New York Anime Festival 2009
Japanese Seiyuu & US Voice Actors

by Mark Simmons,

Panelists: Yui Makino, Veronica Taylor, Tom Wayland, Rachael Lillis

This panel gave NYAF attendees the opportunity to witness a unique cultural exchange, as voice actors from East and West compared notes on the dramatic differences - and underlying similarities - between the U.S. and Japanese versions of their profession. Representing the Japanese side was Guest of Honor Yui Makino, while the American contingent consisted of Veronica Taylor, Tom Wayland, and Rachael Lillis, whose collective credits include everything from Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh to His and Her Circumstances and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

From the very beginning, the conversation was a study in contrasts. Taylor began by asking Makino to describe a typical day for a Japanese voice actor, and the Americans were stunned to hear that recording sessions typically run from 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM with a single one-hour break.

Makino was equally surprised to learn that U.S. voice actors are often forced to give a "cold read," seeing the animation and script for the first time when they come into the studio. Makino explained that she's usually given a rehearsal video and a script two or three days before recording, so she can practice at home. As Taylor put it, "That's like the opposite of what we do!"

Next, Makino asked how long it takes the U.S. actors to do a recording. Wayland estimated about fifteen hours per episode - "because," Taylor added, "we go in one at a time." In Japan, on the other hand, all the actors are recorded together, and there are sometimes thirty actors in the same studio competing for only four microphones. When recording an ongoing series like Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, the cast see each other every day for weeks at a time. Even after Tsubasa was finished, Makino recalled, the five main cast members kept meeting at promotional events and radio recordings, and "we were like brothers and sisters." Hearing that U.S. voice actors can work on the same show for a year and never meet, she asked "Don't you guys miss each other?"

"Nah," Lillis replied, "we hate each other." (And, a beat later, "I'm kidding!")

The panelists found some common ground, however, in discussing the technical challenge of matching characters' mouth movements. Wayland explained that, in the English-language versions, the scripts are rewritten during the adaptation process to synchronize with the animated movements. Makino expressed an interest in the process of dubbing live-action Hollywood movies into Japanese, a task that Wayland described as "a whole other level" of difficulty.

Makino went on to describe how she got started in the industry, auditioning against 200 other candidates for the role of Sakura. Rather than attending one of the many specialist schools for aspiring seiyuu, she learned in the studio by watching her more experienced fellow voice actors. Likewise, Lillis observed, "I've learned more on the job than I did in regimented training classes."

Returning to the theme of cross-cultural exchange, Wayland asked whether Makino had any favorites in American animation or pop culture. Makino revealed herself to be a fan of the cartoon mouse Angelina Ballerina - but, up until she arrived in New York and found the show playing on the hotel television, "I didn't know that was American animation!" As for Disney movies, she prefers to watch them in the original English with Japanese subtitles, leading Wayland to wonder if Japan has its own contingent who prefer subs to dubs. "Because," he assured her, "we have that here."

Noting that in Japan, everyone has to audition for roles, Makino asked if the same was true for U.S. voice actors. Yes, Wayland replied, especially for major projects. "We're auditioning for almost every role that we play, and sometimes there are multiple levels of callbacks." But where things like Pixar movies and the English-language versions of Hayao Miyazaki's films are concerned, directors often choose celebrity actors based on their live-action work - a trend, Wayland feels,  that began with the casting of Robin Williams in Disney's Aladdin.

Makino was sympathetic, saying that "it sounds pretty cruel for the voice actors." "There is an underlying resentment," Lillis agreed. However, Wayland feels that the trend is changing a little with recent Pixar release like WALL-E and Up, which feature lesser-known actors chosen based on actual merit. At least, he said, "they're picking the best celebrities for the role."

Finally, Taylor asked Makino about the state of the Japanese anime industry. Makino confirmed that the current state of the economy is having an effect, but even if fewer titles are released, she feels that the inspirational effects of anime and the passion of the voice actors will sustain the excitement of the fans. "I see all the fans here in the audience," she concluded. "You all look very excited, and I have no worries."

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