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But hold on a minute! Maybe the issue is not quite so clear cut. Just because these characters don't look particularly Japanese does not necessarily mean they are intended to be Western. Cartoons the world over tend to simplify certain features for stylistic effect. The large eyes of manga, while at odds with the narrower eyes of the Japanese, are often used to denote youth or innocence. In Ramna ½, the younger characters tend to have much larger eyes than the adults, while Death Note's Light Yagami begins with large eyes which narrow as he grows ever more corrupt and evil. The crazy hair colors have origins in the old black and white manga. Different shades were used as a device to make characters more easily distinguishable. With the advent of color animation, artists took these shades and transposed them as a spectrum of bright, outlandish colors. Wide eyes and bright colors are used in comics all over the world, so it is possible that our perception imposes race confusion where none exists.
Dr. Amy Shirong Lu, currently an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, conducted a study to see how accurately the intended ethnicity of an anime character could be identified. 341 main characters were selected from 3098 anime films made between 1958 and 2005. Images of these characters were edited so that only a portrait-style head shot was visible, obscuring any identifying clothing or background imagery. 1,046 people each viewed a random selection of 90 pictures and had to judge the character's race based on only their facial features and hair. According to the movies and promotional materials associated with the characters, about half were explicitly intended to be Asian, while only 10 percent were intended to be Caucasian.
Respondents greatly over-estimated the number of Caucasian characters, seemingly backing up the idea that the characters are intended to look white. However, Dr. Lu also had the respondents identify their own race as part of the study.
When the results are separated in this way, things start to look a little different. While the number of Caucasian characters was still overestimated, Asians were found to be more likely to identify characters as Asian, while Caucasians were more likely to say the characters were Caucasian. This seems to suggest that anime characters are, to at least some extent, ciphers upon which the beholder imposes their own interpretation, a process Dr. Lu refers to as "Own Race Projection." These results echo Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, where he states that cartoon images are a vacuum upon which the reader imposes their own identity. In the simplified features of an anime character, we may be inclined to see ourselves. To McCloud, such cartoons can be an "empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel to another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it."
Whether intended to look Caucasian or ethnically neutral, the question mark over race in Japanese cartoons has no doubt contributed to its universal appeal. Looking at some of the more popular Japanese games in the West, it's not just the appearance of the characters that is ethnically bleached, but the entire world in which they inhabit. JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Lost Odyssey place their ethnically neutral characters in imaginary worlds with their own invented cultures, currencies and architecture, utterly divorced from the signposts of real-world race. Critic's darling Shadow of the Colossus even has its characters speaking in an invented language with subtitles. While ethnically specific scenarios can create an intimidating barrier to entry for outsiders, these worlds are new and unfamiliar to everyone, places where we are all strangers in strange lands.