Created: 01-08-2004
Last update: 15-01-2022


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Ethnicity in Gatch Part I

It's a predictable reaction from anyone watching internationally available anime for the first time: why are all the characters Caucasian? The backlash is as predictable: the characters are not meant to be Caucasian, they are simply neutral, a kind of universal meta-race, and who are we arrogant whites to think that anime revolves around us - never mind that I've heard the same reaction from at least one non-white. Fact is, modern Japanese culture has for a while revolved around whites as a result of the rather painful cultural contact with the USA, and obsessed on them to the point of applying "gajin" - Japanese for "foreigner" - only to whites and not to, say, Philippinos. The whole anime industry was basically started by Japanese people seeing Disney and thinking "We can do that too" (and to do them justice, they did it considerably better) and anime characters that are unusually nasty, unusually eccentric or just unusual are typically either American, part American and/or just back from an extended stay in America; where "America" means the USA and "American" means Caucasian, perpetrating the myth of the all-Anglo-Saxon America (United States of). Fortunately, the novelty is wearing thin and there is growing room for cultural diversification (other than through caricatures, as with a bushy-moustached police officer called "Britain" in Dominion Tank Police (I found out later that this was a misspelling of "Brenten", his actual name)), but most of the time, your average anime character, whether meant to be Japanese or without a specific ethnic background, simply looks Caucasian to the first-time watcher, and anime fans soon learn to recalibrate their interpretation of ethnicity.

In Gatchaman, there need be no doubt as to what cultural influences shaped the series: in a future firmly set in the western-hemisphere seventies, the respected global authority and peace-keeper is the United Nations (a USA-founded institution created to keep half of post-war Europe out of Communist hands, although it's lately developed a will of its own) connected, through an informal alliance between politicians and the head scientist, with the ISO (International Science Organization, although another meaning of this acronym springs to mind), one main office of which is in a country whose name I've come across as Ameris, Ameria and - due to the eternal consonant confusion - Amelia. Needless to say, all the main characters (except possibly Jinpei) and some ninety percent of the extras look Caucasian. Whether Galactor agents, ISO scientists, high dignitaries, green goons or just the hapless civilians strewn out on the street every so often at attack sites to show the audience how eeeevil Galactor is, they all share a piggy-pink skin, West-style clothing and, if they're young and female, often big blue eyes and dumb-blonde hair - and even eyes that are usually grey will from time to time change to some unnatural shade of blue just for form's sake.

So, what are the real ethnic backgrounds of, at least, the main characters? Nambu is probably either Japanese or undecided; he lives in a fictive country called Utoland, which may be located between Japan and China. Anderson strikes me as French, because I associate French government with stuffy, pompous old men (not that the character is stuffy and pompous, but the chara design strongly suggests it) and, judging by the size of his moustache and that fact that he heads a European organization, is probably emphatically not Japanese.

Ken and his family are another question mark: they all have Japanese names, but he was born in Huntwall, another fictive country that vaguely reminds me of pre-Castro Cuba (or of any island colonized by Europeans and made into one big holiday resort) and shares this birthplace with another French-looking character (this time, it's the beret) who calls himself "Arthur Kelly". So either Ken was simply born in Huntwall but is Japanese, or Huntwall is a place of many cultures. The main visual element of the show (no, really: he gets by far most of the screen time), he has large and, at times, ridiculously blue eyes, suggesting some Caucasian gene input.

Jun is a good example of the American connection: she's "part American" and has lost her parents in the war, stayed with an aunt, lost the aunt too, and somehow ended up in an orphanage in China close to the Jupiter mountains - I can't be bothered to go check the atlas, but strongly doubt there are any mountains by that name. I suppose all-Japanese girls couldn't be shown as running their own establishment in that day and age. She has the darkest hair of anyone on the team and the skin of a geisha, showing what a relative concept "white" is. Jinpei, found as a baby in the Jupiter mountains, is probably Chinese. His overbite may be ethnic caricature, or just caricature, since most children in the first series are drawn as caricatures: all the girls are dolls, all the boys are ugly monkeys. Being at any rate a caricature, he has no eye colour, because his eyes are simply circles with dots in the middle.

Joe's ethnic and cultural background is unambiguous and central to the series: he is Sicilian, child of murdered mafiosi, working on the Gatchaman team in the vendetta spirit. The discovery that he is also the child of Galactors (c'mon, was anyone really surprised?) is as highlighted as the discovery that the main villain doesn't fit within established gender roles. He has the lightest hair of the lot - posters and cover art sometimes mutate it to red, just as Ken's hair is often mutated to brown - and slightly psychotic eyes, the irises of which, when they're not pinpoint-sized, are either grey or an unpleasant almost-cyan blue.

Ryu's ethnic background is even more established than Joe's: he is Japanese, comes from Hokkaido, where his father makes a living fishing, and wants to be a sumo wrestler, for which he has the right physique. His connection to this northern island of Japan, of which the inhabitants are said to be more relaxed and less into formalities than in other parts of the country, also denotes him as "country bumpkin", which role he plays with verve. All caricatures, he and his family suffer an eye problem similar to Jinpei's, although in Gatchaman II, which is overall less into caricature, his father's eyes are shown to be brown.

No, I wasn't about to forget my favourite villain. Katze is one of those characters that I term "Aryanoid", meaning, I suspect they're a nod to Hitler's "master race" (as opposed to the real Aryans, who live around India and are anything but white), a not totally unlikely conclusion given the fact that, presented with a knot of warring countries westwards, the emperor of Japan decided to throw in his lot with the Nazis. Though hardly credible to the Japanese, Nazi race theories may have fixed the "Aryan" colour scheme in the Japanese collective unconscious as something evil, exotic and/or alluring, and "German" is close to "American" in terms of anime characterization. There are villains - whether Aryanoid or not - called Geissler and Egobossler, there are superhumans of the Uebermensch type, the indomitable space pirate Captain Harlock started as a German fighter pilot, and anyone who watches more anime than I do can probably cite more examples of the German connection. Katze is "German" in the three senses of having a German name, sporting the Aryanoid look and being a nutcase out to conquer the world, although to be fair, his creator only applies the master race speech to Gel Sadra (who is emphatically not Aryanoid) and his place of birth, which Nambu knows but frustratingly doesn't reveal to us, is a "neutral country", which rules out either half of Germany. A fan and connoisseur of all things Gatch has suggested Switzerland (or the Gatchaverse fictional equivalent thereof), which, considering the dirty role played in real-reality world politics by this "neutral" country and the way in which Galactor insinuates itself into power struggles worldwide, would be a perfect origin. However, given the location of Galactor HQ, Katze would have spent more time in the Himalayas than in the Alps. This definitely Caucasian character has hair that sometimes appears reddish-blond but is meant to be straw-blond, and unmistakably grey irises that are recoloured blue for artbook appearances. (Check Katze (almost) unmasked and the Onnataicho gallery for examples.)

Those were the main characters: now for the rest of the series. Are there any minor characters that are not generically Caucasian; any characters that, even if the background is inaccurate and the genotype is totally off, are clearly referring to a specific ethnic background? Gatchaman being the sketchy show that it is, one can rarely be sure; but let's check ep by ep.

13 - Africa

Ordered to investigate into a mysterious red sand that has a habit of taking off on its own, the team go to Africa. Yes, it's explicitly stated: Africa. There to find, in the kind of hut to be made of woven grass and roofed with banana leaves, a village elder with waterpipe and decorative pottery, who recounts the tale of this red sand that fueled and destroyed civilizations.

Cameo of civilization being destroyed: in what looks like a Greek temple with marble pillars, a man whose headdress screams "Saudi" (the elder as a young man?) takes some of this red sand and tosses it in a furnace. The heat from the combustible sand allows two craftsmen whose outfit screams "Ali Baba" to work, erm, whatever material it is they're hammering, until the sand decides to go walkies, killing and combusting everything it encounters.

After their departure, the village elder prays in the light of the full moon (what religion are we talking about? Clasped-hands Christian prayer? The Islamic kneeling routine?) until a handful of Galactor goons invite him for a ride to their base, where he is interrogated by their Africa-themed captain, representing... a djinn? Local evil spirit? I'm at a loss.

19 - Ruman

The name of this made-up country, as well as the urchin overturned by race cars tearing through the streets, call to mind post-war Romania; the craggy rocks are Balkan material; the onion-domed white buildings in the distance might be Russian, while the rags hanging from the washing lines indicate only that the inhabitants are very poor.

The king's vestments are a different matter. The headdress I can't place, but the long sleeves and the trailing moustache are Chinese or Mongolian.

The king's son is no help at all: he might be east-European (which would make him a real Caucasian) or Asian. For that matter, he might be adopted, since he shows no resemblance to his supposed father.

24 - Ameria

A transparent reference to you-know-where. Called out to investigate where all the scientists are disappearing to, the team flies into a country of high buildings - very high buildings - and big cars that easily fit three people on the back seat. The team are so impressed and hang out of the windows to gape at all this ugly glass and concrete.

Main draw of the location as far as Jinpei is concerned: the fairground whose entrance is straddled by a giant native American. Probably added for a bit of couleur locale, as I doubt the animators knew how the natives were treated by invading European colonists. But I find a certain poetic justice in the fact that this statue is in fact a Galactor mecha which zaps and tramples people.

26 - Hokkaido

At last, someplace real. Ryu has been kicked off the team for sleeping on duty (specifically, he was asleep at home when summoned by Nambu, who says that a member of Team Gatchaman is always on duty) and is going home.

There, he walks straight into an argument: his father is captain on a fishing boat, but won't go out to sea because of some discovered pollution. The angry crew is ready for fisticuffs. As a recalibrating aid for the internal ethnometer: all the characters in the two pictures below are Japanese. (Unexpected accurate detail: the raised-brow profile of Nakanishi senior may seem part of the caricature look, but I once saw a woman on the bus - Asian, probably Chinese - with exactly the same forehead shape.)

35 - Doria

As with the Native American statue, I have to wonder if the animators were aware what painful political matters they were touching on. Even before the invasion of Kuwait and the resulting anti-Iraq campaign, the chara design of this oil country sheik made me go "It's Saddam Hussein!" of which it was already general knowledge that he killed his own people with as much glee as he killed Iranians, with full support from the USA. Although I'm not sure the real article wore hipboots.

Then again, the show was made in the seventies and Saddam Hussein was a scandal of the eighties. Still, it tickles me that it is the sheik who appeals to the team, whose implicit connection to the Gatchaverse USA has already been pointed out, for help. How fortunate that the rebellious prince catches their attention first. There he sits, surrounded by what may be the largest collection of non-Caucasians in the whole series.

Siding with the poor, oppressed people in this oil-based civil war, this prince personally leads the assault on his daddy's oil-for-money palace, his turbaned henchmen exchanging bullets with the sheik's forces, whose uniforms look like a nod to green goon outfits.

Not surprising, as the sheik is really... well, the person one would most expect. A truth discovered when, due to Ken's daddy obsession, the prince is persuaded to talk things through with his father, for which gesture he ends up in the dungeon, where his real father gives him a tug on the cloak.

The capture of their leader in no way quells the rebellion. Forming an eerie glowing line with their torches, the angry people advance on the tyrant's castle, the short tunics from earlier scenes exchanged for draped clothing and baggy pants.

36 - Somewhere out at sea

Although the names are Japanese, this family of fishers witnessing a sea monster destroy a ship after an unrewarding catch of one (1) squid strikes me as Mexican. (Insert Speedy Gonzales character voice: "That's the beeggest feesh I ever did seeee...")

Rescued by Gatchaman, the brats are hugged by their huge (Mexican?) mamma. (So that's who they got the freckles from.) Their father's account of the sea monster is greeted with derision - except from the suit-and-tie character in the last pic, whose affiliation the watcher can guess.

And here he is again, collaring Jinpei - who tried to sneak onto the grounds disguised as a bush, and then gave himself away by sneezing - and looking like something from an Inca frieze.

41 - Woodstock (no, not really)

At the beginning of this ep, the team find themselves at an open-air concert of the Flower Power type, only really appreciated by Jun, and by the ecstatic mass of both sexes and all ages; although the mostly-male gathering in the middle pic is obviously appreciating something else. Black is Beautiful, especially when it's waving its backside.

42 - Alcatraz?

Ryu's vehicle breaks down - and isn't it just his luck to ask a ride on a van of prisoners heading for death row, their villainous nature expressed through big noses, big teeth and skin colour.

Inside the prison, it's time for a game of toss-the-officer as Ryu tries to convince them that he's really not headed for the chair, amazing the representatives of the Law who, unlike the prisoners, are extremely fair-skinned and regular-featured.

A Galactor officer soon ends the fight to announce that Galactor employs people of any race and colour (criminal record a bonus) and if you're looking for ethnic diversity, prison does seem to be the place to go. The Galactors-to-be start their career by practicing the trademark green goon victory dance.

This convict has no interest in becoming a Galactor; he simply hopes to be rejoined with his wife and child, of which the former, for some reason, strikes me as Spanish - maybe it's the high cheekbones. How sad, therefore, that he simply ends up back in the slammer.

50 - Inderia

At a dam-building site where people dress in many ways (spot the labcoats, the sleeveless mini-dress, the djellaba and the khaki "tourist in the tropics" outfit) accidents happen; especially after two workers at the site discover an underground tunnel.

When disaster strikes, however, all characters are suddenly white! Not only that, but they're all wearing identical polo shirts!

This clearly indigenous character may explain the above phenomenon by his ability to change skin pigmentation on the fly: the more he is exposed to daylight, the darker he becomes.

To be continued...

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