Can English-Speaking Fans Critique Japanese Voice Acting?

by Justin Sevakis,

Eldar asks:

Recently I showed an anime (it was Fullmetal Alchemist) to my close friend, who's a professional theatre director (he works on television these days) and while he liked what he saw (I think), one of his questions baffled me. He asked me why there's no genuine emotion in the performances of voice actors. He said that most performances were either cartoonishly black or extremely white without shades of grey (I guess what he meant is that they lacked nuances and subtleties). I half jokingly replied that he just doesn't speak Japanese and should learn it. But can we really say how good or bad voice actors are without knowledge of language? With live-action films you can always see how expressive actor is, his/her physical and emotional performance always present on screen. However, we don't have this luxury with animation and video games, since there is only voice and art of delivery.

You can, although frankly, most people are not qualified to do so. You have to really develop an ear for tone of voice and little quirks within the speech pattern that give away some of the same things that body language would in live action. It's not something that comes naturally to anybody, it's a skill that must be developed. And for most people, it's a skill that has absolutely no positive purpose.

As any Japanese speaker will tell you, anime voice acting does not sound natural at all. In fact, the ways in which it's unnatural are very similar to the ways in which many English dubs can sound unnatural: they're rife with overly-perfect diction, general hamminess, and people "doing voices" rather than actually acting. Many voice actors -- even popular ones -- are also sometimes guilty of falling into a standard dramatic tone that they just use for everything: if you played back their performance in one show while staring at a picture of their character from another show, you would never notice any difference in what they're doing.

It's standard anime voice acting -- which is a varying combination of broadcast voice work, naturalistic acting, classical stage voice work, and a discipline all its own. A chunk of the actor's CPU cycles are always dedicated to following cues and matching timing, and that doubtlessly takes away from how much of themselves they can put into emotion. In the end, some of it's good, and some of it's genuinely bad. Just like with every other medium.

For ambitious anime directors and audio directors, this is a constant struggle. Doing voices seems to be an easy crutch; a bad habit that many experienced voice actors fall into -- perhaps not even knowingly. There are several well-known anime directors that go to great lengths to avoid using established voice actors whenever possible. They get unknowns, or live action actors. When they're forced to use normal seiyuu, they mutter, "guh, these guys can't act!" Sometimes that's fair and sometimes not: voice acting takes a lot of queues from Japanese classical stage acting, which traditionally sounds kind of shouted and monotone to Western ears. It's not always meant to sound naturalistic. (To hear what an anime sounds like when acted ENTIRELY in that style, see the classic Isao Takahata film, Horus, Prince of the Sun.)

Most anime fans -- and media consumers in general -- are measuring their enjoyment with an entirely different yardstick. What matters is that the voice goes with the image, and that the combined feeling of that character is emotionally compelling. That doesn't necessarily require great acting. (Case in point: Charlie Hunnam is absolutely TERRIBLE in Pacific Rim. I still love that movie and his character, and I can't imagine anyone else in that role.) When most people complain about acting quality, they're not trained to notice whether or not the subtle nuances in the performance are working or not; they're basically reacting to whether the character became real to them. For many fans, the over-the-top inflection is part of the experience, and is actually what they're looking for, traditionally "good" acting or not.

And as for most non-Japanese speaking viewers, they'd never even notice. When they watch something subtitled, they may be listening to the voices, but the performances they're taking in are influenced by the voice in their heads reading the subtitled dialogue. And since it's your brain that's telling you how the line should be read, that automatically elevates the performance because it's now exactly what you wanted. That's a major reason why so many people just can't deal with watching a dubbed anime, even if it's a really good dub. There's an emotional connection they got from watching a subtitled version that is missing when watching a dub.

And you know what? That's fine. That's a perfectly acceptable way of watching anime. I wish I could do still do that. Frankly now that I can hear just how bad Japanese voice acting can be, I really wish I could stuff that genie back in that lamp. Hearing bad performances in anime just ruins many shows for you.

The first time I heard outright bad Japanese voice acting was when Bandai Entertainment released a now-forgotten and pretty terrible "romantic comedy" series called Don't Leave Me Alone, Daisy. The show was really terrible and not funny and creepy (it tried to play off the main character stalking and manipulating the object of his crush for laughs), but worst of all, the main character was so wooden and delivered his lines so poorly that it let the air out of all of the jokes. It turned out that the voice actor, a guy named Yasufumi Hayashi, was not a regular voice actor at all -- he's best known for roles in Kamen Rider and some TV dramas. After that and one more role in a D-list TV series, he pretty much gave UP Voice work.

That's the nadir, the lowest end of the voice acting spectrum (in Japanese). Do I think the voice acting in Fullmetal Alchemist -- and other popular shows -- is as bad, then? No, of course not. But a good chunk of the time what I'm hearing isn't really convincing as realistic acting, either. It's "anime voice work," and it usually doesn't need to sound realistic because anime is inherently an unrealistic medium.

That's what most anime sound like, and it's just an expected part of the experience. I have no doubt that your friend, who is a trained theater and TV director, can hear that the Japanese performances are not exactly filled with nuance and life. If he's used to more mainstream styles acting, and isn't expecting the familiar over-the-top nature of anime performances, then that's simply not going to work for him. It's a different craft. Or he could be right, and the scene he's seeing actually IS dramatically flat.

But if the performance works for you, and you feel an emotional connection, then there's absolutely nothing wrong.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the 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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