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Monday, March 9, 2015

Does It Matter When White Actors Voice Ethnic Characters in Animated Films?



So I'll be honest: it bothers me that an animated movie so rich with Asian themes and references is voiced by a largely white American cast. I didn't put up a stink when last year's Oscar nominee The Wind Rises cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt in the lead roles, partly because the movie is so great. But that too was a problem. So now this issue is brought to my attention once again after recently watching this year's Oscar-nominated film, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA.

Granted, this version of the film, which is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, is only the American version of the original Japanese film that debuted in 2013. But why is there even a need for an English version of the film -- which uses the same story, characters and dialogue? Would it have been too crazy to sell the original lead actors, Aki Asakura and Kengo Kôra, to American audiences? Instead we have Mary Steenburgen and James Caan playing the Asian parents of Chloe Moretz's character, a young girl who soon must decide to become a traditional Japanese noblewoman and bid adieu to her life as an innocent adolescent (who we learn also has fantastical powers).

Though the whitewashed casting isn't the only concern I have about Princess Kaguya, it is the most pressing, the most objectionable one. It's also far too long, too opaque in its art direction, with the kind of pacing that makes your eyes glaze over after a while. Which is a real shame because it deeply resonates with such great themes as self-identity, the idea of not wanting to "belong to someone else" and determining the definition of "home." But it takes a long time to arrive at these themes. The film ends up becoming an often lifeless saga, and not a vibrant coming-of-age story that steadily engages its audience.

But maybe this is just me. Maybe after being wooed by lively films like Paranorman, Brave and Frankenweenie, a movie like THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA, while charming, comes off as a bit of a buzzkill. But I can't be the only one who finds a film that is so rich with themes that transcend age, time and race be portrayed by standard white American actors to be an odd thing.

2 comments:

Fisti said...

I think the reason they dispense with the subtitles and just recast the voices is because, with an animated film, it's easy to do. They just dub it so that they can sell it to the intended audience. Not many kids are going to want to read subtitles because not many parents subject them to it. I mean, my eldest does...but that's because I watch a lot of foreign films and she watches them with me, so she'll cuddle up on the couch with me and read a film the 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' and absolutely love it...but that's unusual for a seven year old. This isn't new either. I mean, I rented My Neighbor Totoro for my kids and it's dubbed by the Fanning girls, so it's something that is done for pretty much every foreign animated film. I don't take too much offence to this. For me, what Ridley Scott did with Exodus is far more offensive.

Wendell Ottley said...

I have to agree, here. With animation it's easy to redo it for whatever audience your playing it for. I'd have a problem if it were white actors doing deplorable stereotypical accents. As long as they're playing it straight, no biggie.

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