The runaway popularity of anime in America has created a demand for English dubs that are as believable and well-acted as their American counterparts. Charles McCarter, chief producer at Bandai Entertainment, one of the largest anime distributors, comments, “If you go into any video store today, one of first things you’ll see is the anime section – which wasn’t there even two or three years ago. The popularity of anime continues to grow at a phenomenal rate: I’d estimate we do English versions of about 300 half-hours each year.”
A small but growing group of actors portrays the American versions of the robot pilots, magical girls, martial artists and cuddly critters that populate Japanese animation. Their lively performances have replaced the stilted readings that made “Japanimation” seem dull during the ’80s.
As English dubs are recorded after the film’s completion, the voice actors have to match the on-screen “mouth flaps.” Debra Rogers, who’s done voices for Cowboy Bebop, Streetfighter II, and The Guyver, says, “I’ve been doing anime dubs for over 10 years: it makes you use your improv skills and think on your feet. When you go into the booth, you often haven’t seen the script. You have to look at the page, memorize the line, match the mouths on the screen – and try to get a hold of the character.”
Spike Spencer is best known for his portrayal of Shinji, the alienated hero of the landmark series Neon Genesis Evangelion – and for spoofing that role as the Akito, the fry cook turned robot pilot in Martian Successor Nadesico. He adds, “When you have the luxury of working on a longer series, you get to know the characters a little better: you get to like them more or loath them more. They become a part of you.”
Anime voice actors generally record alone. Matt K. Miller (Tenchi in the popular sci-fi comedy Tenchi Muyo!) explains, “You’ve got to match the lip flaps meticulously, which is really hard when other people in the room are trying to do the same thing. We tried working with the cast together, but we had to keep starting and stopping and starting and stopping: It’s easier to do alone.”
“If another person has already laid down his lines, you have something to play off,” adds Spencer. “It’s a little harder when you’re the first one, but you give your interpretation based on what the director tells you, and that gives the next person something to follow.”
The actors cite the unusual range of characters anime offers as a bonus. Rogers says, “It’s a fabulous opportunity to play strong women, which I don’t get to do as much in American voice-overs. I was Cammy in Streetfighter, who’s a real tough character–I loved doing her fighting sequences.” “I’m tired of playing socially stunted prepubescent boy-heroes,” concludes Spencer with a laugh. “I want to play another bad guy, like I did in Spriggan. I love playing psychos!”
Charles Solomon is an animation expert, whose books include The History of Animation: Enchanted Drawings.