Mr. Popo is an assistant to the guardian of Earth, the caretaker of the mystical Lookout, and a racist icon. I realize that’s being rather blunt for media analysis, but this is a conclusion most people should find self-evident.
Mr. Popo is a chubby, pitch-black character with thick red lips, a turban, beady eyes, and other iconography that’s perfectly in line with old-timey, racist stereotypes. Saying this may upset quite a few people. Such as the lads on the Dragon Ball Z wiki, who have had passionate debates about these racist connotations for years now. However, in a surprising twist from my usual stance, I am actually going to argue against the attempts to censor Mr. Popo that have been employed in recent times.
Mr. Popo was initially introduced in Dragon Ball, but remains a recurring character in Dragon Ball Z. He is Kami’s assistant, who frequently ends up helping Goku and friends with their training or plot-related issues. He’s not super important, but Mr. Popo is a well-liked character from the series that has been around for years now.
However, that his original design was based on racist caricatures is certainly a sore point. It’s the kind of thing you could still get away with in the 1980s, but it has gotten awkward in Dragon Ball‘s more recent outings. The comparison to Jynx from Pokémon is apt, which was another character accused of the same, problematic stereotypes. This eventually led to Jynx being changed altogether by having her skin turned purple instead of pitch-black.
A similar change was attempted with Mr. Popo in some releases of Dragon Ball Z, which pleased nobody.
Blue Mr. Popo was a flop and caused much anger in the community. The reason why purple Jynx worked out and Blue Mr. Popo did not is both obvious, yet somewhat complicated. Obviously, it just looks stupid. Changing colors on Pokémon is harmless because they are transformative by their very nature. See also the popularity of their shiny designs. Arguably, changing Jynx’ skin actually made her look better; the pure black of her old design made her face seem like a void with eyes and lips.
Just repainting Mr. Popo in royal blue looks awful by comparison. It’s such a slapdash attempt, which clearly had no regard for what makes for appealing character design.
A second difference is that nobody really cares about Jynx. Pokémon just aren’t really characters of their own; they are fantasy creatures that players get to catch and use as a resource. You’re not really expected to have an emotional bond with these characters. Even if that weren’t the case, there are hundreds of other Pokémon out there, many of which people care far more about. As such, nobody really had much reason to be upset about a recolor.
Mr. Popo, despite not being very important at all, is still a well-liked character. People have enjoyed him for years, which gave many a reason to be attached to him. When he was so bluntly changed “because it’s racist,” that didn’t sit well with people who really liked the guy.
Not only were a bunch of executives changing a character they liked, for many it felt like an accusation. If they had such an attachment to a racist character, then does that make them a racist by proxy? That’s a difficult pill to swallow, and I am speaking from experience there.
I live in The Netherlands, where for years we’ve had a discussion just like this. We celebrate Sinterklaas; a festivity similar to Christmas, where a saint gives presents and candy to Dutch children. He does this alongside a horde of helpers—the Black Petes—who traditionally had a similar design to Mr. Popo. Black Petes were played mostly by white people who painted their skin dark, wore red lipstick and gold earrings, and then went around in colorful costumes and fuzzy wigs to amuse children.
Even when I was a kid, jokes about POC classmates being Black Petes were plentiful. Many grew up to find the whole tradition kind of weird by the time we were teenagers. Still, when calls for a change in design grew louder, resistance against it was fervent. People had been celebrating Sinterklaas with the traditional blackface Pete for decades, so many were attached to that version of the character. Many excuses were made for why it couldn’t be changed, but over the years a redesign was gradually implemented that turned out to be just fine. Only a few holdouts remain today, which even just last year led to crowds assaulting anti-racist protestors in town squares.
People get very defensive when they perceive criticism as an accusation, but that is entirely needless. Dutch people that like Black Pete aren’t bigots because they grew up in a society that celebrated that character. In the same vein, kids who grew up watching Dragon Ball or Dragon Ball Z aren’t bigots because they like Mr. Popo. It’s only when those people grow up and get belligerent when their peers talk about the racist connotations of the characters, that their behavior becomes, shall we say, sketchy.
Mr. Popo does not fit in modern day society, but changing him should be handled professionally. We can’t just expect them to re-release 35 years worth of manga and anime just to make an admittedly tiny change. Kai could have been to Dragon Ball what the 2012 remake was to Cyborg 009, but it only remastered the old visuals rather than redoing them entirely.
Alternatively, he could be phased out entirely and just not make new appearances in later Dragon Ball stories.
Both Japan and The Netherlands have become international embarrassments for their inability to stop celebrating racist imagery. While I have been easy on Mr. Popo since he was created decades ago, newer anime continue to use similar designs and stereotypes in the few series where POC characters play any role at all. Something that my friend Ospreyshire has talked about on numerous occasion.
While we should be considerate when pushing for change in older franchises, such courtesies should not be used to keep moving the goal post. I have talked about racist imagery in anime from the 80s, 90s, mid-2000s, and it continues to haunt series even in this modern era. We have long since crossed the point where we ought to expect better from the artists and writers in this industry.