When it comes to casting for diverse roles in any form of media, Asian Americans are woefully underrepresented. Hollywood has created big budget projects using Asian inspired media for decades, such as with releases like the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell, and Dragonball. But none of these films have had Asians in their foremost lead roles.
In recent years, video games have been picking up the slack with much better representation of Asian characters, such as Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs, Faith Connors in Mirror's Edge, and Morgan Yu in Prey (2017). Nevertheless, there are still challenges when it comes to casting the appropriate voice actors for these kinds of roles. Many of them stem from marginalization, unequal access to opportunities, personal biases, monetary restrictions, and more. However, the video game industry is slowly improving in both representing Asian characters and the Asian American voice actors behind them.
Daisuke Tsuji is a Los Angeles based actor who has done voiceover work in video games, such as Death Stranding and Prey (2017). His big break into the video game industry is that he is also the voice actor behind the samurai Jin Sakai, the main character in the upcoming Ghost of Tsushima.
Tsuji tells me that he thinks the number of opportunities for Asian Americans in voiceovers seems to be rising. "The fact that more casting directors and producers are conscious of, and dedicated to, hiring Asian American actors to play Asian/Asian American roles is promising. But we definitely can't get lax about this. The number of Asian American roles are still small compared to Caucasian roles," he suggests.
Voice acting is a big and open industry where almost anyone can get involved. Being able to act behind a recording booth in a studio allows for much more versatility in performances. Oftentimes voice actors have to use their imaginations during certain scenes, and that creativity can spark in anyone, regardless of any kind of physical barrier.
One element that differentiates games from movies is its reliance on voice acting. Voice actors aren't limited by what they look like in front of a camera, and as a result can assume many more different types of roles.
"One of the wonderful things about voice-acting is not being limited to how you look to be considered for a role, so there's potential to be cast as varying ages, gender, and race as long as you fit the role." says Xanthe Huynh, who has starred in many high profile Japanese role-playing games, including Persona 5, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3.
But while voice acting removes the barrier of physical appearance, sometimes how a character sounds can be limited to the creator's perception. Kimlinh Tran, who has done voiceover work for games such as Wargroove and Skullgirls, notes that productions that insist on casting characters with heavy Asian accents have certain implications: it "others" Asians, framing them as different or alien to the rest of society. "To put it another way, first or even third generation Asian Americans that don't sound 'American,' which leads to a whole other can of worms of whether an actor of Asian descent's audition sounds 'Asian enough' or 'too Asian'—a struggle many other marginalized actors deal with too," Tran says.
For Tran and many other Asian Americans growing up, Asian accents were seen as just jokes and performing them would just reinforce existing prejudices. However, she learned to portray characters by tapping into what makes them human, rather than just a stereotype. Trying to erase an Asian accent would rid an entire culture that audiences otherwise wouldn't be aware of.
Tran talks about how she overcame that barrier through her work in the Overwatch animated shorts. "So I grew more comfortable with Asian accents by exploring D.Va being jealous of Brigitte's cat, being raised by Junkrat and Roadhog, and generally being a cute gremlin. I highly doubt I'd be able to do anything like this in professional, commercial productions any time soon."
In general, video game voice acting is an incredibly demanding craft. Huge open-world games in particular require more voice actors than other games. so those types of games are great opportunities for voice actors to get a lot of work compared to other entertainment mediums. As a result, voice acting in video games could possibly allow Asian Americans to stand out more.
Tsuji says that being involved with motion capture and voice acting for a major project such as Ghost of Tsushima has given him tremendous amounts of experience, as well as putting his name on the map for future opportunities. He explains, "I have also gained all the practical lessons of being on set, the confidence and a sense of belonging in this business. And that counts for a lot. We, Asian Americans, need all the opportunities we can get so we can be better at our craft, be more seen, and therefore be more hirable for future projects."
From Blind Casting to Authentic Casting
The worst case scenario that can happen when trying to cast diversely is tokenism. If an Asian actor or actress performs a problematic and racially stereotypical character, then the casting either doesn't push the needle forward or it actively makes the perception of minority roles worse. This is especially true surrounding projects with big budgets. These projects are spearheaded by institutions with tremendous amounts of power and influence, as well as with huge audiences in mind. Mass audiences will absorb these ideas of tokenism, and unfortunately, typically won't seek out alternative stories from smaller creators that offer more diverse and nuanced perspectives.
While it's important to ensure that the best voice actor receives a certain role, the reality is that opportunities between white voice actors and minority voice actors aren't equal. Color blind casting is the practice in which factors such as ethnicity, skin color, body shape, sex and gender aren't considered. Authentic casting is the opposite, where those factors are considered in order to portray a more genuine role.
Stephanie Sheh has experience with casting for roles herself, and has also voiced characters in games such as Indivisible, Devil May Cry 5, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Sheh explains that authentic casting can provide many benefits. "You are creating opportunities for minority performers who suffer from the same problems of systematic racism that all minorities do," she says. "So by making an effort to cast authentically, you are helping to balance out the opportunities."
In addition to her voiceover credits, Tran tells me that as a casting director, she has exercised color blind casting before and that it works in cases where a relatively unknown voice actor can be recognized alongside more name-famous ones, instead of being ignored. However, this approach fails when it comes to casting for authentic roles, especially when the casting pool is limited to ones who the casting director knows and trusts.
"Many would argue that it doesn't matter who gets the part so long as the performance is good," says Tran. "That would be the ideal, but as it stands now, more needs to be done to break the cycle." She also echoes Sheh's sentiment regarding systematic racism, noting that there are socioeconomic barriers that affect actors from accessing certain casting pools.
Another benefit of casting authentically is that it can lead to actually enhancing the project, especially those with non-English names, places, history, and culture. For Huynh, authentic casting has impacted areas outside of just voice acting. "I think there's potential for the actor to give the character a richer depth with informed choices," she says, "and potentially educating and inspiring writers so they don't just resort to generalizations." In Sheh's own experiences, productions were enhanced in ways she didn't anticipate.
Ultimately, there are still certain restrictions when it comes to casting authentically. Factors such as perception and preferences play a part during the final decision. Tran says that people still fall back on inaccurate implicit biases about body type or skin tone, when those traits shouldn't affect one's ability to voice act.
She also notes that authentic casting is easier when her own clients trust her enough to determine who gets a certain role. However, sometimes she has to go through a committee, explaining, "It's much harder when there are more people to veto decisions, not only because there are more people to convince, but also because there are more preferences to work with." No single "right" preference exists, and voice acting provides a huge range of performances coupled with different nuances between each actor.
In Tsuji's case, his casting as Jin in Ghost of Tsushima was perfect; he was a Japanese American voicing a Japanese protagonist. However, when it comes to portraying real-life Asian characters, how appropriate is it for Asian Amercans to play a different Asian role from their specific ethnicity? A recent example of this would be the voice actor Greg Chun. Chun is Korean, but he provides the English voiceover for a Japanese character, Takayuki Yagami, the protagonist of Judgment. Most people don't really have problems with white non-American actors playing American roles, such as Benedict Cumberbatch in Dr. Strange and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird. So why would Asian American roles, albeit in films, video games, or other media, be any different?
Tsuji notes that Asian countries all speak different languages, and even one single country can have many different dialects. With that in mind, this also comes with very specific cultural differences. "When the role is Asian American, I think it's fair game for any Asian American actor to play that role, regardless of their lineage," he says. "The same rule applies for an Asian specific role, but performed in English."
However, Tsuji says that in either case, it greatly helps to specifically have the lead for a certain project to be the same background as that character. He notes that while he felt very lucky to have booked his role in Ghost of Tsushima, at the same time Sucker Punch Productions was also very lucky to have someone who could speak both Japanese and English, as well as have the lead actor be of Japanese descent. "As the lead, I had the privilege and responsibility of setting the Japanese-while-speaking-English tone for the project. I also had the privilege of working with many great Asian American actors, who then worked with and around that tone I have set."
Regardless, if a project is rooted in a specific culture that is not the same as the creators', production should take all the necessary steps to respect the culture, and not come off as just surface level fascination. It's also, as Sheh adds, not wholly the actor's responsibility to be the experts in these situations.
"I can honestly tell you that [Sucker Punch] are some of the most collaborative, humble, nicest guys I've ever worked with. And they've done as much research as they can and they've hired many Japanese culture specialists to help with [Ghost of Tsushima]," Tsuji says.
The Trickiness of Localization
Localized projects can sometimes be a tricky venture with regards to authentic voice acting, especially Japanese anime and imported video games. Sheh explains that with localization, games are catering toward a western audience. In many instances, no specific race or ethnicity is stated. In some cases, too, such as in sci-fi or fantasy, races might not even exist in the fictional world. However, the idea of respecting the culture still remains when it comes to localization.
"If the project is rich in a country's history, lore, and culture, then there should be a larger effort to cast the main characters authentically," Huynh says.
On the other hand, for projects that aren't super specific, she thinks a wider net can be cast so the best actor or actress for the part is chosen.
The voiceover industry, as a whole, is still aiming for a level playing field where appearance doesn't hinder one's ability to succeed. Tran says many African American voice actors are still left out of casting calls for anime-style roles unless the characters physically look like them. Examples include John Eric Bentley, who voices Barret Wallace in Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Roy Wilson, the voice actor behind Sazh Katzroy in Final Fantasy 13.
"Among marginalized voices, Asians, especially East Asians, are privileged to be a 'model minority,'" she says. "[T]hey can voice for white characters and people won't bat an eye, whereas certain members of the audience will go nuts when a black person voices a white superhero, for instance."
Sheh mentions that monetary budgets can also be a deciding factor. "You may have a few tiny parts with only a handful of lines that are of PoC, but you don't have the budget to bring in another actor. That can happen too. So I think the main thing is that production makes an effort whenever possible."
The topic of representation in media has always been present, and it's more important now more than ever. Consumers have access to a vast ocean of different kinds of entertainment and media, so it's natural for audiences to see themselves represented in them. Asians and Asian Americans, in particular, have been underrepresented in western media, the culturally dominant force across the globe. While many roadblocks still need to be overcome, such as discrimination and inequity, the video game industry continues to make strides.
To Sheh, the voiceover industry is farther along in terms of authentic casting than other counterparts in the entertainment industry. "That's not to say I don't still hear horror stories from my peers," she says. "But I feel like we've come really far and I'm grateful for all the people I've worked with who've been sensitive to and championed this issue."
Yet, there's still quite a bit to go. As Tsuji says, "With the rise of racist attacks against Asian Americans in this country while the president calls the [COVID-19] the 'Chinese virus,' the storytellers in the States have the power and responsibility to cast more Asian Americans as regular Americans, as heroes, as people."