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Friends Remember Hiroe Tsukamoto, Aniplex USA Producer and Dub Advocate

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Hiroe Tsukamoto and Yosuke Kobayashi, June 2017
Image courtesy of Yosuke Kobayashi

On June 13, the anime dubbing studio Bang Zoom! Studios announced the death of a beloved member of the anime community. Hiroe Tsukamoto was a fixture in the production of stateside anime releases and an enthusiastic proponent of English dubs. She ushered in the Gurren Lagann films, now celebrating 15th-anniversary screenings, and advocated for up-and-coming dub talent. Anime fans may not have known Tsukamoto by name, but they knew her work even as she stayed behind the scenes facilitating releases of their favorite series.

We spoke with Tsukamoto's colleagues, many of who knew her for close to three decades. Friends spoke of her love of wine, ocean views, and her cat. Even more importantly, they described Tsukamoto as equal parts serious about the quality of her work and altruistic. She was never shy about helping make connections and thus was integral in helping up-and-comers get their foot in the door.

Media OCD founder Justin Sevakis met Tsukamoto when he first moved to Los Angeles in 2009. They would occasionally go out for drinks, and Tsukamoto would joke about Sevakis' young age.

"There aren't many people in the industry who had her unique ability to put people at ease," Sevakis said.

Tsukamoto's influence in anime began at Pioneer Entertainment Inc (later Geneon) in the 1990s. She joined to develop the Japanese animation business with a few employees not long after the company's LaserDisc formatting business collapsed.

"She quickly advanced to chief producer to promote and supervise dubbing and subtitling with her talented knowledge," said Yosuke "James" Kobayashi. Kobayashi is the now-retired former president and CEO of Pioneer Entertainment Inc and Geneon Entertainment. "She was later promoted to manager and was responsible for all production. With her contribution and effort, or animation business increased and became our main business."

Hiroe Tsukamoto at Pioneer's booth at NATPE Global, January 1998
Image courtesy of Yosuke Kobayashi

She was in charge of English subtitling and dubbing, going on to work on the company's biggest releases. Her stellar work earned the trust of staffers in Pioneer and other licensors. During her time at the company, she oversaw the release of Fushigi Yugi, Dragon Ball Z films, Akira, Sailor Moon R: The Movie, Cardcaptor Sakura, and many more classics.

Among her colleagues, Tsukamoto's work on Akira especially stood out.

"She did tremendous work for many titles, but the most remarkable job was when she did the Akira remastering project. She became known as one of the best producers in our industry," Kobayashi said.

"Beyond her ear for production, she also had a meticulous eye for color and design. Hiroe was never afraid to push the limits, and with Akira, we produced what would have been the first metal book-style case for the entire DVD market if a clearance hadn't delayed the project," her Pioneer-era co-worker John Bailey explained. "She will be missed by more than anybody would know."

Sam Maseba, now director of licensing at TMS Entertainment, had just purchased a car and installed Pioneer 12' subwoofers with what he described as "a stupid 1000+ watt amp to back them up in the trunk."

Digitalization of proofs was decades into the future. Instead, everything was analog, and staffers would screen and review ADR scripts on timecoded VHS tapes. Maseba had a new batch of tapes that needed to be transported from the Valley to Tsukamoto's office in Long Beach. The trip would take about an hour. He couldn't recall if the tapes were for Tenchi Muyo!, Serial Experiments Lain, or Trigun, but for some reason, they were not playing correctly. After one complete trip, Maseba received a phone call that the tapes were malfunctioning, and he had to make the whole trek again in Los Angeles traffic.

"To make a long story short, I must have degaussed 3-4 batches before I realized those heavy magnets in the subwoofer were causing the entire problem! I was so embarrassed and scared to tell Hiroe, but in the end, she was so happy to hear about what the problem was. Whew!"

Apparently, this wasn't the first time this had happened, but Tsukamoto was happy to finally know the cause.

"I'm not sure why this is coming to mind, but I'm sure it has to do with the company, 'Pioneer,' my car audio from 'Pioneer,' and Hiroe, one of the great anime pioneers of all time!"

Maseba's story exemplifies Tsukamoto's reputation as someone who held her colleagues to high standards but also saw their potential.

"She trusted [her production partners] to a degree that's vanishingly rare in the business. 'I don't trust my own English,' was her humble refrain. But often, that humility turned into advocating the thoughts of native English speakers – and often fans – to the Japanese producers. I don't think fans understand how much of their thoughts she conveyed back to Japan. It's a huge reason why so many of the projects she oversaw are still so beloved years later," Sevakis said.

Tsukamoto's relationship with the English language goes back to her teens when she served as a volunteer tour guide at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum for English-speaking tourists. She received a Bachelor's degree in English in Japan (while also moonlighting as the lead guitarist of the all-female rock band Acid Queen) before earning her Master's in Consumer Economics at Kansas State. She married her husband, David Dominguez, in 1990 after moving to the U.S.

Hiroe Tsukamoto and colleagues at the PEA Luncheon, January 1996
Image courtesy of Yosuke Kobayashi

Discotek producer Mike Toole recalled meeting Tsukamoto in 1999. He was just 23 years old and on the cusp of a burgeoning career as a Japanese entertainment writer.

"I'd launched my own site, Anime Jump, the previous year but was still having some trouble getting folks in the nascent U.S. anime industry to take me seriously. By chance, I met Hiroe Tsukamoto, then of Pioneer USA, at a Japan Society Symposium in NYC," Toole said. Tsukamoto and Toole would only talk briefly, but she was integral in connecting him with her colleagues to acquire review copies.

"Within a week, I had inside contacts at Pioneer, and a year or two later, I started picking up work for the company—I was well on my way. What she did was such a small and simple thing, but she held the door open for me. I got the impression that she was doing little favors, making small but important connections between fans and aspiring anime professionals and her larger production partners back in Japan so regularly that it'd be impossible to keep track of them all, let alone lil' old me," he said.

Hideki 'Henry' Goto worked with Hiroe for decades. The former Aniplex of America president first met Tsukamoto at the end of 1995 when he was transferred from Japan to Pioneer Entertainment USA. In 1996, he became the manager in charge of animation after his predecessor left the company. The team was small at first, with only four people, including Tsukamoto, Goto, and two other staff members.

"It may be hard to believe for those of you who are familiar with the recent prosperity of the anime market, but at that time, anime was not well known, and there were almost no sales of anime within the company, so the team did not have a large presence," Goto said.

Pioneer Entertainment (USA) Animation Div. Group Photo, 2001
Image courtesy of Henry Goto

The popularity of series like Tenchi Muyo!, Serial Experiments Lain, and Armitage III helped bring other staff members within the company up to speed on anime's potential. The company's success continued with the advent of anime on TV, especially Cartoon Network. The channel added Samurai Champloo, Trigun, Kill la Kill, and Lupin the Third to its line-up over the years. Tsukamoto helped bring these shows to a wider audience, from adult action titles to favorites for younger generations.

"Her assistance in DVD production, like Ranma ½, led to the Pokémon Project, a joint venture with Viz Media to release Pokémon VHS/DVDs in the U.S.," explained Goto. Hiroe's hard work at Pioneer USA directly led Goto, who changed jobs to Aniplex, to ask her to join Aniplex of America in 2006. She signed on in November 2006, and the company would make its debut as an anime publisher in 2010.

"Without Hiroe's extensive relationships with a dubbing studio, DVD production companies, and U.S. anime conventions, Aniplex couldn't start business quickly," he said.

In 2006, current Aniplex of America president Yosuke Kodaka was Tsukamoto's counterpart in Japan. Aniplex of America was in the midst of market research to discover if entering anime publishing was a viable business. He first met Tsukamoto at the very beginning of his career at Aniplex. She was still working for Geneon USA, and their paths crossed at Tokyo Anime Fair (TAF) in 2005, which was Kodaka's first-ever business meeting at Aniplex.

"So they've been talking about the business, but I have no idea about what they're talking about. I was very new to the company and didn't have any knowledge or experience in the industry. So that was my first kind of contact with Hiroe," he said. "She's like a kind of business producer. Then she came to our meeting to acquire upcoming new titles, which Aniplex produced. I thought that this is the kind of business producer we are facing; that's the kind of impression."

When Tsukamoto joined Aniplex of America, she was primarily involved in licensing sales to established anime publishers, like Funimation, Geneon USA, or ADV. She prepared sales decks, and Kodaka would help provide materials, like key visuals, from Japan.

Aniplex of America was just getting off the ground, and the company was looking to raise awareness among viewers. However, Kodaka said Tsukamoto knew the company was considering localizing series itself and was preparing for it. Kodaka first met her as a coworker in person at Anime Expo and learned of her drive to localize anime herself. They finally got the greenlight in July 2010.

Lupin the Third party at Licensing Expo, 2002. Pictured (from left to right): Monkey Punch, Yosuke Kobayashi, Hiroe Tsukamoto
Image courtesy of Henry Goto

Goto fondly remembers the company's first convention appearance, a time when fewer U.S. distributors' had booths and panels at conventions.

"I remember as if it were yesterday. She was the MC at the first convention we attended at that time, with about 30 attendees," Goto said. The company would go on to release Durarara!!, the first dub series for the company, and the Gurren Lagann movie –Childhood's End-, a title she loved.

"She approached subtitling and dubbing as a work of art, not as a task, as once it is created, it will remain in people's memories. She was always present at the production site and worked with the dubbing studio, ADR director, and voice actors, line by line, with great care," Goto remembered.

Tsukamoto was conscientious not only about which voice actor could best embody the character but how the actor could also promote a title. At the time, companies typically focused on bringing guests from Japan for large events like Anime Expo. Tsukamoto saw value in bringing English voice acting talent to events to represent a series to the audience.

"Durarara!! is also very first title Hiroe produced [for AoA]," Kodaka shared. "She wasn't only good at dubbing, she had the kind of marketing point of view to utilize the voice cast. So for the Durarara!!, we brought in a couple of new talents for that title, and I remember the one talent was Bryce Papenbrook."

Papenbrook was relatively new to the industry when he was cast as Masaomi Kida in Durarara!! His performance ensured he'd return on many future, mainstream titles. He quickly rose to leading man status, taking on the role of Kirito in Sword Art Online, Rin Okumura in Blue Exorcist, and Eren Jaeger in Attack on Titan.

"Hiroe is the reason I'm the actor I am today. She believed in me early in my career and trusted me with roles that meant so much to her. Her passion for her work and the projects she was a part of was infectious, and it brought out the best in everyone around her. I'm eternally grateful that I was lucky enough to work alongside her. I have so many wonderful memories of Hiroe, and am devastated that those times have passed," Papenbrook shared.

Hiroe Tsukamoto at a Geneon group BBQ, January 2006
Image courtesy of Yosuke Kobayashi

A Hiroshima native, Tsukamoto often talked to her friends about her mother, Chieko Tsukamoto. One of her joys was taking her mother to hot springs in Japan. She was also a red wine enthusiast. Kodaka and Tsukamoto shared an office from 2010 to 2014 and would go out for drinks after work to talk shop or personal matters.

"I really enjoyed having those conversations with Hiroe with nice California wine. She loved red wine," Kodaka said. "Once a year, we also met in Tokyo and also had a drink there. We'd kept in touch for a while, and in 2021, I came back to the U.S., and we became colleagues in the same office again."

No slouch, her fellow industry members recalled that she could hold her own while out drinking. 

"She attended many conventions and events to represent our major titles. One time when we were at NATPE [Global] in New Orleans, I saw her waddling back to her hotel. I asked her, 'Are you OK?' then she replied, 'Of course, no problem, I can handle my sake.' So I realized her character since then," Kobayashi said.

Tsukamoto passed away peacefully in her California home on June 12 at the age of 62, following a battle with cancer.

"She so loved her cats and her friends and will always be remembered as being so warm and inviting to everyone that she met," Bailey said.

"I think she must have felt really frustrated that she had to take more and more time off after she got sick and that she was not able to use her body freely. I think it was the last years of her life when she kept thinking, 'One more work, one more episode, one more line.' She was my comrade-in-arms for about 30 years. I hope that the life she breathed into her work will continue to be loved by many in the future," Goto shared.

"I was really shocked that Hiroe passed away so soon since we talked to her over the phone from Tokyo," Kobayashi recollected. "I contacted her periodically, but when I called her near the end, her last words to me were, “I was very happy to work with you, and please call me again."

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