The world of anime is vast and very influential. He has one of the biggest fandoms in the world and it’s no different in the Middle East. Taking Hypebeast on his personal journey, the influence of anime in the region as well as how it continues to inform his work, Palestinian artist Rami Afifi reflects on his admiration for the Arabic dubbed Grendizer and how it created a sense of belonging during his formative years.
We inhaled all the anime we could. Back then, anime meant daytime Arabic cartoons. Growing up, we had the classics like Tom & Jerry, Mickey Mouse, and Looney Tunes, but it was the anime that captivated us. At the time, we thought of series like Captain Majid (Captain Tsubasa), Grendizer (UFO Robo Grendizer), Sunshiro (Plawres Sanshiro) and Al Rajol Al Hadidi (Dinosaur War Izenborg) were Arabic cartoons. How could we not? They were dubbed (incredibly well) in Arabic, the names were localized, and they even had some of the best musical themes. In fact, the theme song of Grendizer and Treasure Island have put Lebanese singer Sami Clark’s name on the map.
For us, these caricatures were Arab. We saw ourselves as heroes in them. When we watched Looney Tunes, Popeye or anything from Disney, the Arabs were big, burly men with beards and turbans and were often horrible villains or incompetent clowns. Watching Captain Majid, we saw ourselves as the champions of the world, we saw a narrative that gave us confidence and pride. I might have been known as Omar, the useless but adorable teammate who could never score (yeah, I sucked at sports), but the rest of the team was Arab and amazing too. Maybe it helped that anime characters are so ethnically non-specific they could be from anywhere and that’s why we bonded.
For many of us, however, Grendizer has been the To display. It was not only important in the Middle East, but also in Italy, Spain and France (known there as Grendizer/Goldrake). It resonated so much because of how adult the themes were, unlike the carefree antics of Mickey Mouse, after all, growing up, we would only have access to one, maybe two local channels. When we looked at the news, it was unfiltered. When I met Go Nagai at a cultural conference in Jordan, he mentioned that his cartoons were often realistic and tough because life is tough. He wanted to prepare his audience for the difficulties they would face instead of hiding the ugly truths of the world. In that sense, the anime was much more relevant to us than the fantasy world of Mickey Mouse.
Nagai also mentioned that the geopolitical climate in 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 overrun by the same aliens that drove him from his home planet. We watch him fight these forces and struggle against them. The difficulties he faced were very familiar. His personal battles resonated with us – his search for an identity as a refugee and his struggle to protect his home.
Recently, the MiSK Foundation launched an Arab-Japanese co-production in collaboration with the Saudi company Manga Productions and the owners of Grendizer, Japan’s Toei Animation. The film, titled The trip, centered on Aws Ibn Jubair, film about the battle of Makkah. In a full circle moment, Arabic anime was created in Japan with great success. In a world where representation did not exist, these shows recognized us.
In a world where life was uncertain, these shows reflected our realities. The influence has been so profound that there have been some references to Grendizer, Captain Majid or one of these animated series in more than 50% of my work. It’s a birthright as an Arab artist to create your spin on Grendizer. So seeing us give back to a culture that marked our childhood shows the importance that something as small as a cartoon can have on entire nations.