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Ambushed by Ninja!

Kamisama Kiss Director Akitaro Daichi and Detective Conan Voice Actor Naoko Matsui at AnimeNEXT 2016

Naoko Matsui and Akitaro Daichi dressed as ninja at their interview
Naoko Matsui (left) and Akitaro Daichi (right)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, than I shouldn't have to say much going forward. Just know that, usually, interviews with Japanese guests at anime cons tend to be ridiculously formal affairs with actions and questions moderated, if not mandated, by (the presence of) their representative publishers. So when Akitaro Daichi and Naoko Matsui walked into the interview space dressed in ninja outfits, I could only barely hope I was hiding, with some degree of professionalism, the wide smile beaming inside my brain.

Throughout the interview that followed, Daichi proved a man to whom honesty and humor were tantamount to humanism, while Matsui offered insight with a mix of earnestness and humility through a smile that proved as intoxicating as any aunt engaging listeners with her well-traveled life and times. While not characters, these two were clearly guests who had the heart of conventions in mind. Of note, Daichi and Matsui also presented a panel, "Daichi-san: Nobunaga no Shinobi," which was similarly informative and fun. These people were not merely people, they were bridges — awe-inspiring infrastructure with interpretive features.

Many thanks to Daichi-san and Matsui-san for being so amazingly energetic and to AnimeNEXT staff for setting up this amazing opportunity. Also, a big thank you to MB McClain, without whom I would have lost the first few minutes of the interview due to technical difficulties. (Visit his channel to watch and hear the entire interview!) A full transcript follows.

Ani-Gamers (AG): Since both of you have had extended careers in the industry, how have your roles changed — both voice actor and director?

Akitaro Daichi: A lot has changed. Since I started, things have turned a lot into digital formats. I started off working with the physical aspect of it: photography, cels, and then glass on top of it — one by one, by hand. (Daichi motions as if he was back at his workstation demonstrating the process) And I stopped doing the cels due to my shoulder. But now it's all digital. The digital format has been very easy for me. And in terms of expression, there’s more I can do in digital formats. So I’m very much in support of digital.

Naoko Matsui: It’s been 35 years since I first started voice acting. It’s more often than not that not everyone’s there recording at the same time now — I do more recording on my own than with the whole crew together.

Daichi: Is American recording for the voice actors for the done one by one or as a group?

McClain Cross: Usually as a group, with exceptions for celebrities.

Matsui: Is it more common to do the voice first before the animation?

AG: If they’re dubbing original material, I’m not sure. If they’re dubbing foreign material, it’s obviously watching the foreign material first and then dubbing the voice acting.

Cross: With American cartoons, usually the key frames are laid out for the story, but then the voice actors are gathered and they ad lib as a group to make the story funnier.

Daichi: Disney too?

Cross: Disney’s are usually more streamlined and more strict.

Matsui: Very different from Japanese style. As technology is advancing, they’re able to specifically retake and redo small increments by milliseconds. Voice actors are younger and younger now.

Daichi: And the numbers of voice actors increased as a profession.

Matsui: Back when I first started, there were only 200 VAs, but now there’s close to 3,000. It’s much harder now than when I started. If I had to start now, I don’t think I would be able to do it.

Cross: You were great as Roux Louka from Gundam ZZ.

Daichi: On the staff side of productions, the staff is always understaffed. Background artists … when we first start on a project, the first thing I book is visual artists for background imaging. That’s how rare they are.

Cross: I remember you did a great job with Sexy Commando.

AG: Given all you’ve seen and gone through in the industry, have you seen a series called Shirobako, and how do you think that portrays individual jobs within the industry currently?

Daichi: I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard of it.

Matsui: I haven’t seen it either, but I’ve heard it’s very realistic in terms of the portrayal.

Animation Runner Kuromi follows a production assistant at an anime studio.

Daichi: I made a series similar to Shirobako — the background story of animation production — Animation Runner Kuromi-chan. But Kuromi-chan is more about the analog, not digital, days. I’ve made two episodes but don’t think I can make any more because it became more digital. For instance, the director for Shirobako, Mr. Mizushima, he is portraying more of the digital aspect of the animation production background. I did more of the analog days in Kuromi-chan.

Cross: With animation becoming more digital now, do you feel there’s anything that’s harder to reproduce digitally?

Daichi: In terms of digital, there’s no limit to what you can do. During film days, there was a limit to what you could do. So if it was not to your liking, there was a limit. That was it. Now that it’s digital, you can do it. It is possible, so there’s no end to it. So a little fix here and a little fix there and it never ends. You can’t give up on it.

In Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro, the son of a tonkatsu chef uses his frying skills to become a DJ.

AG: You’re both involved in a short series right now, Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro, which I love, and you also directed Poyopoyo, which was a huge hit for me and others I know, so a two part question: what is different about producing shorts and why do you think there are so many shorts now?

Daichi: This is just my speculation, but probably the reason there’s more shorts now is because of financial issues. I do a lot more of the gag anime, and the original manga series is often a shorter storyline. So it translates better into a short anime. It’s easier to translate into a shorter film rather than making that into a full feature. To make a short 4-panel manga into a 30-minute animation kind of turns into a long, dragging, tiresome series to watch. So often short is better. And on the other hand, for a long series, like Kamisama Kiss, the story is very intricate and detailed. To make that into a short, you’d take a lot of the good aspects out of it. So that would not work well as a short animation. It would have to be a 30-minute feature with multiple episodes.

Cross: When adapting a 4-panel manga to animation, how much original content do you add?

Daichi: A little bit. I’ll often take some parts that are not necessary, make it compact, keep the rhythm, and then connect it with a short joke. I try to keep that to a minimum and try as much as I can to stick to the original.

Kamisama Kiss follows a high school girl who becomes a deity.

AG: You mentioned Kamisama Kiss. What’s it like working on a series that goes on an extended hiatus, like Kamisama Kiss, also like Fruits Basket, which finishes ahead of the manga from which it spawned?

Daichi: Fruits Basket was two seasons back to back. Kamisama Kiss had months in-between; there were first and second seasons. But the production was seamless between the first and second seasons. Sorry, Kamisama Kiss did have a hiatus between the first and second season in production as well. To make 26 detailed episodes is very draining. So during Fruits Basket, I didn’t check a couple of episodes at all. Do you know Hiroshi Nagahama? Mushi-shi? He checked for me.

AG: Good choice!

Daichi: I watched when it aired, not beforehand. In terms of Kamisama Kiss, I was able to watch all episodes, 13 episodes, and check everything. But when there’s a hiatus in-between the seasons, it takes me a while to get back into the series, into the mentality of it. So there are pros and cons of having no hiatus and then going straight forward.

Matsui: Same with voice actors. In Gundam, there are still recordings for the games. That means I would be working on something that came out when I was in my 20s. So I have them run the recording of when I recorded it back then so I can remember. And they ask me to be the same character as back then, but it’s been so long. So it seems a little forced. (laughs)

Daichi (to Matsui): When you hear yourself, the role when you just did when you were 20, do you often get embarrassed that, “OMG I wasn’t so good back then”?

Matsui: Yes, it does make me a little embarrassed, but it brings me back into the role.

Cross: It always makes us very happy when we hear her or anyone in the Super Robot Wars games interacting with the new content.

On the same note, right now there’s kind of a trend where a lot of animation, such as Gundam, Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, have been remade for modern audiences. Mr. Daichi, do you think you’d revisit anything you made before?

Daichi: I did a series in 1999, Tsukikage Ran, that I’d like to do again. Other than that…no. I wanted to try a Lupin III. It seems very difficult.

AG: What would you do with Lupin III?

Daichi: I like the Castle of Cagliostro. I’d like to go back to that Lupin.

Cross: You should do it. Everyone should direct Lupin once.

AG: If you consider Cagliostro an inspiration, do you also consider Miyazaki an inspiration?

Daichi: Miyazaki’s first directorial film, Future Boy Conan … I was in the production team for that film as well. I had a lot of fun while doing that, while analog – the cells. So those two, Conan and Cagliostro, have very similar themes and similarities. My favorite scene is (motions with his fingers as legs jumping on rooftops while making sound effects) on the rooftop where he runs down and then swimming inside underwater. Those ideas, how to make someone laugh, those emotions. Lupin is cool, but he’s also funny. He has both sides. But he’s just a thief.

Hayao Miyazaki's directorial debut, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, was a big influence on Daichi's work.

Cross: Future Boy Conan was actually an adaptation, I believe, of a Western story, The Great Tide. Do you have any interest in adapting Western material for animation?

Daichi: I haven’t read that many Western stories. Do you have any requests?

Cross: Oh, geez, I don’t know! That’s a great question.

Daichi: If I am asked to, I may consider working on it, but I have not considered looking into Western stories.

Cross: That’s a very hard question, but considering your background, maybe if you just did a show in the style of a 1970s America sitcom, that’ll be pretty funny.

Daichi: The ‘70s was a good era. I like comedy, so I like Chaplin. Maybe a silent film … just gestures? But I wouldn't be able to work with Ms. Naoko though 'cause there’s no voice. But she can have Ms. Yamazaki Vanilla do the narrating.

AG: Ms. Matsui, if I’ve got my information correct, you’ve also voiced characters for animations from the US and dubbed them into Japanese?

Matsui: Yes

AG: Is your approach to that different from original voice acting? And does the voice director there swap out Japanese and American pop culture references? They tend to do that over here.

Matsui: The biggest difference is that there’s already a voice there. There are situations where, in the American recording, there are multiple voices, so the difference with recording for an original recording is that multiple people would have to share one mic to mimic that layering of voices. Japanese voice actors’ dubbing skills are very high. For Detective Conan, twenty people shared three mics. It’s like a sports formation. So you have to be quiet and not make a sound, like a ninja. Because you have to stay so quiet while other people are recording, I think voice actors and ninjas are similar.

(Daichi stands up, draws his fake sword, and starts making swift, ninja-like moves)

Matsui: In instances where we’re all sharing the same mic, if the mic’s right in front of me, I’ll crouch and then someone else will voice from behind me to reach the mic. It’s very ninja-like.

Naoko Matsui plays Sonoko Suzuki in the long-running Detective Conan (Case Closed) series.

Cross: You’ve been working on Detective Conan for a very long time. Has it changed at all?

Matsui: It’s been twenty years. I’ve had to voice a high school girl for twenty years. So her age is changing…the character’s. The character lives inside of me, because I’ve been doing it so long. In the studio, we call each other by the characters’ names. And we take on the personalities of the characters in the studio.

Cross: A follow up question on that: have you made any adjustments to the character over the years, or are you still playing it the same way as in the 1990s?

Matsui: My character’s role is always to be very bright and happy, and I think about that a lot. I make sure that is the character trait that comes forward.

Daichi: It just so happens that the voice actors’ characters are somewhat similar to the characters that they play. And then as you play one role for a long time, the directors and staff say, “Oh, you know how to play this role,” and just give the responsibility to the voice actor. So in the scenarios, I often think, “Well this is not so good,” but when they act it out in front of the mic, it becomes really, really interesting.

Matsui: There’s a TV special where it’s Lupin vs. Conan, and I changed most of my lines on the spot. So at the post-production party, the director told me that it was a lot of trouble. (laughs)

AG: Usually directors direct the first and last episode of a TV series, but in Now and Then Here and There, and Fruits Basket you didn’t direct the first or last episodes. I was wondering why or if you could tell me what happened with those series.

Daichi: It was difficult! (laughs) So I gave it to the person who was suited for that. But that’s the role as a director: give it to someone more suited for that job … best case scenario for the series as a whole.

While we had to edit a portion of this interview to account for the divulgence of some time-sensitive information, MB McClain was patient enough to wait things out and post a professionally edited video of that interview, which you can find here. Enjoy!

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