Perhaps Japan is rather ethnically homogenous, or I am under the impression of such a fact. So then maybe the lack of blacks in slice of life anime is justified not because animators envisage an utopian, ethnically homogenous Japan, but rather, they are correctly portraying the racially monolithic high school demographics. However, this does not refute the convenience of representation, nor does it explain why I’ve never seen a black transfer student – a pretty good example of this, I’d say, is Patricia Martin, portrayed as a typical blonde from America, and although she may just be there to contribute to the Lucky Star otakudom, we still cannot disregard the curtain of Japanocentrism.
I’m just going to take a look at episode two, particularly relationship between Tonsure and Afro Samurai, the sex scene, the imaginary friend, his childhood, and the uncanny resemblance of the “monks” to the KKK, complete with southern accent, in no particular order, and all as pivotal points in Afro’s representation.
Section 1: Sex Scene
Now the beginning of the sex scene, when this extremely well-endowed women suddenly starts to kiss Afro’s arm, I find utterly hilarious. I mean, just, wow. But anyway, the surprising thing is how Afro does not reject her, as you would find any kind of conservative anime character do in a fit of embarrassed stupor. Just in this one bit we can discern several things:
(1) Afro is promiscuous, and undeniably sexual while simultaneously upholding his stoic samurai visage – in essence, he can be Japanese, but he cannot enter the domain of Japanocentrism in that he cannot be white. You can clearly contrast this to Ken shin (at least in the TV series, Trust & Betrayal is a much different story). You can also see glimpses of colonialism here, African or otherwise – aborigines can rise and attain power in a colonial government system, yet they can never be considered “one of them”. Afro has been paradoxically territorialized as Japanese and black while conveniently retaining the “best” of both.
(2) Because of the necessity of the holistic binary, in that the one must define the Other, Tonsure completes and amplifies Afro’s blackness. She is absolutely and utterly white in her childhood – the teddy bear (symbolic in the story’s context but nevertheless an artifact of Western culture, Minami-ke please?), the innocence and unadulteration – while becoming the analog on of the Cult of Domesticity in her cooking and caring for Afro which is the Western dream that Japan inserts into all its anime, what with MILFs galore who also enjoy housework. Thus Tonsure is the conduit for which Japanocentrism inscribes its whiteness (both maternal and sexual) and thus mirrors the harsh blackness of Afro.
(3) While it may be argued that the sex scene humanizes Afro in a similar way to that of the sexual relationships present in Samurai Champloo, this, on the contrary, is clearly dehumanizing because of the lack of emotion. There are other cases in anime where the act of sex (or the female orgasm) is glorified as a sapient, tender, dissident or insurrectionary performance (i.e. Dead Leaves, Kaiba, Kemonozume, KGNE), but Afro is nothing but transformed into anything but human.
Afro never sounds so much as a grunt during this R&B laden hentai/Chingy music video. All the attention is centered around Tonsure and her humongous boobs – another defining feature of her whiteness, this time in a clearly erotic manner. By silencing Afro we see how he’s turned into an apathetic body, void of any human emotions, yet capable of a basic human instinct. However, sex has situational implications, and therefore, here, sex does not become an act of love but rather an act of corruption in that Afro’s lack of humanity – his blackness – renders him the antithesis of Japanocentrism, and Tonsure the embodiment of Japanocentrism, as he figuratively (and, partially, literally) rapes the white women. He becomes not a person, but a thing that mindlessly screws the unsullied in perhaps not even a sexual or human relation, but a parasitic one, sucking the life out of whiteness and converting it into what we assume is a monstrous form of pleasure within the alienated mind of Afro. The paradox at hand here is at a pinnacle of colonial ideology because Afro is both pinned antithetically against Japanocentrism as the Other while simultaneously upholding and being territorialized as the product of Japanocentrism.
Section 2: Childhood & Imaginary Friend
Firstly, Afro is obsessed with the #2 during his prepubescent youth. Secondly, we can again see how the Japanese children are there to magnify Afro’s blackness against their “normalcy”. However, Afro’s childhood does not function primarily as a microcosm in itself, but rather, as an attempted justification of adult Afro’s apparent lack of humanity. And ironically, if I were in any wrong in analyzing Afro as less than human, I’m sure that the added history – that long sought after continuity of the self – attests to his hollow mannequin portrayal. Child Afro becomes – and it is becomes here because in our minds, as the pieces of history are slowly glued together, adult Afro becomes more complete, contradicting the praxis of identity in favor of a safer, more definite identity-as-product – victimized in the wake of the gang when his friends have to assist him. And we must make the distinction between this gang of thugs and samurai; they clearly are not, not in any kind of objective definition, nor in a subjective manner in that they are not elegant, in speech, behavior, and sword technique, nor do they carry actual katanas, perhaps the definitive artifact of the samurai.
The imaginary friend I think is the most blatantly terrible thing about this anime. It’s a cheap way of saying “this is part of my subconscious – this is the way I really am or the way I really should be” as well as a cheap way of saying things about blacks in general. The presentation of the imaginary friend gives two things to work with: (1) another antithesis to the samurai positioning of Afro – while I had said that Afro is the antithesis to Japanocentrism, that is through his position as a black, not as a samurai, which is the convenience of both representation and positioning. The imaginary friend is loud, crude, severely annoying, and stereotypically “main stream” black, or perhaps even “gangster” would suffice here, lending nothing whatsoever to the credibility of Afro’s shoddily constructed identity. What’s more is that the imaginary friend is conveniently “resolved” in the end, when Afro apparently comes to terms with himself. Nevertheless, all of his positioning remains, as if chunks of his identity were to come loose and fly away if his imaginary “real self” – and here schizophrenic (although Thomas Szasz would disagree) will be a legitimate term, in a sarcastic way – were to simply disappear. Here is the inherent contradiction of Afro in that his imaginary friend is acting as his own antithesis within himself.
(2) While the imaginary friend can be interpreted as an antithesis, his existence is not entirely relational, that is, we can examine his own connotations. And here is when we must look closely at that attempted insertion of a “mainstream” black culture. The Commutation Test proves invaluable here: basically switch something around and see if the overall meaning changes. If we remove the imaginary friend from the picture altogether, Afro’s encapsulating image surely changes – we then lose that antithesis and thus Afro can take a slight step forward to the hub of Japanocentrism. He is there to control Afro, not in any kind of non-meta sense, but to put a check on cultures – this is a game of checks and balances, since Japanocentrism has positioned Afro within that of the samurai, yet in that colonial sense, he cannot ever actually reach the ideology that has created him. The imaginary friend is there to say “don’t forget that you’re actually black.”
Section 3: KKK & Historical Usurpation
Lastly we come across the monk. Now, how much of this is coincidence? Pointy head – reminiscent of the pointy mask, the nose – obviously stylistic of that old white man, the southern accent – I don’t need to say anything about that, the fact that they’re out to literally lynch him – again silence will suffice, the cult-like nature of the entire “bad guy group” and the monks own “grand wizard”-like image – all these traits can only lead me to believe that they are definitely representative of the KKK. This is Japanocentrism’s greatest achievement. It is the usurpation of the grand historically American narrative of white vs. black. While this dichotomy is not inclusive to just America, the KKK is, if my history serves me right. Thus Japanocentrism can reach the core of the West by positioning Afro as simultaneously black and Japanese, while denying him any real agency within their own culture, and pitting this historical foe against him to amplify the white/black dichotomy and distract us from Japanocentrism itself. In essence, the KKK acts as another curtain of Japanocentrism, putting not Japan under the radar, but its ethnocentric ideology and thus justifying and concealing, through the lens of Japanocentrism, nearly everything about this anime: (1) Afro’s blackness, (2) the samurai elements of Japan present, paradoxically, through Afro (he is the only archetypal stoic/elegant/refined samurai in the show), (3) Japanocentrism itself, (4) and the pinnacle of whiteness shown through Otsuru.
I think that this analysis will serve to show how Afro is conveniently represented as a number of things. He is the embodiment of Japanocentrism, yet he is always within their spectacle. He is a walking contradiction, but the average viewer won’t care if there’s tons of blood and gore. He is dehumanized and alienated yet always glorified within his own microcosm. He is that snowman within the snow globe, always being shaken for the amusement of the puppet master.
After re-reading and slightly editing this post (it was my seventh on 5.7.08) I’ve come to realize how “insightful” race relations in anime can be. Afro Samurai is in the pits, a prime case of ethnocentrism, but there are excellent examples as well, for instance Black Lagoon, which has the most complex race relations that aren’t subject to any kind of ethnocentrism besides the fact that everyone speaks Japanese, yet the language of any anime series is perhaps a political factor on which marketability is contingent. Beck is my favorite anime for language barriers and bridges, since it actually has American-sounding English speakers do voices for characters, instead of the typical Engrish heavily laced with a Japanese accent. [If Patricia Martin is from America, why does her English suck?]