Sunday, June 17, 2012

Shaman King and Racial Stereotypes

There are days where I miss a good old fashioned shounen manga. Not the new ones that are epic in length and are only continuing because the editors want to keep the money rolling in. As great as Naruto, One Piece, Conan, and HunterXHunter are, they really need an ending. I miss the shounen that actually have a well put together plot, characters that are not purposely made to be annoying, and new ideas. I attribute a lot of these changes to the fact that publishing companies are milking their money cow to the last drop and are forcing mangaka to keep a story going even when they want to end it.

Of course, being as shounen manga is aimed at a much younger audience than I, by 15 years, the reason why I could find some of them repetitive is unsurprising. Young boys don't care about seeing anything but cool moves and friendship until they get a little older and understand that in a lot of ways, nothing really happens in those manga till the ending finally comes around. The publishing giants know how to keep them coming back.

I was really excited by Shaman King. It wasn't ridiculously clique, I genuinely liked all the characters, and different races and cultures were actually active and important parts of the narrative. Yet the more I kept reading, the more stereotypical characters of different races and cultures got. Overall the manga was enjoyable, but those stereotypes were what really struck me about the manga.

What spreads a stereotype? Popular Culture of course. What creates some of the same stereotypes? Popular Culture. It is a cycle that molds, shifts, and creates stereotypes all over the world. In a country like Japan that is rather racially homogenous, these stereotypes are made and spread through all aspects of life.

Japan is a country with very set ideas and attitudes toward foreigners and also where foreigners are actually a novelty. I've met and spoken to some Japanese students who told me that the first time they ever saw a foreigner was when they were in college and met foreign exchange students. My friends and I have also had the personal experience of being the "First Foreigner" that some Japanese children meet. This meeting is usually then followed by pictures taken with said Japanese children. The fact that there is not a lot racial diversity leads to problems and it leads to misunderstandings.

So, as I was reading Shaman King, I was at first pretty excited and quite honestly surprised with the sheer amount of different cultures and races that were represented in the main storyline. With the experiences that I mentioned above, I thought it was fantastic that a manga was trying to teach and familiarize Japanese kids with other countries and cultures. It didn't really matter that they kids were only reading the text and not actually interacting with real people.

At first, Shaman King was just another fun shounen manga that had the perfect plot for leveling up and layers of stronger opponents that had to be beaten. It was a lot like Dragon Ball in some ways. There is a tournament that we have to fight in and then we have to continue to level up till we can save the world from annihilation. Yoh must continue to raise his spiritual power to defeat Hao before he receives the Devine Spirit from the Patch, who are all Native Americans, and kill off all the humans on Earth. On his journey he makes friends with Ren, from China, HoroHoro, an Ainu from Hokkaido, along with Ryunosuke, an obvious delinquent with a wooden sword.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by HoroHoro being an Ainu. The Ainu being the indigenous peoples have been pushed into cultural death. They are separate from the rest of Japan but are struggling to actually survive. Having an Ainu character in the manga, while practical in the manga since they are a shamanistic society, was something I had honestly never seen before. Great, I thought, open up the minds of the younger generation about how different cultures and races are not bad things. The younger generation is the one that will be dealing more and more with the globalized world we live in, they need to understand that other cultures and races are not aliens and should not be seen as scary.

Yet when the Shaman Fights start up and hundreds of shaman from all ove the world have gathered to take part, the racial stereotypes get more and more outrageous. As all these teams are gathering, they come complete with battle gear that is distinctly cultural and stereotypical in design. As most of these characters are only seen on the battlefield and not in everyday life, I can only use the one design for this essay. While it makes sense to design battle costumes to reflect where the combatants are from, those designs are completely saturated with stereotypes.

They start out light with Chocolove and Lyserg, who join in with Yoh and his group of friends to stop Hao in the fights. Lyserg is a young English boy seen wearing a plaid half coat and the son of a famous detective, who looks exactly like Sherlock Holmes. His name and his sprits, morphine, are references to the 2 drugs that Sherlock was addicted to. This stereotype is very light, but still very obvious to the reader. While the African American Chocolove is not a horrible racial stereotype with his large nose and huge lips, and backstory in gang activity. His lips were actually edited in the English release of the manga to avoid the criticism on how much he looks like a blackface stereotype.

The Egyptians with their pyramid shaped hair, long square beards, and heavily eyeliner eyes are an extreme I have never seen before. They follow the lines of the Norwegian Viking, Russian, and Northern Ireland team covered in furs carrying double axes, and staffs into battle. Not far behind is the vampire descendent of Vlad the Impaler named Boris, Peyote from Mexico with his mariachi band over-soul, and the other American who is a giant American Football player.

The Patch tribe themselves, obviously Native American, are most likely the most well-rounded racial representation in this manga. They are seen not only as being connected to nature, strong warriors that wear traditional clothes, but they are shown in modern dress selling cheap goods to tourists. Their lands are seen overrun by tourists and the tribe members are the ones who have to sell souvenirs to make money. A sadly realistic image in what is happening to the modern Native American tribes in the US. On a side note, it is pretty cool that all the Patch names are based on chemicals and elements from the periodic table.

As a whole, Shaman King is a good manga with likable characters and a solid plot. Yoh is a different kind of hero and his multicultural friends and enemies are unique for a manga published in Jump. I just find the sheer amount of stereotypes in this manga excessive and unnecessary.

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