URAHARA and the Culture of Cultural Appropriation

Welcome, all, again.  Today I watched the twelfth and final episodes of two series which I’ve been closely following this season, KONOHANA KITAN and URAHARA, and neither finale disappointed.  In fact, I feel like I should go back and provide a full review of KONOHANA KITAN, seeing as I only gave some first impressions right after the show began.  It is truly beautiful, both in artistry and story development, and its final episode tied things together in a delicate yet decidedly conclusive manner seldom witnessed in anime.  URAHARA also ended upon a more delicate note than I anticipated, although the closing it provided was far less conclusive.  But taken as a whole, it might be the bravest new anime series in a long while.

URAHARA was admittedly something of an oddity when it began.  Like KONOHANA KITAN, it favors pastel colors, but is drawn in a much less detailed style.  Outlines seem to bleed into each other almost as much as the colors do, even while it seems contradictory to see such a riot of such quiet, muted colors.  And the artwork makes it hard to take the story’s premise seriously: an alien race invades earth and steals its cultural heritage–basically, all of earth’s different cultural heritages.  These aliens, called Scoopers, lack the trait of imagination and so steal others’ creative efforts.  But they hardly look menacing, having the appearance of small UFOs made of cotton candy.  Even their leader, who is introduced incognito but is easily recognized by the overwhelming flags attached, is quite possibly the least-threatening-looking villain in recent memory.  Indeed, the three heroines fighting to protect the cultural identity of their beloved Harajuku are more apt to hug the leading villain than do anything else.  (And they do.  Repeatedly.)

All of which makes this series extremely timely.  This is a show the premise of which is actual cultural appropriation, the literal theft or transfer of culture from its native adherents through the usurped possession and/or control of cultural traditions, icons, artifacts, or other such touchstones.  Consider, for example, the violence that defined the Roman appropriation of Greek culture as Roman power surpassed that of a fading Greece.  Rome might have conquered a huge swath of their known world, but early-on they recreated their own emerging society largely in imitation of Greek ideas and ideals.  The famed Roman poet Virgil even went so far in his Aeneid as to suggest that Rome was founded by refugees from Troy, and that Roman conquest and dominance of Greece was thus part of a divinely sanctioned retribution.   This introduces an important item for consideration: that true cultural appropriation most often occurs through conquest, a situation that offers the even bleaker alternative of eradication.

How very different and severe the term’s proper usage when compared to its current flippant misuse in social media, wherein casual bigotry and prejudice are normalized and even celebrated through the criticism of individuals for fashion (or likewise harmlessly mundane) choices that see them drawing inspiration from outside their native culture; such examples, if anything beyond individual choice, reflect cultural assimilation.  For the first time in history, we have the capability to instantaneously communicate and share with each other worldwide, building bridges and dissolving differences, but instead of pursuing that noble goal you’d rather blast someone for wearing an outfit or hairstyle that s/he isn’t [insert random racial or ethnic identifier here] enough to wear?  Really?  So how very appropriate that a series exploring true cultural appropriation is set in Harajuku, where styles are displayed with the intention of their being appreciated and copied!

Maybe URAHARA had to look harmless.  Maybe it had to be in soft colors and without rigid outlines.  Maybe it had to lull viewers into a sense of the warm fuzzies before it could even hope to challenge them with such a strong but important message: Cultural appropriation is a real phenomenon with real consequences and real victims, so don’t debase the term with your petty personal prejudices!  The world is bigger than you and your opinion.  Or me and mine.  If you want to make it a little smaller, then celebrate our differences by sharing them.  That last bit just might be the moral of this innovative and enjoyable show, and I think that it’s a sentiment even Misa would understand and applaud.

Author: David

Southern gentleman of Irish heritage. Family man--proud husband, father, and grandfather. Wiccan with a dose of residual Catholicism. Background in food service, military (US Navy), and law enforcement.

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