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Jamaican animator making waves in Japan

BY SHARLENE HENDRICKS
Staff reporter
hendrickss@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, July 14, 2019

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Jamaican animator living in Japan, Michelle Keane is using her work to address mental health, racism and black negative stereotypes in an industry where being black and female is an anomaly.

The 29-year-old recently graduated from Kyoto University of Art and Design where she completed a master's degree in animation, and is now poised to make waves having already produced two stop motion animated films, one of which has been selected to air at the Present Future film festival in Macau, Taiwan.

“I'm nervous!” was Keane's frank admission in a telephone conversation with the Jamaica Observer. “But I'm not particularly nervous about whether people will like it or not. I like to hear what effect, if any, my film has had on the audience. I love film and I love making film,” said the young Jamaican.

Keane's journey to creating animation clear across the globe started with an early fascination with Japanese culture, twinned with her natural artistic abilities.

“I always tried to push myself artistically. I used to read a lot growing up, and I would always try to draw the pictures that were in the books I would read. I also remember writing stories and doing my own illustrations.”

At age 15 Keane committed herself to learning Japanese, which was the language used in many of her favourite childhood TV shows.

“I became interested in Japanese history and I started watching a lot of old Japanese films and cartoons, as well as animé. I remember as a child watching this popular Japanese cartoon called Samurai X which is set in Kyoto, the city that I live in currently.”

Destiny, in that sense, was aided by Keane's determination to pursue her love for art in Japan. But her introduction to animation started at the University of Technology, where she completed a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology, with a focus in multimedia.

“Because of that I was able to apply to an art university here in Japan to do animation,” Keane explained. She was one of two applicants from the Caribbean who received the Japanese Government's MEXT (Monbukagakusho) scholarship to pursue a master's degree in 2016.

During her study in Japan, Keane explored issues which she said either affected her directly or indirectly, the first of which was her experience with social anxiety, illustrated in her first film titled Fuan.

“In Japanese, Fuan means anxiety. It can also mean being in a state [of] feeling unsafe or discomfort. Growing up I was always very introverted, and I had a lot of social anxiety. So the idea behind it was to face my own anxieties, and I wanted to face the emotion through the film.”

These emotions, she said, were at first amplified by the fact that she was the only black person in her entire university.

“For the past three years I have been the only black person,” Keane joked. “In language school I was the only black person, and at university I was the only black person. Everybody else was either white or Asian.”

Before long, however, Keane found her circle of friends and settled into her studies, which focused on racism in animation and how it affects black women.

“More specifically it was about the portrayal of black female characters in animation. Black female characters are usually overly sexualised, and there is the whole angry black woman stereotype that is pervasive today.”

In her research, Keane explained that she watched several animated films and cartoons which portrayed racism.

“In the 90s Warner Brothers had about 10 banned cartoons, and I watched all of them. A lot of the stereotypes are that black people are dumb, slow, only active when music plays, uppity or excitable — especially women. Another stereotype is that black women are masculine. It was a lot of these very negative stereotypes that were attached to black characters, and I still see that in media today.”

In her second animation entitled Tam'Rind, Keane focuses on combating racism itself.

“I wanted to create a new version of black characters where we are not stereotyped. In the film I look at stereotypes of black characters in animation. Those stereotypes are not necessary, and I think they perpetuate racism,” Keane told the Sunday Observer.

“I also wanted to look at more covert racism, little prejudices that people have, but I also wanted to use the themes I was seeing on social media with white people feeling threatened by black people for no reason. The point of the film was to create an animation that did not have the stereotypes that old animation has in them.”

In Tam'Rind, Keane's main character is a little black girl who is denied service in a candy store based solely on her race, something which Keane admitted, thankfully, she has never had to face explicitly growing up in Jamaica.

“I have never experienced racism, which is probably because of when and where I grew up. I'm not saying there is no discrimination in Jamaica, but I have never experienced it. That was one of the reasons why creating this film posed a challenge for me, because I was taking from other people's experiences I had read about or from people I knew.”

As for the name Tam'Rind, Keane said this was her way of inserting her culture into the plot of the story whereby the main character goes on to open her own candy stand, selling the traditional Jamaican tamarind balls.

“I'm Jamaican, so I thought I should at least put my own culture in the animation — and tamarind is a popular Jamaican candy. Tamarind balls also are similar in shape to a traditional candy they have here in Japan called Dango, and I wanted to use a candy that people here could easily identify with. I suppose when other people see this film they will want to try tamarind balls when they visit Jamaica,” said Keane.

Much like the makers of Marvel's Spider Man: Into The Spider Verse with actor of Jamaican decent Miles Morales voicing a black spider man, Keane's ultimate goal is to portray black characters in leading roles, something which she noted rarely happens in animation.

“To this day I have not seen a mainstream stop motion film where the main character is a black character either, so that was my goal. I also want to show that as black animators we don't have to create negative stereotypes of white people or anybody else to counteract negative stereotypes of black people in the media. I don't think that makes anything better. This is portrayed in the film as well without beating people over the head for being racist either,” said Keane, further noting her disappointment that there are very few black and/or female animators in the industry.

“I remember going to an international film festival that happens here biannually. I went and do not recall seeing black people; so I do think that, unfortunately, there are not many black people in animation overall.”

Currently, the Jamaican is working as an illustrator at Asahi Shimbun newspaper, one of the five national newspapers in Japan.

“This actually gives me the freedom to do films that I want to do. Next, I'm thinking of doing a Jamaican western animation,” Keane said.


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