Prior to interviewing Koichi Yamadera, a top voice actor, mimic and TV celebrity, I thought it would be tacky to ask him for samples of his many voices, from the characters on the popular “Anpanman” kiddy cartoon show to the hero of Hitoshi Takekiyo’s new animated horror-comedy “Hokago Middonaitazu (After School Midnighters)” — a plastic human-anatomy model in a tony private elementary school who only comes to life, together with his skeleton sidekick, after midnight.
But the effervescent Yamadera, who was promoting the film at Shinjuku’s Wald 9 theater, needed no prompting to let loose with his versions of Huey Lewis and Tina Turner, whom he impersonated in a recent “We Are the World” parody video, and even a quack of Donald Duck, whose voice he dubs in local versions of classic Disney cartoons. (“It’s harder to get the quack right than to do the actual acting,” he admitted.)
Born in Miyagi Prefecture in 1961, Yamadera was the sort of kid who imitated TV cartoon characters to impress his friends. He did not, however, always consider voice acting his calling: As a student at Tohoku Gakuin University he joined a rakugo (comic storytelling) club and toyed with becoming an actor or, using his gift of the gab, a salesman. But in 1984 he entered a training school for voice actors and in ’85 was cast in his first voice-acting role in the anime “Megazone 23.”
Since then Yamadera has acquired a staggering list of credits not only voicing anime characters — the bread and butter of his profession — but also dubbing such Hollywood stars as Eddie Murphy, Charlie Sheen, Jim Carrey and Brad Pitt in localized versions of their films. “American directors can be really strict,” he said. “They tell me to get as close as possible to the nuances of the American actor, in great detail. ‘English has this kind of nuance, so bring it out in Japanese,’ they say. But it’s really tough.”
The growing trend of dubbing instead of subtitling foreign films, especially ones viewed by adults, has its detractors, Yamadera admits, but he approves of it — and not only because it means more voice-acting work. “A lot of the images (in films today) are complex and detailed. There’s also a lot of 3-D. So when I have to read subtitles on top of that in the theater, I get tired. Though I still see (subtitled films), dubbing is good for truly seeing and focusing on the images. Of course, if the dubbing is bad, the movie becomes boring, so we (voice actors) have to try harder!”
Just as in dubbing Hollywood movies, voice actors in anime nearly always work from already-completed films or shows — the opposite of the Hollywood method of first voicing the characters, then animating them. In working on “After School Midnighters,” Yamadera first viewed drawings of his half-skinned character, Kunstlijk, and thought him “a little grotesque.” But when he finally saw him in a promotional video clip and in the award-winning short film on which the feature was based, his impression was entirely different: “I thought he was super interesting and really wanted to voice him.”
The director, Hitoshi Takekiyo, briefly discussed the character with Yamadera, but otherwise let him largely alone. “I’d do a test and he’d say ‘OK, OK, OK,’ ” Yamadera said with a laugh. “I was able to do just what I wanted — it was a fun job. I tried to put the same feeling into it as when I was dubbing Jim Carrey. If it’s made into a live-action movie, Jim Carrey should play my role — he’d be a lot more interesting than me.”
Yamadera also welcomes the comedians and actors grabbing a growing share of local voice-acting and dubbing work, less because of any potential superiority to professional voice actors, more because of their name-value to the paying audience. “(Hiromasa) Taguchi, who plays the skeleton (in “After School Midnighters”), is a comedian, but does a terrific job,” he says by way of example. “He’s got a wonderful comic sense.
“When you have someone like that who’s right for the part, it’s great,” he adds. “When they’re not used to how we work (in voice acting) … it may be tough for them at first, but with a little time they can definitely do well if they have the acting ability. Some aren’t suited for it, though.”
Yamadera himself derives much professional inspiration from live-action movies, stage plays and TV — not surprising given his own frequent appearances in the last medium. “There are a lot of interesting people (on television) who have a way with words,” he explains. “I envy some of them — they’re so good at (comic) skits or acting. I think they’re going to take away our (voice-acting) jobs (laughs). … I learn something from all of them.”
He is happy to keep working in anime, though, not only for the steady income (“I’ve been doing ‘Pokemon’ every year for about 15 years,” he comments. “There’s nothing like it in America”), but also for the chance to collaborate with such innovative animators as Hiroyuki Okiura (2011’s “Momo e no Tegami [A Letter to Momo]”) and the late Satoshi Kon (“Paprika,” 2006). “There are a lot of people I want to work with,” he says. “Also, there’s a lot of new talent coming up.”
Finally, Yamadera enjoys the sheer variety of roles that anime provides, from cutesy animals to unheroic heroes such as Kunstlijk. “He’s a little creepy, a little grotesque, but he’s also really expressive,” he says. “Basically, I like roles that are a little dirty. Villains are more fun to play. The best are the ones who are bad, but you can’t hate. Even heroes should have something wrong with them. I want to play heroes with weaknesses.”
“After School Midnighters” is currently playing in theaters around the country.