How a Character’s Costume Can Reveal Their Race
Usually, one of the questions asked by someone first exposed to anime and manga is, “Why do all the characters, even the Japanese ones, look white?” The question itself is a little misleading, since, for the most part, these characters are drawn not to match a particular race but a particular type.
The evolution started back in the period immediately following World War 2. A group of cartoonists, influenced by the animated features of Walt Disney as well as by American comics, drew characters that, for the most part, didn’t correspond to any particular race. A reader knew the hero because his overall look, as well as his actions, were heroic. The hero might be named Ichiro or Michael, the heroine Hiroko or Mary; the Japanese reader simply accepted the conventions of each medium.
As other cartoonists appeared, bringing new techniques and perspectives to the table, things changed slightly. In the 1960s an offshoot of manga appeared, called gekiga. This school was more realistic, and was meant to set itself apart from the still cartoonish style of most manga. Even in gekiga, however, race has always been a problem area.
Black characters were often drawn using the caricature conventions of the 40s, conventions which we would now dismiss as bigoted. Gekiga improved things, usually when the character was a sports star (baseball great Reggie Jackson had his own manga!) The recent anime Blood+ takes place on an American military base in Okinawa, and the black soldiers in that story are rendered realistically.
But what of other characters in the same story, specifically the Vietnamese? Anime’s raceless conventions don’t create facial differences between Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and other Asians. The characters are again drawn usually by type. But this is where clothing comes in: as a shorthand to the reader of the character’s roots. Chinese characters like Shampoo in Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 are identifiable as such by their traditional costumes. In Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, about a family surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, one of their neighbors is a Korean named Pak, who is often set aside from the rest of the community by his dress. And, of course, military uniforms often separate the characters according to nationality.
These signs are subtle, and often invisible to the novice. However, they’re a very important part of the manga/anime visual vocabulary.