Our Lives | BLACK EYE

Londoner finds her voice on the Tokyo stage

by Baye McNeil

Continuing in my efforts to offset the recent preponderance of African-American voices in this column, I follow up last month’s feature on a Zambian gentleman by directing Black Eye’s focus to Reina, a British woman who has come to Japan in pursuit of her dream.

While many set goals for themselves where the path to success has at least been paved, this industrious young woman has ventured into completely uncharted territory for a foreign-born female of African descent in Japan. Setting out to be a Japanese voice actress (seiyū), she has arrived at a destination she had not foreseen, a place where outside voices are rarely heard.

As a teen coming of age in the U.K., Adelaide Amissah (Reina is her stage name) hatched a plan. She was the first British-born child of Ghanaian parents who’d immigrated to England in the early 1980s. They’d set down roots in northwest London, in a notably deprived neighborhood called Harlesden.

“There were different ethnic minority groups in our area that came and went in the ’80s, ’90s and the 2000s,” Reina explains. “Even now it’s completely changed again. But still Harlesden was kinda known as ‘The Harlem of the U.K.’ because the violent crime was pretty bad. The south side, where the blocks of flats — you guys (Americans) call them the projects, I think — were, it was like that, but we lived on the north side where it was a bit safer. The British media were really horrible about it. Any crime that happened even 15 minutes away from my town they would say happened in my town.”

It was during her childhood that Reina, like most kids, fell in love with cartoons. And, at 14, she was introduced to the cartoon, and the actress, that put her on the path she remains on to this day.

“Originally I wanted to be an actress, because I was so in love with fantasy movies, magic, witches and theater. But my mom said, ‘No, acting is too difficult.’ By the time I was 14, I was obsessed with ‘The Simpsons.’ And then I heard Nancy Cartwright’s story — that she was considered too ugly to be an actress, and when she was offered a chance to audition for the voice of Lisa Simpson, was told she should try Bart. And she’s become one of the most famous voice actors in the West. Hearing her story was when I had the thought: ‘OK, I won’t become an actor. I’ll become a voice actor instead.’

“Later, when I was 16, I first saw the anime film ‘Fist of the North Star.’ In the U.K. it was rated 18, and I wondered why. Then I watched it and saw all the heads exploding and the blood spraying about, and I was shocked, excited and awed all at the same time. So that led to my love of Japanese anime.”

But it wasn’t until she was preparing to enter university that she had the epiphany that would eventually lead her to Japan.

She attended Oxford Brookes University (“which is located in the city of Oxford near Oxford Oxford,” she explains, “but has no connection with Oxford Oxford”) where they offered dual majors. She’d already decided upon computer science when she looked at the prospectus and saw that it also offered Japanese.

“The actual degree title was Japanese Language and Modern Society,” Reina says. “So you get to spend one year of study in Japan and learn the language and learn Japanese anthropology as well — essentially two fields in one degree.”

It was then that she had a peculiar vision.

“A little voice in my head said, ‘Oh! Wouldn’t it be cool if you went to Tokyo and studied Japanese, and once you’ve graduated you could go to voice acting school in Japan?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah! That would be cool!’ And that’s why I chose Japanese.”

Her year of overseas study was at J.F. Oberlin University in Machida, western Tokyo. Once she graduated from Oxford Brookes, her eyes remained fixed on Japan and her dream, but her parents weren’t exactly thrilled about their daughter making such a big move.

“Even before I graduated I’d told them I wanted to go back to Japan, that I wanted go to voice acting school. So they’d had two years’ warning,” she recalls. “At first they weren’t happy with it. There was resistance. Of course they’d prefer I stayed in London and build a life there. But since I was so adamant and willing to work hard and focus, eventually they were fine with my decision.

“It was my dad who realized that I was doing the same as he’d done,” Reina adds. “He left his family in Ghana and immigrated to the U.K. to make something, and I was doing the same thing in a different way.”

Reina arrived in Japan in 2008 with a working visa, a plane ticket, her savings and little else. She worked in IT support at Bloomberg in Tokyo and as an assistant language teacher for a couple of years until she finally had enough money saved up.

“Two-and-a-half years after arriving in Japan to stay, finally I had the visa and the tuition, and I’d passed the school exam, and it was all coming together. I could start the voice acting school’s two-year course. I’d gotten to the door of my dreams.”

That just happened to be in March 2011. Three days later, the earthquake and tsunami hit Tohoku.

“All hell broke loose,” Reina says, “with the radiation and whatnot. So I had to decide: Do I give it all up and go back to London, or do I risk my life and go to voice acting school? That was a dark, horrible moment.”

At that time, she wouldn’t have been the only gaijin (foreigner) who decided to take flight. (There was even a derogatory name for the people who chose to flee: “flyjin.”) But Reina decided to stay.

“I was scared, naturally,” she says. “But I knew if I left I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”

So, the following month Reina enrolled in the inaugural semester of the Tokyo School of Anime, the only foreign face among 50 or so students in a new course conducted entirely in Japanese.

“We were the first lot so they were still establishing the curriculum,” she says. “We had four core classes. They were voice acting, emotional expression, vocal expression and mic work. Additionally we had to study singing, dance and Nihon buyō (Japanese classical dance) for two years, to develop a sense of rhythm. These dance techniques also enable us to smoothly switch between the mics, to physically loosen our bodies, and in developing expression as well.

“In the second year obviously the school’s aim was to get us into agencies, because that’s what they had to prove they can do. So we had courses on auditions and how to execute a self-introduction. One-minute “jiko PR,” they called it, where they basically teach you what to say, how to move, how to stand and all of that modeling/acting-related stuff,” Reina explains.

“But I failed practically every single audition I did in school because, despite seriously studying and struggling, I couldn’t read a script perfectly or kanji perfectly within five minutes. Even if I could, the bane of my two years at the school — and what I was constantly scolded for in school by the teachers — was that my intonation wasn’t natural. So I failed all of the voice acting exams.”

However, as a result of some “in the right place, at the right time, with the right skill set” happenstance, and partly due to a recommendation by one of her instructors, Reina was able to get into an agency. Two weeks before graduation she was established as the only non-Japanese at the TAB Productions agency.

“But even to this day, I still can’t quite manage to read aloud in a perfect Japanese native voice, intonation and all, which is what the industry calls for. That’s my constant challenge. Thus I haven’t yet had a single voice-acting job in Japanese.”

Reina explained a bit about how the agency system here works — that once you’ve signed with an agency, you’re not allowed to accept jobs anywhere else, and that since her Japanese ability had certain kinks, the opportunities to work in Japanese through the agency would be few.

“So, in 2015 I decided to leave and go freelance,” she says. “In the past year-and-a-half since I quit TAB, the number of voice-acting jobs and straight acting jobs have increased tremendously. I’m doing stage work and a lot of English narration work. It’s great to be back in the studio and making use of everything I learned in school, even if it’s not in the language I intended.”

Reina made her stage debut in “Romeo and Juliet” before leaving TAB, but since then has appeared in two other plays: “Confusions” and “Seven.” Then came the chance to work exclusively in Japanese in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” alongside rather famous Japanese actors including Shinichi Tsutsumi and Yasuko Matsuyuki.

“The director is British and I’m British but everyone else is Japanese. It was his decision to get a foreigner to play Tituba,” says Reina. “Everyone else is going to play 17th-century white Christian Americans, and I’m playing a black American slave, but I’m actually black and a Christian so it works out better for me because I understand more of the cultural background behind the story. But for the Japanese actors, I’m guessing it will be a huge challenge because it’s a story about the dangers of group thinking. It’s a dark and really powerful story, and I hope the Japanese audience will catch on to this and some of them will leave the theater thinking this country ought to do something.”

Reina gives kudos to Bunkamura, the organization behind this new series of plays, for doing this with the stated goal of bringing stories and talent from abroad, and challenging the whole realm of theater with a new mind-set.

“That’s the whole point of bringing this kind of story to Japan — essentially bringing Japanese people something they can’t experience in their society, and making them think — which is, like, wow!” says Reina. “This should be exciting!”

Still, one of Reina’s ultimate goals remains to appear in an anime with a proper Japanese speaking role. But voice-acting is no longer her sole pursuit.

” ‘The Crucible’ has reignited a love of theater and acting in Japanese for me, so I’m driven to go as far as I can!”

“The Crucible” opens next month in Tokyo (www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/cocoon/20161007.html) Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.