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Snowchild, The Weeknd
Courtesy of D’Art Shtajio

Meet the creator behind the first major Black-owned anime studio

D’Art Shtajio co-founder Arthell Isom discusses championing diversity in anime and working alongside Ghost in the Shell’s Hiromasa Ogura

When you think of anime, what probably comes to mind is the wide-eyed school girls with porcelain skin and Sailor Moon aesthetics. Maybe it’s the brooding boy-next-door type, a pale and slender love interest with a mysterious backstory. Then there’s the much-traversed, hypersexual – think Erina Nakiri in soft porn-teetering Food Wars with buxom breasts. Rarely do we encounter main characters who break away from these aesthetic tropes, which, for the most part, portray characters as having light skin and Euro-centric features. Even when Black or PoC characters are shown, they’re usually reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes or inconsequential background fillers.

Diversity in anime, both on and off screen, is an issue. More often than not, it relies on the work of an industry that’s had very little experience working with Black or PoC people. “Japan is a fairly homogeneous country. It’s likely that you won’t see that many non-Japanese people, and this is particularly true for Black people,” says Instagram account @black_anime_characters, a American, Black-run online archive spotlighting Black and PoC characters from across the animescape, such as Afro Samurai, Cowboy Bebop, Sailor Moon, Naruto, and more. “Most representation of Black folks in anime comes from non-Japanese media, and is reflected in the same way as in America, which means that the few times we actually have roles on TV, they’re either stereotypical or insignificant to the story,” they explain. But as anime has grown into a global phenomenon, and its fanbase has diversified, are the characters on-screen beginning to reflect that?

At the heart of this push to diversify anime is D’Art Shtajio. Founded in 2016 by twin brothers Arthell and Darnell Isom, and animator Henry Thurlow, D’Art Shtajio is the first American anime studio in Japan and the first major Black-owned anime studio, ever. Working behind the scenes on a number of hit shows like Attack on Titan, One Piece, and Tokyo Ghoul, as well as commercials for the likes of Adidas and Asos, the studio is at the helm of a new generation of animators keen to diversify the industry on and off screen, through its portrayal of characters and the stories they choose to highlight.

“We don’t approach things thinking that we’re going to be political activists, but we choose characters that would be cool to represent right at this moment,” says Arthell, the studio’s co-founder and art director. “We don’t want to just fill in the blanks and colour a person this or that, because that’s wrong. We try to see how we can best represent this character. Whenever we have the chance, we put it out there.”

D’Art Shtajio has primarily focused on outsourcing its skills onto bigger shows, but it’s also worked on a number of in-house shorts and productions. In 2018, Arthell was approached by Noir Caesar, a Black-owned creative agency led by NBA Player Johnny O’Bryant, to animate XOGENASYS, a webcomic about a troubled teen, Darius, who falls into the pro wrestling circuit, to provide for his family. “It was cool to work with creators from similar backgrounds because we hadn’t been able to discuss these stories until then,” he explains. The script, which is modelled on conversations had between Isom and O’Bryant, reflects their shared experiences growing up in Black households: “We were like, ‘what are these sayings that Black mums say?’” he adds.

There’s a scene in the trailer for XOGENASYS that depicts a barber shop, a part of the Black experience that’s rarely shown in any media, let alone anime. In another, Darius, whose pro-wrestling subscription has just been cut out, starts shouting at his mum, who snaps back: “Who you yelling at? Don’t make me come up there.” Arthell explains: “There’s smaller aspects of characters that we get to express and show people outside of the stereotypical view that people generally see.”

In a recent music video for The Weeknd’s track “Snowchild”, directed by Arthell, an anime rendition of The Weeknd walks through a neon-clad Hollywood inhabited by red-eyed cyborg women. The whole thing has a distinctly cyberpunk feel to it. And if the hologram billboards, the moody cityscapes, and industrial rooftop shots don’t give it away, the song’s lyrics (‘She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship/ Futuristic sex give her Phillip K dick’) certainly does.

“I watched Ghost in the Shell for the first time in high school in 1997, and something about it made me realise that I needed to be an artist,” he says. “I watched it every day for a year and I didn’t know why I liked it so much until a teacher asked me to focus on that question. That’s when I discovered that I liked the backgrounds and the way the animation moved through them.”

It’s through Ghost in the Shell that Arthell discovered Hiromasa Ogura, the film’s legendary art director, also behind genre classics such as Ninja Scroll and Wings of Honnêamise. “He’s the reason I came to Japan,” Arthell admits, before adding: “He has this specific style that uses light and shadow very harshly to describe form, and I’ve always been fascinated by that.”

“There’s not a lot of Black, or generally diverse, characters in anime yet, and hearing these stories makes us want to do something with them” – Arthell Isom

After studying art in Osaka, Arthell applied for an internship at Ogura’s studio, Ogura Kobo, as a background animator, where he’d go onto work for another 12 years. It’s here that he’d rub shoulders with some of the industry’s most prolific animators, and work on hit shows like Bleach, Black Butler, and Naruto. “The one thing I thought about since high school finally came true,” he recounts. “Just getting past the idealism of who he was, he was a great artist and I didn’t expect more than that. To get to know him as a person, his staff, and see how they respected him, and know his craft, that made it even greater for me.”

Arthell describes Ogura as a life-changing, formative experience. “He was super strict and he expected a lot from all his staff, but that helped me push forward,” he says. “We’ve become good friends and have drinks together and talk about things. He gives me advice for my company now.”

No longer broadcast exclusively in the west through reruns on early daytime TV and DVD rentals, anime continues to grow in popularity through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Earlier this year, Netflix announced that it’d be streaming Studio Ghibli’s entire back catalogue (sans Grave of the Fireflies), as well as contemporary shows like My Hero Academia, Food Wars, and Carole & Tuesday. Not to mention Hollywood’s incessant obsession with securing live action remakes of classic animes like Cowboy Bebop, Death Note, and One Piece, once again shows a global demand for the artform. The hope is though, that original, diverse anime series will catch a similar cultural wave.

Looking forward, Arthell wants to bring to life more projects from not only Black or PoC creators, but LGBTQ+ narratives too. “We want to help independent creators, especially from minority backgrounds, to be able to tell their stories,” he explains, referencing an upcoming project for shoe brand Timberland that centres on a trans character. “We, of course, want to make a change in the industry, and even for us to effectively get in by any sort of margin, we have to do bigger productions. There’s not a lot of Black, or generally diverse, characters in anime yet, and hearing these stories makes us want to do something with them.”