Hulu’s new animated series “Hit-Monkey” takes the Marvel Universe to Japan where an American-born assassin, Bryce (Jason Sudeikis), teams up with a Japanese macaque (voiced Fred Tatasciore), to take out the Yakuza bosses who hired then fatally fired Bryce and, while offing their assassin for hire, also took time to slaughter Hit-Monkey’s troop (called tribe here). The show offers opportunities for Asian American actors to have an Asian animated face.
Although Fred Tatasciore voices the Japanese primate, other roles of Japanese people were given to Asian Americans. George Takei voices the kind and ethical politician Shinji Yokohama who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and Vietnamese American hapa Olivia Munn voices his intelligent and ambitious niece, Akiko.
Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) Ally Maki, recently heard as the voice of Giggle McDimples on the Oscar Award-winning “Toy Story 4” and Shin Nisei Nobi Nakanishi take on the roles of police officers. Maki voices Haruka, an honest detective and Nakanishi is Haruka’s partner, Ito. During the second episode (“Bright Lights, Big City”), Haruka and Ito see security footage of Hit-Monkey taking down the Yakuza.
Both Maki and Nakanishi have been to Japan, but neither would confess to embarrassing encounters with the police there, but did say their Japan experiences helped inform their portrayals.
The Kirkland, Washington-born Maki said, “I actually went to Japan for the first time a few years ago and it really changed my life. I’m fourth-generation Japanese American. Going to Japan has always been my dream. I don’t speak. My mom doesn’t speak; That’s how long we’ve been in this country.”
Yet her journey to Japan was emotional, despite not meeting any relatives. “I remember standing at the Shibuya crossing, I was sobbing and I didn’t understand why,” she said. “I was very excited to be there” Being there made her understand a lot of things about her upbringing. Since that initial visit five years ago, Maki has tried to go back every year until the pandemic closed the borders.
Maki explained, “I think being there in general was a life-changing experience for me. I don’t speak the language, but understanding the cultural elements that really lie within me. It helped me understand that other side of myself. To me it felt like a macro-emotional response. I felt I really just fit in there. In a microcosm, how Japanese people are so, ‘After you.'” They are so giving in this way. This driving intense need for me to always go last.
“There are videos of me as a kid where everyone was just diving and I go straight to the back of the line. Everyone else can go first. I think when I was in Japan there was that sense of courtesy. It’s really amazing when everyone has the kind of common respect and courtesy.”
She isn’t quite clear where her family is from and that’s might be because of some illegal doings. “Rumor has it that my great grandfather, the way that he came to this country was he was on a steamship. As soon as they were close to the shore, I guess he jumped off and swam to shore.”
Now that’s a story worth verifying and Maki admits, “I would love to discover that some day.”
Filming for the voice actors had special challenges for “Hit-Monkey.”
Maki said, “We had started before the pandemic, but then it shut down. My amazing fiancé, Travis, he is a singer, songwriter, he has this studio in our home. He is a Marvel engineer now because he helped us record.”
Besides that studio, Maki also described other means of recording at home, saying, “There are little boxes where you can put your head in to make a little sound booth.” Of course, at times, she has had to use her closet and she has “a little space that I walk in to where I have clothes on either side.”
For her, she said, “The personality of Haruka parallels my personal journey, moving out into the entertainment industry when I was a young kid and navigating that space. The main element of Haruka’s character is her being the only woman on the force in a big town (Tokyo). And I think I can understand a lot of what she feels like.”
Nakanishi’s Japan connection is less distant than Maki’s. Nakanishi’s parents were both born in Japan and he had weekly Saturday Japanese classes as well as frequent visits to Japan. That benefited him later as he uses Japanese in his business transactions.
Nakanishi said, “Both of my parents are Japanese in Japan. I got to go to Japanese school for quite a while. I stopped in high school. I picked it back up in college and then when I started my own business back in 2007, I gained a lot of Japanese clients. That threw me into the deep part of the pool and suddenly I had to relearn all my Japanese. Speaking on a daily basis will do that.”
As a kid, he went to Japan for summers. He was interested in anime and got immersed in things like “Gundam.” He did have an encounter early on with a Japanese police officer when he was lost. The officer was confused as to why Nakanishi looked Japanese but could not speak it fluently.
Nakanishi is best known as a director of the online series, “The Leviathan Chronicles,” a 50-episode serial. Born in the New York City, Nakanishi graduated from the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts with an MFA in Dramatic Writing.
As the detective in the “Hit-Monkey” series, Nakanishi says he draws on the disciplined calm and sense of honor he saw in the police in Japan. Neither officer’s voice has a fake “Oriental” accent. This is American English all the way.
In the past, an animated series like “Hit-Monkey” would likely be voiced by people who were not Asian American. Recent questions about casting and diversity, even for voice actors, has changed that, opening up more opportunities for Asian American actors.
“Hit-Monkey” was released on November 17th on Hulu.