Why Do Dubs Cast Men As Boy Characters, while Japan Casts Women?

by Justin Sevakis,

Kevin asked:

In many anime in Japan, the roles of young men are played by female voice actors. Shinji in Evangelion (Megumi Ogata), Ed and Al in Fullmetal Alchemist (Romi Park and Rie Kugimiya, respectively), and (the not-as-young) Himura Kenshin (Mayo Suzukaze); yet in the English dubs, these same roles are often played by male actors--Shinji was voiced by Spike Spencer, the Elric brothers by Vic Mignogna and Aaron Dismuke, and Kenshin by Richard Hayworth. While this isn't always the case (Ash in Pokémon, Naota in FLCL, and in American shows, Bart Simpson of The Simpsons and Dexter of Dexter's Laboratory), I'm curious why anime dubs often have males play these roles, especially given that there is a precedent for having women play male roles in American animation as well. Is this simply about the pool of available talent, or is there some kind of philosophical difference?

Casting boy voices is one of the hardest parts of making an Anime Dub. There are only a handful of convincingly young-sounding male actors. Child actors are hard to work with, subject to difficult scheduling issues, and can't be used at all if the anime is too raunchy. And as for casting grown women, there are surprisingly few good American voice actors that can really pull off sounding like a boy. The handful that do seem to quickly get snatched up by higher echelons of voice recording (women such as Nancy "Bart" Cartwright and Christine "Dexter" Cavanaugh), who are completely out of reach for the comparatively poorly paid world of anime dubs.

Japanese audio directors cast women in male voice roles not just for boys, but teens and even adult men like Himura Kenshin. That would never happen in the US, because they just wouldn't sound right to us, and the sociology of American media consumers definitely plays a part in that. The Western idea of what guys sound like is simply lower.

In Western, and particularly American society, we take voice pitch as a measure of masculinity. From radio DJs to rappers to announcers, the aesthetic has always been low-pitched and intimidating. A low voice usually means a bigger body, and therefore (hypothetically) stronger and more imposing, and we subconsciously don't take higher-pitched voices as seriously. For decades, American radio DJs would chain smoke, intentionally trying to lower their voices to give themselves an edge. While obviously we don't expect exactly the same for boys, there is definitely an expectation that they sound substantially rougher and lower than women. Whether this expectation bears out in reality is another matter: when I was a pre-teen before my voice changed, people would confuse me for my mother over the phone all the time.

Add to that, a centuries-old Japanese tradition of women cross-dressing as men, in everything from samurai stories to Takarazuka Theater, and you simply have a gulf between one country that naturally buys into higher-pitched sounding male characters, and another country that doesn't. You also have a female voice talent pool that's more used to "roughing up" their voices in order to sound like boys. The art of adapting and dubbing anime is full of little nuances like this. Japan can seemingly get away with all sorts of things we just can't for whatever reason.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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