Once a year I do a pretty thorough guide on certain types of plastic surgery, its gender or ethnic ramifications, and its affects on the world of illustration and animation. How are artists influenced by popular body modifications to create what many of them refer to as “ideals”? My first article was on breast augmentation – how it suddenly redefined the shape of breasts in comic books. The second article dealt with female rhinoplasty and how femininity is often defined by a small nose. This article is going to hopefully settle a long standing argument in the animation community that has both plastic surgery and ethic implications – the use of large, round eyes by Japanese artists to depict Japanese characters in Manga and Anime.
I’m not entering into this discussion lightly. The Anime fan community, known as “Otakus”, has one single hard and uncompromising answer to the question of European features on Japanese characters: There is no ethnic whitewashing, it’s just the style, there’s nothing to see here. The arguments seem sound at first, but often exist in a vacuum and never take history and culture into account. This article is going to try to factor in all these issues and come up with a definitive answer on whether Anime eyes have racial undertones or are merely stylistic.
The Origins of Modern Japanese Cartoons
Something happened in the 1950s to Japanese illustration and it happen like a bat out of hell. Artists like Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astroboy, began taking ques from their American counterparts at Disney and created characters with large saucer eyes and head decorations that defied physical sense. This was a major break from traditional Japanese art and its a movement that exists to this day. It’s very rare to find a pop culture artist in modern Japan who’s style didn’t descend directly from the Astroboy proto Manga and Anime. The saucer eyes exist not just on cute robots, but on any character with professed Japanese nationality.
Now let’s think about what happened around the same time round eyed manga became popular. Two atomic weapons are dropped on Japanese cities, wiping out tens of thousands of lives in an instant. Japan has just lost their half of World War II and surrenders to the Americans. In the process they are forever stripped of their military and their imperial colonies across the Pacific and continental Asia. On top of that, Western culture begins invading in a way it had not penetrated the historically isolated island nation since the Americans broke the Japanese trade blockade in the 19th Century. Japan begins the process of adapting the “Western value” of democracy. So, you’ve got a major government upheaval, an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the West, and a soul crushing loss of an entire empire. It’s difficult to lose an empire. The Turks and the British are still both coming to grips with their own falls from power nearly 100 years ago. It’s easy to loose faith in your culture and national identity under such harsh circumstances.
On top of all this, American pop culture begins invading, most likely with the occupying troops. Young artists start consuming it and then start copying it. Pretty soon you have modern Manga – a style derived directly from mid-century American cartoons that is a near total rejection of centuries of the traditional art that pre-War manga seemed to be continuation of.
Asian Eye Surgery
But Japanese art is not the only thing that starts to change mid-century. The Japanese begin to change themselves as well. It’s called blepharoplasty, also known as “Asian Eye Surgery”, “Double Eyelid Surgery”, or, most commonly among East Asians, just “The Surgery”.
THE Surgery… Wow.
Most Asian people are born with what they consider a single eye lid on each eye. They actually have two like the rest of the world’s population, but their lower eye lid and the upper eyelid are nearly the same length. On Occidentals the upper eyelid is shorter than the lower one, creating a crease. Blepharoplasty cuts into the upper eye lid, shortening it and making it look more like a typical Western eye.
Asians say they do this because the single eyelid makes them look “tired”. The double eyelid is said to look more lively and energetic, like a shot of good espresso! Many Japanese people, especially aspiring actors and actresses, get the surgery done. It’s nearly impossible to be seen on Asian TV with out a double eye-lid. Often times it’s done at birth, kind of like an Asian circumcision. I seriously doubt the ancient Japanese, the majority of whom had the typical “monolid” thought themselves to look tired. You don’t walk around for several thousand years staring at each other’s monolided faces and suddenly proclaim it looks tired. Certainly this kind of physical dissatisfaction needed an outside catalyst as a frame of reference. But that’s just idle speculation on my part. Or is it…
Japanese Pre-War Art
I mentioned how Japanese art took a very sudden turn after the end of World War II. Let’s take a look at Japanese art before the war, especially in the way eyes are depicted.
Above are three traditional Japanese wood block prints. They are ordered, left to right, from smallest eyes to largest. The women, the sexual objects of desire, have the smallest eyes. The male warrior in the middle engaged in violent battle has larger eyes. The demonic creature on the right has eyes so large they are popping from it’s skull. This is common in traditional Japanese art. The more beautiful, feminine, calm, and civilized the subject – in other words the more “human” – the smaller the eye size. The Buddha himself has eyes like slits. As the characters become more wild – more animalistic or inhuman – the eyes become grotesquely round and large. This flies completely in the face of modern Japanese pop aesthetics where bigger eyes equal youth and beauty and energy. And it all happens with the drop of a bomb.
Racially Markerless or Racism?
So the Japanese like big eyes on themselves and in their media. They also depict themselves with unnaturally (for them) poofy hair that is often light brown, blonde, or even purple and green – but rarely ever black. Some characters even have blue eyes. But does that mean they are whitening themselves? The most quoted and linked to article that I’ve read on this subject, written by a blonde guy who is a for real professor with a degree and everything, claims that Manga and Anime characters aren’t white looking but rather lack what he calls “Racial Markers”. Racial markers being the skin deep visual characteristics that make one ethnic group stand out from another, like dark skin or single lidded eyes. In this way Manga characters are “raceless”. The favorite example being a stick figure with a smiley face. A smiley face has no race, it is merely the most simplified depiction of a human being.
But Anime characters aren’t stick figures. They are fully rendered individuals with detailed features that make one recognizable from another. Japanese characters sometimes exist in far future places where humans are simply humans and ethnicity plays no part, but more often than not they are most definitely Japanese, with Japanese names living in Japan. And sometimes they interact with characters of other nationalities that are depicted with their own “racial markers”. The question ends up being, why have the Japanese made themselves “markerless”? Wouldn’t that still signify a dissatisfaction with their own looks? In any case, they haven’t. A truly racially markerless person would look like the ancient galaxy DNA seeders in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This “markerless” theory at first seems benign, but under it lies a more menacing racist idea. If the Japanese are depicting themselves the same way they depict Europeans, and in the the next section you’ll see that they are, but we are to see that as “markerless” then does that mean that whiteness is the basis, the ideal, and all other ethnicities are merely variations? That seems to elevate European traits to an unbelievable level that no one should be comfortable with.
Self Depictions Versus Depictions of The Other
So let’s put the racial marker theory to the test and stand some characters of different ethnicities drawn in the Manga style side by side. And to maintain the optimal amount of fairness we’ll compare characters that are drawn by the same artist. First we have two characters from the Anime series “Ranma 1/2”. The first picture is Ranma himself in his male form. Ranma is specifically mentioned to be a Japanese boy, born and raised. The second picture is a Chinese person from the same program. Obviously the Japanese know what Asian eyes look like, they just don’t put them on themselves. Those other people on the continent look that way, but not us.
The second set of pictures are characters all from Gundam Wing. The first picture is of a German named Trowa Barton. The next is an Ethnically Japanese boy named Heero Yuy. The last character is Wufei Chang, a Chinese boy. If I hadn’t given you a primer on who these guys are you’d probably think Trowa and Heero were related. Wufei, the other Asian, looks like neither of them. Oddly enough, Wufei is proof that Asian features are compatible with the Anime style.
And lastly, to drive the point completely home, I’ll take a look at characters from two movies by one of the few Anime directors to be called a true artist inside Japan and out, Hayao Miyazaki. The first picture is of Satsuki, a Japanese girl from the film “My Neighbor Totoro” and the second is Kiki, a European girl, possibly Dutch, from the film “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. If Satsuki is not racially marked then neither is Kiki. It’s sad that the greatest of all Japanese directors shows appreciation in great detail for the natural beauty of his native country, but not for the beauty of the people who live in it.
And, for good measure, here’s what some Japanese artists think a black person looks like, which also harkens back to mid-century American cartoon art, but not in a good way.
Power Through Whiteness
It’s not enough that the Japanese make themselves look white. Often, in Manga and Anime, being blonde and blue eyed marks one as elite and more powerful than other characters.
Above we see Cloud and Sephiroth from “Final Fantasy 7”, the titular “Sailor Moon” and “Naruto”, Edward Elric the “Full Metal Alchemist”, and Char from “Mobile Suit Gundam”. All of these characters are considered the most naturally gifted of their craft and even the saviors of their worlds. Again and again we can see inborn ability and inherited nobility in the hands of not just white people, but Aryans.
And of course, here’s the most blatant “Aryan Power” moment in all of Manga-dom. The transformation of Goku in Dragon Ball Z from regular Saiyan to Super Saiyan not only includes more strength and speed, but blonde hair and blue eyes.
The Politically Correct American
Earlier I briefly discussed the danger of the Racially Unmarked theory proposed by the American born Otaku professor, Matt Thorn. Thorn mentions that slanty eyes are an “ugly stereo type” that the Japanese are simply not playing into. It is the racist American that expects to see an Asian person depicted with these ugly, dirty, slanty eyes. But slanty eyes are not a stereo type, and they aren’t ugly either. Asian people have up swept, slender eyes compared to people of other ethnicities. They know it, and they knew it before they ever even saw a white person. That’s why their pre-war art looks the way it does. Why does Thorn see this as a negative?
Racial politics in the United States can be described as messy at best. The racial markers that Thorn speaks of have been used in the past by whites to insult non-whites. Black people and their big lips. Asians with their slanty eyes. Jews with their big noses. Even other European immigrant groups had matter-of-fact descriptions hurled at them as insults. Italians were called “garlic eaters”. It was a value judgement on the part of Puritan descended whites that those characteristics were negative. But these aren’t insults. They are descriptions of the features that make each group different and beautiful and it’s bizarre to deny them.
But because of our messy racial history and the use of physical traits as insults, more modern and supposedly “enlightened” Americans have tried to stop acknowledging those physical traits. “I don’t see color” is the most often used phrase. The same racial markers are still thought of as negative, but we all pretend that they don’t actually exist and that saying them out loud is rude. But denying that an Asian person has slender eyes is basically the same thing as saying slender eyes are ugly. It seems like the better thing to do – the politically correct thing to do – but in reality its as insulting as actively declaring those features as negative. The best thing we can do as a society is not to ignore our physical differences, but to acknowledge them in neutral if not positive ways.
Artistic styles are abstractions, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. They originate somewhere. At this point there isn’t much doubt that the Japanese self portrayal in Manga and Anime is a kind of ethnic self-depreciation that looks down on common Asian features and elevates European ones. The Japanese want to look more white and it shows, not only in their art, but in the kind of body modification – or mutilation – that they swarm to in droves. And they aren’t the only ones. African Americans straighten their hair. Semetic and Hispanic people get nose jobs. Indians bleach their skin lighter. Everyone is trying to get to this Northern European image of beauty and they’re spending a lot of effort and money to do it.
The origin of this trend is debatable, but it seems to have come with an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Americans combined with the introduction of Western mass media. Not even Japan’s best artists are immune. There will hopefully become a point where the style’s appeal grows thin and a new age of Japanese artists look toward the natural characteristics of their people when depicting them in there work. Considering the recent world wide popularity and profitability of Anime, though, I won’t be holding my breath.