The mystical island nation of Japan has an odd curiosity about Western religions, as anyone who has ever seen Neon Genesis Evangelion can attest. The anime and manga world is a largely secular one in a dogmatic sense, but anime and manga creators are more than eager to swallow up influences and iconography far and wide in order to add some color and foreign allure.
Of course, the majority of our American pop culture that leaps across the Pacific Ocean is similarly secular, but occasionally intrepid manga and anime auteurs remind themselves that, yes, Jewish people do indeed exist! And on this Hanukkah, here are seven Jewish characters who’ve shown up in anime and manga!
1) Big Ear in Big O
Little is made of anyone’s heritage in the futuristic dystopian setting of Big O, but the character of Big Ear – the stoic, steely-eyed informant of protagonist Roger Smith – is obviously meant to be Jewish, what with his kippah in full display in every appearance.
But then, the Big O universe of Paradigm City is rife with enough religious iconography to put even Evangelion to shame. From characters with angel wings to the hamfisted “CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD – YE NOT GUILTY” message on the titular Big O itself, it’s a nice touch that series creator Keiichi Sato added some diversity in the mix. Even though – SPOILER ALERT FOR A DECADES-OLD SHOW – Big Ear turns out to be a synthetic android. Oh well.
Although, as one of the members of the Big O fan forums asks, “Where does he find kosher oil?”
2) Fritz Lang in Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa
This is an odd one for a lot of reasons, but I’m including it anyway. And, again, spoilers for a show that ended nearly a decade ago: In the original Fullmetal Alchemist TV anime, and not the original manga or the followup Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the alchemy-rich world is revealed to be a parallel version of the “real world” of the early 20th century. As such, a lot of characters in the anime have several “real world” counterparts. In the series, the main villain of the series is revealed to be King Bradley, an alias of “Pride,” an evil homonculus who pulls all the nefarious strings unbeknownst to the good guys.
But once the protagonist Edward Elric is transported to the “real world” by a series of confusing magical things, he encounters the acclaimed German-Austrian filmmaker Frtiz Lang, in the guise of the parallel-universe King Bradley. In the film, which takes place in 1923’s anime version of Germany, Lang confides to Elric his distrust of the growing Nazi regime that would be disgusted with his Jewish heritage; something the real Fritz Lang was concerned with, and which inspired a number of anti-fascist films and ideas.
Much like Big O, Fullmetal Alchemist is a hodgepodge of religious appropriation. FMA‘s obsession with alchemy and homonculi and other weird nonsense has its roots in Greek philosophy and continues onward through Islamic alchemy, Jewish myths and of course, enough Christian imagery to paint a cathedral.
So, that’s one robot from the future, and one parallel-universe version of a historical figure. How’sabout a contemporary character?
3) Benny in Black Lagoon
Before I begin, in case any of you haven’t heard of Black Lagoon yet, turn off your computer, and either head out to your local comic shop to buy the manga, or flip on Hulu and catch the anime series. It’s a terrific yarn of ultra-violence, gunplay and outlandish characters.
Essentially, the titular Black Lagoon is a group of pirates and mercenaries operating around Southeast Asia in the 1990’s, handling cargo and operations for everyone from wealthy industrialists to Russian crime lords and everything in between. Its characters are a diverse collection of misfits, from the burdened Japanese salaryman to the crazy gun-toting madwoman and all manner of crazies.
The Black Lagoon’s technical guru is a guy named Benny, a self-identified Jew who, through circumstances never made explicitly clear, had to bail from his post-graduate studies at a Florida university after getting into some “problems” with the mafia and the FBI. He’s a great character, one that goes above and beyond the typical genre stereotype of a geekily obsessive computer freak. A few people have hypothesized that Benny might be inspired by Jake Adelstein, author of the recently released memoir Tokyo Vice, who famously (in Japan, at least) reported on Japanese organized crime.
Which is now going to be a movie, starring Harry Pottery. I mean, Daniel Radcliffe.
4) The villains in Angel Cop
Sadly, not every portrayal of Judaism in popular culture has been positive, and the noxiously, odiously racist The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has had repercussions all over the world. It’s not just rambling, antisemitic conspiracy theorists who have held such an obvious hoax to be factually correct; it’s made its way into an anime, too!
In the FAR-FLUNG YEAR OF 1990, Japan reigns supreme as the world’s remaining superpower, and finds itself the target of terrorism worldwide, including a massive conspiracy to – no joke – destroy the glorious Japanese economy, and turn the country into a dumping ground for radioactive waste.
And in case that’s not xenophobic enough, in the original Japanese-language version, the main force behind this garbled plot is revealed to be a connected network of wealthy Jewish bankers. Eep! Wisely, when Angel Cop was released in English, Manga Entertainment had the good sense to make a few small tweaks – instead, the malefactors behind these terrorist attacks are revealed to be a huge American conglomerate. Amusingly, they made those changes to the subtitles as well, and not just the dub.
Speaking of the dub, Angel Cop‘s dub is a treasure trove of awful. Beware the incredibly NSFW audio.
Now that that’s out of the way, click onward for less ignorant portrayals!
5) Jesus Christ in Saint Young Men
Yeah, yeah, I know – Jesus Christ is the quintessential figure in the Christian faith, whatever. He was Jewish originally, and Saint Young Men is awesome, yet sadly unavailable legally in English.
The pitch: Jesus Christ and Buddha both take a “vacation” on Earth, and become roommates in a modern-day apartment in Tokyo. Jesus is the free-spirit, kind and lighthearted, while Buddha is reserved, calm, and collected. Imagine Kirk and Spock, except they’re religious figures. More so than they already are, I mean.
Needless to say, Saint Young Men is awesome. It’s a huge hit in Japan, one of the best-selling manga in recent years, and spawned an anime series as well as a theatrical film. It nimbly handles the holy figures with an ironic eye, and avoids offending while keeping its satiric edge. It’d be a great thing to see released in America, wouldn’t it?
Not really. We Americans are quite sensitive about our portrayals of Jesus, and reportedly, the licensor for Saint Young Men has remarked, when approached by publishers to release the series in English, that they won’t “until the readership changes.” Or, more accurately, “until we can be sure nobody’s gonna give us shit for making a comic about Jesus.”
Oh well. I guess there’s always Let’s Bible!, a Korean manwha where Jesus is a hot girl with big boobs and no pants.
An interesting sidenote: the character of Buddha in Saint Young Men stumbles into a manga cafe and discovers the work of Osamu Tezuka, and specifically, Tezuka’s manga about himself. Tezuka made hundreds of manga on hundreds of subjects, but one of his landmark series is worth a mention:
6) Two Adolfs in Osamu Tezuka’s Message to Adolf
Osamu Tezuka’s Message to Adolf is a sprawling, mature, occasionally cartoonish, but always engaging 5-volume tale that takes the persistent rumor that Adolf Hitler was himself Jewish to its ludicrous extremes.
It definitely sounds a bit garish to consider reading a manga about something as profoundly serious as World War II and the Holocaust – and indeed, at times Tezuka’s playfully garish characters are quite wincing – but it’s a fascinating read. I devoured every copy from my high school’s library back when I was reading every manga within reach on sheer principle, and several passages still haunt me.
Tastefully, Message to Adolf doesn’t spend much of its time on a genocidal dictator. Instead, it is principally the story of two close friends, both named Adolf: one a Jew, the other the son of a German Consulate General who has large ambitions within Hitler’s inner circle. As the backdrop of the war looms large, the friendship of the two boys as they become men are tested in profound moments of sadness, as well as bizarre moments of well-worn Tezuka-brand crazy.
Even though its claims of Hitler’s heritage are purely preposterous, Message to Adolf is bold and audacious enough to be worth a scholarly look for anyone interested in such things. Luckily, the fine folks at Vertical were kind enough to retranslate it and re-release it in spiffy hardbound editions after being out-of-print in English for close to a decade.
But enough of this dark, depressing nonsense.
7) Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop
I’m considering Spike Spiegel, one of the coolest anime characters ever, to be Jewish because:
a) His family name is Yiddish.
b) His haircut.
c) He carries a Jericho 941, an Israeli-made pistol.
d) When someone at a convention pointed this out to series creator Shinichiro Watanabe, his response was, “Sure, why not?”
I consider this irrefutable evidence. The website Jew or Not Jew disagrees. That’s just like, your opinion, man.
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