The anime world is huge and very influential. It has one of the largest fandoms in the world and it is no different in the Middle East. Palestinian artist Rami Afifi takes Hypebeast on his personal journey, anime’s influence in the region and how it continues to inform his work, and reflects on his admiration for the Arabic dub Grendizer and how it created a sense of belonging in his formative years.
We inhaled any anime we could. At the time, anime meant daytime Arabic cartoons. Growing up, we had classics such as Tom & Jerry, Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes, but it was anime that captivated us. At the time, we thought of shows like Captain Majid (Captain Tsubasa), Grendizer (UFO Robo Grendizer), Sunshiro (Plawres Sanshiro) and Al Rajol Al Hadidi (Dinosaur War Izenborg) were Arabic comics. How could we not? They were dubbed (amazingly well) in Arabic, the names were localized and they even had some of the best theme music. Actually the theme song for Grendizer and Treasure Island put Lebanese singer Sami Clark’s name on the map.
For us, these cartoons were Arabic. We saw ourselves as heroes in them. When we watched Looney Tunes, Popeye or anything Disney, Arabs were big burly men with beards and turbans and were often cruel villains or inept clowns. As we watched Captain Majid, we saw ourselves as the world champions, we saw a narrative that gave us confidence and pride. I may have been known as Omar, the useless but lovable teammate who could never score (yes, I sucked at sports), but the rest of the team were also Arab and incredible. Maybe it helped that anime characters were so ethnically non-specific that they could be from anywhere, which is why we related.
But for many of us Grendizer our the performance. It was not only big in the Middle East, but Italy, Spain and France as well (known there as Goldorak/Goldrake). It resonated so much because of how grown-up the themes were, as opposed to the carefree antics of Mickey Mouse, after all, growing up, we’d only have access to one, maybe two local channels. When we watched the news it was pretty unfiltered. When I met Go Nagai at a cultural talk in Jordan, he mentioned that his cartoons were often realistic and harsh because life is harsh. He wanted to prepare the audience for the difficulties they would face ahead rather than hide the ugly truths of the world. In that sense, anime was much more relatable to us than the fantasy world of Mickey Mouse.
Nagai also mentioned that the geopolitical climate of the Middle East really helped the show’s success. After all, the Middle East was quite turbulent. IN Grendizer, Fleed (the hero) is a refugee from an alien planet. His new home is invaded by the same aliens that forced him away from his home planet. We watch as he battles these forces and fights against them. The difficulties he faces felt very familiar. His personal struggles resonated with us – his search for an identity as a refugee and his struggle to protect his home.
Recently, the MiSK Foundation released a Saudi-Japanese co-production in collaboration with the Saudi-led company Manga Productions and the owners of Grendizer, Japan’s Toei Animation. The film, with the title The journey, centered around Aws Ibn Jubair, film about the Battle of Mecca. In a full-circle moment, the Arabic anime premiered in Japan to great acclaim. In a world where representation didn’t exist, these shows recognized us.
In a world where life was uncertain, these shows mirrored our realities. The influence has been so profound that there has been some reference to Grendizer, Captain Majid or one of these anime series in over 50% of my work. It is a birthright as an Arab artist to spin Grendizer. So, seeing us give back to a culture that was essential to our childhood shows the impact something as small as a cartoon can have on entire nations.