chiaki_takahashi.jpg[In a new analysis for GameSetWatch, writer Zoran Iovanovici has a look at how the emphasis on video game voice actors differs from Japan to the West, including interviews with a Western voice actor on how she's perceived by fans and the industry.]

Pop quiz. How many gamers out there are familiar with the contributions that Nolan North, Terrence Carson, and John Di Maggio have made to the video game industry? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t the slightest clue. In the U.S., most people would be hard pressed to name the actors that voice some of the most prolific game characters. Few know the names behind the voices of Nathan Drake, Kratos, or Marcus Fenix.

Over in Japan it’s a completely different story. Voice actors (or seiyuu as they are known in their native land) are major celebrities, their names and faces often instantly recognizable by the general public. They appear on magazine covers, advertise clothing lines, and host their own internet radio shows.

In the video game industry, seiyuu have major roles in promoting the video games they work on. They’re often the focus of magazine preview interviews, they sometimes cosplay as the characters they voice, and they attend major launch parties and various promotional junkets. In Japan, there’s a whole culture of appreciation and awareness in regards to video game and anime voice actors. In the U.S. – not so much.

Before delving any deeper, it’s important to note that Japanese voice actors build their careers around voice acting. The American Hollywood actor who occasionally moonlights as a voice actor is not comparable by any means. In Japan, seiyuu aren’t just voice actors, they’re voice idols.

Japanese voice actresses in particular are frequent guests on Japanese variety shows, trivia/game shows, and comedy specials. Take for instance the newly released Idolmaster DS where the three lead voice actresses Haruka Tomatsu, Kana Hanazawa, and Yuko Sanpei took part in a television special promoting the game. Or consider their Idolmaster colleague Chiaki Takahashii who recently started making waves as a pin up model in Japanese men’s magazines.

A world apart
U.S. voice actors aren’t treated with the same reverence as their Japanese counterparts. They’re nowhere near as big a part of the PR machine as they are in Japan. Sure, you’ll see the odd panel at E3, Comic Con, or Blizzcon, but when was the last time you saw a video game voice actor appear as a special guest on a late night talk show or a premier red carpet event? Even the wildly popular David Hayter doesn’t quite enjoy that prestige despite becoming a household name among Metal Gear Solid fans. Hayter may seem larger than life to MGS super fans, but he’s not likely to be recognized out on the street as often as a Hollywood actor like Johnny Depp or George Clooney.

If that seems disconcerting, spare a thought for the considerably less famous but equally talented Quinton Flynn who voices Raiden in MGS as well as the fan favorite Axel in the Kingdom Hearts series. Or look at voice actor Nolan North who has done, in addition to countless anime series, voices for lead characters in blockbuster games like Nathan Drake in Uncharted and the latest Prince in Prince of Persia. Even better, consider Gideon Emery's incredible voice over of Balthier in Final Fantasy XII, a role that not only helped make Balthier the most beloved character in the game but also stands as an example of the top tier talent that fans have come to expect of the series. In Japan, these actors would be absolute idols and people would know their faces and names.

cristina_vee.jpgTurning Japanese

While things are clearly on different wavelengths across the Pacific, it doesn’t stop some professionals from trying to attain a similar status in the U.S. that their Japanese counterparts enjoy overseas. I caught up with anime and video game voice actress Cristina Vee for a quick chat on this very topic.

Vee recently finished up work on Blazblue, where she did the voices for Noel Vermillion and Nu v-13. Throughout her young career she’s been taking her anime and video game voice acting and merging it with other forms of entertainment in a way that’s very Japanese. When she’s not doing voice work in studio she performs English versions of popular anime songs on her YouTube page, she’s a member of an indie band named Siren Call, and is a co-host on the Anime Olympics web show.

“It was really surprising to hear about the recognition that Japanese voice actors get. It’s unlike anything here in the states,” she tells me. “Even my own family still doesn’t get important role that voice actors play in the entertainment industry. Growing up it was hard to do any recording at home because my parents were always worried about me, thinking I was talking to myself in exaggerated character voices. They were always knocking on my door and checking up on me.”

Intrepid young voice talents in Japan aren’t likely to face the same mystified reaction. Their friends and family would at least recognize and understand the desire to work alongside other accomplished celebrity voice actors. Cristina got no such comfort in the states. “Oftentimes if people don’t see your face on television or in a movie, they’ll just shrug off your performance as a voice actor. It’s like you aren’t a real entertainer. There are times when you feel really underappreciated as a voice actor,” she explains.

Gamers, on the other hand, are a more receptive bunch. They know good voice acting when they hear it. Just the same, they immediately recognize how terrible voice acting detracts from a game. The embarrassment that was the original Resident Evil on PlayStation simply isn’t tolerable these days. Great voice acting is expected of top tier games even if the voice actors go unrecognized and underappreciated in the Western gaming world.

But media hyped big-budget titles aren’t the only ones that put heavy emphasis on top caliber voice acting. Stellar voice acting is now part and parcel for every genre and this certainly applies to the explosion of fighting games we’ve seen in the last year or two.

In the case of Blazblue, where most of the story mode sequences are voiced, there are over three thousand lines for each character. Moreover, there are two separate voice tracks for each character meaning that the tone of voice for each player differs in mirror matches. It’s a great extra touch that’s never been done before in a fighting game but it will likely fly under the radar as most gamers assume fighting game voice tracks are simply a small collection of grunts and yells. This doesn’t do much to boost the credibility of the voice actors involved in the project.

“It’s totally up to us to become as involved as we can with the fans and community. The industry doesn’t do it for us,” Cristina explains. Even the official Aksys sponsored Blazblue launch party was under the radar. No major gaming outlets covered the event, you won’t find a photo shoot in any print magazine, and there certainly wasn’t any television coverage.

But it doesn’t stop there. Many times a voice actor’s desire to become more involved is simply shrugged off by the developer/publisher. Cristina recalls once such situation while working on Blazblue: “I really wanted to do English voiceover for Noel’s stage music. The original track is a song called ‘Love so Blue’ and it appears in the U.S. version of the game but with vocals done by Noel’s Japanese voice actress. The song is so catchy and I was willing to translate the song and sing it in English but my request was simply turned down.” In Japan, lending vocals to a theme song is a big deal, often leading to other opportunities such as performing the song live at anime and gaming conventions to promote the game.

reuben_dante.jpgCosplay and conventions to the rescue?

Oftentimes, Western voice actors are left on their own if they want to showcase their talents and show their devotion to the projects they’ve worked on. The best opportunities come in the form of appearances at gaming and anime conventions. This is perhaps the only area where Japanese and Western voice acting culture is on equal ground.

“I’m constantly getting requests from fans to cosplay as the characters that I voice at conventions. That would be great in Japan, but I’m trying to sort of pull back so that in the eyes of the industry I’m not just another fan girl. That’s something I’m always cautious of here in the states. Cosplaying as a character I did voice work for might come off as shameless self promotion by people in the industry,” Cristina explains while lamenting the distance she has to put between her professional career and her fun loving fandom.

While cosplay has certainly gained tremendous ground in the U.S. over the years, it’s nowhere near as common and prominent as it is in Japan. Let’s not forget, Japan even has cosplay sales reps on hand at retail stores during major game launches. This was even the case for Blazblue.

Another voice actor known to make the most out of major anime and gaming conventions is Reuben Langdon. Langdon is perhaps best known for doing the voice acting and motion capture of Dante in last two installments of the Devil May Cry series. Langdon was actually the first to do both the voice and motion capture for a lead character in a game. It’s quite an accomplishment and he’s taken every opportunity to become involved with fans and the industry ever since.

Recently at Fanime 2009 in San Jose, Reuben not only took part in a Devil May Cry industry panel discussing his motion capture and voice over work, he also took part in a charity event that saw attendees bidding for opportunities to challenge Reuben in matches of Street Fighter IV. As the English voice actor for Ken Masters in SFIV, Reuben played as Ken in every match, complimenting his in-game voice work with live commentary throughout the matches.

Langdon, with his blonde hair and exceptional martial arts skills makes a great Ken Masters, but don’t expect him to make any cosplay appearances in the U.S. anytime soon. You also won’t be seeing him performing acrobatic stunts while dressed up as Dante for the sake of a television commercial. Cool as it sounds, that sort of thing is exclusive to Japan (and YouTube, of course).

So we’re left wondering if voice actors in the West will ever enjoy the reverence that seiyuu do in Japan. It’s probably best not to hold one’s breath, but as gaming grows as a dominant form of entertainment and cultural expression worldwide, it’s very possible that voice actors will one day be granted mainstream respect on par with the adoration they receive by fans whose lives and hearts they touch with their voice talent.

[Zoran Iovanovici is a freelance writer and commentator - you can contact him at kitschy@graffiti.net.]