“Anime that’s trying to be like previous hits can never surpass the originals.”
If you’ve watched much anime at any point during the past 30 years, odds are you’ve heard the work of voice actress Megumi Hayashibara. Evangelion’s Rei? That’s Hayashibara. So are Ranma 1/2’s female Ranma, Cowboy Bebop’s Faye, Slayers’ Lina, Pokémon’s Musashi (known as Jessie overseas), and All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl’s Nuku Nuku, plus far too many more characters to list here.
Being one of the most consistently popular, and employed, voice actresses in anime history, Hayashibara has seen first-hand just how much the industry has changed over the past few decades. As part of a series of interviews with veteran anime voice talent, Hayashibara recently spoke with magazine Seiyu Premium about her wealth of experiences and observations.
Looking back, Hayashibara marks the 1990s as being a turning point for voice actors. Prior to that, the nature of their work kept them largely out of the public eye, but the ‘90s were the start of a boom in voice actress name recognition and fandom. This period saw an increasing number of magazine spreads filled with glossy photos of voice actresses, something Hayashibara at first felt puzzled and apprehensive about. “What’s going to happen when people see how different their faces are from the characters they’re voicing?” she remembers wondering.
▼ For example, Hayashibara’s actual hair color is nowhere near Lina’s fiery orange or Rei’s trademark blue.
But once Hayashibara saw how photogenic the featured voice actresses were, the logic clicked for her. Stemming from their newfound fame as individuals, the distinction between voice actress and character began to blur, a path that would eventually lead to the current state of affairs in which anime’s top voice actresses are also expected to make live appearances where they sing, dance, and communicate with fans. Hayashibara’s career itself could be seen as an early prototype of this style, as she was the first anime actress to have both a solo single and solo album place in the Oricon top 10 weekly charts (and back in the days before superfans were encouraged to buy multiple copies), and has also hosted multiple radio programs.
However, this increased focus on the performer’s persona carries the risk of lessening the importance of his or her acting capabilities in terms of being chosen for roles. In her interview, Hayashibara expresses a fear that voice acting, which she used to believe was a long-term career, now includes elements for which a performer will only be considered “in-season” for so long. It seems like a valid concern, After all, if people are lining up to buy anime Blu-rays and CDs because they think the fresh-faced young voice actresses are pretty, will they still feel the same way in five, ten, or twenty years, especially if new waves of perky young replacements are coming in all the time?
Hayashibara doesn’t appear to have much faith in production agency’s sticking with talent once that shelf life is up, either, saying:
“Because of the fast pace of the industry, it’s common to fill voice actors schedules with as much work as possible, get them up on stage, and build up all the buzz you can. That’ll make you feel like you’re an absolutely essential individual, but in just three years all that could change. I don’t want companies to go chasing after small yet quick and easy, profits, but they don’t really have any intention of developing voice actors long-term.”
Still, Hayashibara doesn’t ultimately judge such practices as good or bad. Instead, she views the increasingly rapid changeover of one generation of voice actors to the next as merely the inevitable result of companies frantically searching for the next smash hit series or mega-star performer.
So what advice does Hayashibara have for young voice actors? For one thing, she tells them to be mentally prepared to make the best of a script with stale, clichéd dialogue. While she often hears people ask how they should read such lines, Hayashibara instead recommends asking yourself “How should I get into this emotion?” To her, that’s the critical question to think about, and without answering it the performance will suffer. “Even if you put all your effort into the reading, [without the emotion, it’ll be clear that] your heart’s not in it.”
As for what direction she’d like the anime industry as a whole to move in, Hayashibara points to a problem she sees with the number of new anime and characters that feel like derivatives of ones from the past, including those that seem to be aping the style of Evangelion or Hayashibara’s own Rei. She feels this is in sharp contrast to how things were 20-some years ago.
“Anime in the ‘90s was overflowing with ambition…Anime [today] which are trying to be similar to previous hits can never be better than the originals. Going forward, I want to be part of projects that aren’t trying to be ‘like’ something that came before.”
Tough words, but considering how much experience is behind them, probably worth taking into consideration.
Not getting Megumi Hayashibara’s autograph when he had the chance remains one of Casey’s biggest regrets in life. Console him by following him on Twitter.