama. Toriyama also noted that he is a big fan of Disney animations and would go on to create what is arguably the single most popular IP to come out of Japan, “Dragon Ball Z.” The timeline is set: Western animation is deeply rooted in minstrelsy, and Japanese audiences who were unaware of that fact find themselves strongly connected to the art form. The catalyst for character design choices that ended in the shape of Mr. Popo begins to become clear.

What’s even more fascinating when considering the minstrel roots of popular animation is that the book “The Story of Little Black Sambo” was a collection of stories created in 1899 by Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who married a doctor in the Indian Medical Services. While living in India, she created the characters as bedtime stories for their children. The djinn (genie) inspirations for the character make sense as they did live in India during that time, however, it is still unexplained why she chose minstrel-heavy inspiration for the characters.

What it does provide, is the missing link for the inspiration for Mr. Popo’s design because the Japanese have their take on the character from “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” who coincidentally has “jet-black skin, big red lips and bulging eyes.” This version of Sambo, while aesthetically different from Bannerman’s original release of the story, is the same likeness of Mr. Popo without the turban.

Weatherford’s observations may be more apt than even she realized. “The Story of Little Black Sambo” was banned in 1988 due to racial outcry from an organization formed in Japan known as The Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks.

In Japan, many oblivious to the racial overtones hold Sambo as a formative character in their youth. He’s a savvy magical character from their childhood, a trickster. This fact may shed light on one of the more interesting developments in Toriyama’s design choices: It’s believed that the original idea of Mr. Popo’s design was something more akin to a sentient baby chicken. Toriyama admitted to revising the character at some point in the process. What a strange coincidence it is then when the character of Sambo would be removed from shelves in Japan, Mr. Popo would be released in the Dragon Ball manga that same year, 1988!

The Snow that Clings When Spring Rises

Zooming past the errors in design found in Mr. Popo and Balrog into the present day, we can see strident leaps in the character from “Guilty Gear: Strive, Nagoriyuki.” His name translates to “the lingering snow,” and he is a vampire samurai of African descent. “Guilty Gear” is a series known for forward thinking and inclusivity in character designs.

The designs are unlike typical fighting game characters for people of color, ones that typically rely on associations within aspects of pop culture like music — as in the Street Fighter series Dee Jay who is most known for being a Jamaican recording artist. Nagoriyuki’s character design is inspired by Yasuke, the historical figure in Japanese history who went from a slave to a free man serving an Italian Jesuit missionary, Alessandro Valignano.

The duo of Yasuke and Valignano traded with Japan in 1581 with Yasuke essentially serving as the bodyguard. At that time, Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful warlord in Japan, caught wind of a large man with peculiar skin. Nobunaga requested an interview with Yasuke and ended up so impressed by him that he threw a welcome party and employed Yasuke from that point on. While Nobunaga’s history is violently complicated, all accounts of Yasuke hold the man’s character in high esteem. He would eventually become the first foreign-born samurai in Japanese history.

Much of Nagoriyuki’s design draws from this historical figure: He is a samurai; he’s lost his leader. He has a mask that’s reminiscent of “mempo,” samurai battle masks that display the visage of demons. He wields a “nodachi,” a Japanese katana over thirty inches in length. He’s simply a unique and truly inspired character design that’s become fashionable in modern anime and video games. Even famed fighting game streamer and former fighting game competitor Maximilian Dood remarked in his video Rate the Designs: Guilty Gear Strive vs OLD GUILTY GEAR about Nagoriyuki’s character design, “Do I even need to say anything? … He looks so fucking cool it hurts.”

While there is some space to make comparisons to Marvel’s “Blade,” in terms of fighting games and original characters coming from Japan, Nagoriyuki is one of a kind and a marker of not only where Black characters are at in modern games and anime but is also a light into the future of Black characters in Eastern media.

Where the Circle Begins

Personally, one of the biggest culture shocks I had as an English as a second language teacher in Asia was how the word “burger” was perceived. Many of my students, both middle school-aged and adults, would associate the word with the brand “McDonald’s.” If we did a food lesson, they’d say something like, “I don’t go to McDonald’s because I don’t like burgers.” It took me a minute to reconcile this idea as an American. I hadn’t eaten a burger from McDonald’s since I was in elementary school for the same reason my students didn’t: McDonald’s burgers are gross.

However, here’s how I could best understand this notion: For many in Asia, the first burger they ever had was from this franchise, and as a result, the two are bound together — what you get from McDonald’s is the reference point of what a burger is. One of the more difficult things to clarify for a student who had written off burgers. Thinking McDonald’s is the pinnacle of burger making is a tragic perspective.

This McDonald’s paradox sends me back to Mrs. Weatherford’s statements on exporting hurtful imagery.  However, much like McDonald’s burgers, it is America’s role in promoting minstrelsy in animation and exporting to the East that suggested these kinds of design choices are okay. Japan imported these images from the West first. America is the starting point of the circle because, as Sammond said, all American animation is essentially rooted in minstrelsy.

“I don’t go to McDonald’s because I don’t like burgers.”  It took me a minute to reconcile this idea as an American.

Further, it’s within this space where we can find a little grace for Mr. Popo. Considering how animation and imagery imported from the West is what gave Toriyama the inspiration for his designs and style, there’s a stronger chance that he intended something closer to reverence than derision in his work. What is inspiring is that most of the problematic designs are in the past, and the direction and path being tread forward is full of original and unique designs providing character representation. In addition to a character like Nagoriyuki, there is Olgun from “Fire Force, Yoruichi from “Bleach, and Kuzan from “One Piece” in anime, and in gaming, there is Kimberly from “Street Fighter 6;” Dolores from “King of Fighters XVI;” and the trio of Leroy Smith, Raven, and Eddy Gordo to name a few from “Tekken.”

As it turns out, I have had several good burgers throughout my travels in Asia. Not surprisingly, it simply took the time to examine the mistakes that were made and the care to learn the lesson from these mistakes to ensure that what’s made next is an evolution we can all be proud of. 


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