Celebrating Black Voices in Anime with Funimation

| February 18, 2021 |

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This virtual panel is presented in partnership with Funimation.

The anime industry only continues to grow larger and more mainstream with each passing year. It’s remarkable to see the growth, whether it’s through the wider prevalence and variety of dubbed content or the number of anime-based streaming services. Anime has alway been on the fringe of pop culture’s interests, but part of what makes it such an exciting form of art is that it doesn’t just entertain audiences in unpredictable ways, but it often excels with its inclusion of underrepresented groups. This has helped anime become such a universal product that doesn’t just speak to everyone, but specifically highlights those that may get overlooked elsewhere. 

Dani Chambers (The Ancient Magus Bride, Ace Attorney, My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising) and Lee George (Appare-Ranman!, Listeners, Smile Down the Runway) are two talented voice actors from Funimation who have taken some time to discuss and spotlight Blackrepresentation in the anime industry, the connection that they’ve had with anime throughout their lives, and the power that anime has to empower certain communities. 

You can watch the full panel below or read on for the Q&A transcript!

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DEN OF GEEK: Lee, Dani, thank you both for your time today to talk about this and to begin with, did you have any kind of relationship with anime before working in it? Were you two fans before you were a part of the industry?

DANI CHAMBERS: Yeah, I grew up on anime, like Sailor Moon, Tenchi Muyo!, you know, all kinds of anime that I feel like everybody was into, but I just loved it. It was always a part of me and growing up, I loved doing theater and acting. So it was like one day I knew that I wanted to do that, but I never knew what it was. Iit’s always been a part of my life and it’s amazing that I can be a part of it like this now.

LEE GEORGE: And likewise, you could always find me on the playground, charging up a Kamehameha hot blast, or trying to instant transmit somewhere. And it was definitely a big part of my social circle growing up, which was nice to find that kind of camaraderie.

Those are definitely the shows that I gravitated to as well when I was growing up. And what do you think the initial allure was about those programs? Was it fulfilling something that wasn’t getting satisfied in other kinds of shows?

DANI CHAMBERS: I think that’s possible, yeah. When I first watched Sailor Moon, for example, I was like, “Dude, they’re cute anime girls who can kick butt with hearts and rainbows and stuff. What?” Growing up it was always seen that that kind of stuff was too girly, but it’s like now they were kicking butt with it. They destroy these weird, scary looking aliens, but with the power of love and friendship. So that was very cool to me and it helped me appreciate friendship–well I always appreciate friendship–but it made me appreciate camaraderie a bit more with my friends that I shared this with. I loved it and it allowed me to just be comfortable in it without having to be feared or judged by other people about it.

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LEE GEORGE: Yeah, I think there was, too. There’s a rawness to anime that you don’t find in more traditional cartoons. Characters feel so strongly about something that they’ll explode, or power up, or release tension in some kind of emotionally powerful way. The depth of a lot of what you see in anime is very mirrored in real life, even though it’s a little extreme. So I think that was really cool to have at your fingertips as a young adult.

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Absolutely. It’s such an exaggerated form of media, regardless of whether it’s the action, or the comedy, or the friendship. And there is a real sense of unity, not even in the programs themselves, but like the fandom around them. Fandom itself, I think has grown into a very huge thing. But in anime, in particular, there’s a very intense kind of fandom. Have you had much experience with anime fandom, whether it’s been at conventions or on social media?

LEE GEORGE: I’ve never done a convention before. I mean, I’ve gotten to do Funimation’s virtual con that they did in the middle of last year, which was incredible, but I’ve never been to an in-person convention. However, I think a cool thing that’s come out of doing voice acting is I’ve gotten a lot of messages on Instagram and Twitter from young aspiring voice actors and young anime fans, whether they be Black or what have you, just appreciating the art form, which is really cool. And it’s something I’m still not used to, but it’s incredible to see and experience.

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DANI CHAMBERS: So I’ve done like two conventions at most, but I’ve had one person come up to me, which really resonated with me. They loved my performance of a character and they didn’t say that it necessarily changed their life, but it kind of like helped evaluate the situation that they were going through at the time. That’s what I want to do. I want to help. Like Lee, I’ve also had messages sent to me from, you know, other POC aspiring voice actors who want to do this. And they’re like, “Thank you for helping and inspiring me to go do this.” And that’s why I wanted to be doing this. Just to see others go after their dreams and actually do the thing that they said they wanted to do is so heartwarming. So seeing that in the community just fills my heart up with so much joy and I’m glad it’s happening.

That’s amazing. I think it’s so important when children see themselves represented in something and it must be so validating to be a part of that and to give those kids that experience, especially when you’ve gone through that same thing yourselves.

LEE GEORGE: Absolutely. Recently I was talking to a friend about this and how there’s a difference between wishing for something and hoping for something. So when you don’t see yourself in the things that you enjoy and doing them later in life, it feels more like a wish than a hope. You hope for attainable things, but you wish for, you know, the ability to fly or to do a Kamehameha one day. So being a part of that transformation of turning voice acting as a wish into a hope just brings a smile to my face all the time.

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I think anime has the ability to tell some very creative stories that couldn’t be done anywhere else, but it also examines such a wide spectrum of characters that aren’t necessarily human, or can even feel beyond race at times. Has that made a difference at all when it comes to representation and casting or the variety of characters that you’re able to play in anime versus other mediums?

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LEE GEORGE: Yes, that’s definitely true that anime is full of the wildest creations. I don’t know that I’ve played many non-human characters, but we’re talking about a medium where they don’t necessarily have our same racial context that we kind of place on ourselves and the world around us. So being able to voice a character who is fair-skinned, but has naturally blue hair and can summon a soul sword feels as different as voicing a dragon creature. It’s easier to detach my self-identity as a Black man to who this character is even though I’m the one voicing it.

DANI CHAMBERS: Lee pretty much took the words right out of my mouth. I come from a theater background where you kind of have to fit the mold of what the play calls for. So jumping from where my options are limited to a medium where I can pretty much be anything was a huge realization. I can be a depressed anime girl with red hair and magic powers. That’s amazing. It was truly like a shock jumping into this industry, but it made me aware that I shouldn’t have to be limited in this industry. It was just a very important wake up call for me.

It’s interesting to see how anime has also gained such a presence in the rap and hip hop community. Why do you think there’s been that response or that synergy between those particular markets?

LEE GEORGE: It’s easy to reduce an anime plot into something that mirrors the Black experience. My Hero Academia for example, is about an unpowered youth in a world, surrounded by people with powers and privileges. Midoriya’s perception in that world is that he wishes for the opportunity and finally gets the chance to show that he deserves that same respect and ability. And that he can do great things with that kind of power. So I think that since rap is all about expression and breaking through molds that we or the world put ourselves into. They kind of go hand-in-hand, in a way.

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DANI CHAMBERS: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. It breaks the mold of what people expect us to be in. Everybody has their own box of what they think people should be looking like or sounding like. Anime kind of broke that and just went in a way where it doesn’t have to follow what the world deems and it can be whatever it wants. Being in this culture kind of opened their eyes and realized that, “Oh my God, these stories are like ours!” And they are stories that can help us change, not only ourselves, but our communities around us. And I think that helps inspire other people to make change, too. 

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The people who are influenced by it in that culture and have influence over their communities can help spread that same message of what the anime was saying. It helps people to change their behaviors and negative mindsets, which is helpful to all cultures and communities. When there are influential people who take up a stand like that and explain why they think that it’s cool then it can read to really positive change.

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There have also been changes going on in the voice acting industry over the past year to kind of show effort towards better representation being reflected. There was the recasting of roles in Big Mouth and Central Park. Do you think actions like that are helping move the industry in a more positive direction and getting things in what’s perhaps a better place?

DANI CHAMBERS: For me, with people stepping down from those roles, I personally don’t think they really needed to do that. I think that what we’re trying to get at is the opportunity to audition and to be a part of it, not just a pity cast because we need this person. We don’t want to get cast just because we’re the only POC people available for this role. We want every opportunity to audition for whatever role there is. Not just because we fit this mold of what they want. Obviously there’s a difference with things like historical pieces that require it. But when it comes to anything that’s fantasy it should go beyond being limited to play just the minority characters. We should have access to everything just like how everybody else does. So it’s a matter of opportunity rather than requirement, if that makes sense.

LEE GEORGE: I 100% agree with that. However, to also play devil’s advocate because I think it’s worth it with this discussion, I also come from a theater background and as an actor you’re expected to play outside of yourself. That’s a main argument for why I shouldn’t have to be confined to my own racial identity when it comes to acting in any form or medium. I think in certain arenas, as they are right now, the majority have a large claim on a lot of opportunities as Dani was pointing out, and opportunities are a thing that we want.

If the argument is that you should be able to act outside of yourself so that you can play these roles that are written as people of color, then what’s happening is that there’s a disregard that a marginalized group is saying that we’re having a hard time even playing ourselves in these roles. Some people are worried about expanding beyond their range and we’re just trying to get the representation that’s written for us in certain media. So, absolutely, it’s all about opportunity and we have to reach a point where there is enough intake of people of color roles so it even moves beyond opportunity and it’s not about racial casting or stereotyping when it comes to those roles.

Dani, I suppose the inverse of that can be seen with how you voice Ironheart in Marvel Avenger Academy. It must be exciting to see these new versions of these iconic characters happening now that would have seemed impossible not that long ago.

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DANI CHAMBERS: Yeah, it’s really cool. When I got that audition I was excited, but then when I booked it I just freaked out. It’s an incredible opportunity for something like that where it’s a Black superhero who is also female. You want to cast somebody–a Black female–for that role because of representation, but to have the opportunity to do that was amazing. It was just a few lines for a mobile game, but it’s still had a huge impact on me. A lot of people have been like, “Oh my God, I loved your Ironheart in Marvel Avenger Academy. You inspired me. I wanted to go voice anything too.” That’s so important to help people realize that they can voice anybody that they want. It was really a dream come true.

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Amazing. Both of you have played very diverse characters that have gone all over the spectrum. But are there any kinds of roles that you haven’t gotten to tackle yet that you’d like to be able to explore at some point?

LEE GEORGE: I’d love to play someone that’s just really eccentric and out there. I have the tonal variety of a robot, so it’s often sullen characters and maybe emotionally unavailable individuals, which I totally understand. But I’d love a chance to just really get weird. I don’t know why. The actor in me is like, “Oh that’d be fun. That’d be really cool.”

DANI CHAMBERS: I think for me it’s kind of the opposite. I play a lot of eccentric characters, like little girls or the childhood best friend who’s just always happy. Like my first role was a very monotone, very depressed character. So that was fun, but I think I’d want to try maybe like a hero or somebody who is very committed to their mission. A very mission-centered person who wants to accomplish whatever they need to, but then gets betrayed in the end and just kind of Hulks out. I’d love to do that.

With all of this talk on representation, are there any anime series that have made you feel especially seen or a program that excels in that area? 

DANI CHAMBERS: Well I’m not in it, but Lee is. Appare-Ranman! Is a good one. It has a whole cast of fun characters with different accents and there’s a lot of diversity, even with the voice actors. It’s so good and it’s just a lot of fun to watch. It’s a big race and you just get to enjoy the characters. They all have culture-specific problems and it’s so interesting how everything collides together, yet they can still work together through the chaos. 

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LEE GEORGE: That’s too sweet. Well I’ll also say to look out for Horimiya, which is new and looks incredible. The cast is just all heavy hitters and very diverse. I’ve been told that it’s a hidden rom-com in the making. So if that’s your cup of tea then definitely check out Horimiya. 

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Great picks, and Dani, what you said about Appare-Ranman! and its dubbing is so true. Other series like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure will also experiment with regional dialects in dubs and I think it allows the dubs to get even better than the original version in some cases. It’s fun to see that come together.

DANI CHAMBERS: It’s great. Actually, Appare-Ranman! and Horimiya are both directed by Caitlin Glass and she cares a lot about casting diversity and making sure that everyone gets an opportunity. She’s a phenomenal director and it’s great that she’s a big part of this. I’m grateful to her so much.

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LEE GEORGE: Likewise.

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