Japanese 'voice actors' give new life to American entertainment
By Gary Schaefer
TOKYO Toshiyuki Morikawa used to imagine himself anchoring the evening news, his voice calm and smooth. His dream didn't quite come true. Even so, he is a television personality, and his voice is familiar to millions of Japanese.
They just don't know it.
Morikawa is a "voice actor," one of about 1,000 performing artists in this country who have made a career of dubbing foreign TV shows and movies, and providing the voices for domestically produced cartoons and video games.
The job gives Morikawa a lot of exposure, if no camera time.
When Lt. Tom Paris of the starship Voyager worries out loud about crossing the transwarp threshold, it's Morikawa whom Japanese viewers hear. He's the Japanese voice of Greg Montgomery, the lawyer on "Dharma & Greg," and he played the aspiring American Indian filmmaker Ed Chigliak on "Northern Exposure."
The Morikawas of Japan aren't as anonymous as one might expect.
They get fan letters, and there are books and Internet sites that catalog every disembodied voice in Japanese entertainment. Japanese "Columbo" fans say the show was never the same after Peter Falk's longtime alter ego died. Dubbing devotees argue about which of the seven Japanese 007s was the best.
Dubbed words aren't cheap, either a voice in demand can command 20 million to 30 million yen ($166,666 to $250,000) per year, or more.
"News readers just tell what's happening," Morikawa said. "Voice actors get to create characters out of their imagination. It's a great job."
But not a glamorous one.
Morikawa, 34, and the rest of the Japanese cast of "Dharma & Greg" get together once a week in a small recording studio in downtown Tokyo to dub two episodes.
Keeping one eye on their Japanese scripts and the other on a video screen, the dubbers have to deliver their lines in sync as well as in character. That's tough when you're trying to grunt your way through an action scene or stumble over foreign words like "aromatherapy" with no Japanese equivalent.
And almost isn't good enough unlike those English voiceovers of Godzilla movies that left generations of American kids wondering why Japanese people kept moving their mouths after they'd stopped talking. Dubbing two 23-minute episodes takes four hours.
"The toughest thing is giving the character you're dubbing a credible voice and making it look natural to people watching," said Sakiko Mizuno, a 37-year-old part-time stage actress who plays Dharma.
Of course, credibility is a culturally specific concept. Women's voices tend to be higher than in the original because that's the way women are expected to talk in Japan.
Roles for dubbers are increasing as satellite and cable TV bring more American entertainment into Japanese living rooms. Even network TV watchers can choose from Japanese-language versions of "Ally McBeal," "ER" and "Roswell," plus weekly Hollywood movies.
That adds up to big business for Tohokushinsha Film Corp., the largest dubbing company in Japan.
Tohokushinsha has been in the industry since 1961, when TV viewers here marveled at the modern kitchens and endless yards of the Japanese-speaking Andersons and Cleavers. The company started dubbing in-flight movies in 1966 and video releases in 1980.
Though dubbed TV programs are the norm, few movies shown in theaters have voiceovers.
"In the years right after the war, film distributors in this country couldn't afford to dub," said company director Tetsu Uemura. "People just got used to the idea of reading subtitles when they went to the movies."
Dubbing costs several times more than subtitling, mostly because of the expense of casting voice actors. Redoing a two-hour feature film in Japanese may require a budget of up to 30 million yen ($250,000) and take two months.
Dubber wannabes go to schools like the Tokyo Media Academy, where 160 students pay tuition of 1.15 million yen (about $9,500) to be drilled in articulation, pronunciation and projection. They don't even touch a microphone until their second year.
TMA director Mitsutoshi Ichihara estimates that only 10 of his 160 students will be working in the industry two years after graduation.
"They all want to be Julia Roberts or some cartoon character," he said and sighed. "Very few ever will."