Arthell Isom’s Background
Arthell Isom is the CEO and Art Director of D’ART SHTAJIO Studio, the first black-owned anime studio in Japan. Isom is currently running his company from San Fransico, California, but has studied in Japan for over 12 years. His passion for anime ignited his desire to become an animator even though he and his brother knew that they would be artist since they were children. Along with his varied experience in art education, he has also worked as a background artist in several anime series and movies like Indigo Ignited.
Arthell’s interview was the best intro into to the Crunchyrollexpo this weekend. As heartbreaking as it was not to meet this man in person, I was happy to see him safe in his home and willing to give fans an insight into his views on race in anime. Some people are in denial about the racial barrier that exists in the anime fandom community, but this isn’t made up. Roland Kelts brought up the outrage fans that get upset when anime characters are “whitewashed”. An example of this is the casting of Scarlett Johansen as Major Kusanagi in the anime movie “Ghost In A Shell”. Arthell has been a long time fan of the anime and personally did not see a problem with the casting. Roland also added that the Japanese fans did not seem to have a problem with it, in fact, they were happy that she played the role. Other fans like to see the character portrayed as they are in the anime which is Japanese. Here is when race and cultural appropriation are mixed up at. When you love the culture and don’t intend to disrespect it by being a stereotype or portraying a race in a dishonorable manner it’s not being culturally inappropriate. Fans get mad at casting decisions not even knowing the person who is making these decisions and why.
Arthell also mentioned the newfound mass of diversity in the anime community. There are people from different walks of life sharing this love and I personally think that it’s beautiful. As a woman of color, I understand that not everyone is going to make a seat for me at the table. Therefore, I must make my own. Arthell has made a table for people of color who love anime. This is not to say that our community will only watch anime with black characters, but to feel included and represented from our point of view not what our society believes that we are. To get a better understanding, Arthell mentioned that Japanese animators only draw from references, not first-hand experiences. A perfect example of this is the movie “Afro-Samurai”. The lead character is black but doesn’t reference real black culture. It doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a good movie, but it isn’t relatable. Roland and Arthell also talked about the very few black anime characters in anime that are usually side characters being portrayed as cool or a stereotype.
When I listened to this conversation, I was hoping that he would bring up “The Boondocks”. It is an American style anime reflecting the black culture in many ways including stereotypes. For a long time that was the only anime with majority casting of black characters and voice actors. Even though it was a shock that this didn’t come up in the conversation, I was intrigued to find out that Arthell worked on a project called Sound&Fury featuring the R&B singer The Weekend. I can tell that he will do great things beyond providing representation. It’s the perfect time to love anime because so many people are opening up to it. I like that Arthell’s work will focus more on who the character is instead of the fact that they are black. People of color don’t like anime because of what the characters look like. We, just like anyone else love the emotional attachments, storylines, and watching the characters evolve. It will also give us a chance to see ourselves in a character that looks like us. Race in Anime also ties into the cosplay community. The biggest insult black cosplayers always receive is “That character isn’t black”. This statement is what has always divided us from other people in the cosplay community because certain people love to make it known that we stand out. That we could have everything right, but the color of our skin which is something we can’t change. We will still cosplay as whoever we want, but it will feel good to say “Yes, this character is black”.
Roland and Arthell also talked about the BLM movement that has gone global and started marches in Japan. I had no idea that there were people of color in Japan who speak fluent Japanese and used their skills to speak out against racial injustice. Japan has addressed these issues in a proactive way. Arthell plans to present black culture in a way that they will know vs. the black culture that they want to see. He will not identify our culture just with certain things that others believe that they can identify us with. It will be in many different lights. I’m excited to see the evolution of this studio and hopefully, the anime community will use this as a way to embrace each other’s differences and not rip each other apart for it.
*Here are photos of a light Levi cosplay from Attack On Titan. Who said we couldn’t be nerdy at home!?*