A trio of Asian-American voice actors currently employed by Funimation recently shared their frustrations with white voice actors, primarily celebrities, acting in or voicing both live-action and animted anime productions, whilst simultaneously boasting of the freedom their profession allows them to “play outside how your body looks.”
In a May 25th piece headlined “Asian-American Voice Actors Question Why White A-List Stars Are Still Voicing Anime”, IndieWire’s Kristen Lopez published a write-up of her conversations with voice actors Emi Lo (Rena Ryugu, Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou), Apphia Yu (Rika Furude, Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou), and Shawn Gann (Hekiji Tengai, My Hero Academia), regarding their self-declared commitment “to furthering discussions about the role of Asians and Asian-Americans in voiceover roles.”
On the topic of entering the industry, Lo recalled how during her Chinese-American upbringing, “I really wanted to go into film but my parents [were] like, ‘You’re not pretty enough’. 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.”
“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,” added Gann, himself an individual of Filipino descent. “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.”
However, the Japanese-American Yu spoke positively to how voice-acting allows a respective voice actor to completely embody a different character, noting, “When it comes to voiceover I play a lot of blondes a lot more than I would have expected starting out.”
”Having that freedom to play outside how your body looks really appealed to me,” declared Yu.
Gann then told Lopez, “Eastern culture hyper-lifts Western culture, but guess what? They’re the ones doing the voices on their end,” a claim which the IndieWire reporter explained was rooted in the idea that “while Japan and China are stereotyping the U.S., they’re still allowing Asian actors to voice the characters”, which Gann believes “should be continued here, where the U.S. has a rich diversity of performers.”
This is a confusing bit of logic that appears to go against the very argument put forth by Gann, for if Asian voice actors are ‘allowed’ to and praised for their ability to voice ‘US’ stereotypes due to the location of their production, then the logic follows that white voice actors in a predominantly white country dubbing Asian characters should be considered completely innocuous, if not outright celebrated.
The trio then turned to the topic of “mainstream Hollywood productions [utilizing] A-list stars to voice their characters, even in dubbed versions of anime features”, with Yu observing that “as far as we can tell it’s not moving anymore product”, adding that “no one went to go see ‘Ponyo’ because Miley Cyrus’ little sister [Noah Cyrus] was in it.”
At this point in the interview, Yu then made one of the most baffling assertions of the entire piece, telling Lopez on the subject of representation in anime acting, “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.”
The issue preventing Yu from appearing onscreen as Black Widow is not any form of racism, but rather the simple fact that acting and voice acting require two separate and disctint, albeit related, skill sets.
Just as a screen actor may have trouble properly conveying an animated character’s emotion with only the intricacies of their voice, a voice actor would likely find trouble in utilizing elements such as subtle facial expressions or body language to portray a character live in real-time.
This argument is both disingenuous and insidious, as not only does it falsely depict voice acting and stage acting as, essentially, the same field, but this false equivalence affords Yu an unattainable goal of ‘equity’ which she can continually point to as evidence of asystemic anti-Asian sentiments.
Offering no examples but claiming that “much of the anime being done today takes place during specific eras in Japanese history and thus the voice actors should reflect that”, Yu further exclaimed that this belief was based upon Japanese “history and the things that are ingrained in that culture.”
“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,” said Yu.
Unfortunately for Yu, not only would this proposed standard prevent her (or any Asian voice actor for that matter) from starring in anime series based upon Western cultures, such as Attack on Titan, Vinland Saga, Baccano!, or Fullmetal Alchemist, but it would also work counterproductively against her own goals.
After all, if a requirement is put in place demanding that voice actors share “some familiarity and have lived in those spaces” as their characters, it would definitively prevent her from playing Black Widow or any other such white character, due to her lack of ‘familiarity’ with their cultures and experiences.
Yet, these concerns are not limited solely to the ethnicity of those serving as ‘voice actors’. Yu and Gann, both of whom have had opportunities to serve as directors at Funimation, ended the piece by voicing their frustrations with how their respective journées to these positions had “been reliant on those with power who are also white.”
“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,” said Yu. “When you advertise how many employees you have… what about managers? What about upper level?”
Likewise, Gann concluded to Lopez, “I have my foot in the door now, [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.”
What do you make of the opinions held by this trio of Asian-American voice actors? Let us know your thoughts on social media or in the comments down below!