Asian-American Voice Actors Question Why White A-List Stars Are Still Voicing Anime

"I'm not mad if Scarlett Johansson plays the Major [in 'Ghost in the Shell'] as long as I get a fair shot at playing Black Widow," Apphia Yu said.
Rena from Higurashi: When They Cry GOU
"Higurashi: When They Cry GOU"

Voiceover acting is a trade with a rich history. It’s also a predominately white business. With A-list actors only encroaching more on the world of voiceover work for feature film and television, those dynamics get even more skewed.

The voiceover actors at Funimation, one of the premiere anime entertainment companies working in the field of dubbing and distributing East Asian media, are hoping that those demographics can be changed. Emi Lo, Apphia Yu, and Shawn Gann are just three of Funimation’s voiceover actors (with Yu and Gann also directing for the company), and all of them are committed to furthering discussions about the role of Asians and Asian-Americans in voiceover roles.

There’s a frankness to discussing entering the industry as an Asian-American. “I really wanted to go into film but my parents [were] like, ‘You’re not pretty enough,” Lo said. That thinking stemmed from the type of Asian women that were onscreen when Lo was growing up. “I grew up in the age where every Chinese character on TV looked like Lucy Liu…everybody had almond eyes, super long, straight hair, tall and thin,” she said.

Gann, a Filipino-American, similarly saw how Hollywood represented people that looked like him onscreen. “There are some ideas about [who] should be a leading character or what fits the mold of certain levels of intelligence when you’re onstage,” he said. “Filipino gives off another impression to people who don’t know me. I get Hispanic. I get Native American, and I have played those roles.”

But behind a microphone that’s irrelevant. With his voice he can utilize that to play everything from small, minor characters, dashing leading men, or outright monsters. In the world of anime voiceover Lo has played little boys and little girls, as has Yu, who also pointed out the lack of judgment that comes from being off camera. “When it comes to voiceover I play a lot of blondes a lot more than I would have expected starting out,” Yu said. “Having that freedom to play outside how your body looks really appealed to me.”

The rise in anti-Asian violence and the continued discussions about the lack of representation, though, are certainly making anime voice actors analyze how the system has been set up. Gann said he’s aware that the predominately white people in power who have set up studios will hire those they’re close to — and who often look like them. But that desire to check a box can also lead to a small group of the same diverse people being promoted everywhere — and on top of that anime itself is also playing on their own misconceptions of the West.

Doc from Radiant
“Radiant”© 2018 Tony Valente, ANKAMA EDITIONS / NHK, NEP

“Eastern culture hyper-lifts Western culture,” Gann said. “But guess what? They’re the ones doing the voices on their end.” In other words, while Japan and China are stereotyping the U.S., they’re still allowing Asian actors to voice the characters. For Gann, that should be continued here, where the U.S. has a rich diversity of performers.

But too often mainstream Hollywood productions utilize A-list stars to voice their characters, even in dubbed versions of anime features like the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Gann, Yu, and Lo all say they appreciate the voice dubbing with regards to Miyazaki’s work, but they’re still confused about why the belief is that A-list stars sell these movies. “As far as we can tell it’s not moving anymore product,” Yu said. “No one went to go see ‘Ponyo’ because Miley Cyrus’ little sister was in it.” Lo points out that most of these movies are aimed at children who aren’t necessarily going to notice if a big celebrity is the voice or not — they’re there for the story and characters.

It’s predominately about the concept of fairness. If a major celebrity wants to voice an anime character, than the actors already working in that field should have an equal shot at major film roles. “I’m not mad if ScarJo [Scarlett Johansson] plays the Major [in ‘Ghost in the Shell’] as long as I get a fair shot at playing Black Widow,” Yu said.

While all three actors say that voiceover work gives them the opportunity to be whoever they want, they emphasize that much of the anime being done today takes place during specific eras in Japanese history and thus the voice actors should reflect that. “It’s about the history and the things that are ingrained in that culture,” Yu said. “The more that character in the story is about a certain culture… or certain lived experience, the more I would really like the actor to have some familiarity and have lived in those spaces.”

It’s, again, why there’s more freedom within the Funimation world. The excitement and thrill of audiences being able to see themselves is onscreen, while those behind the screen are also getting a chance to show what they’re capable of as performers. For Yu and Gann, they’ve also had the opportunity to be directors for Funimation, but even that journey has been reliant on those with power who are also white.

Rio Nakamura from Assassination Classroom
“Assassination Classroom”© Yusei Matsui/SHUEISHA,ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM Committee

“Despite the fact that I actually spent a lot of time directing outside of animation no one was really looking at me until another director, a white guy, saw me, believed in me, and went to bat for me pretty hard,” Yu said. Because the pool is often so small for minority directors, Yu said, it’s not enough for white creatives to hold the door open for one — there is a need to expand the pool of talent in general so that those outside your immediate space can be included.

Even then, according to Gann, the tribal mentality and being an outsider as a person of color remains. “I have my foot in the door now,” he said. “[But] it’s still a hard push to make myself a permanent fixture amongst that group… You just have to earn that trust and a lot of the time it’s harder for BIPOCs and women to make that leap.” Yu said there also needs to be more people of color in upper-management positions. “When you advertise how many employees you have… what about managers? What about upper level?” she asked.

Lo said it’s easy to stay sheltered and ignore the grander implications of the anti-Asian hate that’s swirling outside the world of entertainment. “Just the other day I heard a friend of mine was involved in something like that… they jumped in to help somebody who was being attacked,” she said. “It really made it hit home… there are still so many people [who] are still ignoring that it’s a problem.”

Gann agreed, saying that he recently saw an anti-Asian protest happening outside his grocery store: “You realize that it could be any moment that your bubble is gone and your perception of safety is gone.”

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