[Editorial Tuesday] How Hard Is It to Be a Seiyuu

Beyond colors, animation, and music, seiyuu (or voice actors in Japanese) play one of the most significant roles in bringing the characters and the anime as a whole to life. The industry is full of seiyuu from legends such as Mori Katsuji (known as the Casey Kasem of Japan) and Kotono Mitsuishi to current generation sensations such as Hirano Aya and Miyano Mamoru. Some of you reading this are probably asking the following, what does it take? What is the pay? Can a non-Japanese person make it in the industry? Well, we have the answers to your questions.

Seiyuu School

Some hardcore fans may think voice acting is all about standing behind a microphone and making funny and cute voices. However, like other forms of acting whether it would be in front of a camera or on stage, voice acting is still at its core acting and is by no means an easy feat and has its own unique demands that will make some of you re-think what it means to be one. In Japan, there are acting schools dedicated to voice acting for anime but there are more to these schools than just learning how to act behind a mic.

One school in Japan is the Amusement Media Academy in Tokyo (so.amgakuin.co.jp for those that can read Japanese). Thankfully, they have orientations and open campuses every June for prospects to get a feel of it. To enter this school, you either have to fill up an application, or through a letter of recommendation. Due to no English features on this site, it is a given that any of you readers interested in joining such a school is going to require legal Japanese residence and adequate Japanese language ability. In addition to basic vocal lessons, trainees also take singing, dancing, and general acting lessons. As was written earlier, voice acting is still acting and these lessons allow prospects to properly express a character they are going to play. Dancing is course for further vocal training and the dancing lessons teach actors how to express themselves (or a character) through physicality. By taking these additional lessons, aspiring seiyuu have a better understanding of the art they wish to pursue as a whole, and sometimes while performing behind a microphone some seiyuu will make the appropriate faces to better express the emotions the character is portraying, and even do simple body gestures to give a more believable performance.

Plus, there are some unique physical demands in the world of voice acting. When Chris Patton played the English role of Sho in the newer version of the Guyver series, he shared in the DVD commentaries that when he had to scream Guyver in one episode, it went to a point that his vocal chords started to bleed and coughed out blood. So please be careful when you say you can do it.

Getting Seiyuu Work and the Pay

While in North America, voice actors can find work in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and Vancouver, a bulk of seiyuu work in Japan can exclusively be found in Tokyo. Of course before anyone can get paid, one must find work. Finding auditions may be the easy part, passing is a whole different matter on its own. For young aspiring seiyuu still in school, they can easily get audition info through their campus. For others, they can get work through their agencies. One of the biggest agencies is 81 produce (81produce.co.jp), and they have numerous connections through the industry. Some of their big names they represent are Sakurai Takahiro, Seki Toshihiko, and the legendary Sasaki Nozomu. So connections and reputation are obviously everything in terms of 100% success. Showing up to the auditions on time and being professional are also important. Usually the people judging the audition will normally be the director, the casting director, the producer, and sometimes the original manga author if it is a manga being adapted. Getting signed by this agency is of course no easy task but as long as you find some way to stay active by showing you are still dedicated to learning your trade, then you can get signed.

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However, there are chances for average Joes and Janes to audition for roles as well. Studio Nue actually had a wide open audition for their latest Macross installment, Macross Delta, for the roles of the in-series idol group, Walkure. Contestants just had to show up at a local karaoke sponsoring the event, audition through singing a Macross song of their choosing, and submit a video of their performance to the studio. The conditions were anyone 25 and under and a resident of Japan (so as long as you legally live in Japan, foreigners in theory can enter). After going through 8000 auditions, finalists were selected to be interviewed by a panel of judges and also further demonstrate their singing and acting skills.

Once a seiyuu gets selected for a job, for some rookie seiyuus, starting pay can start from 2,500 yen per episode (eventually going up to 10,000-20,000 per episode after a year or two) while famous names of the trade will get up to 50,000 yen per episode. Due to the low pay and the lack of guarantee that some seiyuu will get work (let alone consistent and long series such as One Piece and/or Doraemon), many seiyuu work regular jobs on the side. Park Romi, most famous as the voice of Edward Elric from both editions to Fullmetal Alchemist, actually worked at a supermarket before she made it big.

In addition, seiyuu operate their own businesses. Matsukaze Masaya, famous as the voices of Mikami from Death Note and Ren from Fairy Tail actually has his own seiyuu café in Akihabara (Seiyuu cafe.com). It mostly employees aspiring seiyuu (currently mostly doing voice work for radio) who serve you drinks and desserts, and are willing to perform lines for you. One notable seiyuu which fans can meet there is Masukawa Youichi (the voice of Rock Lee from Naruto). So if any of you readers ever come to Japan, please visit the Seiyuu Café and support their hopes and dreams!

Voice Work Beyond Anime

In addition to voicing anime, seiyuu are also active in voicing in video games and some may find wider success through that avenue due to being a wider market than anime on an international scale. Also, with the pachinko market being huge in Japan, voicing in pachinko games is considered another great opportunity for exposure. An NHK documentary on seiyuus has shared that games and pachinko actually pay more than anime due to having bigger budgets and making more money. There are many video games and pachinko games based on anime franchises so the seiyuus from such series are re-used in those game adaptations.

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Ohtsuka Akio, a long time veteran famous for playing Anavel Gato in Gundam 0083 and recently made a performance as Baron Von Karma in the Ace Attorney animated series, made the most international fame as the voice of Solid Snake in Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid franchise. In addition, Mizuki Nana, the voice of Hyuuga Hinata from Naruto and Lan Fan from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, gained wider fame for singing Koi no Yoku Shiryoku, the theme song to Metal Gear Solid Peacewalker, with its original Japanese track featured in the English releases.

So thanks to these numerous opportunities, seiyuu have plenty of chances to build their resumes and find success. Not only did Metal Gear Solid help Ohtsuka Akio and Mizuki Nana, it probably re-defined the career of Inoue Kikuko, a voice actress most famous in anime for playing housewives-esque roles with a very soft and calm voice. Many fans should know her as Belldandy in Ah! My Goddess and Mizuho in Onegai Teacher. However, her roles as The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 allowed the actress to display her abilities to play strong female characters breaking from the roles she was type-casted in for most of her career.

As mentioned with Mizuki Nana, many seiyuu have active singing careers and contribute to some of the anime they perform. One obvious example is Hirano Aya, the voice of Haruhi in the hit series, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Not only does she contribute to the catchy ending theme song, she is also an active musician, which has led to its own controversies in the past (more on that later). Throughout the Macross franchise, the series has assisted its other featured seiyuu with their music careers such as Nakajima Megumi, the voice of Ranka Lee. Many of the seiyuu from those series happen to perform songs in character despite not being music centric such as Idolm@ster or Love Live!.

But just like anime, an aspiring seiyuu must audition for these respective roles. Hundreds to thousands can audition for a certain role (as was the case of Macross Delta) and only one can get it.

Can a Non-Japanese Resident Make It as a Seiyuu?

For some of you reading with acting backgrounds and knowledge of Japanese language and culture with dreams of becoming a seiyuu in Japan, can you do it? As a matter of fact, it is possible but we can’t say it’s going to be easy. It’s all about your experience, skills, and finding the right agent and what you can do. One such agency that specializes in foreign voice talent is Narrator.jp. And they manage not only English speakers, but native speaking Spanish, Korean, French speakers. One example of a foreigner trying to make it big as a seiyuu in the Land of the Rising Sun is a young Russian actress named Jenya, who played Lady Doubt in Mystic Joker and got a small role in the Evangelion movie series.

In some of her interviews, she has shared that getting a role as a seiyuu is the equivalent to winning the lottery, and does not indicate that her ethnicity is an obstacle. Despite her small and growing contributions, most of her work has been teaching Russian on Japan’s NHK network (think of it as Japan’s version of PBS). She has shared that success doesn’t happen in one night so you have to work hard and build your successes one after another to achieve your goals. A majority of voice work available (and in demand) for most foreigners in Japan are language instruction DVDs and/or audio books for textbooks. Doing language demonstration on NHK is actually a better opportunity than it looks. Like other forms of acting, you have to do other various roles to build experience and hopefully use your performances as a demo tape. For some of these relatively simple jobs, you don’t need an agent and can apply through ads gaijinpot.com or through Craig’s List.

Lisle Wilkerson is another example of a Gaijin seiyuu, but most of her work is in video games such as Nina Williams in Tekken and Sarah Bryant from Virtua Fighter. As for anime, it is possible with not only Jenya but a little bit through Lenne Hardt, who had small roles in the Japanese version as the operator in Gundam Unicorn and as the ring announcer in Kinnikuman Nisei and Ring ni Kakero, and as the MC in episode 28 in Hayate the Combat Butler.

In video games, Hardt plays Anna Williams in Tekken. But her most famous role in terms of voice work is the ring announcer in Pride (and she knows how to call a fighter’s name), one of Japan’s most prominent Mixed Martial Arts promotions in the early 2000s. So if you want it, work hard! But take what you can get to build experience and pay the bills! Unfortunately, you may not have success within anime, but your voice could be useful for something else. It all comes down to supply and demand. Would an anime in theory want a native English speaker? If the opportunity is there, then it is possible. Got Japanese speaking skills, then you are free to audition.

The Biggest Pitfalls of the Industry (Especially for Women)

With the present state of anime and seiyuu, it has become something of a branch to the idol industry. Just like the idol industry, young female seiyuu have a unique kind of celebrity status due to not just their talented voices, but their looks. Now that seiyuu have a more active role beyond the microphone such as doing live performances of songs from their anime and doing modeling work, the way fans and agencies treat them are no different from other female entertainers and are subjected to unfortunate, unintended, consequences that would be unfair to the point of lawsuits outside of Japanese society. Like idols such as AKB48, female seiyuu have an expectation to maintain a pure virgin image. Any slight gossip that may seem innocent to people of other countries and societies are deemed scandalous to the Japanese.

One notable scandal with a seiyuu is, of course, Miyamura Yuko, most famous as the voice of Asuka from Evangelion. Apparently, somebody found an adult video of an actress who is assumed to be Miyamura. Whether or not it was proven to be her does not matter in Japanese society and the entertainment industry. Because Japan’s attitude towards such instances is guilty until proven guilty, people want nothing to do with somebody involved in a scandal regardless of innocence because it would reflect badly on them.

Hirano Aya also caught flack for having intimate pictures with her boyfriend on the internet for violating her fans’ expectations of maintaining a pure image. So for female fans, please be prepared for demands deemed ridiculous by your home country and if you find yourself in a scandal you feel no fault in, either do the Japanese way and apologize and how you shamed yourself, your family, and how you let your fans down, or do it the American way and take them to court!

Still Willing to Do It? (Final Thoughts)

As you have read, there are numerous demands and opportunities in the seiyuu industry. However, the competition is tight and tough! Though it may seem exciting, but if there is no work, there is no pay. Also, women are held to an excruciating standard. But the work available is not just exclusive to anime but a whole variety of things that require voice work. There are many numerous avenues to use one’s talents and get exposure. Though for non-Japanese the work is more limiting to just doing audio books for English or other foreign languages, but eventually the right opportunity will come along.

ET-seiyuuwork-seiyuu-image1-560x230 [Editorial Tuesday] How Hard Is It to Be a Seiyuu


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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