In the past three articles, I talked about a trope in anime that I call “the token foreigner”, gave examples of said characters, and talked about subsections of the trope in sports anime and in cases where the “foreigner” isn’t foreign. In an attempt to find anime that do non-Japanese characters justice, for the next few articles I will be talking about specific anime in a similar pattern as my regular review articles, but this time through the lens of how the anime represent foreign characters. Without further ado, let’s look at our first case – Eyeshield 21.
Based on how I singled out the sports genre of anime as being particularly egregious in its faulty portrayal of foreigners, and especially black people, in part 2 of my “token foreigner” articles, you wouldn’t expect a sports anime to be one of the ones I chose as an example of decent representation of a foreign character. To be honest, neither did I, but Eyeshield 21 is quite exceptional in this case.
I first came across Eyeshield 21 in high school when I was given the comic by an acquaintance to borrow to study Japanese. I disliked sports anime then, and I still largely dislike them now. Furthermore, Eyeshield 21 is about American football – a sport which I hate. I hate the fact that when I was in high school in America, all of the good money and equipment went, not to my soccer team, but to the American football team. I hate that the sport embodies all sorts of toxic masculine culture and overblown macho attitudes, especially when people compare it to soccer. I also hate the amount of unchecked power that American football athletes, coaches, and managers on all levels of the sport get, and the NFL’s handling of cases of CTE in its players. When I say I hate American football, I mean that I absolutely despise the sport. I literally only read Eyeshield 21 because I didn’t want to be rude to the person who was letting me borrow it. Surprisingly, against all of my biases against the genre and the sport, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the series.
There were a few main reasons why I ended up liking Eyeshield 21. One is that the culture in which it is set is different. In Japan, practically no one plays American football, and it rarely exists as a team in schools. A main conflict of the series, is that the high school in which the series takes place, Deimon High school, has only a few members in its football team, and a large portion of the early volumes is dedicated to the team trying to find more members. In true underdog fashion, the “Deimon Devil Bats” as the team is called, has a handicap from the get-go. They have to get people interested to even join their team before having to take on challenging rival schools.
Secondly, I like that the series is largely focused on the idea of self-improvement. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean improvement on a physical level, but also on either an emotional or personal level. For instance, the main character, Sena Kobayakawa, starts out as a jumpy, bullied kid with no friends. So when he joins the Deimon Devil Bats he starts to gain confidence and improves on how he forms relationships with others. Even looking at Sena’s special skill that makes him a good running back, you can see a change from before and after his joining and committing to the team. At the beginning of the series Sena practically gets coerced into joining by the team’s captain, Hiruma, due to him being impressed by Sena’s running speed. Beforehand, Sena used his running abilities to either run away or to appease bullies by running (literally) errands for them. But as the series goes on, he makes his ability his own, thereby tangibly getting a hold of his sense of self worth. Sena isn’t the only one with a similar “self-improvement” character arc – several of the series’ characters have a similar theme.
This brings me to the last and the most important thing that made me enjoy the series – and that was the characters. The characters, from the ones on the protagonist team to the ones on opposing teams to various side characters, are all developed incredibly well and their progression is followed throughout the series. The writer of the comic, Riichiro Inagaki, has stated that when developing the teams in Eyeshield 21, he normally doesn’t create the team – he creates the characters and then places them on the teams where they make the most sense. This rule he applied to all of the characters, from the protagonists, to the rivals, to the antagonists. This way the writer is focusing on character, and not just plot devices and obstacles for the heroes to overcome. It gives a sense that if things were different, you could be rooting for anyone, and that from a certain standpoint anyone or any team could have been the protagonist. It is this same level of effort in character creation that is applied to the series’ foreign team that makes them feel like actual people and not just token.
Following the common foreign rival/foreign opponent trope that I have mentioned in my previous articles, the Deimon Devil Bats are pitted against an American team known as the “NASA Aliens”. The NASA Alien arc in the comic involves the team coming to Japan to compete with various Japanese high school teams. Unlike many shows which allow the foreign character(s) to speak Japanese fairly fluently to make translating easier, the comic actually makes it much more realistic by having the American members speak little to no Japanese, and the Japanese characters speaking little to no English. What follows is some cleverly written character interactions between people who don’t speak the same language. When dialogue or thought bubbles are written from the American’s perspective, it is assumed they are thinking/speaking in English. In one of my favorite scenes of the series before their match with the Japanese team, the Aliens happen to run into the Devil Bats who are having a party at the time. Instead of a traditional stare-down or intimidation or pre-game drama, the American team ends up just joining the party. What follows is a cool bunch of interactions between the characters, showing that these two opposing teams are just a bunch of teenagers hanging out and having fun despite their language barriers. I don’t think I have ever seen this creation of interpersonal character development between characters speaking different languages in an anime before. The exchanges are relatively short, but meaningful, and they break through the two teams’ cultural obstacles. It’s the kind of experience that I had personally as an exchange student in high school in Japan, and back then I thoroughly related with these interactions.
Relatable experiences aside, I really enjoy the American team and how they are represented. The writer takes care to give the foreign characters time for the reader to get to know them. The series depicts the team members having short interactions with each other that show them having fun and practicing. They are not there all the time planning how they are going to defeat the Devil Bats. In fact, much of their research goes into what they are going to do when visiting Japan and their excitement at visiting a foreign country. The banter between the characters and the small bits of comradery that they show really make them feel like a team and humanizes them beyond just an “opponent of the week” for the main characters to defeat. Sure there are silly cultural misunderstandings between the American team and the main team, but I like that the series gives them time to interact with their teammates and not just with the main Japanese cast. It’s like it’s passing a Bechdel test for foreign characters in Japanese media, or something.
The other part of Eyeshield 21 that I think should be praised is the development of the NASA Alien’s African American member, Patrick Spencer, and his rivalry with Sena. It is not a perfect portrayal, and at first I certainly had some reservations over how to feel about his character. For one Patrick goes by the nickname “Panther” (because “Black Panther”, get it?), and he does have a bit of a quirky personality, so I was thinking we were going to have another “Chocolove” case on our hands. But as the arc went on, Panther’s depiction managed to impress me quite a bit. He is well meaning and kind, but competitive and wants to prove his skills. He has a bit of a similar drive as Sena, but is coming from a slightly more confident start, making him a good rival in both the sport and in the personal improvement department. He and Sena pick out each other right away as rivals in running speed, and communicate a challenge to each other, again despite the language barrier. Furthermore, Eyeshield 21 is a rare example of a Japanese series deciding to depict racism in a meaningful context. Panther is an excellent footballer and has a very supportive team. However, his coach is incredibly racist against black people and won’t let him play; relegating his duties to that of a water boy. One of the things I appreciate about Eyeshield 21 is that it not only puts effort into developing the teams main characters, but it puts a lot of time into creating empathy for the opponent teams. Panther’s struggles are portrayed as very real, and his teams efforts to support him and into convincing the coach to let him play are very heartfelt. In the end, Panther is allowed to play and it creates such an interesting breakthrough in the coach’s response to the team and to Panther’s determination that made me really respect the comic a lot.
Such a commentary on real world racism is sadly very rare in anime, and talking about it is often a taboo subject. This can be seen in the fact that throughout this article, I have specifically been talking about the Eyeshield 21 comic, not the cartoon. Yep! I lied when I said the anime gave a decent portrayal of foreign characters because it is the manga that does this, not the show. There’s a reason why I’ve been using artwork of the manga rather than the anime for this artwork. The idea of talking about racism in anime is so unpopular that the whole subplot concerning racism was dropped entirely in the animated depiction of Eyeshield 21. That’s right! Everything that I loved about Eyeshield 21‘s portrayal of the American team and everything that I respected it for putting fucking effort into its African American character and the issues of racism is nonexistent in its anime incarnation. The language barrier part is completely dropped, too. Maybe they thought that it was too hard to depict in animation and instead just had everyone speaking Japanese. So no clever character interactions and instead we are just left with awkward, doofy examples of cultural misunderstandings. Oh, and if you are wondering, they still included the “Panther-not-being-able-to-play” subplot. But the reasoning they had in the anime was switched from racism to Panther accidentally losing the coach’s cat. The coach finally ends up letting him play, not because the team supports Panther nor because the coach learns a lesson about racism, but because they end up finding his damn cat. Going from the manga to watching this shameful display in the anime was infuriating! It ruins some great storytelling and character development, makes the conflict lose all of its weight, and spits in the face of those who deal with racism. It goes from a meaningful character arc to yet another disrespectful portrayal of a black person, and makes both Panther and his team the butt of a stupid foreigner joke!
I still enjoy the Eyeshield 21 comic, and it’s one I would recommend to fans of anime, sports, or just good character writing. It is an odd comic, to be sure, and the art style and character design can be way out there, but that’s part of what I found endearing about the series. I would urge people to stay far away from the anime however, since it is a far cry from what made the comic great and loses a lot of the things that I respected about the series. After all this talk about Eyeshield 21 I still haven’t found an anime that uses foreign characters that is worth celebrating. Perhaps in my next couple articles, I’ll have better luck…