Otakon 2010: Press Conference for Mitsuya Yuji

Mitsuya Yuji-san is a veteran seiyuu known for voices of Uesugi Tatsuya (Touch,) Dr. Tofu (Ranma 1/2,) Virgo Shaka (Saint Seiya) among others. His dub work includes voicing Disney films: Timon from ‘The Lion King’ and Pleakley’ in ‘Lilo & Stitch’. He also was sound director for Rurouni Kenshin and recording director for Yu-Gi Oh!. The interpreter for the press conference was Toshifumi Yoshida-san.

    Q: You’ve been in voice acting industry for a long time. How has the industry and voice acting changed from since you started to today?

Mitsuya: It’s been about 35 years since my debut. Back than, the whole concept of a voice actor was really unknown and done by a limited number of people. No matter what studio you went to work, you recognized everybody, like a large family you became very familiar with. When we first started, we were all stage actors who needed the supplementary income since we couldn’t make a living being on stage.

During the release of Battleship Yamato, people in the industry was calling it the first or second boom of voice acting when actors start considering themselves as voice actors and taking pride in their work. But as the popularity grew, it started coming to the point where popular voice actors would start releasing albums and now cds of their music under their own names. And so as voice acting became more popular, the concept of the ‘popular voice actor’ became more noticable where fans of the voice actor (and not of the roles they play) started coming to the studio waiting for them to come out to get autographs and this change started to happen around 25 or 30 years ago…when this phenomenon started. Then there are about 10 or so male popular voice actors and 5 or 6 female popular voice actors who release albums and do concerts.

Mainly there wasn’t a whole lot of increase in the number of popular of voice actors was the fact that the pay wasn’t very good. Because of that, the people who knew each other, the family would try to keep the work within the family because it was the only way to make a living. It’s very hard for an up and coming voice actor to get a break in the industry. As the popularity grew in the whole ‘idol voice actors’ and the regulars who get work all the time started considering, “It’s becoming an industry of itself, I think we deserve to be paid a little bit better.” We decided to have a call to arms, not really a strike (though we did strike a couple of times) but we got the production companies to raise our rates. With the help of the Japanese actors union, we were able to really promote the awareness of what we are doing and get our needs fulfilled.

After all this, there were voice actors that could fill Budokan, a concert venue in Japan from their popularity and that went along with the increasing of knowledge and notoriety in the voice acting industry. And right around the time when the rates were finally being increased, the desire for fans to become voice actors were increasing. There were people who were saying “I just want to be a voice actor. I don’t want to be on stage or tv, I want to do voices for a living.” Around the time when all these changes were happening (like 25 years ago when I was 30,) there were acting schools, but no voice acting schools. And with the increase of people who want to be voice actors, schools to train voice actors started popping up everywhere. 5-10 years after the creation of all these schools, people started debuting as voice actors as graduates from these training schools. And the majority of the popular voice actors now are those that went through the schools initially.

When I started out, there was a room full of veterans with 1 or 2 new actors coming in trying to get into the industry. But now, studios are filled with a majority of beginners and graduates and maybe 2 or 3 veterans so the makeup of the room is completely reversed these years. I can’t say for sure, but budgets haven’t really increased for animation, except for maybe cost of living, but what it all comes down to is with our minimum rates going up, it’s much cheaper for production companies to hire a bunch of new actors rather than hire actors. So I sense that trend, but I can’t say for sure.

Of course, coming from my background of looking upon the works of the veterans in the room with me, learning from them and honing my own skills, I feel that was the best way to do things. In order to past on the skills to the next generation of actors, keeping the room filled with more veterans than beginners I think is the way to go, but with the state of the industry. There are still voice actors that I considered my mentors and elders who have been in this industry for 50 years and I find their skills amazing. In order to maintain the level acting in a show, it is important to maintain a number of verterans in a cast.

I see that the animation industry in Japan is split into two genres: animation for kids and animation that is created for anime fans (people who are attending this convention) which are directed for students and adults and broadcast during late nights. Of those cast in anime for anime fans are those that are called voice actor idols have come forward and released albums that have hit the top of the charts. In Japan there is something called the Red and White song competition at the end of the year, where all the vocalists who have released albums throughout the year will compete. They split into the red and white teams, men and women and compete in this variety show. Last year was very notable in the sense that it was the first time a voice actor idol was featured, Mizuki Nana and brought attention to the field of voice acting. It was definitely a news item to note. Because of such changes, I think the field of voice acting has narrowed and locked in. When I first started out, voice actors were tv actors that would show up in tv and movies. But these days, the whole industry of voice actings are of those that just want to do voices so it has become very compartmentalized: there are actors for tv and there are voice actors. The crossover rarely happens these days. There are 3 or 4 magazines just catering for voice acting industries. When they started showing up, it was just a section inside acting magazines and I too, run a voice acting school.

So many students just want to be voice actors, nothing more. They have no other aspirations of wanting to be on tv, or on film, they just want to make a living being voice actors. It becomes even more evident to me running the school. In my day when I started, when you were a beginner, if the producers and directors saw any potential in you would spend 5 or 10 years raising you, directing you, realizing your potential. In these days with new voice actors coming out of these schools in droves, its gotten to a point where a director or producer would bring a new voice actor in and use them up, throw them aside and bring in a new batch. It seems to be a use and forget type of mentality: it has become sort of the norm recently. One thing I tried to teach all my students is to realize their own style and to hone their acting styles. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to survive more than 5 years in the industry these days. The only reason I’ve been around for 35 years and still continue to get work, I believe it’s because I was trained by all the veterans who helped me out when I was beginning and all the work I put into honing my acting skills. I tried to convince my students to find their style as fast as they can, hone their skills. And maybe even if it’s not for alot of money, try acting on stage. Just to get their performance level up.

    Q: You’re also well known for your dubbing roles. Is there a different approach from anime to dubbing American films?

Mitsuya: First of all, when you’re working on an anime in Japan, you start with a blank slate. There is nothing, there is not a single sound recorded so you have to really create your role and put it into the show. But when doing an American film, the music is already there, the actors’ voices are already there and the sound effects are there. You have to understand what the actor was doing, comprehend it within yourself and translate it in a way that is most effective in the language you’re dubbing into.

In an anime series, you sit in there in front of a screen, script in hand and looking at the screen to create the role. In dubbing an American or foreign film, you have one earphone that is playing the American or foreign dialogue and you act on top of what you’re hearing. I do make a careless mistake: when my ear is hearing “One, two, three” and I have to say “Ichi, ni, san”, I find myself going “Ichi, ni, three!” because I get drawn in by what’s in my ear.

When working on a Japanese film, we get the satisfaction of creating something brand new. When approaching a foreign film, I have to see if I can completely do as well if not better than the actor that I’m dubbing over. Of course the hardships of having to maintain the integrity of the foreign work, but still make it Japanese. For Disney titles, I play Rex in ‘Toy Story’, Timon in ‘Lion King’, Pleeky in ‘Lilo and Stitch’. All three of these roles are played by different actors in the US, but in Japan, it’s all me. So I have to change the tone of my voice, change the style of the intonations to create these voices that are different from each other but similar to the original works.

I will point out the differences in the mentality of doing dubs from when I started to the way things are done now. When I first started, my mentors told me that “You have to get in there and surpass the original acting. You have to do better than them. Even if it’s the crappiest movie you’ve ever seen, you have to make it a good movie by voicing it properly.” But now producers these days are saying “You have to mimic the original work as much as possible. Put your focus on mimicing it.” Those are the changes that I see in the industry. I still believe in the whole mentality of surpassing the actor and make something better, but I find the producers saying “Well, that was a little too far. Why don’t you pull it back a little.” so I find myself a bit wanting in those shows.

    Q: Is there any particular work that is either currently airing or in the past that would have liked to work on?

Mitsuya: In the industry, I try not to think about the roles that I didn’t get. These days, I’m considered one of the veterans so it’s very rare that I audition for anything. I just get notified to just go and play this role. There were times in my early years when I would audition to get roles. I would try to get into this show and wouldn’t get it and be disappointed.

But there is this one story when this director friend of mine was doing this one show back than called God Mars. My friend told me that when I audition, I should audition for the younger brother, of the two twins that are the main characters. “Because, just to let you know, the older brother dies in episode 13…you will be out of work. So when you audition, try to get the younger brother.” So I went to audition and I tried to get the younger brother and I didn’t get it, but I did get the older brother.

I played the character Margu and he was so popular amongst the Japanese fans, that there was a miraculous resurrection of this character. Because of the popularity and before the resurrection was announced, we held a funeral for the character at the tv station. We staged this whole funeral and since my character was dead, I didn’t think I could attend this funeral ceremony. But they said, you have to come. So I put on the mourning clothes and hid in the corner while all the other cast members cosplayed as their characters and lined up in front of this funeral stand. The actors were all saying that it was a joke, and they were trying to keep a serious face onstage when they noticed every single person in audience was crying. So all the actors got into character and saw everyone in the audience in tears.

Afterwards, my character came back and the popularity continued to grow to the point where there was a God Mars movie and I was the main character. I even got to sing the opening theme and it won an award. And so this is an example of how it’s good not to get the role you audition for.

One of the roles that I didn’t get voicing order in ‘Star Wars’ was Jar Jar Binks. I wanted to play Jar Jar but I didn’t get that role. I was really ticked off since I wanted that role. So even though I didn’t get to play Jar Jar in the movies like I wanted. When the ‘Clone Wars’ animated series came around, the actor wasn’t feeling very well, so guess who they asked to play the role? So I got to play Jar Jar. If you want it enough, it will come true! At least I think so.

    Q: How has your career as a voice helped with your role as a sound and voice director? And vice versa, how has your role as a sound and voice director influenced your voice acting career?

Mitsuya: I will start with the story of how I became a sound engineer director. A long time friend of mine who produces shows came to produce the show called Rurouni Kenshin. He came to me and asked “I want to use someone who is not a regular voice actor as the lead role of Kenshin. Do you know any actors or theater performers that I could find to play this role?” There is a theater company in Japan called Takarazuka where all the actresses are female playing male roles, which is the opposite of kabuki theater. I suggested someone I knew who left the Takarazuka company so why don’t we get her to play Kenshin. I suggested Suzukaze Mayo who was a really popular Takarazuka actor and my favorite. When I heard that she left the company, I asked “Could we get her to play the role of Kenshin?” And I thought it was a shot in the dark having just left the theater company and try to convince her to do anime. But she accepted.

I thought that since was a theater actor, having never worked in anime, I thought that she needed a sound engineer director who understood both theater and anime. My friend said, “I can’t think of anyone better than you. Will you come in and be the sound director because you had theater and anime experience. You’re the only one who could do this job.”

When I took the job, I was really reluctant, but I really wanted to meet her and I really wanted to work with her. So I had to do it. But I was afraid even though I started to be one of the veterans, I still didn’t consider myself one. I didn’t want to be seated in the booth with all the veterans out there going “Who the hell he think he is, sitting back there as sound director?!?” I was really afraid so for three months when I was doing this job, I did it without putting my name in the credits. The plan was that after three months, I would leave this position (once the actress got used to doing anime,) my position would be replaced with another sound director.

In the first three months, I’m not in the opening credits. Three months came where I had to either quit or stay on, Suzukaze Mayu came and said “I can’t do this role without you here! You have to stay!” It made me really happy so it cemented decision to stay on until the end of the show.

So since you asked me if it’s affected my current job, having been an actor and a sound director, if an actor cannot deliver a line, I can push the mic button down and say “Do it this way.” and perform the line. A director (not being an actor much of the time,) would have a line like ‘Good morning.’ They would say “Say it like a delinquent, or say it like you really don’t care.” A director would never perform the line or tell an actor how to do it. Sometimes the actor doesn’t understand it and it takes a long time to get the line you want. I could say “Instead of doing that, why don’t you do it this way…” and than it’s over and we move on.

I’m currently working as a sound director on a show called Ai! Mai! Main!. All the minor roles, I see them struggling. And having been there myself, I can guide them and teach them. It sort of the work I do to raise voice actors and try to pass on my knowledge. It’s a definite plus that I was a voice actor first before I became a sound director. I can read the mood of the room. After being an actor having to wait for my time to come up, it gets kind of irritating. But having been there myself, I know how to lighten the mood, keep things moving. And just try to be understanding of what the actors are going through really helps me do my job. Then because I do have the understand, I get more work.

Of course the biggest difference is when I’m an actor, I only have to wrry about my lines. When I’m directing, I have to worry about everyone’s lines. I have to look through, make sure every line’s going to work. I swear it takes 20 times the energy to be a sound director. Of course it’s much easier to be an actor, but it helps me to understand things as a sound director. I will continue to be an actor, and I would like to continue working on at least one show or so a year as I move on in my career.