Discussion about wages and working conditions have exploded to the surface of the anime industry over the past few years: in Japan, stories of gender discrimination, crushing overwork, lack of resources, transphobia, and general union-busting have led industry veterans to advocate for better unionization (something that did once exist); in the United States, the United Workers of Seven Seas have become the first recognized manga translator union after a hard battle.
In the world of English-language dubbing, the fight for union recognition is still ongoing, led by the Coalition of Dubbing Actors (CODA). There are contracts related to dubbing under the SAG-AFTRA umbrella, and Netflix’s anime dubs became unionized productions as of July 2021, but the majority of dubbing work currently being produced—particularly those made by the now Sony-conglomerated Funimation and Crunchyroll—are non-union productions.
Anime Feminist had a chance to talk with Zeno Robinson, acclaimed actor and vocal supporter of the unionization movement, at Otakon 2022. Robinson has voiced notable roles in both western animation and anime, from The Owl House (as Hunter) and Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir (as Nino) to Pokémon (as Goh) and Kuroko’s Basketball (as Kagami). He is probably best known for his work as Hawks in My Hero Academia, for which he was awarded “Best Performance by a Voice Actor (English)” at the 2021 Crunchyroll Awards.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and flow. Clarifying information and editorial notes are presented in brackets. Interview questions are presented in bold, responses in plain text.
You’ve obviously done so many roles in anime dubbing and western animation. If you were to pick three roles that represent a slice of your whole range, for folks who want to check out more of your work, what would you pick?
[Extremely excited to hear about Akudama Drive] So underappreciated, that dub.
I agree, it’s a very very good dub. One of the best I’ve been in.
Of all the projects you’ve been involved in, which are you the most proud to have worked on?
Actually…dang, most proud of…. Akudama Drive is one, but The Case Study of Vanitas I’m also very proud of. That one was incredible fun. Those two for sure.
You talked very warmly about your work on Craig of the Creek [at Otakon’s “Fandom & Diversity – Behind the Curtain” panel].
[extremely warmly] Oh, I love Craig. That one too.
I know a lot of people who came to admire you when you stepped up for Kimberely Anne Campbell when she got so much harassment for being cast as Nagatoro [in Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro!]. Maybe it’s a little cheesy, but what’s moved you to be the one who steps up for your fellow actors?
I think it’s recognizing my own privilege. With Black women specifically, I recognize my privilege as a Black man–especially one as outspoken as myself–I’m a little less easy to target. This industry, when it comes to harassment, tends to pick on women and especially Black women. Black women get it in the most vile ways; as a Black man, that’s not really something that I suffer.
I don’t get a lot of backlash when I’m cast, and recognizing my position and the quote-unquote “platform” that I have, I think it is sort of my responsibility to call that out when I see it and let all of my fans know that’s not okay—and to let the internet know that it’s unacceptable. I think that’s, I guess, my driving force. I’m trying to use that [privilege and platform] to protect the Black women, femmes, and femme-presenting people in my circles.
You’ve been vocally involved with discussions around creating a dub actors’ union. For folks who might not know, why are those conversations important and how is it going?
Conversations around having a dub actors’ union are important because I think dubbing and localization specifically are a highly technical skill. it’s very vocally demanding, and honestly in my experience needs the most time. Especially if you’re playing a lead. And it’s currently the least paid. And not only is it the least paid; it’s the least, I think, on the client side, invested in. it has the least amount of budget out of everything.
Anime specifically is such a booming industry. It is a billion-dollar industry. Look at any of the anime films that have released in the last couple years: specifically My Hero Academia [$29 million US box office, $98 million worldwide across three films], Jujutsu Kaisen 0 [$33 million US box office, $190 million worldwide], even the Dragon Ball Super movies [$30 million US box office, $122 million worldwide for Dragon Ball Super: Broly], they’re making between millions and billions of dollars.
I know specifically [that] one of the Jujutsu Kaisen actors worked on the film as two major roles got a total of $125 for his work on the film. And you’re talking about a movie that makes millions. [And] when you’re working in a medium that is very vocally strenuous, you’re also risking other work. So that’s why there’s been talk of dub unions, to increase wages for the actors who do this work so that they can be properly compensated for the amount of time, effort, and sacrifice they’re putting in to make these projects come to life.
I think that’s why you see a lot of voice actors, even me, coming to cons and selling their autograph as opposed to giving it away for free. Especially if you work primarily in anime which, since I’m from LA I don’t need to, but Texas actors specifically make their return on their investment at cons. Usually actors work on a project, like they’ll work on an animated show, and you’ll get that money back in residuals. You get stuff that sustains you in the form of residuals, in the form of better pay. Usually dub actors get that in the form of conventions. And that’s if you’re fortunate enough to be playing a role that will get you that kind of attention.
So that’s why I think it’s important that these kinds of conversations are happening, because a lot of the companies and corporations involved, we believe, have the budget for it. Sony just bought Crunchyroll for a billion dollars [1.175 billion], right? But they don’t want to invest that into the actors that also helped bring it to life and helped popularize it overseas.
You said you’re LA-based so it’s not as big an issue for you, but is there still the ongoing struggle about the push back toward in-studio-only recording?
Yes. So currently Crunchyroll has moved most anime dubbing that they do in-studio. With the merger, they’re getting probably, I wanna say, 98% of the anime—with the exception of [the few titles going to secondary streaming services like HiDive, Netflix, and Disney+].
With that being said, most of their work is moving primarily in-studio, and not only is no LA actor able to audition for, even be considered for, or working on anything having to do with anime last season and this season [referring to Spring and Summer 2022], it’s even affecting studios in LA. Studios that used to do anime work are not getting anime work anymore, that means certain engineers who were working on those anime have to look for other jobs, and on top of that those studios now have to look for other clients.
And to clarify, dub actors get that one-time payment, there are no residuals in the current system?
There are no residuals, yes. The current rate, standard is $75 an hour with a two-hour minimum, which means you’ll probably be getting paid $150 per session at minimum. If you’re playing a lead, you’ll probably be working for about four hours so double that, you’ll probably be getting paid $300 a session. And I think a lot of the actors are trying to move that into a $125 an hour rate, I don’t know how successful we’ve been, but that’s been the current non-union rate.
[Addendum: The rates Mr. Robinson cites are accurate to Funimation dubs prior to the new CODA-won contract agreements released in 2021; CODA’s website now lists $125 dollars an hour, with a two-hour minimum, as the non-union industry rate]