Translation of a very honest interview with veteran seiyuu Mitsuya Yūji, one of the biggest male actors of his era and one of the most popular seiyuu heart-throbs of the time – just think of a Kaji Yuki or a Miyano Mamoru of the 80s and that’d be Mitsuya.
He’s always been active and prolific and as this piece points out – he’s spent 50 years in the business, starting out as a child actor before moving into voice acting in the ‘70s. Mitsuya may not be too well-known amongst the generation of today but he ranks pretty highly amongst his peers, coming in at No.24 in the 2017 Seiyuu Ranking run by TV Asahi (a poll asking 200 seiyuu who they most respected). The role of Uesugi Tatsuya in Touch is his magnum opus and Mitsuya remains close to his leading lady Hidaka Noriko, with whom he later started a seiyuu agency (Combination). Their partnership even extended to the phenomenon that is Pop Team Epic, being the only male-female Popuko-Pipimi combo (in episode 1, part B) throughout the series’ run.
Mitsuya also hit the headlines in early 2017 when he finally acknowledged his sexuality on a TV show – ‘If you ask me whether I’m straight or gay then well, the answer is gay’, in the process becoming the first and only active seiyuu to have come out publicly.
50 years in entertainment – seiyuu legend Mitsuya Yūji preparing for the end of his days*: ‘I’ve had an amazing life’
Mitsuya Yūji, who has voiced so many characters including Touch’s Uesugi Tatsuya to Sasuga no Sarutobi’s Sarutobi Nikumaru. As one of the leading figures who brought the existence of ‘seiyuu’ to public attention , there is no word more fitting to describe him than ‘legend’.
At the same time he has taken on sound directing duties for the Rurōni Kenshi series and Shinkai Makoto works such as 5 Centimeters per Second. He has also written scripts and lyrics for The Prince of Tennis musical, proving his mettle as a multi-talented creator and transcending the label of ‘actor’.
Going into 2019, Mitsuya has been busying himself with what he deems ‘decluttering’ activities, including the sale of his much beloved training studio. Keeping the theme of ‘decluttering’ in mind, we conduct this interview with Mitsuya to look back on his half-century long career and to learn more about his current state of mind.
Listening to Mitsuya Yūji discuss his career in that high-pitched voice that we’ve become so accustomed to, a startling topic emerges at the end of the interview – belying a casual tone, he declares that he is preparing for the ‘end of his days’.
*the phrase here is 終活 (shūkatsu), which is a homonym for the 就活 phrase (an abbreviation of 就職活動 shūshoku katsudō, which means job-hunting). It was first coined in 2009 in a series of editorials in the Asahi newspaper, and refers to the preparations one makes to ensure that their life is in order at the time of their death, taking the burden off loved ones. These activities often include preparing one’s one grave and planning a funeral.
[Photoshoot: Takuma Kunihiro, Interview & Text: Okamoto Daisuke, Photography Cooperation: Christie, Toshimaen branch]
I’ve never not had a regular role throughout my 50 years
Q: Mitsuya-san – you started out as a child actor. Were you interested in acting since you were young?
A: Not really. I’d always loved singing and was in the school choir during my primary school days. I got my start when the teaching adviser invited me to join an amateur singing contest.
Q: The one that’s aimed at children?
A: That’s right. I was born in Nagoya and my local TV station Chubu-Nippon Broadcasting ran a amateur singing programme called ‘Acorn Musical Concert’ – I appeared on that.
And one of the judges said to me ‘you have a voice that would be good for opera’. I had no idea what opera was so when I went home and did some research, I found out that it was something that combined the elements of singing and acting together. Then it occurred to me that I must be able to act as well as sing, so I joined a child theatre group after graduating from primary school.
Q: That was your first encounter with ‘performing’.
A: Yeah my roots were in child theatre, where I was taught the very basics of acting. After 1 year as a member of the group, I was chosen for the lead role in NHK serialized drama ‘Heita from the Sea’ (Umi kara Kita Heita, 1968-69) – the relationships that I established there led to voice work further down the line.
Q: Your first voice acting job was in NHK Education’s Pururu-kun (1973-76) puppet show, wasn’t it?
A: Yeah. The person who had given me that opportunity was Nagai Ichirō-san, and he then recommended that I take an audition for a TV anime which turned out to be Super Electromagnetic Robo Combattler V (1976-77).
Q: It was your first TV anime and you were suddenly selected to be the lead.
A: My choir teacher, my child theatre instructor, NHK producers and Nagai Ichirō-san – it seems that other people were telling me what to do with my life and I’d just go with the flow (laughs). They all led me in the right direction though, and that’s brought me to where I am now. And throughout these 50 years, I’ve never not had a regular role – not even once.
Q: That’s honestly amazing, isn’t it?
A: I’m grateful. It’s been 50 years where I’ve been supported by everyone around me; countless people who I could only describe as my ‘saviours’.
Acting theory I learned from Nozawa Masako, my voice acting mentor
Q: Would your Robo Combattler co-star Nozawa Masako, whom many consider to be their voice acting ‘mentor’, be among those [saviours]?
A: When I was struggling with my first ever TV anime recording session, Nozawa Masako-san was the one who so kindly took me through aspects such as script-checking and mic work.
I wasn’t able to grasp the nuances of lines like ‘Combattler V’ or ‘Let’s Combine!’ from the entrance and combination scenes, as well as the ‘Super Electromagnetic Spin!!’ special move, and racked up plenty of NGs. That was when [Nozawa-san] intervened and suggested to me: ‘Try doing the line while visualizing yourself doing a Mie (in kabuki)]….
Still, it took me a few hundred retakes before I got the hang of it (laughs)
Reminiscing about that makes me realize just how much patience Nozawa-san and the other staff and cast members had, in putting up with me.
Q: Your acting in Robo Combattler V received many plaudits and at once, you became one of the most popular seiyuu.
A: Nah, I think it was largely down to the fact that there were an overwhelmingly minuscule number of freshly-debuting seiyuu at the time.
As far as I know, the only seiyuu colleagues from my year are Inoue Kazuhiko and Mizushima Yū – just the 3 of us. We’d run here and there working on various different projects and before I knew it, I was in a situation where I had 11 or so regular shows per week. It was natural then to spend each day recording for 3 different productions – 1 in the morning, 1 in the afternoon and another at night.
Q: That’s a lot of work. How do you make each of those characters distinct from the others?
A: I hope this won’t get misinterpreted, but I can honestly say that I don’t put any thought into ‘role creation’. All I do is look at a character’s visuals, read the lines and allow the voice and performance to flow into my head without forcing it.
Let’s be honest – when you have to record 3 times a day, it’s physically impossible to put the amount of effort in to give maximum depth to each and every character. And that is why I mostly get into the studio and relish the inspiration that I get from being there.
Q: It’s surprising to learn that your ability to play dashing heroes or comedy relief roles was born from your time spent in studios.
A: There is the one exception though – Kiteretsu Encyclopedia’s Tongari. Tongari’s pretty similar to Suneo in Doraemon so prior to recording I did worry a bit about how to best express the character.
Q: So that was the first time you felt troubled by the role creating process.
A: I consulted Nozawa Masako-san, and her advice was to ‘go observe primary school students’.
I found myself hanging around the gates of a primary school in my neighbourhood, looking for a child whose appearance and aura was similar to that of Tongari’s and I observed and learned about the type of voice he had and the way he spoke.
Q: I see.
A: It’d be dreadful if I were to be mistaken for a suspicious old dude on the prowl so I had to try and pose as a wandering passerby (laughs). In the end I went around to a couple of primary schools and took what I’d learned from the children’s demeanour into the studio – and that resulted in Tongari’s voice.
Q: So I suppose recording went smoothly?
A: The sound director Komatsu Nobuhiro said to me ‘Mitsuya-kun, you don’t have to push yourself too hard’ but I was going ‘No no it’s fine, I’m not forcing it!’ (laughs)
Komatsu-san was worried about the condition of my throat since Tongari requires a fairly unique type of enunciation, but I was really determined to pull it off. Initially I did feel that the voice was perhaps a little too tough for me but once recording kicked off I found that I had sharpened my technique enough for the voice to be able to come out naturally; it wasn’t a burden at all.
Q: Tongari’s high-pitched voice was definitely memorable.
A: Tongari’s only a supporting character and he doesn’t appear that often in the manga so I really wanted to make him stand out.
Eventually he started to appear in every episode and became a regular character – I was so happy I let out a whoop of joy…Yeah!. I was delighted to know that I could create interesting characters that made a big impact, even if they weren’t the main role.
During the golden era of Touch, I was making around ¥100 million. I led quite the luxurious life
Q: Another character that the name Mitsuya Yūji is synonymous with has to be Uesugi Tatsuya from Touch. Touch was a national hit so you must’ve been really busy at the time.
A: I was already aware of the buzz surrounding it thanks to the enthusiasm of the director and producers before recording even began, and I thought to myself ‘A lot of [passion] will be going into this series’.
I remember, clear as day, the moment I got home after recording for episode 1 – the series’ 5 producers called me up, one after the other. And they all said the same thing ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you did it this way?’
Q: That proved just how much was riding on Touch, from the TV stations’ point of view.
A: That’s right, but it wasn’t too helpful when the 5 producers were giving me 5 different opinions….I was prepared for the worst since we couldn’t seem to reach any kind of consensus but once the show had gone on air and the audience ratings were out, no one said a single word to me.
Q: The results were there for all to see.
A: I remember thinking back then, how good it felt to have believed in myself. So much was going into Touch – not just an anime, but events and commercials were being developed in conjuction with the show.
There were events being held in local areas practically every weekend as well, which mean I got to tour the country alongside Hidaka Noriko.
Q: Having recordings on weekdays and promotion on weekends means barely any time off.
A: It was hectic. I’d have at most, a couple of days off per year.
Q: Just between you and me – the pay must’ve been good, right?
A: I think I was earning about 100 million yen a year at the time. But I was spending just as much. Splurging on clothes, eating fancy meals, flying first class overseas. I’m the type that works hard and plays hard.
Q: Guess you’re helping the economy along!
A: Even if you save up a ton of money you still can’t bring it with you to the other world when you die. If that’s the case it’d be far better to contribute to society by returning the money to the market and help stimulate the Japanese economy.
Q: Are you still spending lavishly these days?
A: Well yeah. Though I’m not wallowing in as much luxury as I was during the Touch era.
Ideally, I’d like to ‘spend the last 10 yen in my wallet before I die’. Wouldn’t that feel incredibly satisfying?
Q: I kinda get what you mean, but at the same time..not really (laughs)
A: If I had to deposit all my earnings in a bank I think my passion for work would be diminished. I’m only speaking for myself, but I feel that the act of spending hard-earned money is what gives me the motivation for my work.
The seiyuu of yesterday scored either 0 or 100%. Nowadays, they tend to score 75% on average
Q: With over 50 years’ experience in hand, what differences do you see when comparing your younger days with the ever-changing seiyuu industry of today?
A: I can’t really comment since I’m not too involved with the younger seiyuu of today but I suppose if I had to give my opinion, then it’d be that I feel like [seiyuu today] tend to produce error-free performances.
When I was young it seemed most actors would either score 100% or a big fat zero – if you were giving a zero performance then the sound director would give you a big earful. Still, you could feel the personality of the actor shining through his performance and it’d always be interesting to hear.
Q: It’s true that the old-school anime seemed to feature voices and ways of speaking that were unique.
A: Most of the time you’d only need to hear a single word to know ‘Oh that’s xxx-san’. On the other hand the kids of today are all pretty good and would probably score about 75% on average [for their performances] but in return, there are fewer outstanding personalities.
Q: Does that mean that they lack that special something?
A: No. It’s just that the working environment and qualities sought in a seiyuu nowadays are completely different – I have no intention of denying facts and I don’t feel like I am in a position to criticize.
After all, there were so few rookies in my generation which meant most of us had the chance to learn on the job. There may be an increase in the number of shows being made these days but the number of new seiyuu outstrips that by far – it’s really tough for everybody, I think.
Q: Allow me to probe a bit more into ‘performing’ aspects – Mitsuya-san, your acting has been honed through the years using your days as a child actor in live-action films as your foundation. How different is it compared to acting in front of a microphone, like a seiyuu does?
A: It’s exactly the same in my opinion. As an example – when you make a grunting sound ‘uhh’ as you’re jumping, or an ‘ugghh’ of pain when you’ve been attacked, you can only generate the required sound if you move your body into a position, or a way that simulates the act involved.
Q: That’s true.
A: Obviously if you can’t reproduce the muscle and vocal cord movements that you’d be using in real life, then it won’t sound realistic.
I was watching an anime recently and there was a scene where someone [got hit and] cried ‘Ouch!’ and I was thinking to myself , ‘well, he doesn’t sound like he’s in a lot of pain’. They must be sitting comfortably while they’re reading their lines. I used to emphasize those points back when I was still sound directing and [lecturing] in training school – it’s always been an aspect that I’d been especially careful with myself.
Q: Whether you’re an actor or a seiyuu, you need to learn to use your body in your acting.
A: I think it’s an important point. Nowadays seiyuu have to learn to sing, dance and MC – pretty much the same skillset as that of a tarento. It’s the kind of environment that makes it tough for you to focus solely on acting but still, I do believe that acting should be the defining part of a seiyuu’s career.
Q: This seems to be particularly true of the veteran seiyuu – the more experienced they become, the more they orient themselves towards theatre.
A: I agree. I got into the acting industry because of my love for singing but when I used to go out drinking back in the day, the talk would always turn to the stage, film and books. ‘Did you watch that movie?’ or ‘that actor’s performance was amazing!’, stuff like that.
These days when I talk to younger seiyuu I am surprised to discover that so many of them say that they became seiyuu because they love anime or video games.
I don’t necessarily mean that it was better during my time; not at all, but I still hold the belief that ‘voice actor=actor’ and that’s something that will never change, so it’d be nice if the younger ones would look to study other forms [of entertainment].
I’m already losing interest in my zest for the seiyuu industry
Q: You touched a bit on how seiyuu are increasingly becoming like tarento. What do you think about the future of the seiyuu industry?
A: That is…to be frank, ‘I don’t know!! I haven’t a clue!! Sorry!!’ is all I can say (laughs)
During my time, I gave my best in the environment that I was working in and was able to produce fairly good results, but I have absolutely no idea about what’s going to happen in the future.
Q: You have 50 years’ experience and yet, are unable to make any predictions.
A: It’s impossible. I’ve already passed my 60th birthday and to be honest, I’ve already lost the interest and passion in the future of the seiyuu industry.
A: Personally, I feel like I’ve already achieved everything that I wanted to achieve as a seiyuu by the time I turned 60. When I think about the future beyond [this] and what I can do as a seiyuu in the industry of today, there really isn’t much left for me.
Q: That can’t be true.
A: The biggest thing for me is that it’s hard to find the motivation that I used to have in the past. In the old days when I was doing script-checking and I saw that I had a lot of lines I’d go ‘Hell yeah!’ with joy. Nowadays it’s the opposite – the fewer lines I have the more likely I am to go ‘Banzai!’ (wry smile). Plus it’s starting to feel taxing on my body.
Q: So it’s age-related?
A: I’ve been doing this for so long that I can still kind of cover for my shortcomings using certain techniques, but I can see the differences very clearly.
And most of all, it used to be rare for me to screw up or fluff my lines but it’s happening more and more often – even for short lines. Plus it’s getting harder to read the words in scripts thanks to presbyopia…
Q: Based on what you’ve said, does it mean that you’re gradually withdrawing from the frontlines of the seiyuu industry?
A: It’s about time for me to go into semi-retirement. Mostly, I just want to rest. I’m very grateful and blessed to have been a regular [in anime] for 50 years but it also means that I’ve been spending every week in a recording studio for half a century now.
Q: You haven’t had the chance to go on a long vacation since you made your debut.
A: I go to New York every year to see shows on Broadway but I can only stay for a few days at most, so what I get to see is pretty limited. I’d love to see some minor off-Broadway works too.
Turning 60, I began to prepare for ‘the end of my days’, starting with ‘minimalist living’
Q: Recently you tweeted that you were putting up your training studio for sale as part of an effort to ‘declutter’ your life. You also mentioned that you have semi-retirement on your mind – does this signify a change in your outlook on life?
A: Well this particular tweet was merely an attempt to sort my stuff out while I’m moving. I’ve never really had to think about throwing things away before so I used the the relocation as an chance for me to reorganize [my life], the training studio included.
Q: Why the decision to move?
A: I’ve been living alone in a huge apartment all this while and I realized that most of the rooms were used for storing things.
I’d always liked it there but once I passed 60 I lost the lust for things like that. It’s as if I’ve decided to become a monk (laughs)
Q: Maybe it’s a natural reaction to hoarding things.
A: That is a possibility but to be honest, I just wanted to keep everything to a minimum. And I gradually came to think that ‘I’d like to live a simple, minimalistic life’ and realized that my ideal was to live in a hotel.
Q: Hotel living?
A: I don’t have the kind of money that would allow me to keep staying in a hotel for decades on end, so it’s merely an ideal. So yeah, I bought an apartment suitable for living alone and equipped it with the bare necessities.
Q: In other words, downsizing to fit the space available.
A: In my old place there were dozens upon dozens of unopened cardboard boxes filled with clothes that I never wore, DVDs that I never watched etc. Basically loads of stuff flooding the place that I decided to get rid of in one fell swoop. I’m not quite done yet, but significant progress has been made.
I just want to devote the rest of my life to doing the things I like
Q: Still, hearing Mitsuya-san talk about ‘semi-retirement’ and ‘decluttering’ will surely leave your fans with a sense of loneliness.
A: These acts are in a sense, me preparing for ‘the end of my days’; it’s not like I’ve started hating the seiyuu profession nor will I quit the industry permanently.
Now that I’ve passed the 50-year mark and started to divest of the unnecessary things in life, I feel refreshed. I feel like I’m finally starting to take control of my own time, and that excites me.
Q: Anything specific that you’d like to do in the future?
A: I’d like to study my favoured field of singing more seriously and of course, stay in New York for an extended period of time to take in as many shows as possible. If there were to be a production that I particularly took a liking to then I’d love to bring it to Japan as well. I’d also like to remain involved with the stage for as long as possible, whether it’s directing, acting or script-writing.
At the moment I’m working on a stage play depicting a same-sex male couple. Details about it should be out in April or thereabouts, and we plan to perform it at Ikebukuro Sunshine Theatre in July this year. I’m going to take a bit of a break in the autumn and then in December, I’ll be performing in an original play by the Alter Ego Theatre Group.
Q: You’ve been involved in LGBT-related works as well recently. Providing narration for the documentary film ‘Over the Rainbow’ and so on.
A: I took part in a LGBT parade the other day as well. I never intended to hide my sexuality but I just happened to mention it on TV and it became a [huge] ‘coming out’ kind of thing (laughs)
Q: And you started appearing in even more variety shows after that.
A: The people around me had known [about my sexuality] for decades so they just shook their heads thinking ‘why the hell are you getting even busier off the back of this?’
Q: You’re thinking of semi-retirement yet you’re still so busy.
A: Life is a lot more relaxed compared to before. Having said that, I’d still give up my life for the stage. I might not be able to sprint any more but I can still run pretty quickly (laughs)