Monday, June 20, 2016

Voltron Legendary Defender: Changing My Favorite Character was the Best Thing They Could Have Done

I was going to write a more general post about Voltron: Legendary Defender, because I've been a pretty big Voltron fan throughout my life and there's so much to say about the decisions the creative team made, and I still might.

But instead, I'm going to write about Shiro.

This guy.

When the original Voltron came to the US I was in elementary school and it was one of my favorite TV series ever. But being a kid with homework and piano lessons, I didn't always get to see every episode after school, but I knew most of the show. Four guys and a girl piloted robot lions that formed a big robot every episode. But there was one character who I knew very little about.

That guy, on the left. In the opening credits of every episode was this one person wearing the striking black and gold uniform. Because of a coloring book my mom bought, I knew his name was Sven, but for a long time I didn't see him in the show (because it turns out that I'd never watched the opening six episodes).

Sven took on a bit of a mythic quality for me. When I finally watched far enough, I saw the episode where he came back after having been a prisoner on Planet Doom. I was thrilled to finally meet him and as a character, he didn't disappoint. Sven had a lot more development than the rest of the cast, due to being a fusion between older brother Takashi and younger brother Ryou from the original Go Lion anime. The American adaptation probably didn't intend it, but they created a character who changed over the course of the series.

Voltron eventually went off the air, but when my family would go rent movies, I'd ask for whatever Voltron I could find, which eventually included the first five episodes, letting me see the character for the first time as he was originally presented. Looking back, his faux Scandinavian accent was atrocious, but even after I entered middle school it was still magic.

Which brings us to Voltron: Legendary Defender.

The showrunners were making an active effort to avoid having a show starring five white dudes, and as part of that, they replaced Sven with Shiro, taking the name from his original Japanese one, Takashi Shirogane.

When I first heard this, I hoped they meant to do more with this childhood character I had come to love, and not simply kill him off or remove him from most of the show just because that's what happened to the original. Sven, despite his name and accent, had scanned as Asian to me, and as a Chinese kid growing up in the US I was starved for Asian protagonists. I grabbed on to just about any I could find and came up with ways to justify how this clearly Asian character could have such a distinctly non-Asian name.

I mean, look at him. Black hair, dark eyes, and when you see his full outfit it resembles an 80s Japanese high school uniform. His character design doesn't scream Scandinavia.

So Sven reverted to Shiro in Voltron: Legendary Defender, and the creative staff talked about pulling in a lot of Takashi Shirogane's traits from Go Lion that never really carried over to the American Voltron.

It sounded good, but until I saw it play out it would only be good intentions, and I'd seen good intentions before.

There's a lot to like about Voltron: Legendary Defender, but for me personally, I was most happy to have Shiro, whose full canonical name in the show now isTakashi Shirogane (you can see it on the news in the flashback when Pidge is learning about the Kerberos incident).

It is so rare to have an Asian team leader in an American-produced show, where the series isn't about being Asian. Shiro's heritage never comes up and I'm happy. The focus is on fighting an alien tyrant and becoming a team, none of which requires that the team leader be Japanese.

Which makes it all the more important that he is.

A character shouldn't be defined solely by their ethnicity and this is a role that Asians seldom get.

Shiro doesn't fall into stereotypes. Though he knows martial arts, everyone on the team does so that's no big deal. He doesn't speak with a funny accent. He's not the nerdy Asian boy. Character design-wise he's broad-chested and the tallest member of the team. Those are not traits commonly assigned to Asian characters!

This confident guy in the middle? The obvious leader? Totally Asian.

And I'm admittedly a sucker for guys with a strong sense of duty, so as a character Shiro pushes all the right buttons.

He's not entirely the Sven I remember from childhood, but I find I love Shiro just fine.

Okay, maybe there are some things about him that haven't changed.

I have to admit, then when I saw Shiro crossing his arms and leaning against the wall, I immediately thought of Sven, because he did that so many times in what few episodes he was in.

Considering how much Asian media gets distorted and changed when adapted and brought to the US, it's amazing to actually see a previously adapted character restored and made closer to the original.

They could have named him anything when they changed his ethnicity back to Japanese, but the fact they specifically chose Takashi Shirogane means something, and I appreciate that.