Screenshot from Castlevania Nocturne that depicts Annette forming a cross with two pieces of iron as she does battle against a vampire.

Niche

Castlevania’s Annette Brings Heritage and a Pantheon of Gods to Konami’s Classic Series


In 2023, the gothic world of Castlevania returned to televisions around the world, with an all-new entry into the series’ animated universe. Castlevania: Nocturne, an anime-inspired series by Frederator and Powerhouse Animation, took viewers away from the times of Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard to focus on Richter Belmont and an all-new main character. Specifically, Nocturne introduced Annette, an Afro-Caribbean witch and former slave, who serves as an important step forward in Black representation.

Representation in the Anime Landscape

This is made particularly relevant in a fight scene in the series’ fifth episode. In a French graveyard, the stillness of the night is broken by the sounds of battle, as vampire Comte de Vaublanc dodges a slash from a magically conjured sword. The blade’s wielder, Annette, is one of de Vaublanc’s former slaves from the colony of Saint-Domingue, which stood on the island now known as Haiti.

Vaublanc lunges for the woman’s jugular, but instead takes a moment to revel in his victory. He taunts his victim in a manner befitting a sadistic child toying with an insect. It grants Annette just enough time to summon a second blade. While Vaublanc dodges, he’s trapped as Annette improvises a cross using her magic, and the cemetery gates. Vaublanc’s hands burn as he touches the metal. Panicked, he proclaims that Annette and “her people” will always be seen as “slaves,” as the rising sun burns him to little more than cinders, while Annette remarks that “the natural order has been restored.”

Screenshot  from Castlevania: Nocturne that depicts Annette fighting off the vampiric Comte de Vaublanc
Castlevania: Nocturne S1(L to R) Thuso Mbedu as Annette, Vampire in Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Television and film critic LaNeysha Campbell notes that, in recent years, anime has seen Black women gain prominence through “characters like Carole from Carole & Tuesday, Yoruichi in Bleach, and Canary in Hunter x Hunter, who are great examples.” Even so, they had a rough start even as recently as a few years ago.

“Initially, there wasn’t much representation of Black women and girls in anime,” she explained. “When featured in an anime, they were sometimes designed with racist caricature features, used as plot devices, or designed ambiguously to otherize them. For example, various anime will give dark, brown-skinned characters white hair.” Beyond this, “Black female characters were usually in minor supportive or one-off roles. They didn’t have much of a character arc or development. Let alone be a heroine or a serious love interest.” This can be credited to  more Black women showing their love to anime, with singer Megan Thee Stallion being a particular proponent of the medium.

An Exploration of Culture

It’s through Annette, that the team shines a light on the slave trade in the former French colony, as well as the religions and gods that came to the new continent with the African diaspora that would make up significant parts of the population in countries like Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Annette’s father, for example, descends from Ogun, the Orisha of iron and War. Her mother, meanwhile, claims Orunmila, the Orisha of divination, wisdom, and intelligence,as her ancestor – both Orishas originated in Nigeria and Benin -. This is something I can personally relate to as, while I was raised a Catholic and am currently a Buddhist, my grandparents introduced me to the mythology of the Orishas, which are part of our African heritage. As such, names like Ogun, Shango, and Oshunmare are more than mere novelties to me, and the prejudices of the characters resonate on a personal level.

Best-selling Brazilian author PJ Caldas is best known to English-speaking readers for his book The Girl From Wudang (2023). Before this, though, he became a household name in Brazil by reintroducing the Orishas’ lore to mainstream pop culture with the fantasy trilogy Gods of Both Worlds in 2013, 2014, and 2015, along with 2017 spin-off The Mother, The Daughter and The Holy Spirit. Caldas did vast research for his books and feels that, from a mythological standpoint, the Castlevania: Nocturne staff did a respectful job in their portrayal of Annette. 

Screenshot from Castlevania: Nocturne that depicts Annette in a cemetery, as she turns toward the rising sun.
Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Thuso Mbedu as Annette in Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Cr. NETFLIX © 2023

“I like the fact she exists,” he explained in an interview. “That the story hints at different gods and their powers, even the way she talks about how we are all descendants of Gods. That is a way to make a wider audience start to know about that universe and get curious about it.” He notes that “there are obviously some imprecisions I would have done differently, like having her talking about Hell etc.,” but chalks it up to her being “kind of a guest on an entertainment universe that isn’t hers — there would obviously be imprecisions. Even when I wrote my books, taking old legends of the Orishas and mixing them together, I created imprecisions too. So, I tend to be OK with that. For as much as I’ve seen her, Annette seems to have been built with love and respect in mind, and that matters a lot to me.”

In the Castlevania video games, Annette was originally portrayed as a white woman and the girlfriend of Richter Belmont, the protagonist of the 1993 game Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. In the game, she could serve as a damsel in distress or as an adversary, after being turned into a vampire. The show’s version of Annette, on the other hand, follows a journey shared with previous Black women in the medium, while also carrying with herself Yoruba and Vodun lores. 

Breaking From Convention

For Campbell, Annette is a character who breaks away from the conventional portrayal of Black female characters. “She defies the tendency to reduce such characters to a singular attribute, often limited to their strength or utility to the main cast,” she explains. “Her narrative independence also sets Annette apart as a revolutionary and refreshing addition to the canon.”

Campbell also sees Annette rising above many of her counterparts, who typically find themselves locked into supporting roles. She notes that “Annette’s story and motivations stand on their own merits. A singular focus doesn’t drive her to help other main characters like Richter. Instead, her goals and desires organically align with the other characters’ convictions.” 

Screenshot  from Castlevania: Nocturne that depicts Annette a she fights a merperson
Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Thuso Mbedu as Annette in Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Cr. NETFLIX © 2023

Indeed, Annette is presented as a “beacon of strength and resolve, both as a freedom fighter and a sorceress, garnering admiration,” according to Campbell. “Yet, it’s in the moments that reveal her vulnerability and past trauma, the glimpses of the little girl who had to grow into a leader, where Annette truly captivates audiences.” The character shies away from the ‘strong female lead’ stereotypes, as she displays layers of depth to offer insights into her joys and weaknesses, while not ignoring that she had to steel her heart and body in order to hunt vampires in Europe. 

One of the more divisive debates within the Castlevania fandom was to keep the Nocturne incarnation of Annette as an original entry to the franchise, while maintaining the original character within the timeline. It’s a line of thought that I share myself, as we’ve seen in Spider-Man, Peter Parker and Miles Morales can coexist and, more importantly, complement each other. It was this consideration that led me to ask Campbell whether she feels that Annette could stand on her own.

“Absolutely!” she replied. “Annette is a captivating character in her own right; she has qualities that can engage and draw in audiences, even if introduced as an entirely original creation. I would love to see more anime about Black people hunting monsters with magic tied to their culture and heritages as Annette does.”

Resonation With the Struggles of the Real World

The followers of the Yoruba and Vodun religions and their offshoots are often victims of various forms of persecution, from stereotypical portrayals in media to physically violent acts. For example, in the Rio de Janeiro favelas, drug gangs formed a coalition with evangelical pastors to root out those who follow the Yoruba gods from the impoverished neighborhoods through aggression and extortion. Meanwhile, in American society, Haitian descendants face overt prejudice through stereotypical portrayals in literature, film, and television, among other media. As such, Annette’s arrival to the cultural forefront is timely, to say the least.

“The series did an excellent job of developing Annette’s character and background,” Campbell explained. “You can tell the writers really did their research and aimed to portray various elements of her culture authentically.” She added that she “particularly loved how they included multiple aspects within the African diaspora through Annette’s powers and abilities connected to the Orishas and Haitian Vodou.”

Screenshot  from Castlevania: Nocturne that depicts Annette conjuring a water spell.
Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Thuso Mbedu as Annette in Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Cr. NETFLIX © 2023

In the past, the Yoruban gods were given prominence and presence in Brazilian culture through the books of 20th Century writer Jorge Amado. His stories, such as The War of the Saints and Showdown, would be translated into forty-nine languages, and released in fifty-five countries worldwide. His stories were adapted into films, series, and telenovelas. And while a combination of prejudice and fear led the Brazilian cultural and entertainment industries to avoid these gods, they would emerge once more in 2013, through the books of PJ Caldas.

“There have been a few initiatives to bring [the Yoruban gods] to pop culture,” Caldas explained in an interview, adding that “I wasn’t the first and thankfully not the last either. It’s important that artists keep bringing it back, keeping it fresh, so more generations learn to appreciate these stories that are so important to the global cultural universe.”

When asked if prejudice and hatred play a role in creators avoiding African heritage gods, Caldas posits that, “At this point, I’d say it’s mostly fear. Not necessarily religious fear or ethnic fear like in the past, but business fear.” He added that beyond the creative and cultural forces of the world, “there are business people who know a few formulas, what they call ‘best practices.’ Anything that deviates from that, makes them afraid. Mythological worlds rooted in Africa now impact culture everywhere, but these decision makers are still unsure if they would have enough market for that.”

Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Thuso Mbedu as Annette in Castlevania: Nocturne S1. Cr. NETFLIX © 2023

By making her African diaspora and Haitian heritages a core part of the character, the show’s staff was able to craft Annette as a realized, layered individual. Through her motivations and aspirations, she’s able to serve as a bridge between the present and the ancient, unknown-to-pop-culture Yoruban Gods, while standing as a charismatic individual on her own. “The legends of the orishas are beautiful,” PJ Caldas remarked. “They deserve to be told. Hopefully, characters like Annette will get people curious enough to allow other pieces of work that go deeper into that specific mythology to shine, not as a supporting role, but as the universe itself.”

In the end, Annette is a character who portrays how diversity can be introduced in a decades-old franchise without choosing the easy route of tokenism by going deeper. Annette is different from many other Black fantasy characters because she uses her African diaspora and Haitian heritage. The Yoruba gods are ancient, still in pop culture they are practically unknown, and this feeling grows when compared to Norse, Greek, Aztec, Japanese, and Chinese mythologies. But, more importantly, Annette herself serves as a vital bridge between many mostly forgotten worlds.

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