RE: Can English-Speaking Fans Critique Japanese Voice Acting?

I’m sick and a little buzzed on cough syrup. I also haven’t published any posts in 8 months. Which means that it is the perfect time to write something about Chinese cartoons. Well, not really about cartoons themselves but rather the voices that are behind them.

So, one day I come across this article. Do you ever find something so incredibly stupid that you just have to show someone? Like, it could just be as simple as a dog eating its own shit or Donald Drumpf spewing shit while the crowds eat it up (that one is for the Americans, you’re welcome). This basically that kind of article. But instead of just showing it to anyone, I’m gonna talk about how stupid it is cause I’m just one big ol masochist.

On the 26th of February 2016, ANN published an Answerman article called “Can English-Speaking Fans Critique Japanese Voice Acting?“. Short answer, yes. Long answer, yeessssssss. But seriously, to save you the trouble of reading the article itself, a fan or something writes into the All Anime Knowing Deity that is the Answerman, querying whether or not non-Japanese speaking anime watchers can criticize the acting within an anime because he has a friend studying drama that said “FMA:B has some shitty ass acting mate, there is no grey area and shit, its just black and white. I’m so fucking deep man” or whatever drama majors say (It should be noted that I am paraphrasing here). What struck me as odd really is that his friend only really talked about the acting in FMA:B, which is surprising in 2 ways. 1) Surely there are more talking points in FMA:B than just the acting right? Like there is a lot going on in that show with a lot to take in and yet, his main talking point is the acting and not like, I don’t know the directing? It just struck me as odd. 2) I really don’t think that FMA:B has bad acting in it. Granted I haven’t finished it yet but, from scenes I’ve already seen, the acting is pretty well done and nicely delivered, while still sticking to those old fashioned anime-acting tropes.

The Answerman goes on to not really answer the question (shocker) and slates the performances of basically every seiyuu in existence or has ever existed by generalizing every anime into one poorly acted entity and in turn, insulting the intelligence of the reader. You know, the usual over at ANN.

Now, I’m not one to get into a hissy-fit over an Answerman article. Usually, I just cringe, furrow my brow, sometimes laugh and move on. After all, it is basically just one big circle-jerk for this one guy who puts himself above the rest of the anime community as this “holier than thou” god basically. The entire premise behind the Answerman is actually decent. You got one of the most popular anime sites so obviously, a lot of people coming to this site won’t be all that knowledgeable on everything that goes into a Chinese cartoon. So, what do you do? You set up a weekly factual article where the users can write in and ask something that is unknown to them and then proceed to answer it in the easiest way and shortest way possible. ELI5 at it’s finest. However, when this entire premise becomes one big opinion piece and you aren’t delivering facts to your audience, your audience will take what spiel you write as fact. Which is not good.

On to the actual article itself.

As any Japanese speaker will tell you, anime voice acting does not sound natural at all.

Good. Off to a good start. Actual Japanese people don’t sound like anime characters. To be honest if they did, I’d be a little scared of Japan. Can you just imagine the parades of people just yelling at each other “Oi! KIISAMA! NANI ITE OMOI?! BUKUROSE!” etcetcetc. Surprise, surprise, people don’t sound like they are represented in fiction. This is the same in any medium. The entire point of how they act isn’t to sound normal but to sound enticing and “exotic” if you will. Just hearing a conversation between two dudes is boring and it does not make for solid entertainment. So, as such, they have to make amends with this and add a touch of flair to each conversation which basically just involves each character practically shouting at each other.

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.

This was probably the most fair paragraph in the entire article. Like, I’m insanely biased but I’m more than willing to admit that there is a sense of repetition with a lot of the acting methods done by the older folk in the seiyuu community. Thankfully, this entire practice of just following example of what they did in yesteryear seems to have been quenched. For example, the stereotypical scream as a protag runs into battle or lands a killing blow.  If you were to look up any shounen show prior the mid 00’s or even the 10’s, you would find that the scream going into battle is basically cut and pasted into every different show. Whereas if you take Misaka’s scream from Railgun S as she charges at Accelerator for example, there is a lot more emotion behind that scream. Misaka is not just screaming for effect, there is anger, sadness and hatred behind that scream that is conveyed well. (Starts at 1:21)

Hell, if you want a shonen example, look at Sword Art Online when Kirito goes in for the killing blow on the Gleam Eyes. There is definite emotion behind that. (Starts at 4:53)

For actual dialogue, lets choose something like, oh I don’t know, one of Matsuoka Yoshitsugu’s characters, specifically Kantoku from Denki-Gai no Honya-san. There is a 7 minute scene where its just Matsuoka essentially narrating what one of the characters does over the course of a night. Granted, there were no lip syncing necessary but timing was key. He did a great job nailing each comedic chance he could get with a pretty bland scenario.

I could go on but I would only further move away from the original point which is this; Yes, there is a huge sense of “CPU cycles” within some seiyuu and anime scenes that have come and gone, however, currently, anime seems to be evolving past that and is trying to inject a new sense of emotion into the bland doldrums of anime dialogue and narration.

Doing voices seems to be an easy crutch; a bad habit that many experienced voice actors fall into

God forbid Voice Actors do voices.

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!”

Of course this is given without citation. The entire process of hiring “Unknowns” isn’t so they can use someone different, its because unknowns are cheaper. The entire seiyuu industry is basically revolving around the Gyara system. Seiyuu+ has an excellent post detailing the ins-and-outs of it all so I advice that you check that out (Also, if you care about the seiyuu industry in general, Seiyuu+ is just an excellent blog in general). The basic formula that they use is “Newer/lesser known seiyuus = Lower cost”. That’s it, there is literally nothing behind hiring them to add a fresh coat of paint to their anime. Hiring live-action actors is more or less a publicity stunt for them. Sometimes it works out (Shinichirou Ueda in Aku no Hana) and sometimes it doesn’t (Rena Matsui in Denpa Kyoushi). Ghibli does the same thing in hiring live-action actors so its a lot more accessible for the common non-anime viewer to go in and have the urge to watch one. As an English example, if I told someone who hasn’t watched anime before, if they would rather watch an anime movie with Laura Bailey or Liam Neeson in it. I’m pretty sure I know which one they would opt for. Its the reason why whenever Ghibli airs on TV, the announcers or whatever you call them make a special note to whoever is staring in it. Also, who are these “well-known anime directors”? Surely, if they’re so “well-known”, you could easily cite one? Besides, who the fuck would go on record saying “Ugh, can’t believe I’m working with Miyuki Sawashiro again, she can’t act for shit”. Its career suicide! You lose respect of actors, fans and fellow directors.

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.

That’s debatable. There is still outrage from casting Rena Matsui in Denpa Kyoushi and there are many prejudices on higher pitched actors such as Yuki Kaji and Hanae Natsuki because they don’t fit the image of what they had in their heads. Sure, you’re not gonna pay much heed to a seiyuu’s performance if they suit the image but that’s exactly it. They suit the image so there is nothing to note. They are what you wanted or at least come close to the voice you had in mind or how you picture the character to sound so you don’t get wow’d or surprised by their performance. You can’t really get surprised about something you expected.

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.

True in some cases, not most. As I said, there is hatred for the like of Yuki Kaji, Hanae Natsuki and even Matsuoka Yoshitsugu because their voices are rather unique and don’t fit the ideal image of characters they voice to some people and as such, the characters couldn’t “become real to them”. However, a lot of people just aren’t that petty. They would further these complaints with actual, valid criticisms on their performance. Then you have the people that just act bad, like Rena Matsui (sorry for repeatedly bringing her up but its the best example I can think of in my state). Also, these nuances that he goes on about. A lot of them are tied in to the visual as well, not just the audio. So, say for example, someone is trying to bluff someone that looks intimidating. Their voice would be quivering or breaking here and there but that’t not the only cue they would have to point towards this nervous bluff. The character would be seen to be sweating, avoiding eye contact or waving their hands about a little too much. These nuances are universal and are not just a feature in the Japanese language so any audience would be able to understand them which, in turn, helps bring out the nuances in their voice because you are physically seeing someone who looks nervous so you are inclined to hear nervousness in the voice, regardless of the language.

I think you should be noticing a pattern here. The Answerman is simultaneously degrading the work of seiyuus by saying they’ve worked long enough that they can only act bad and insulting the intelligence of the reader by saying they can’t pick up on this bad acting. Staggering, but in no way surprising.

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.

I…what? “Voice in their heads”? So like, is he claiming that all people that watch anime subbed are mentally insane? Wow, that’s a new low. But seriously, lets take another example here. Episode 7 of Inou-Battle wa Nichijou-kei no Naka de had one of the most surprisingly dramatic and generally hard to watch scenes that made the show worth while in my eyes. In the scene, Saori Hayami voices Hatako, a girl who cannot relate to her Chuuni childhood friend and in this scene, she begs and pleads to him to speak in ways that she can understand him because she is in love with him. Here’s the scene (Apparently this scene is subbed in every language except English on YouTube) .

Now, you would have to be deaf really to not watch that scene after reading the (non-English) subtitles and go “Yup, nothing out of the ordinary there”. This scene blew up within the anime community when it aired and guess what? Everyone watched it subbed. It doesn’t matter if you are reading subtitles or not, people are just able to pick up good acting when they hear it. Simple as that.

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.

First off, no. Your brain doesn’t elevate shit, it simply acknowledges “Yup, that is what this Japanese person said”. That is the entire process. There is no “LOOK AT HOW FLAMBOYANT AND ARTISTIC THIS GOD SAID THIS WONDROUS PIECE OF EXPERTLY CRAFTED DIALOGUE” going on. It is simply an acknowledgement from your brain. And secondly, “so many people” can’t stand dubbed anime because they don’t like dubbed anime. They prefer watching it in Japanese for whatever preference they have. I still find it kinda amazing the reasons some people come up with not liking dubbed anime. Like, “why wouldn’t they like it? Its a godsend! Anime in my own language? Sign me the fuck up!”. People don’t like dubbed anime because people don’t like dubbed anime. There is no deeper meaning behind it. But lets just take people like me who are able to appreciate dubbed acting whenever it is done right and tackle that entire spiel about the “emotional connection”. Its not really an emotional connection as its just jarring to see a different person, speaking a different language voicing a character you really like and have a emotional connection with. Ironically, its foreign to them to see anime characters voiced in any other language to Japanese.

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.

I think he just admitted that he’s a cynic, which is something I had already guessed up until this point but hey, its nice to have it on paper.

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 first reference to an actual anime and what, we are only on the third last paragraph? Hell, that’s good for ANN standards. I actually looked this up, and its from 1997 so he is right in saying that it is forgotten. The acting itself is what you would expect from a low-budget anime at that time, nothing exciting and pretty darn bland. Here, have a look for yourself.

Its kinda funny that he brought up this anime though because the people who voiced the main characters only ever had one anime role to them which is a nice twist of fate really. Earlier on The Answerman stated that getting unknowns is better for the business yet, here he references an anime with unknowns in it and he calls the acting shit. Beautiful really, I could shed a tear.

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.

Fuck, he even references this point. He practically shot himself in the foot here by making his earlier point redundant. I’m amazed really.

…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.

I think he is basically going into damage control mode here to save face. What he is saying basically is that anime has its own set of ways that the actors use to get the job done. Which is exactly it, I’m not gonna disagree. However, what he fails to point out that this is the case in every medium. From Hollywood to Bollywood, Saturday morning cartoons to Adult Swim cartoons, acting in visual novels to acting in AAA games, each and every medium has set ways that they employ to get the job done. Its quite rare to see someone break the mold completely in one of these formats and when they do, its just labelled “artsy” or “out-there”. Anime is no different. Since he failed to make this point, it just kinda makes it seem that anime is the only medium in existence that doesn’t change its acting style. That could be stretching it really and he acknowledges this case but I wouldn’t put it past him if did think that.

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

“If you enjoy eating shit, then there’s nothing wrong with that”.

Oof, that was a lot to take in really. I’m glad I ranted about it though, being the seiyuu nut that I am, this article was not fun to read really and this post at its core just boils down to “NO U” but still, it was fun. At the end of the day, I think that we have all learnt something, that I am very easy to become a keyboard warrior when the time comes. Really, its better if I stay away from being petty all of the time and just work towards making high-quality, thought-provo-

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