#107 – Wakamoto Norio

Name: Wakamoto Norio (若本 規夫)
DoB: 18 October 1945
Hometown: Born in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi, raised in Sakai, Osaka
Agency: Sigma Seven

I don’t suppose Wakamoto-san needs any kind of introduction. He’s got a very distinct style as well as strong character – cocky even, if you want to put it that way. But you’d give him a free pass for that – he’s earned his dues for sure in his 40+ years of good work.

This is his Seiyuu Road.

Pt 1. No need to compare yourself with others, just aim to be the best you can be

Taking on the challenge of a nationwide audition that I saw in the newspaper!!

It’s not like I ever “wanted to become a seiyuu”… After graduating from university ¹, I worked at what I’d consider as being ‘rigid jobs’ – two of them in fact, but I had always thought that those kinds of jobs, where you’re just a part of the overall process in an organization, did not suit my personality. I wondered if there was any job out there that would allow me to utilize my own talents. Just then, I chanced upon an article smack in the middle of the local news page in the paper with the headline ‘Kurosawa Ryo² Establishes Voice Dubbing Academy’.

Back then, Kurosawa Ryo-san was known as the dub voice of Gary Cooper and also did a lot of CM work – he was a leading figure in the seiyuu world. At the time there were only about 100 or 150 seiyuu actively doing voice work… the industry as a whole, probably thought that ‘it was time to inject fresh blood’. Regardless, it was surprising to see such an article appear in the paper.

Having read the article, I paid up the application fee and went along to the venue on the day of the audition. I saw young people from all over the country there, where screening had already started in the morning. I was 25 years old then, surrounded by people who were mostly younger than me. I arrived at 2pm and when I asked “how many people have been selected?”, the answer came back “20”. I was entrant number 380 or so? I thought to myself “What the heck do I do now?” and was contemplating quitting on the spot but I’d already paid the 5,000yen fee so I ended up taking the test to see what would happen.

When my turn came, I was passed a document and asked, “Please read this”. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but I thought I’d just read it in a cheerful, pleasant voice. I sounded really wooden though. Why’s everyone else so good! Maybe they were all members of acting troupes or something. After I was done, there was a Q & A session and one of the examinees sitting in the middle – a balding guy of around 50, repeatedly asked me “This school’s classes are on Monday, Wednesday, Friday in the daytime – can you make it at those times?” so I just answered “Yeah I’ll go if I pass”, and that was the end of my audition.

I was sure that I’d failed the audition and had given up on it already, but I got an acceptance letter some 10 days later. When I went for my first lesson, the guy with the thinning hair came in with a smile on his face saying, “I’m Nakano Kanji”. I only found out later on that Nakano-san was one of the main directors of Tohokushinsha³ and it was because of him that I scraped through the auditions.

As long as you’re competent, you can be a seiyuu who ‘works on your own’

So under such circumstances, I ended up attending Kurosawa Ryo-san’s dubbing classes for a year. The number of seiyuu during those times were few, so we would get bits of work in between our training lessons. Rookies were paid cheaply so I guess that’s why we’d get hired. At the time, the guarantees were around 3,000 yen for a 30-minute show, 3,600yen for a 60-minute show. For a feature-length you’d be paid…4,800yen or so. It’d be crazy if those rates were still the same today. I had no idea what other people made but I don’t think my seniors earned all that much more than what I did.

Most of the work available at the time involved dubbing foreign works. There weren’t that many anime productions either…maybe only things like Sazae-san and Tetsujin 28-gou. Right within the first 2-3 years after I turned pro, a show called Brave Raideen went on air with Kamiya Akira-san making a splash in the leading role. It was only then that anime programmes started becoming prominent…

I couldn’t understand a single thing about acting when I first started out; from a director’s perspective my acting probably seemed totally incoherent. Obviously I kept on messing stuff up. I guess you could say that in a sense, I’ve struggled a lot. Still, the seiyuu profession is one that ‘you do on your own’, you don’t have to ‘get along’ with anyone else, and I think that’s something good. What I mean by that is as long as you improve your skills in front of the mic, you can fulfill your work using your own powers. That’s not something that’s necessarily true for actors… seiyuu are similar to singers in that sense. I don’t think it’s an unusual job though. I made the decision to to this, a job that you can do ‘on your own’.

There might be some of you reading this who’ll think “nah, that can’t be right”. You’ve got other actors, plus the director’s there – you’re working with all these guys. But you know, as a seiyuu you don’t have to worry about the presence of other people. There’s no need to compare yourself to others…just aim to be the best you can be. Being a seiyuu allowed me to realize the truth in that. Nowadays, I can act the way I want to. I think that comes across most clearly in my narration work.

Obviously I do take on board the directions I’m given and of course, it’s a given that I practise common courtesy for things like greetings and farewells. But when it comes to work I just let it flow. To me, that is the most interesting thing (about this job), as well as the biggest attraction. Going to work gives me a true sense of freedom. When I go to work alone and hear things like “How do you want this to go?”, I’ll say “Hmm, let’s try this. Or that,” and go ahead and do it. Anime and narration work then becomes something that I can freely leave my own imprint upon. Having said all that about doing stuff arbitrarily, it would all amount to nothing if you don’t possess the skills necessary to be a seiyuu. When incompetent people do things of their own selfish accord, you could be thrown out in a flash. But if you gradually raise your acting levels, you’ll come to a point where you’re able to fight your corner. Reaching that level of competence takes maybe…10 or 20 years? Hmm, maybe even 30 years? If you’ve stuck around for that long, your capacity will have widened and you’ll be able to put in more of yourself into your work.

Over the course of my first 10 years in the business, I started to gradually realize that ‘seiyuu work is something that you can go pretty deeply into’. However, I didn’t have the necessary skills back then and wasn’t able to fulfil the production team’s requests. For me, it was an exasperating experience and I was frustrated by my own ineptitude. Nowadays, I can say that I almost infallibly come out of the studio 100% satisfied. Especially when it comes to narration work… I know that just by looking at the faces of the production staff. After all, they accompany me all the way to the elevator, line up and wave goodbye as I leave the studio (laughs).

¹: Wakamoto graduated from Waseda University, majoring in law
²: The late Kurosawa Ryo was an actor & seiyuu who managed his own talent agency, named after him
³: Tohokushinsha Film Corp

Pt 2. Turning 50, I finally found satisfaction in my work

Almost coming to blows over the mics!! …the studio used to be a violent place

Studios used to be places where proper hierarchy existed. Protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters – that was the structure from top to bottom; the classifications were a lot clearer then than they are now. Even when you went out for drinks after recordings, people would sit in their respective hierarchical groups. Me? Of course I had the worst seats.

None of us had any money so we’d go to cheap places; they used to serve a lot of ‘cheap sake’ of questionable quality that you’d easily get drunk on. At first we’d be drinking in a good mood but after 30 minutes the polite compliments from our seniors would stop and we’d start getting into fights – “Oi! What the hell is up with your acting” or “You mean me? I should be the one asking you that”. Things would start off in harmony before ending in carnage (laughs). I have to say though, that I do like how ‘human’ it made the (seiyuu) world seem…

When things like that happened, we’d get preached at by our seniors… Also, directors and producers would sometimes turn up at these drinking parties. When they did, people would split into groups or ‘families’ and that made it hard for others to join in..that uncomfortable atmosphere spread to the recording studio as well. What a strange industry it used to be…

Anyway, the studio is a battlefield…or it used to be in those days. There were only 3 or so mics and there was even a hierarchy when it came to that; you’d get seniors who’d deliberately block rookie seiyuu from moving into the mic.. Us rookies were desperate so there wasn’t much we could do but just say our lines over the shoulders of the seniors. Of course, such things don’t happen these days. Since everyone is so smart and well-mannered…

Still, people are so well-behaved nowadays that there is no friendly rivalry. I used to look at my seniors and think, “This bastard! I’ll definitely get back at him in 4-5 years, and I’ll get him good”. Obviously I wasn’t hellbent on revenge or anything like that, it was more a case of strongly feeling that “Watch out. I’m definitely gonna beat you”. Anyhow, most of the work available during my rookie days was for dubbing foreign films – Westerns and war movies in particular. So yeah, they were action-packed shows and the studio wasn’t really a place for women back then. There were guys who’d elbow people in the confusion caused by the scrambling over mics (laughs). If you didn’t get physical as well, you’d end up getting crushed by everyone else.

Thanks to a certain situation, I imposed a ‘crazy training method’ upon myself

My debut show was Kurosawa Ryo-san’s The FBI. I’d be asked to come along to the studio to voice bitparts like ‘Criminal 1’ from time to time, and that was how I got my start. The director at the time was Nakano Kanji-san. He’s the one who gave me that push in my first audition. From then on I kept on working and one of those shows made around 1980, The Professionals, represented a turning point for me. It was an action series so I was given a license to go wild with the role – I got really hooked on the character; it was a memorable experience.

As for anime, the turning point for me came with Gunbuster!. I played Ota Koichiro, a character who was in charge of training the girls (in the show) to fight space aliens. Legend of the Galactic Heroes too. Up ‘til that point I didn’t have that many major roles in anime, and it was only in the ‘80s that I started to feel like I was gradually bringing out more of myself in my roles.

But still, I sucked… nowadays, I can’t bear to watch any of my shows from those times, I was so bad. I only started being satisfied with my (own) work when I was in my 50s. I was around 55 or 56 when I first thought “I can do this job for life”.

There was a point in time when all of a sudden, the job offers started drying up. I wasn’t seeing any work coming in apart from my regular shows and I was thinking “What’s going on now?”. I started to listen back to everything I’d worked on, one after the other. It was then I realized I had not been fulfilling requests made by the production side.

In the wake of that, I worked from the ground up to ‘train as a seiyuu’. I had only been doing half-hearted training ‘til then so it was only in my 50s that I started to go through some ‘crazy training methods’ – a revolutionary kind of training… Basically, I started popping up all over the place. People would say, “There’s a guy there who can teach you this or that”, and I’d be there right away.

I tried out so many things, the list is endless. The Nishino Breathing Method, voice training – I did that. Koshinto chanting too. There’s a breathing technique specific to koshinto chanting. The ‘voice’ is something that comes from the ‘body’, so you must train the body as well. If your respiratory muscles are not flexible you cannot produce a ‘good voice’, and you cannot meet the staff’s demands. To be able to freely control your voice, you need to maintain a breathing rate that allows you to read around 5 lines worth of speech within one breath, while still maintaining intonation. When you’re able to manipulate your voice well, the number of roles you do will increase manifold.

There are some training methods that I did for 3 or 5 years, and others that went on for more than 10 years. There’s this guy who’s considered the father of street performance, called Kubota Hisashi. When I was researching discourse on ‘jibeta’, I read one of his books and it said ‘call up anyone you feel interested in’. So I called him up and he said to me ‘I’ve got a practice session on Sunday, come along’, and that is how I came to know him.

I spent 5 years there and what I learnt there was the basis for what is now the Wakamoto style of discourse… Kubota-san was a master teacher. His speech was exquisite and it still aids me to this day in my narration work. I’d like to think that there isn’t anyone like me out there who ignores all the common theories when it comes to narration. In this world, only Wakamoto does it (laughs). When I’m narrating, I’m speaking directly to the viewer on the other side of the screen. In other words, I aim to penetrate the viewer’s heart… These days, there are very few people who do ad-libs; much less people who do ad-libs during narration. Sometimes, I even change the script from the ground up… and the scriptwriter will end up saying “I have no idea which part you’re doing right now” (laughs).

Pt 3. By exploring what you ‘need’ and piling up training, you could open up your own ‘Seiyuu Road’

No matter what work it is, ‘competition’ is important

When you’re doing your lines in the recording studio, you often get people who say ‘there’s too much (time)..” or “I don’t have enough time to say my lines…” – I think it’s weird. That kind of work [timing lines to the mouth movements] is part of a seiyuu’s job. The deletion of parts is my responsibility after all. It’s only when you can do things like this that you can call yourself a pro. If you can’t even take care of something like that then you’re at a semi-pro level… For people who think, “It’ll be bad if I take liberties with this”, they’ll never ever be able to put on performances that break the fourth wall ‘til the end of time.

I actually expected some of my juniors to be biting at my heels and asking me to watch over their performances, but they don’t come to me at all (laughs). Everyone’s seen as a ‘good kid’ nowadays so there’s no need for them to compete with others. I wonder if all they can think about is ‘doing as the director says’ and ‘being afraid of getting cut loose if I say something unnecessary’… Regardless, these days I increasingly recommend young people to be more forceful when it comes to issues regarding performance…A good piece of work can be borne out of constant clashes with another. I used to battle with my seniors in the past as well. For example – on Lupin 3, Yamada Yasuo-san and Naya Goro-san were pissed off to see that only the line drawings¹ were ready during recording – “How the hell can you make a good show if you can’t even get the visuals done?” and they stormed off home (laughs). I’ve learned to have such opinions too, even if there are clients present during recordings for commercials. By pushing the boundaries, you can go deeper and make your work all that more convincing. Isn’t it something that rings true though, no matter what industry you work in? Carrying out a task perfunctorily will result in work that is merely ‘one dimensional’. If you’re going to act, put in a performance that gets the blood pumping!

The seiyuu road is a road of beasts. It’s a path you have to open up on your own

This is true for everyone – even you who is reading this: everyone has a voice, and anyone can speak Japanese. So you might be thinking that with mere effort…, “I can read lines and do narration”, or “I can be a seiyuu”, but there can be huge pitfalls. Even if you’re lucky enough to get into an agency, there are some people who don’t even get a single job offer. Perhaps you’re just not seen as being useful. So what is it that you require? First of all, you need to ‘build the body of a seiyuu’. Once you’ve got that, clients will be interested in you and work offers will start coming in. To get to that level, it’s important to go through daily training.

Voice training methods usually involve singing songs for all ages and cultures, accompanied by guitar etc.. It’s an effective way to train your voice.. there are also other creative, personal ways to ‘train one’s voice while building up the body’, and you should build up all this training on a daily basis.

Graduating from voice training school, entering a production agency, rubbing shoulders with other actors – it’s like going down the road in a bus. Everyone’s taking the same route so it can’t be that scary… If you truly believe that you are meant to survive in this world, you’ll have to get off that bus alone somewhere along the way or you’ll never make it to the top. Were everyone to do everything in the same way, you yourself would only make it as far as all the others do. If by chance you possess that little extra bit of quality, you might make it to the 6th station²…but you’ll never go beyond.

That’s why, if there really is such a thing as a ‘Seiyuu Road’, it would be one filled with beasts that you’d have to open up yourself with a machete…it would be a road of agony and take much hard labour just to open it up.

“Once you arrive at the workplace, your job is done”.. that means, all you have to do after that is to draw from the many skills you’ve acquired to perform in front of the mic. Coming to the studio and stumbling about is gonna result in nothing but a pointless performance… There isn’t any definite way you could describe as being “The Seiyuu Road” – you just have to open it up for yourself.

Take pride in saying that seiyuu are artists!

I made requests to study under my predecessors in various fields and I really learned a lot. Briefly mentioning some of these – Rokyoku, Koshinto chanting breathing, Hida Shiki Kyoken Jutsu, vocal training, Kobudo-style body control techniques, street performance, Komuso shakuhachi breathing techniques, Kundalini yoga breathing techniques… Amongst the many other respiratory muscle training techniques and voice training methods…you should explore by yourself what exactly is needed for a seiyuu; choose what works for you and make it your own style.

To those of you aiming to become seiyuu in the future, after you learn what you ‘must’ do in training school, go forth, explore and discover what it is you ‘should’ do. That is all. There is plenty for you to do ‘in your own way’. The differences will show up in.. well, maybe 10 years. However, as those differences will become apparent at certain stages of the process, the people in the studio who hear (your voice) will know. They can definitely tell that you are a guy who’s walked the ‘road of beasts’.

The anime being made these days have amazing visuals, plus the stories develop at a good pace. At times I feel that seiyuu’s voices can barely catch up with the overwhelming power of what you see on the screen. I’d like to see the emergence of a seiyuu who can break the fourth wall, someone who can go wild. Don’t just be the ‘good kid’ and set free the ‘wild one’ that’s sleeping inside you…remember to train your voice diligently. After all, seiyuu are artists (creators of the new world)!! Since you’ve already gone through great pains to become a seiyuu, wouldn’t it be disappointing if you didn’t go on to be someone who could say ‘I’m an artist’ with pride?
Bon voyage!!

¹: 線画 (senga)
²: Reference to Mt. Fuji, where the 10th station is at the summit.


2 thoughts on “#107 – Wakamoto Norio

  1. Sakubo

    As usual, a really interesting read.

    I’ve loved Wakamoto Norio’s voice for years, when I discovered Dragon Ball in japanese as a kid.
    Thank you very much for this translation !


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