Casting Japanese Seiyuu with Michihiko Suwa – A Sakuracon Panel Recap

Perhaps the most appealing feature of Sakuracon (besides meeting and hanging out with dozens of awesome people) was the impressive list of special guests from all levels of the anime industry.  Among the distinguished crowd visiting the 2012 Sakurcon was Michihiko Suwa, a producer for numerous notable anime including Detective Conan, Inuyasha, City Hunter, Black Jack, and most recently, Rinne no Lagrange.  Of his three panels at Sakuracon, this post will provide a summarization a panel led by him that covered an aspect of the anime industry that holds particular importance to me: voice acting.  Using Rinne no Lagrange as his primary example, Michihiko Suwa provided a rare and valuable insight into one of the most essential pieces of anime production.

A brief video started the panel, a promotional video featuring scenes of Rinne no Lagrange with special attention on the three main characters, Madoka, Lan, and Muginami.  The audio featured each character’s voice reciting powerful or influential lines that showcased the voice actress’ talent.  Once it finished, the focus shifted over to Michihiko Suwa who began by explaining the anime, who he was, and what the panel was about.  It wasn’t long before his discussion on the voice acting industry in Japan was underway.

Michihiko Suwa began with some basic facts about the voice acting industry in Japan, one that continues to grow every year.  Roughly 2000 seiyuu (voice actors) are prominent within the industry, a staggering number that continues to grow.  These seiyuu are not restricted to only anime roles and many perform duties outside of anime including commercials, television work, promotional work, dubbing foreign films into Japanese, and several other areas of media production.  Including people who do not do voice acting for a career but participate in it very infrequently, the seiyuu industry totals about 10,000.  For someone who solely focuses on anime and its culture in Japan but with little knowledge of the industry, these numbers are nothing short of astounding.  Even more surprising is that there are nearly 250 schools for voice acting around Tokyo and about 1000 new seiyuu debut each year in Japan.  As you can assume from these numbers, there is turnover within the industry and that it is difficult to sustain a living on simply voice acting alone.  Suwa noted there are about only 20 who are popular and renowned enough to ‘make it big’ in the industry, a number that is a bit disheartening but understandable given the anime industry.

After this detailed overview, Suwa transitioned into how these seiyuu get hired to provide their voice to our favorite anime characters and how producers and directors select these seiyuu.  As Rinne no Lagrange is Suwa’s most recent work, he used it as his main example but added in instances where it is different for other anime.  Because Rinne no Lagrange is an original anime production, meaning there is no work it is based off of like many other anime, there was freedom for the production staff to choose the voices they thought were most suitable for the roles.  Since the casting for voice acting was so early in the production process for Rinne no Lagrange, the script was nearly complete and there were really no sketches of the character designs yet, the voices they’d select could easily influence the anime one direction or another.  Essentially, they were choosing the voices to match the script and then designing the characters after.  To contrast this, anime that are based off original work such as manga, light novels, or other forms of media already have established character designs, personalities, and emotions, basically a blueprint for how a character should sound already determined before anime production would even start.  Additionally, input is required from the original creators for these works, so there is less freedom for the producers and directors for those anime than original anime.

For the roles of the three main characters in Rinne no Lagrange, the production crew listened to over 1000 applicants before selecting the final three that we hear in the anime.  Applicants would read lines for a character they thought they were best suited for.  At times, Suwa admitted, he thought the voice would better suit another character and have them try out another role instead.  For example, if a seiyuu tried out for the part of Madoka but Suwa thought her voice matched his idea of Lan instead, he offered the actress the chance to voice Lan’s lines instead and to see how they performed.  As one could imagine, it was an exhaustive process to trim the pool from 1000 to just 3.  Two of the seiyuu selected, Kaori Ishihara (Madoka) and Asami Seto (Lan) are debuting seiyuu who nearly match the age of the characters they play.  Suwa explained they were best suitable for their respective roles for their portrayal of high school age girls and the energy and emotion they were able to communicate through their voices.  The casting of Ai Kayano as Muginami was rationalized by Suwa for her talent and experience, showing that they weren’t simply going with youth in this anime.  To what magnitude did these voices influence the characters in their design or personality, I do not know since it was not covered by Suwa during the panel but I would imagine it did affect the anime in to some degree.  The production staff do go through every applicant for every role in the anime, so casting for seiyuu in an anime is an extensive and meticulous process.  At the end, we rewatched the promotional trailer that started the panel which provided a new impression upon hearing all the character voices again, now that we know a little more about the voice acting industry and everything that happened before that led up to them creating this promotional video.

The rest of the panel detailed other aspects of the seiyuu industry not directly related to casting.  As producer of the mega-anime franchise Detective Conan, an anime with over 650 episodes and 16 movies, Suwa detailed his friendships with several famous seiyuu.  As competitive and stressful as the anime industry can be, it was reassuring to hear about the human side of the industry and learn a bit about their lives outside of anime.  Suwa also promoted an upcoming movie about the seiyuu industry in Japan, a live-action movie with numerous renowned seiyuu titled, Kami Voice, a movie which he helped create.  Though the story in the movie is fictional, it showcases other elements of the seiyuu industry, particularly those from the perspective of the seiyuu themselves.  If you were perchance intrigued or interested by this post or the seiyuu industry in Japan, Suwa and I encourage you to check the movie out (though I have not seen it).

What time remained was opened to Q&A which did produce one answer that fascinated me that I would like to share here was Suwa’s view on seiyuu who are typecasted to particular roles.  Though the gentleman phrased the question with a negative undertone on typecasting, suggesting that it traps seiyuu in only specific roles and characters, Suwa answered saying he believed it was a positive to be typecasted.  His justification for such a stance surprised me but I understand his position on the issue.  He explained that being typecasted means that the seiyuu has outstanding talent for that role and that they’re popular enough to receive work over and over again.  He went further and said because the industry is so competitive, it’s always rewarding for a seiyuu to be selected for a character regardless of whether it’s a same role as before or not.  Phrasing his answer in this way lead me to realize that typecasting is not a negative in the anime production industry for either producers or seiyuu and perhaps only a view held by fans who are against the typecasting of certain seiyuu.

Finally, I would like to take a moment and explain this post.  I did not originally plan on recapping any parts of Sakuracon on my blog, so I never took any notes of any of the panels I visited.  This entire post is based off my memory, so some of the details presented during the panel unfortunately weren’t retained and didn’t make it in this post.  Among those was the presence of an actual seiyuu who sat a few seats next to me that helped answer some questions during the panel and provided some insight into seiyuu life (one such detail is that once an anime is finished, all the seiyuu go on a vacation and have fun together).  I regret not remembering her name since she provided a fantastic angle to this panel and I do hope she receives some recognition for her role in this panel.  I also went to several other panels on anime production including another one from Michihiko Suwa on TV production, several with Gen Urobuchi and Atsuhiro Iwakami (Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero), art in animation with Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Yutaka Minowa, a Q&A with Steve Blum (English voice for Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop and Roger Smith of The Big O), directing for anime and video games with Jonathan Klein (Ergo Proxy, Paranoia Agent, Hellsing) and a few panels run by fans.  Lastly, I hope you found this recap to be informative, interesting, and enjoyable.  If there is enough feedback on this post and a desire to read other recaps, I may publish a few more of these though I can’t guarantee if they’ll be as detailed as this one.

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