Ask John: Why Are Seiyuu Criticized So Harshly?

Question:
What’s the big deal about seiyuu? I like and respect their works on numerous anime for a long time, but now it seems to be fading away. A lot of the older ones that I’ve grown up with in my time of watching anime are getting married and a lot of newer, younger seiyuu are stealing the spotlight. They haven’t been around for long, yet they’re getting treated like if they are the best seiyuu, whereas, older seiyuu are getting tossed aside. Not to mention when they are seen with a boyfriend, or getting married, everyone has to make a big deal about it, in the most negative ways possible. This is something that I don’t understand, nor do I like. Why is that? Should I be more open to newer seiyuu despite them lacking any talent, and forget about the older seiyuu that I love, respect and grew up with?


Answer:
I can confirm from personal observation that the American anime community is slowly and incrementally becoming more like the Japanese otaku community. In the early days of American fandom, a very limited amount of anime and manga reached America, usually years after its Japanese premiere. Even less information about Japan’s anime industry and its prominent figures reached American ears. As a result of this vast gulf of time, the American fan community evolved independently of Japan and created its own traditions, preferences, and perspectives. Since the widespread implementation of broadband internet and the digital era, the gap between Japan and America’s anime fans has diminished, and gradually the current releases, events, celebrities, and news in the Japanese fan community has reached America almost simultaneously, resulting in American otaku increasingly being influenced by the same things, and in the same way that Japanese otaku are.

The Japanese fan community, like much of metropolitan Japan itself, is widely recognized as a community virtually addicted to trends. Britain and America may have popularized the concept of the “rock star” pop idol in the 1950s, but no country has advanced the celebrity “idol” concept to a more heightened and fickle degree than Japan. Contemporary Japanese pop culture from the 1970s through today is absolutely littered with countless temporary and transitional idols. Pop bands and vocalists hit the scene with one or two successes then vanish. Japanese consumer culture is typified by fascination with the latest and novel introductions, some of which become established classics, most of which become quickly outdated and forgotten.

Japanese idol culture is prominent in anime including Perfect Blue, Chou Kuse ni Narisou, and AKB0048 that imply, if not overtly express the industry principle that in order to be successful and popular, idols must strictly maintain a persona of accessibility and exclusivity to each and every fan. Idol otaku, or “wota,” as they’re sometimes called, cherish the fantasy that they could personally meet and mutually fall in love with their favorite idol or vocalist. In order to cultivate this obsessive fantasy, and thus inspire brand loyalty, idols and idol management perpetuate and protect the image by ensuring that idols always appear as though they’re sexually and morally reserved for one particular anonymous devotee. Idols that break this “sacred trust” between themselves and their fans exert their own will and fulfill their own desires but frustrate their most devoted followers by shattering the imaginary commitment between themselves and their fans. Otaku then react with anger, frustration, and resentment because they feel personally betrayed and rejected. Of course, the relationship was never more than a constructed act in the first place, but rationality doesn’t control obsession.

This psychological, artificial, interdependent relationship between idols and otaku isn’t quite as intense between seiyuu and voice actor otaku, but it does still exist. When combined with Japan’s natural affection for trendiness and its few exceptions, the rare longevity of select voice actors and the fickle attention of voice actor otaku becomes easily comprehensible. Today’s young, new talent are the latest hot trend. They’re exciting, fresh, and novel, thus otaku are attracted to them, like immortal moths drawn from one new flame to the next. As long as these new talents stay exciting and stay available, if only in the most fanciful imagination, they stay popular. As soon as they “taint” themselves or take themselves off the market by dating or, even worse, getting pregnant or married, they lose their appeal and attractiveness to otaku. When they become too familiar, they become susceptible to having their popularity usurped by newer, fresher talents.

Transferring obsession periodically to the newest, trendiest seiyuu isn’t necessarily a bad choice. Millions of Japanese otaku do it regularly. Remaining devoted to particular favorite seiyuu isn’t wrong, either. In fact, staying loyal to veteran seiyuu can be a badge of honor, a sign of “old school” charm. I grew up frequently hearing Masako Nozawa and Megumi Hayashibara, even buying many of the later vocal artist’s pop CDs. I still find myself more enthused by Nozawa’s distinctive urgent scream and Megumi’s raspy voice with a hint of desperate vulnerability than by the vocal performances of contemporary seiyuu including Nana Mizuki, Aya Hirano, Rie Kugimiya, or Ami Koshimizu. Personally, I believe that staying devoted to favorite veteran voice actors or following the latest hot trends are both valid forms of devotion and should be determined only by whichever position brings an individual otaku the most happiness. The argument that seiyuu don’t deserve such fickle and sometimes discriminatory treatment from fans can be made, but I have rather little sympathy for professionals that aggressively chose to enter the industry with full knowledge of its temperaments.

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