DOA5’s Lisa and Japan’s Skintone Threshold
Lisa a.k.a. La Mariposa is easily one of my favorite DOA characters. Introduced in Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, she was described by Tomonobu Itagaki as a “gift to the American fans”. It made sense that he would do this as while the DOA series was looked down upon in Japan, it had a solid following in America.
Light skin is part of the traditional Japanese ideal of beauty; it’s why Geisha paint their faces white. What about those crazy Japanese girls that tan their skin and bleach their hair, Ganguros? They’re actually rebelling against the Japanese standard of beauty. There’s no denying that the girls of DOA, aside from their massive breasts, are designed based on a rather traditional Japanese standard of beauty.
But when Itagaki decided to put Lisa in the games, he bucked the trend ever so slightly. She still looked like a DOA girl with similar proportions and facial structure, but she had dark skin. It made her stand out and be a bit unique. Which, in turn, sparked a massive debate as to if Lisa was black. A debate that still rages on today and has honestly gotten a bit ugly as people aren’t afraid to be outright racist on the internet. Seriously, you’d be surprised how many anime fans can spew some serious hatred about anyone that isn’t from “Glorious Nippon”.
But, Itagaki didn’t really have a plan with the character and so when she entered into the main series she inadvertently became the most awesome and interesting character in the series. She was a brilliant scientist who worked at DOATEC and was actually responsible for erasing Hayate’s memories and making Alpha-152 but she quit the company and became a Luchador…who uses Capoeira. She also enjoys surfing, was the Captain of her college volleyball team, and acts as a ninja spy. Yet despite all of this, she’s an exceedingly kind woman, able to make friends with even the coldest assassins. She is easily one of the most interesting characters in DOA. More than that, her interesting playstyle made the games infinitely more fun.
However, Tomonobu Itagaki left Tecmo’s Team Ninja. Tecmo was then bought out by Koei and the reigns of the team was passed to Yosuke Hayashi. What’s more, DOA had been recycling the same character models since the original Xtreme Beach Volleyball. A new DOA with new character models was necessary. But with the new team, what would this mean for the characters? Hayashi openly stated that making the girls look lighter and “softer skinned” was a major concern of his and sure enough my worst fears were realized.
Lisa wound up with lighter skin. Presumably this is to appeal to a Japanese audience and while she still has more of a tan than the rest of the cast, she looks exceedingly pale and it robs her of some of her identity. What’s more it will no doubt make the endless “Is Lisa Black” debate even more of a mess. Regardless of what you think, it doesn’t justify changing an existing character’s design so drastically. The undeniable fact is that she is far paler in DOA5 than she was in previous DOAs.
What’s worse is that this actually makes her less distinguishable as a character as now she looks nearly identical to Tekken Tag 2’s Jaycee a.k.a. Julia Chang.
What makes this all the more interesting though is that this is not the first time this has happened. Virtua Fighter’s Vanessa Lewis underwent a similar, but more drastic, transformation between Virtua Fighter 4 and 5.
Obviously, Lisa’s change is nowhere near that bad as poor Vanessa lost much of her muscle mass and one of her fighting styles as well as becoming much much paler. SEGA did try to explain this one away in story as being the result of Vanessa getting kidnapped and locked in a cell for extended periods of time (she was the basis for the new Dural) but it still rubbed me the wrong way. Thankfully, subsequent game releases made her skin slightly darker and offered players the ability to equip her with a “Tropical Tan”. The most recent release, Final Showdown, even lets players equip “Dark Oiled Skin” and “Abs” to restore Vanessa to her former glory.
However, why do players have to actively equip items to change Vanessa back to how she was? If you wanna make her light and skinny to appeal to a Japanese audience, why not make them equip the items to bleach her skin and remove her muscle?
If we wanted to continue I could also point to the differences between the manga and anime versions of the character Angol Moa from SGT.Frog/Keroro Gunsou.
Moa is a particularly odd case as she is actually a (very pale) alien disguised as a ganguro girl. I bring her up though because aside from looking noticeably lighter in the anime, she has nearly the same skintone as DOA5 Lisa and the slightly darker home version of VF5’s Vanessa.
This is interesting because it indicates a sort of ideal tan threshold in Japanese media. It’s a level of tan that a Japanese woman can naturally achieve just from getting a good amount of sun. Anything darker than this will probably be lightened.
Now, again, we are talking about Japan. There aren’t exactly a lot of black people in Japan, you know. As such they generally have only a vague idea of what they look like based on Western media and they don’t exactly think about them much. To the average Japanese person, a black person is just “a foreigner with really dark skin”. The nature of their racial make up and their facial structure and all that stuff isn’t really dwelled upon too much. Our Western race issues aren’t really a “thing” in Japan.
So, indeed, this is far from an active bit of racism but rather an issue with our cultural differences. To them they just think “we made the very tanned foreigner a bit less tanned”, but to us it’s seen as “they made the game’s one black girl white!”.
Still, this does not excuse such a drastic change in character design. Many of us like Lisa just the way she was. However, the game is not out yet so there is still time for this to be fixed. Hopefully the final release will see a darker Lisa or give us a means to darken her. Otherwise, this might get problematic.
UPDATE: It did. Follow-up article can be found here.