Rocking the Boat
Q & A
Megumi Ogata on the heights of fandom and the depths of the Japanese animation industry
Seiyuu are typically recalcitrant about issues related to how the anime industry treats voice actors. But recently, spurred by both anime's popularity in the United States and an Asian economic recession, the Japan Actors Union and individual seiyuu have found a stronger voice to articulate their concerns to an international market. Seiyuu Megumi Ogata, "Evangelion's" Shinji and "Yu Yu Hakusho's" Kurama, speaks out about art and capitalism, school yard bullies, and anime's necessary sex appeal.
You mentioned previously that Japanese animation is not in a good situation right now. Why not?
MO: Unfortunately, anime is generally rated low by the Japanese public. One reason is that many people still think anime is for small children, which is no longer true. A series of very abnormal murders of small children that occurred in 1989 can be another reason. Because the criminal was over 20 years of age, and a devotee of anime and video games, the whole nation started persecuting and discriminating against anime and its fans. Those feelings still remain. Creative teams now must make anime within very small budgets - this includes voice actors. Furthermore, the ongoing recession makes it more difficult to train good actors and artists to create good works. We are now facing a hard time and therefore we are given fewer opportunities to use our high abilities and techniques; and the situation is getting worse every year. I feel that we must do something about it.
Do you think shows for children in Japan are more sophisticated than American or European shows?
MO: I think that is true in some ways, but it isn't always true. I think Disney movies are wonderful. I cannot believe that "Fantasia" was made that many years ago. But the situation of the Japanese animation industry in which the best techniques and abilities cannot be fully utilized is something that we are ashamed of. If we had the support of big sponsors from abroad, the situation may turn out differently. It's a shame.
You achieved near instant fame with your first character, Kurama, the half-fox bishounen from "Yu Yu Hakusho." Did this surprise you?
MO: Yes, it did, but I was struggling to play my part at that time. He was a difficult character to play. He appears to be a 16-year old boy but is actually a fox monster that has been living for thousands of years. I was so preoccupied with preparing for the role that I didn't even notice I was becoming popular.
"There was a time when I actually pushed Yuko Miyamura to the floor to strangle her during the last scene of the 'Evangelion' movie in which Shinji strangles Asuaka. I couldn't act very well in playing that scene. I was so agitated that I strangled her too hard, making it impossible for her to say her lines for a while. Of course, I apologized to her for doing that. I almost killed her."
You are probably best known in the US for playing Shinji in "Evangelion." Some of Shinji's speeches sound like they might have been ad-libbed. Did you get to ad-lib and experiment when you were working on "Evangelion?"
MO: I'm delighted that you think I sounded natural as if I was doing ad-libs. I don't remember doing anything experimental. There was a time when I actually pushed Yuko Miyamura to the floor to strangle her during the last scene of the "Evangelion" movie in which Shinji strangles Asuka. I couldn't act very well in playing that scene. I was so agitated that I strangled her too hard, making it impossible for her to say her lines for a while. Of course, I apologized to her for doing that. I almost killed her.
A censored version of "Sailor Moon" has been airing in the US. Haruka and Michiru were turned into cousins and much of their dialogue was changed. When the show first aired in Japan, was there any contention coming from parents or religious leaders?
MO: When I was cast to play Haruka, I asked director Kunihiko Ikuhara, "Are they gay?" He answered, "Act as if they are married couple." And I asked him again, "Married couple? You, mean, with two ladies?" He replied, "Yes." So they are husband and wife. Their appearance on TV was sensational, something unheard of in TV cartoons. And the show was aired every Saturday at 7 p.m. when every member of the family would be gathering around the TV. Even so, it seems that we were able to grab the viewer's heart. The program's rating continued to rise, and I received a lot more fan letters than before. Because many people watched the show with their family, not only the anime fans but also small children and their mothers became our fans as well. There was a time I was called "a madam killer" [a term used to describe a person so charming that they can get any woman, usually applied to men, however Ms. Ogata's seiyuu career stands as a testament to how appropriate the term is for her].
I'm sure that the anime also appealed to gay people, too. I heard that "Sailor Moon" was the talk of the town in Shinjuku 2-chome, a famous gay street in Japan. Of course, it may have caused controversy in some strict, religious families, but the entertainment won a victory over the religious fanatics. Maybe it's because Japan is not as religious a country as the U.S. But the anime is not only about girls with mini skirts and gay couples. It also has a very interesting story. It focuses on very important aspects of human behavior, and it is very well written. The anime deserved popularity. Of course, the sexiness is also an important thing. Perhaps the most important. I am attracted to anime with a touch of sensuality - without being too indecent like X-rated movies - because sexy things are simply entertaining. [With the voice of Haruka Tenoh] "Don't you think so too, my cute little American kitties?"
"I don't do work just to please the sponsors and creators, and I don't mind fighting with the crew about doing something exploitative just to entertain the viewers."
Do you have a favorite character?
MO: I may sound like a very typical, well-mannered Japanese woman saying this, but I like every one of them. All the characters are independent individuals and, at the same time, a part of me. The characters I played for a long time such as Kurama in my debut anime, "Yu-Yu Hakusho," Sailor Uranus in "Sailor Moon," Shinji Ikari in "Evangelion," and Melvina McGarren in the video game "Melty Lancer" would be my most memorable ones.
You have a way of creating intensity for your characters without overacting. What do you do in the way of preparation for these roles? Or do you have to go into recording sessions cold?
MO: Without overacting? I'm delighted that you would notice something like that in spite of the difference in languages. It is something I keep in mind all the time. Maybe it is because I haven't played so many characters that require over-actions. I wouldn't automatically apply a high-pitched voice to a child and low-pitched voice to men. Once I understand the part with my heart and body, the voice comes out naturally as if the character is actually alive. I thoroughly research and study the background of the character, then I'll clear my mind right before saying my lines, letting my heart play the part by itself.
Do you ever feel as if the boundary between you and your character becomes blurred?
MO: Yes I do, quite often. In studios, the character's feelings often remain in my mind before and after I finish acting. I sometimes really fall in love with the seiyuu who plays the partner of my role. However, this love eventually fades away as I walk out of the studio. It is like a dream, fragile as a water bubble.
When you were growing up were you interested in acting?
MO: When I was little, being an actress was nothing but a dream to me because I wasn't beautiful or cute. I was bullied a lot at school for this. I was good at science and math and so planned to be a teacher. But that all changed when I performed in a school play at the age of twelve. Since nobody wanted to play the part of an old shrine maiden, I had to take it. But I wanted to do my best so I tried very hard. After my long monologue in the play, I received a big applause. When I came out for the curtain call, I heard another loud applause and calls for an encore. I was so delighted. I was praised by a lot of people, and even the students that bullied me started to respect me, and later I became friends with everyone. Because I used to be bullied, being respected and making friends were very important things for me. It was then that I started to have an interest in acting.
Why is your website split into two sections - Megumi Ogata and em:ou?
MO: "em:ou" is my artist name that I have started using recently. "Megumi Ogata" is my real name, but it shares a connotation with my actress identity. I changed my name not because I wanted to wipe off that kind of image, but I wanted to go back to a simple and pure starting point to create my work as a solo musician, which puts me closer to myself. "em:ou" is a pronunciation symbol for the initials of my name, "Megumi Ogata." I wonder what can be created from scratch, a clean slate on which there's nothing but a symbol.
I've looked at some fan websites and I was impressed by the emotional intensity of your fans. Many of them sign the guest books using the name of one of your characters, and they all declare their undying devotion to you. Do you think you have a closer relationship to your fans than most celebrities?
MO: It's a difficult question. My first priority is to express myself. Next, I care about how people look at me. I don't do work just to please the sponsors and creators, and I don't mind fighting with the crew about doing something exploitative just to entertain the viewers. Would American people be surprised if I say such a thing? In Japan, the sponsors and broadcasting companies' opinions have a major influence. We have to give into some things because of their money. I think it is better to exchange opinions and hold meetings to produce good works, but we are not given enough time for that. Because of that, people are annoyed when someone proposes something that is not planned in advance. Since I'm not even a Hollywood star, it puts me in a worse situation when I do such things, but even so, I think it worth the risk if the quality of the work improves and the viewers enjoy it. Frankly, I'm not a clever type of person [laugh]. However, the fans know very well about my struggle, and they believe that there are works that can only be done by me. In that sense, I may be closer to fans than many other well-known people.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
MO: Compared to American entertainment, which has a broader audience and targets the world market, Japanese entertainment is made under very harsh conditions. It is partly because of the problems of Japan's union. Even when Japanese anime is aired abroad, the Japanese seiyuus receive no pay, not even a single yen. Still, we are proud of our shows and all the people involved with them. Because I want more people to be aware of the situation of actors, writers and directors in the Japanese animation industry, I have included some unpleasant things in my comments. I apologize for this, but I was very happy that you asked me about it so that it can get to the public. Please take a look at Japanese anime. If you find a bit of enjoyment in it, I would be delighted. I will still continue to do my best work.
Neon Genesis Evangelion © Gainax / Project Eva / TV Tokyo / ADV Films.