By Yasheng She
What does it take to transcend a national border to be globally recognized, and what are the responsibilities of being on the global stage? I will attempt to answer these two questions in my analysis of three incidents surrounding the open-world roleplaying game Genshin Impact (2020). While video game is distinct from animation, it relies on animation to visualize and communicate the system to the player. Beyond the technical aspects of animation, video games can leverage animation as a cultural currency to reach a broader audience. Genshin takes advantage of the Japanese animation style, or the anime-esque style, to create its global identity and elevate Chinese cultural elements to the global stage. While successfully representing Chinese culture and redefining the label “made-in-China,” Genshin fails in some aspects of embodying non-Chinese cultures. This essay argues that this failure is not only a result of the complicated entanglement between representation and appropriation but also the reality of depending on the anime-esque style to achieve global recognition. Precisely, the anime-esque style elevates any culture if it is recognizably faithful to the anime-esque conventions. Yet, it limits the extent of self-expression, especially those perceived as too alien, confusing, or too racially aware to the assumed global audience.
In 2019, Chinese developer miHoYo announced its open-world roleplaying game Genshin Impact (Genshin) and quickly attracted international attention. The game’s similarity to The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild (BotW), developed and published by Japanese media conglomerate Nintendo, instigated this attention. Outcries of plagiarism and “shanzhai” were so prominent that there were recorded incidents of passionate Chinese fans destroying their game consoles in protest of the game. Intriguingly, the outcries of bad faith mimicry mainly came from China, not Japan, where BotW is published. One word soon took hold of the entire discourse: “shanzhai,” a Chinese neologism for “copycat” or “fake,” that can be translated as “mountain fortress/village.”
Shanzhai is used colloquially to refer to poorly made replicas of products from established brands. Though any product can be shanzhai, the term was popularized by cheaply produced mobile phones that mimic expensive foreign brands. There is a symbolic distance between a shanzhai and the original, textually represented in the word itself: the unfaithful copy comes from an undignified place, hidden away from the global market. Cara Wallis and Jack Linchuan Qiu have observed that one reception of shanzhai is the insecurity of being recognized as an ersatz, or the lesser version, of the original. This fear comes from the idea of being “made-in-China,” a facet of Chinese identity’s cultural and racial awareness. Reading the Chinese fans’ passionate concerns over Genshin‘s likeness to BotW against the backdrop of shanzhai, I highlight the underlying sense of insecurity, that the worry is not just about the enjoyment of the game but also about what should and can be a Chinese game.
Despite the initial controversy, Genshin has gained popularity and critical acclaim, notably winning the “Best Mobile Game” award at The Game Awards 2021. In the entry video for the award, miHoYo showcased their meticulously crafted landscape of the Japan-inspired region, “Inazuma,” and brilliantly modeled and animated playable characters who reside there. Towards the end of the showcase, the screen cut to black, and then a young woman turned towards the audience, standing against a Chinese-themed backdrop, while Chinese opera instrumental music began in the background. Named Yunjin, this Chinese opera performer appeared in the game during the 2022 Lunar New Year and, as time will tell, will become a cultural ambassador for Chinese opera (see figure 1).
Fig 1: Yujin performing Chinese opera on a stage
Genshin portrays Yunjin as an elegant and soft-spoken woman, but when she is on the stage, she begins her song with a loud projection in Chinese. Though the game takes design inspirations from actual regions and cultures, the in-game characters do not suffer from language barriers when communicating with those outside their culture. The game provides 13 text languages and Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English voice-over tracks, which means, from the player’s perspective, the characters are constantly communicating in the same language. Yunjin sings in Chinese across four audio tracks, which creates a somewhat uncanny transition for those who did not choose Chinese as their preferred audio track. That said, the performance has enchanting animation, and the opera feels modern with the help of an orchestra. These details helped to lift the obscure Chinese opera to the global stage while allowing the game to emerge triumphally as a “made-in-China” product. Now, it may seem that the fear of shanzhai has abated, and Genshin has become a Chinese cultural export that can rival its Japanese counterpart.
Toward the end of 2022, Genshin released the new “Sumeru” region, inspired by actual regions, including the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. The character of the new region quickly sparked controversy over their light skin tone. While some players protested and demanded the game developers darken the characters’ complexion, others declared their indifference or annoyance towards those demands. These protests mostly came from English-speaking players, presumably American, based on the coverages of the incident. Chinese coverages of the incident have mostly taken an explorative approach to the issue, meaning they explain the situation to the Chinese audience instead of taking a definitive stand. Unlike concerns over shanzhai, Chinese players do not seem as engaged with the issue of representation, especially regarding skin tone, the only discernable racial trait of Genshin’s character models. It is crucial to disentangle the racial and cultural aspects of a given situation when working through the loaded natures of “representation” and “appropriation.” While these terms are often mobilized in popular discourse to suggest an imbalanced power dynamic between one culture and another, the practice of cultural appropriation and representation is more nuanced based on specific cultural, political, and historical contexts. This essay dwells on the contrasting receptions between Yunjin’s Chinese opera and the character designs in the Sumeru region by working through the potency and perils of the anime-esque quality.
The common element of the three controversies is Genshin‘s affinity for the anime-esque style. Stevie Suan coined the term “anime-esque” to describe the series of performative acts aimed to maintain Japanese animation, or anime, as a unique genre with a globally recognizable identity. These performative acts date back to postwar Japan when Osamu Tezuka created the good-natured atomic robot — Astro Boy — whose Disney-esque big eyes, spiky hair, and racially ambiguous design perfectly illustrated postwar Japan’s ambivalent relationship with atomic energy and the United States. Furthermore, Thomas LaMarre argues that the anime-esque character design is reinforced further through the popularization of limited animation in Japan as opposed to Disney’s full animation. Given budgetary restraints, limited animation relies on compelling character design, which prioritizes the simple-to-draw but easy-to-love anime-esque designs. I have argued elsewhere that the anime-esque style is simultaneously a technical and ideological response to the Disney-esque style.
Though Genshin is a video game, it adheres to anime-esque traditions, most evident in its character design. Genshin characters’ anime-esque quality is demonstrated through their big expressive eyes, stylized hair, simple yet delicate facial features, shading techniques that make the 3D models appear more 2D, and intricate costumes and accessories. These are all recognizable traits for anyone familiar with Japanese anime. In addition to their visual elements, each character is given an extensive backstory, compelling relationship with other characters, theme music, and voice acting in four languages to uphold their anime-esque quality. These performative acts permit Genshin to be regarded as an anime game even though it is not produced in Japan. Genshin‘s fidelity toward anime-esque style explains its departure from the shanzhai label and its transcendence into a globalized game. While it is seen as global, Genshin reserves the power over how and when it wants to be recognized as “Chinese,” in the case of Yunjin promoting Chinese opera. Genshin effectively wields the anime-esque quality to be simultaneously Chinese and global.
Amy Shirong Lu argues that there are three ways anime engages with culture: “de-politicized internationalization,” “Occidentalized internationalization,” and “self-Orientalized internationalization.” De-politicized internationalization blurs different racial and cultural elements. Occidentalized internationalization expands on Edward Said’s “Orientalism” by noting how the West is either turned into the “Other” or villainized, as it is in some anime. Lastly, self-Orientalized internationalization happens when Japanese anime Orientalizes other Asian nations while simultaneously exploiting the orientalist gaze by turning the self into an Other. Lu’s three cultural politics of anime illuminate Genshin‘s strategic de-politicized internationalization of creating an egalitarian world with no language barriers and its self-Orientalized internationalization of promoting cultural art forms that might seem too alien or “pungent” for the outsiders. I use “pungent” to refer to Koichi Iwabuchi’s famous odorless production. Iwabuchi attributes the global popularity of Japanese popular media to the intentional removal of cultural elements that might seem jarring or offensive to the assumed global audience, or in other words, elements with distinct “cultural odor.” This odor is associated with the acute awareness of negative connotations with a cultural origin and the immediate desire to withdraw from it. Iwabuchi argues that this odor is “closely associated with racial and bodily images of a country of origin.”
Examining the anime-esque character design through Lu’s and Iwabuchi’s arguments, I argue that the anime-esque style, exemplified by Genshin, limits its potency to represent cultural and racial elements that have been deemed as lesser in the eyes of the Eurocentric hegemony due to its chastisement of marginalized cultures. The anime-esque style excels in elevating a cultural product to the global stage through strategic removal and embellishment of otherwise pungent cultural elements. Still, its loyalty towards the anime-esque traditions prevents it from embodying racial and cultural elements that are less putative or glamorous. In the case of Yunjin singing Chinese opera, Yunjin is culturally and ethnically coded as Chinese, but she is filtered through the anime-esque style to become racially ambiguous. Yunjin is only identifiable as Chinese by her singing style and Chinese opera-inspired outfit. Like other characters in-game, Yunjin is recognizable mainly as anime-esque from her big eyes, delicate doll-like features, and stylized hair — racially ambiguous yet culturally specific. The anime-esque quality allows the Chinese developers to self-represent while toeing the thin line between what is globally accepted and what might be culturally pungent. The success and standardization of the anime-esque quality in media production, in this case, character modeling, separate the cultural from the racial and make them appear less culturally pungent or, colloquially, “political.”
The question remains, what happens when the racial and the cultural become harder to disentangle? I believe this is where the controversy with the Sumeru region snaps into focus. Genshin added the new region of Sumeru to their roster of interactable nations in the fictional world of “Teyvat,” which includes Europe-inspired “Mondstadt,” China-inspired “Liyue,” and Japan-inspired “Inazuma.” Unlike its Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Sumeru does not seem to have one cultural reference but instead draws from a mixture of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and North African cultures throughout history. With Sumeru divided into a rainforest region and a desert region, it mainly uses natural sceneries and fantasy architecture to embellish the environment. This multicultural approach also exists in the creation of Mondstadt. As the first fictional nation introduced to the player, Mondstadt’s architecture mixes Gothic buildings with a centerpiece church based on the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. This process can be described through Lu’s Occidentalized internationalization, where Europe, constituted by a variety of nations, is condensed into an ambiguous Other. Unlike Sumeru, Mondstadt was immediately welcomed by the players, with only a few unhappy with its similarity to BotW. Playable characters in Mondstadt faithfully adhere to the Anime-esque style: Most of the Mondstadt cast have fair complexion and costumes that allude to their European influence. Though Genshin‘s culturally ambivalent representation of Europe is a form of cultural appropriation, there has been no loud declaration of bad faith. Indeed, by omitting clear national identities from the design of the landscape and characters, Genshin manages to perform what Lu calls de-politicized internationalization. Mondstadt and its denizens feel like any other fantasy European environment with an anime twist. In this case, the anime-esque quality exists comfortably with the hegemonic imaginations of Europe that have been so prevalent that it feels “apolitical,” or in Iwabuchi’s words, odorless.
China-inspired “Liyue” region and Japan-inspired “Inazuma” region are also odorless though they are more closely related to their origin’s national identity. Genshin filters out cultural elements that might seem too political and renders the two regions into a simulacrum of the most acceptable and likable parts of the national identity. I invoke Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum to underscore that these fictional nations are “not real… never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” Characters in these regions also follow the anime-esque style and are only differentiated by their hair, the details of their eyes, and their attires. Remarkably, their nationality is only conveyed, although effectively, through details of their costumes and accessories. For instance, some Liyue characters often adorn variations of traditional Chinese garments such as hanfu or qipao, whereas Inazuma characters often appear in modified traditional Japanese kimono or yukata. Like their Mondstadt counterparts, Liyue and Mondstadt characters have fair complexion and the same facial structures with minor edits to their eyes and some added details, such as horns or animal ears, which would identify them as part of a magical race of humanoid creatures. In short, while these characters can be recognized as Chinese or Japanese through cultural signifiers sprinkled onto their attires and accessories, no discernable racial trait would make them ethnically Chinese or Japanese. They are rendered odorless by assuming an anime-esque body that is adorned with neutralized cultural signifiers. By presenting Liyue and Inazuma side by side, Genshin tactically adopts methods used by Japanese anime artists, of creating an odorless Japanese simulacrum, to create an anime-esque China that is without historical and cultural baggage.
On the other hand, Sumeru is where the odorless loses its magic. Since the region is inspired by places historically inhabited by many people with a darker complexion, the mostly light-skinned cast looks incongruous with their fictional home. Unlike the outcries of shanzhai in China, these protests mostly came from English-speaking players where racial discourse is more prevalent in comparison to the comparatively racially homogenous China. Since the Sumeru characters still must uphold the anime-esque quality, they are only differentiated by their skin tone and costumes, and the problem with representation becomes inevitable. As I mentioned earlier, the strategic mobilization of the anime-esque body as the conduit of self-representation is potent only by removing undesirable traits and self-Orientalize parts that can appear apolitical, which means it is never “odorless” but masked as a sometimes undetectable and other times fragrant odor. The anime-esque style requires the characters to uphold the aesthetic standards of the game which means that cultural and racial traits can never be too culturally pungent, such as religious symbols, and never too racially aware, such as a wider nose or smaller eyes that would violate the anime-esque tradition. Racial representation under the constraint of the anime-esque quality is trapped in a negotiated space where racial difference is only skin-deep. Sumeru’s cultural influence comes from a variety of regions such as the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, people of those regions span the full spectrum of human complexions. By representing people from those regions with a mostly light-skinned cast, Genshin places itself within the long history of orientalist imaginings of the East. While there are different power structures at play when a Chinese developer appropriates Middle Eastern cultural elements compared to a European developer, where a history of imperialism and colonialism is in the background, the misdirected appropriation perpetuates stigmas derived from that history.
The three events examined in this essay showcase the potency of the anime-esque quality to transcend any culture to the global stage and allow self-representation. That said, it also underlines the limits of the anime-esque style where cultural representation is conducted via a simulacrum, and racial representation is only inferred through skin tone and cultural signifiers. Given the ubiquitous adoption of the anime-esque style in Chinese gaming industries, we must create awareness of what is elevated and what is erased in the process and challenge the aspects that we might think as pungent and undesirable to the assumed global audience. While the Chinese audience seems to be concerned with their cultural hierarchy on the global stage, it would be a mistake to ignore the flattening and de-racializing effect of the anime-esque style because it stunts racial discourse around these culturally specific games.
 Connor Trinske, “Angry Fan Smashes PS4 To Protest Sony’s Zelda-Inspired Genshin Impact,” ScreenRant, August 5, 2019, https://screenrant.com/ps4-genshin-impact-legend-zelda-protest/.
 Byung-Chul Han, Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, vol. 8, Untimely Meditations (Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2017), 72.
 Cara Wallis and Jack Linchuan Qiu, “Shanzhaiji and the Transformation of the Local Mediascape in Shenzhen,” in Mapping Media in China, ed. Jenny Chio and Wanning Sun (Routledge, 2012), 127–43, 118.
 Genshin Impact. “TGA 2021 Genshin Impact Entry Video,” December 10, 2021. https://genshin.hoyoverse.com/en/news/detail/17656.
 Tassi, Paul. “‘Genshin Impact’ Fans Protest New Sumeru Characters’ Skin Color.” Forbes. Accessed September 16, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2022/06/30/genshin-impact-fans-protest-new-sumeru-characters-skin-color/.
 Suan, Stevie. “Anime’s Performativity: Diversity through Conventionality in a Global Media-Form.” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12, no. 1 (2017): 62–79., 63.
 LaMarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 204.
 Susan Jolliffe Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, First edition. (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 16.
 She, Yasheng. “Transnational Galatea: Racializing Anime-Esque Character Design in Genshin Impact.” In Antiracist Futures: Games, Play, and the Speculative Imagination, edited by TreaAndrea M. Russworm and Soraya Murray. Duke University Press, 2023.
 Amy Shirong Lu, “The Many Faces of Internationalization in Japanese Anime,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 3, no. 2 (2008): 169–87, 172.
 Ibid., 182.
 Iwabuchi, Kōichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Duke University Press, 2002, 28.
 Ibid., 28.
 Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1988).
Yasheng She (they/them and he/him) is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Yasheng is interested in catharsis and trauma narrative in video games, films, and anime. Yasheng has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals and edited collections from the perspectives of postwar Japan, gender, and popular media.