The Summer 2015 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Seiyu's Life! ?
Review: Gonzo, a studio which once prided itself on making the high-end action series with cutting-edge visuals, is now doing a fluffy little series about a fledgling seiyuu (i.e., a Japanese voice actor) getting her start in voice acting. Not sure, but that might be a sign of the Apocalypse.
Anyway, the story is based on a 4-panel doujin manga written by Masumi Asano, a seiyuu probably best-known for roles like Hakufu in the Ikki Tousen franchise and Risa in the Hayate the Combat Butler franchise. The insights of someone who has had a lengthy career in this business show in the depiction of the process down to the finest details. The story deals with the life and times of new seiyuu Futaba, who has just gotten her very first gig as the mascot character in the new mecha anime Buddha Fighter Boddhisatvon, and is supremely nervous about the experience. As the episode progresses it takes viewers step-by-step through the process that all seiyuu must apparently endure, such as having to personally greet everyone before the show, the way that dry runs are done before a recording session, the way small edits are made at the last minute, and so forth. It also shows how seiyuu sit in in the studio while waiting their turn, how movements work as various actors move to one of the mikes in the studio as their turns come up and then pass, how side character actors are sometimes called on unexpectedly to do lines for one-shot characters, and so forth. Taken as a documentary about how the whole recording process works, it is quite an informative effort.
Take it as an actual story, however, and it comes across as a bit bland, even plodding at times. (The “have to say hello to everyone” segment goes on much too long, for instance.) Futaba is a pretty stereotypical character, one who tends to grossly overthink and overcomplicate things, which only occasionally actually ends up being as funny as it's supposed to be. Only slightly more entertaining is Ichigo, who goes overboard with her strawberry theme (because that's what her name means) in an effort to be memorable and is apparently just as flustered as Futaba is. The technical merits aren't anything special, either, beyond what's probably exacting detail for studio design. Bolstering the series, though, are the neat little touches added in, such as how the animation studio behind Buddha Fighter is “Zongo,” how seiyuu legend Masako Nozawa (the voice of Gohan and Goku from the Dragon Ball franchise among many, many other major roles) portrays herself (see the far right in the screen shot), or the snippet of “Cruel Angel's Thesis,” the Neon Genesis Evangelion opening theme, in the closer.
Whether or not this series is compelling enough to keep watching will probably largely depend on one's level of enthusiasm for a behind-the-scenes story. There it's a near-miss for me, as while some of the details are interesting, I just cannot see how the series will get a full season of content out of this and still stay involving.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Also, imitating successful things might make you successful yourself, and the poor fatigued shell of Studio Gonzo needs all the help it can get. So this summer, we get treated to the bargain bin version of Shirobako, a series called Seiyu's Life!. Okay, calling it bargain bin might be a little harsh. This is a perfectly competent, mildly charming little slice of inside-the-industry fluff, but it's so obviously counting on its spiritual relation to the wildly successful Shirobako that it suffers by comparison. Seiyu's Life! is nowhere near as visually impressive, narratively compelling, or educationally comprehensive as the thing it's aping, so it sorta slides right off your brain while you're trying to watch it.
Still, it's okay for what it is. The story follows super-moe aspiring voice actress Futaba as she blunders her way into a bit role on a highly anticipated new show from Studio Zongo (hurr hurr), proceeds to mess up a lot at the casting call dry run, and steels herself to do better next time, all as we learn the basics of the business for the acting side of anime. While it is all just a little bit too clean and idyllic to be immersive, its attempts at verisimilitude ring sincere enough to make the show endearing, though not necessarily interesting. (Then again, I also accused Shirobako of being too clean and idyllic in its early-going, and it turned its tone down to earth pretty hard around episode 3 or so and only kept improving into the stellar second half. So consider this a mea culpa for my middling first impression last year.)
The production here is Gonzo-standard conservative-to-ugly, so the little real-world details are the only thing to recommend here. The standout moments of this episode, for example, are the short cameos by veteran Goku VA Masako Nozawa as herself, helping Futaba through the stressful process of her first voice gig. It's cute and mildly educational, but I've seen the concept done better more than once by now, so I'm not sure I would recommend this show to any but the most hardcore voice chaser or moe lover. (The fact that the episode is narrated by a cute/creepy little stuffed animal only makes it feel more derivative, since this is at least the third time I've seen that approach between Shirobako and Paranoia Agent.)
Oh, and the cute little seiyu girls sing "Cruel Angel's Thesis" for a few bars in the ED theme, which took me by surprise. They'll probably sing other anime themes at the end of future episodes, so if you missed the presence of that fun little gimmick from the bygone days of Lucky Star, that might be a perk.
The problem with following on the heels of something so widely beloved and as critically acclaimed as Shirobako is that any other "this is how we make [this!]" show will inadvertently be compared to it. It's not always fair, but it makes sense. After all, Shirobako is now the gold standard that any such undertakings must meet, even if they never surpass it.
With Seiyu's Life!, we again get a behind the scenes look at an aspect of the anime production cycle. Based on a 4-panel doujinshi that launched at Comiket, it follows the trials of newbie voice actress Futaba as she navigates the cold waters of professional voice acting. Her first gig is just a one-line mascot character, but she's already over-thinking the role—why has this mascot toy been abandoned? Was it once beloved? Does it feel bitter or resentful about its abandonment? When she finally gets a longer line for a random bystander, she's so nervous that it's given away to someone else.
If Seiyu's Life! seems incredibly detailed and intensely eager to nail down every aspect of voice acting, it's because it's entirely based on reality and real-life experiences. It was penned by voice actress Masumi Asano, who's worked on series like Hayate the Combat Butler, Popotan, Blood-C, and even the notorious Eiken. She knows all about the inner workings of being a newcomer, like having to introduce yourself to everyone in the studio, or unspoken etiquette rules about where newcomers are supposed to sit in a recording booth.
It's all very interesting stuff, especially since the recording process in Japan is not the same as it is in the US, where dub actors record their lines by themselves. But the problem is, for as much good info that Seiyu's Life! provides, it's missing something major, and that's soul. Shirobako worked because it made viewers care about its characters, about their struggles and their dreams, and about their failures. It wasn't just about how anime is produced. Sure, there were explanations about timing sheets and auditions and everything in between, but those were delivered in the context of a group of girls reaching for their dreams. The end of Shirobako probably brought most of its audience to tears—something that I don't envision Seiyu's Life! accomplishing.
There are some nice touches in the first episode that provide a human element—Futaba is star-struck at meeting Masako Nozawa (played by Nozawa herself), whom fans of anime will immediately recognize as the voice of Dragon Ball's Son Goku. And there are plenty of homages to Evangelion, including a brief cover of "A Cruel Angel's Thesis" in the ending theme. But aside from these winks to fandom, the show feels cold and impersonal. Most of the information is delivered by a talking stuffed animal, without any consideration as to whether or not it's even presented in an entertaining fashion.
It's not Seiyu's Life!'s (or Asano's) fault that it's being compared to Shirobako—Asano started working on her comic (alongside Hayate the Combat Butler mangaka Kenjirō Hata) long before Shirobako was a thing. If anything, it's just bad timing (though Shirobako's success may have played a role in Seiyu's Life!'s adaptation being greenlit). But regardless, it has the unenviable role of coming on stage right after a big act, and unless it drastically steps up in the next few episodes, it might just get left behind.
Being a seiyu (voice actor) is the part of making an anime that I personally know the least about, which made Seiyu's Life! an interesting watch. Based on a four-panel manga by veteran voice actress Masumi Asano, the story follows new seiyu Futaba as she takes her first steps into the world of voice acting. While not much happens, the show still manages to capture Futaba's overexcited mistakes and her certainty that a small screw up is actually an epic failure. For her first role, she's a mascot character in a mecha show, and the crazy amount of backstory she's given her bit part shows her amazing skill at over-thinking. This seems to be Futaba's primary fault: give her a molehill, and she'll make that sucker into a mountain before you can blink. We see this not only in her fantasy of her character's past, but also in her overreaction to greeting her coworkers, her inability to read a line the way the director wants, and even her first reading of her character's line of “pipo.” If the poor woman doesn't calm down a bit, she's going to have an apoplexy right there in front of the mike.
What's really fascinating here are the little details of being a voice actor in Japan. The rigorous politeness required of a newcomer may not be a surprise in and of itself, but to see it in action is entirely different from simply knowing that it has to happen. Those who have watched any of Funimation's behind-the-scenes extras may be surprised to see that in Japan, all the seiyu are together in One Room, taking turns at the three or four microphones as they have lines, which officially makes them all much more coordinated than most people I know. This means that you have to read along with the script and know the changes in everyone's lines, not just your own, and that you'd better be sure that your clothing doesn't rustle. (We see Futaba testing this as she's getting dressed.)
Along with Futaba are two other young women, a fifteen-year-old student, Rin, and a perky girl who is trying to establish a gimmick for herself, Ichigo. She's the most interesting of the bunch because she's so clearly trying so hard to be what she thinks an actress should be, even as she's ripping gimmicks and lines from other stories. (I've read her Strawberry Planet line in Aya Nakahara's Berry Dynamite manga, among other shoujo tales.) When you compare her with the veteran voice actress, there's a striking difference...and a distinct feeling that Ichigo is trying way too hard.
It's a good thing that the information itself is interesting, because the art is not. Amusingly enough, the animatics for the show Futaba is recording look better than the finished art of Seiyu's Life!. Luckily it is saved by its characters and their reactions, with lines like the director telling Ichigo to talk like she has big boobs and a random appearance by the song “Cruel Angel's Thesis.”
Seiyu's Life! is fun if you've ever been curious about the recording portion of anime. It's probably pretty dull if that's not your bag, however, and it doesn't have the visuals to be a draw if the story doesn't interest you. But if it does, this is a fun, relaxing watch that deserves a look.
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