Anime is a fairly fresh contender for the affections of geeks in America, but nearly all media has been touched by it in one way or another. Whether it’s through parodies in popular American shows such as The Simpsons, Phineas and Ferb or Family Guy, on T-shirts in Hot Topic, or through trolling around Toys R’ Us to find that Pikachu doll on your child’s Christmas list, the chances are quite good that you’ve seen something related to anime. The big eyes, poorly-timed mouth flaps, and seemingly inappropriate vocal reactions are all common stereotypes used when a creator wants viewers to know that they are parodying the style of anime.
However, anime has not just emerged into the view of the public through parodies. Within the last two decades, many anime have been given the spotlight on popular networks such as Cartoon Network, IFC, and Sy-Fy. Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon are perhaps the three shows most attributed to the 1990’s, but if you were up late and watching television often, you may remember tuning in to the occasional episode of Tenchi Muyo and Yu Yu Hakusho. It may have been as recently as this week that you’ve had to tell your kids to finish their homework before they could watch Naruto, Parasyte or Bleach.
While you may have seen one (or all) of these shows at some point, you may still be scratching your head and wondering what anime actually is. It actually depends! “Anime” is the term that the Japanese use to describe ALL animation, a nickname created by shortening the romaji animēshon (“animation”). In America however, the term “anime” applies almost exclusively animation originating from Japan. Printed comics in Japan are known as “manga,” and just as with the term “anime,” Americans usually reserve the term for graphic novels with a Japanese origin.
Despite the fairly recent attention anime and manga has received from the general masses, it has been around far longer than many of us. The very first anime can be dated as far as 1907-1911, when a 3-second film loop tentatively titled Katsudō Shashin was discovered in Kyoto in July 2005. It consists of fifty frames stenciled directly onto a strip of celluloid depicting a young boy in a sailor suit who writes the kanji for “Katsudō shashin (moving picture,)”, turns, removes his hat, and offers a salute. The creator’s identity is unknown. However, it was not until the 1948 establishment of Toei animation that anime began developing into the serial cartoons that are so popular today. Osamu Tezuka, known lovingly by many fans as “the father of manga,” created the manga series Astro Boy in 1952 and it was animated for television in 1963. It set the stage for the modern structure of an anime; a serial animation with a combination of self-containing episodes, several episode-long arcs, and long-running plots weaved into the entire series. The majority of modern anime however, cannot boast a 193 episode count like Astro Boy. Today, most anime contains 12-13 episodes per season, and run for roughly 1-4 seasons.
Because the term “anime” did not always have the marketing pull on American audiences it once did, many shows were not touted as anime when they aired, which results in many adults not realizing that their favorite show as a child was in fact, an anime (Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, and Mobile Suit Gundam, for example. I distinctly remember my mother stepfather being extremely excited over the possibility of family bonding after finding out that Speed Racer was an anime).
However, there is a large number of steps between the original release of an anime and it showing up on your television. An anime is usually adapted from a pre-existing manga, just like how many movies are adapted from books. After the vast amount of planning necessary for any artistic project to come into creation, the main director creates a storyboard (organizes illustrations or images displayed in sequence for the purpose of providing a visual displaying how the show will unfold) the anime for the animators and writers. In most cases, the voice actors (or “seiyuu”) for the characters do not enter the picture until the visual portion of the show is in development.
Upon the completion of the anime it will air in Japan. At some point a show may be licensed by an American company which will usually then give the show a “dub,” in which the original seiyuu are replaced by an English cast for American audiences. I would like to think that the streamlining of the dubbing process has contributed to the rise in the popularity of anime because it allowed many shows to be suitable for broadcast television, and more appealing to those who prefer to listen to the show in a language they understand rather than read subtitles. I would also like to think that it contributed to the rise in popularity because well, that’s the part where I come in.
I have worked in the anime industry since 2013 as an English voice actress. The average dubbing process in my experience begins with receiving a phone call or email offering them a role (a decision made by the show’s automated dialogue replacement (ADR) director), and informing them the amount of hours it will take for them to record the role. After they have accepted, the recording dates are scheduled. Recording an entire show is often done in a matter of weeks, so depending on an actor’s schedule, the length of recording sessions may vary. The longest I have recorded, for example was 9 hours straight when I had to leave the state the following day. If an actor’s schedule is open, they normally opt for several days of 4-5 hour chunks if the role is a substantial one.
Each studio is manned by a director and engineer. The director is the one who gives us the information we to know about the character, and decides the lines should be read. Because we only get to see the scenes of the show that our characters are in, it is up to the director to instantly know what emotion we should be conveying, and any nuance or subtleties that should be included that are not apparent from the scene in front of us. A director needs to know their show inside and out, so watching the entire show several times before casting is not uncommon.
The engineer is, in my opinion, the human equivalent of a unicorn. They are mythical creatures who can turn the mundane into the extraordinary. Alright, maybe it’s not that extreme, but engineers are the people you can thank for the crisp, amazing sound coming from your television. An audio engineer not only records the dialogue, but also removes mouth clicks, pops, breaths, and any other kind of vocal ugliness in real time. They are the ones who can move our lines in the audio mix to fit the mouth flaps, which saves hours of repeating lines, and many heads of hair from being pulled out. Finally, when all of the dialogue is recorded, an audio engineer “mixes” the entire audio track, adding special effects and making sure the balance between the music and every single line is just right.
Then you’ve got the actor, who has been quarantined to the recording booth, a tiny sound-proof room within the studio, who reads the lines from the script. The way we do this is through a dual monitor set-up. One computer has the script, which the director scrolls throughout the session to allow the actor to see their lines. The other television has the show playing with lowered audio, so we can see the mouth movements and try to speak in a way that fits within those movements as closely as possible. The ability to read fast is a must for voice acting, because you may only have time for a quick glance at the script before it’s time to speak. As an example of a recording booth and the recording process, I’ve attached a video of a live recording session from the anime Beyond the Boundary. What you do not see is the scrolling script, but as I am recording I am also watching the same clip of animation.
As you can probably guess, the process of acting for anime is a fairly rigorous one, and very different from stage, screen and even Western animation. Some notable differences in the process is:
1. We may not even know our characters until we step in the booth, let alone our lines.
2. The scripts and our speaking styles need to be modified to fit pre-existing mouth flap animations.
3. We are always replacing an actor, and therefore we never are the sole face for the character.
Each of these factors present their own challenges for English Anime actors. The first two are technical difficulties; they make the job challenging, but a well-written script and honed cold-reading skills allow us to overcome those obstacles.
The third, however, is where I think the hardest part of the job comes from.
Geeks in any fandom are passionate, loyal, and have time after time proven to be one of the most efficient groups of people in getting their voices heard that I have ever seen. In anime, however, this can prove to be an extremely stressful fact for the actors. Being an anime voice actor usually does not provide a stable income at all, let alone enough to be considered an “A-lister” celebrity. It does not provide a person with any fame or recognition outside of a very niche group. Therefore, most actors are just your run-of-the-mill average Joe with perfectly ordinary lives and financial worries like anyone else. Many of us enjoy social networking and browsing the internet like anyone else, because unlike the “A-listers,” we rarely have to wade through thousands of tweets or messages directed at us on a daily basis. This means that when messages are directed at us, the chance that we’ll see them are pretty good.
Because we are have often replaced a prior actor from a different language version of the anime, the success of our performance in a dub is often determined by fans based on how “close” we came to the original performance, even if the determining fan is completely unfamiliar with the language. Because of the differences in the Japanese and English language structure, the difference in vocal chords between different actors, and the cultural barriers that may necessitate jokes or phrases being written differently for the dub, a dub is very rarely an exact English replication of the original material. To some fans, any difference at all is seen as “cheapening” the product rather than as an artistic decision made in hopes of improving the English language version of the show.
This is where that passion and loyalty to a given franchise can be very hard to deal with for actors. I often see actors chastised for fans for having an “ugly” voice, or not speaking in a pitch that a fan prefers, or simply for a fan’s distaste of one line-read. While celebrities in mainstream media have to deal with vitriol on a daily basis, they often do not have the time or personal accounts necessary to actually see it. Voice actors are much more accessible, through both online avenues and anime conventions. The ways in which this chastisement manifests, however, can sometimes be hard to deal with. The following are all responses over dissatisfaction over an actor’s performance in a dub:
“A number of years ago I was at an autograph session and as I was signing autographs for a young man, he said “I’m sorry.” I asked him, “for what?” The young man then said “this is for what you did in Gantz” and slapped me as hard as he could. He grabbed his stuff (which I had just finished signing) and took off running.” – Christopher Ayres (Kei Kurono in Gantz, Frieza in Dragonball Z Kai)
“[I] sent in a VO audition… and my agent called me later to say they thought I wasn’t Asain/Japanese enough for the role. I’m Nisei and full blood Japanese from a long line of Samurai and buddhist priests.” – Tadao Tomomatsu (Mr. Shake Hands Man in Banzai, Detective Furokawa in Heroes)
“I have a high pitched voice and get cast to play 12 year olds a lot. Due to the monotone delivery the characters require I recently read a message from a fan that I don’t deserve to be paid for what I do because I am a failure.” – Caitlynn French (Shiro in No Game no Life, Ai in Sunday Without God)
“I remember we were at Anime USA and this little girl went on for five minutes about how perfect the Japanese voice for Rei was and how much mine sucked in comparison. Then she ended it by telling me to say something in Rei’s voice so everyone could see what she was talking about.” – Amanda Winn Lee (Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Heather Mason in Silent Hill 3)
“I’ve had fans message me to tell me if they ever met me in person they would “punch me in the face” for “ruining their favorite character.” The same girl said I “deserved to die for my terrible performance.” I also had someone on Twitter juxtapose a picture of me next to Predator (sans mask) saying we looked the same.” – Brina Palencia (Ciel Phantomhive in Black Butler, Mad Moxxi in Borderlands)
While this is a very small amount of examples, they highlight a very large source of apprehension and worry when it comes to recording for an anime. And while these are extreme, every actor will eventually deal with harassing messages, personal attacks and an overall air of hatred for each role they complete. Therefore, I believe that the hardest aspect of voice acting for anime is also one of the most crucial; developing the resilience and ability to self-care needed to handle these instances with dignity and acceptance.
That being said, while dissatisfied fans are often the loudest, they are merely a vocal minority. There is nothing better than finding the fans who have been brought even the smallest amount of joy by a project you worked on. I’ve always believed that at everyone’s core there is at least some desire to help others, and providing entertainment has been an unexpected way to do that while I work towards my law degree.
I’ve also been lucky enough to become a huge fan on many of the shows I have worked on. The anime I have had the privilege to watch after completion have had complex storylines and art direction that I never would have expected from a cartoon. The plots run the gamut; action, romance, fantasy, and even horror. While it may not seem up your alley, I think that if you look, there’s something for everyone.
If you’re reading this as a fan of anime, I’d like to take this moment to thank you for the support and loyalty that keeps this industry chugging. If you haven’t seen one before but are intrigued, here is a database of legal sites (both free and subscription services) where you can sample some anime and see if anything piques your interest;