Why is anime so afraid of embracing a multi-cultural cast

I have a lot of passion for Girls und Panzer and it was a delight to re-review it after watching it with a friend who visited me from distant Norway. However, one point in my review was a bit dishonest; I praised the show for being multi-cultural, even though it’s actually just as homogenous as the country from which the series hails. Allow me to explain…

Girls und Panzer is a show wherein an underdog team of girls must start up a “tankery” team and compete in a tournament in order to prevent the closure of their school. The girls learn how to drive tanks and train hard in order to compete against teams from other schools, all of which are themed after different nations. And the word “themed” is deliberately chosen here. Unless Das Finale introduces new characters, the only person in the entire plot that is not Japanese is Klara, who transferred to Pravda Girls High School in time for Girls und Pander Der Film.

Klara

Finding this out on the wikia while reading up trivia about the show is perhaps the most disappointed I have ever been with an anime, which is also why I deliberately avoid mentioning it. So, how does this work?

Well, in the world of Girls und Panzer, every school has its own battleship with an entire city on it. Japan has dozens of these ships and many of them have some historical reason for being themed after a certain culture, such as Anzio being founded by an Italian man who wanted to spread his culture to Japan. The tournament that the TV series is all about is a national one, so even though Ooarai is up against teams that use the tanks, army music, uniforms, language, and mannerisms of other countries, they are actually all Japanese girls just pretending to be foreign.

And… can I just ask why?

Carpaccio

The tournament could have easily been an international one, in which the teams go around the world in their battleships to reach various battlegrounds. The fact that the entire cast (excluding Klara) is actually just Japanese is an absurdly convoluted excuse that harms the believability of the entire franchise, and which only solves one minor plot point: that Ooarai’s Ceasar and Anzio’s Carpaccio went to middle school together and are happy to be reunited in the OVA.

Girls und Panzer would have you believe that the moment somebody leaves middle school they instantly devote themselves to a foreign culture and change their name to befit this new identity, only to revert back to a generic Japanese person the moment they start working or go to university. What Japanese parent would even want to have their children educated to be more Belgian or Bulgarian? It doesn’t add anything of value and only serves to detract from the enjoyment of the series for people who like to see a multi-cultural cast in their shows. And, I ask again, why even have this?

Black_Lagoon_C
Black Lagoon isn’t exactly a celebration of different cultures, but at least the characters are diverse and actually foreign.

While searching around for answers, I came upon articles comparing it to yellow-washing in live-action adaptations of shows like Attack on Titan and Fullmetal Alchemist, where European characters are played by Japanese actors. Defenders pointed out that Japan is socially isolated and 98% of their population is Japanese; it’d be difficult for a Japanese production to cast white actors and the target audience prefers to see fellow Japanese people in their movies anyway.

While narrow-minded, I can see how this would fit within the context of a live-action production. However, this is an animated show about little girls drifting around in historical tanks. I am pretty sure that the target demographic is more open-minded than they are given credit for. On top of that, they went out of their way to cast Sumire Uesaka and Hisako Kanemoto for the roles of Nonna and Klara, both of which are voice actresses fluent in the Russian language and who have a long-running history with the country, just to play the two characters in the series that actually speak the language associated with their school. There was clear effort and consideration put into making these characters believably foreign.

not patty
The Soul Eater universe is made more lively by pulling characters from around the world, such as making Giriko Czechian.

I can still enjoy Girls und Panzer and do still like how every school is themed, but knowing that I am supposed to acknowledge these characters as secretly Japanese always annoys me. I literally can’t comprehend why series author Ryūichi Saitaniya insisted on this plot point or why Studio Actas and Reiko Yoshida decided to keep it in the anime adaptation. If a satisfying answer exists, then I would love to hear it.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Tiger says:

    There’s probably no good reason for it, but I can think of a few reasons why this might be the case.

    Firstly, committing to a foreign cast is always risky. There’s the danger of accidentally misappropriating a certain character and their culture, and result in certain misunderstandings that audiences would not hesitate to bash or deem racist. One small mistake and you might just end up offending a whole culture (or social justice warriors), which takes away from the joy of enjoying a series, especially if it was well written.

    Secondly, its probably just too much work. I don’t know much about the author or his goals for the story, but to successfully pull of an all foreign cast could cause problems with translation. Either way, if he can’t write a convincing enough reason as to how these foreigners might be able to conveniently speak Japanese, you’d still have problems with it regardless. More effort, same outcome. So the author probably didn’t feel the need to go the extra mile anyway.

    I’ve yet to watch the series, nor have I done any research about this topic sooo it’s all just my own theories. But it’s nice to see people caring about these things. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Casper says:

      I am not very concerned about the racism aspect, seeing as they still use the stereotypes and joke about them in a lighthearted way. It now just has the optional defense of “they aren’t really foreign”, which might actually be more insulting to the kind of person who’d get worked up over the depiction of national stereotypes.

      I also wonder about how much work it’d really be to have the characters actually be foreign. I think anime fans can easily accept a convenient plot excuse for why everybody happens to speak Japanese or wouldn’t even really question it to begin with. You say it’d be more effort for the same outcome, but even if we have a relatively equal amount of plot conveniences, I think saying “these girls all just happen to speak Japanese” is a helluva lot easier than remapping the entire world to Japanese cities and coming up with a reason for why the education system would even work like this.

      Thank you for your kind comment. If you ever get around to watching the show, I hope this article hasn’t soured your experience beforehand.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ospreyshire says:

    That was a good write up. I do wish there were more multi-cultural casts in anime when the representation is done well. For someone who would be considered an ethnic minority in America (and more so if I was in Japan), I definitely don’t see that many characters who are like me that are written well. As much as I crap on American animation for being racist even today, I do have to say that Japan has their own issues as well. I even did an article about a similar subject. https://ospreyshire.wordpress.com/2019/12/11/representation-matters-pt-iii-my-thoughts-on-anime-how-i-got-into-japanese-animation-what-i-think-about-it-and-how-it-could-be-better-in-regards-to-representation/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Casper says:

      Thank you for your comment! I read your article today and that gave me a lot to think about. I remember how my friends and I were shocked when we first watched Cyborg 009, but we figured it was that bad because of how old the show was. It’s rare for me to see such blatant stereotypes in anime today, but that is also down to just how rarely we see people of color in anime in general. Your example from The Promised Neverland was a surprise to me as well. I still planned to watch that show, but am inclined to drop it from my PTW list for now. I am going to check out some more of your posts when I get the time, but have you ever considered making a list/top 10/countdown of anime that handled this representation you seek well?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ospreyshire says:

        You’re certainly welcome. I found out about your article thanks to Terrance Crow. Yeah, the old-school Cyborg 009 had questionable stuff with 008. It’s true that you don’t see many characters outside of the Asian and white spectrum in anime. I’m glad you were able to learn something with The Promised Neverland and with some of the personal experiences I had. Sure thing and thank you. My main blog is about my music and poetry, but I talk about other issues as well. I also have a review blog that covers film reviews, world cinema, anime, and documentaries. That’s actually a good idea about a list of times when anime got positive representation right. I’ll keep that under serious consideration.

        Like

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