As anyone who’s ever seen a “funniest Engrish compilation” on YouTube can attest, anime isn’t always great about foreign languages. Much of the time, this is for purely practical reasons — if you already have a non-English-speaking voice actor for the character in question, but you still need them to speak English in a scene, there’s only so much you can do. The real issue comes when the character in question isn’t supposed to be fluent in Japanese.
This happens more often than you’d think, and the solution is nearly always to have a Japanese voice actor give an incredibly bad impression of a non-native speaker’s accent. This leads to both a certain amount of caricaturization and a performance hindered by a lousy fake accent. And while I can’t attest to how it comes across to a Japanese audience, as a native English speaker fluent in Japanese, it is incredibly distracting. I’ve heard some pretty bad pronunciation in beginner classes, but it never sounds like it does in anime. One solution to this problem? Cast a foreigner.
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Foreign Characters = Foreign Voices?
Lately, there have been more instances of anime using non-Japanese VAs. There are a few ways to go about this. The first is to hire voice actors from overseas, like Pop Team Epic did for the Japon Mignon segments. These segments were created by Thibault Tresca, a French animator at the Japanese CG animation studio Kamikaze Douga, and feature the main characters Popuko and Pipimi speaking French while sightseeing in France.
Of course, this is something of a special case, as Popuko and Pipimi are each voiced by twenty-odd different VAs over the course of the show, meaning consistency isn’t an issue. It doesn’t matter if they sound completely different in French than they do in Japanese, because they already sound completely different from one episode to the next. This is obviously not the case for most shows, and if a voice actor not fluent in Japanese had to try to speak the language, you’d wind up with something an awful lot like Japanese VAs trying to speak English. A fringe case, but an interesting one.
The real question is what to do for characters who are supposed to be foreign, but speak enough Japanese that getting a VA from overseas wouldn’t be practical. The obvious answer is to use a foreigner living in Japan — someone whose first language isn’t Japanese, but who speaks it well enough for the part. This might sound absurd, considering how insular the VA talent pool is, but it’s not unprecedented.
For instance, the 2014 anime Ping Pong the Animation, which featured Chinese VA Yousei Bun as major character Kong Wenge. Kong emigrates from China to Japan at the beginning of the series, and initially speaks only Chinese. Over the course of the series, his Japanese improves to a near-fluent level — the character speaks both languages enough that only a bilingual actor would be able to give an authentic performance. His Chinese-speaking mother and coach, when they appear, are also voiced by Chinese voice actors.
The 2017 anime Sakura Quest also featured a character with a foreign voice actor, a side character known as Mr. Sandal. He’s played by Vinay Murthy, an American-born voice actor living in Japan. Mr. Sandal is a beautiful blonde foreigner who wanders around town, spouting strange verse in fluent, softly accented Japanese — probably a little exaggerated, but still with the exact sort of cadence you’d hear from a native English speaker.
Unlike the Japon Mignon segments or Kong Wenge, Mr. Sandal actually speaks very little English, so there was no particular need for the people who cast Sakura Quest to go out of their way to find a VA, not when there are so many similar characters in other shows who are voiced by Japanese VAs. And yet they did go out of their way, because it does make a difference. It’s authentic rather than caricaturized, and it’s infinitely less distracting. Even the Spanish-speaking characters who only show up in two episodes are voiced by native speakers.
Why Voice Casting Matters
It might be tempting to draw direct comparisons between the casting practices of anime and Hollywood films, but it would be misguided to do so. The issue of whitewashing in American blockbusters just isn’t on the same level as that of voice casting in anime. Furthermore, to apply American understandings of these problems to Japanese production ignores the fact that ethnicity is understood much differently in Japan than in the US. I’m not an expert on the subject — just a white American who lived in Japan for a few years — so I’m not going to claim to understand how voice casting reflects Japanese perception of foreigners, or say that it’s the same as racial miscasting in Western media.
That said, prioritizing appropriate fluency in casting not only produces more authentic and immersive performances, it shows that the people involved care about depicting the character properly. It’s the same as wanting disabled characters to be played by disabled actors, or trans characters by trans actors. In fact, the English dub of A Silent Voice casting deaf actress Lexi Cowden to play the deaf lead was something of a big deal for this reason.
Between international co-productions and the influx of foreign animation talent, anime production is becoming more global all the time. It’s only a good thing that voice casting is starting to catch up.