Through AD Vision, Austin Has Become a Hot Spot for Producing English-Dubbed Anime. Who Knew?
"In the dying days of the Tukoobuwa Sho -- "
Inside the sound booth, the actor cuts himself off. "Can I start over?" he asks, his voice stripped of its round and rich tones.
Charles Campbell is watching the actor from his seat in front of an impressive cluster of sound boards and monitors. "Sure," he says.
"In the dying days of the Topoogawa ... " The actor sighs, strokes his goatee, and crunches his brows together. "Topoogawa," he repeats, incorrectly.
"Tuh-koo-guh-wah," Charles pronounces.
"Tuh-koo-guh-wah." And then faster: "Tokugawa, Tokugawa, Tokugawa. Okay, I'm ready. In the dying days of the Tokugawa ... Shogunut?" Grrr. The man puts his hand on his hip.
"Just like The Incredible Hulk, man," Charles says. And the way he says it -- light, reassuring -- make the lines of frustration on the actor's face buckle with a smile. He takes a deep breath and begins again: "In the dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there walked a man who was feared by all ..."
This particular mouthful comes from Samurai X, a long-running Japanese anime series being dubbed into English -- like thousands of anime films before it -- for mass consumption on video and DVD. Although the last few years have ushered forth screamingly high-profile examples of the popular Japanese animation called anime -- like Pokémon and the upcoming Digimon, or Disney's elegant Princess Mononoke -- these are hardly representative of the genre. The majority of anime, in fact, is intended for adults -- unlike in the United States, where animation is practically synonymous with children's films. This doesn't mean anime is salacious, necessarily, although a preponderance of gore and top-heavy, naked vixens who look like Winona Ryder's sluttier cousin have always made anime a hit with the PlayStation set. In fact, this reputation is so strong that even prudish Webster's Dictionary concedes that anime is "characterized ... by sexuality and violence." But hard-core anime fans are quick to explain that their beloved genre is too widespread and diverse to be pigeon-holed. For a long time, that's been difficult to explain to U.S audiences, since the anime available here was a mere trickle of the country's output. (Imagine if the only exported American films were Saturday Night Live spin-offs. My God, what would they think of us?) These days, dubbing anime into English is a full-blown industry, in which Houston-based AD Vision (ADV) has become a major player. ADV has not only risen as a premier distributor and producer of anime, but they have also brought Austin along for the ride. In the past two years, local actors have contributed their voice talents to approximately 75 anime dubs for AD Vision. Actors like Sam Grimes -- he's the goateed actor whose tongue-tying I witnessed during a taping for Samurai X -- who can currently be found playing Oberon in the Austin Shakespeare Festival's Midsummer Night's Dream.
But he's just the tip of the iceberg. You may have seen City Hunter: The Movie, but did you know that the 007-like hero of the title is local stage actor Martin Blacker? Or that his sidekick is online diarist/actress/writer Pamela Ribon? You may have rented Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie (or read the review in Entertainment Weekly), but did you know the blue whirling dervish was voiced by charismatic cut-up and award-winning actor Martin Burke?
"People are often amazed to hear that Austin is a mecca for Japanese animation voiceovers," says stage stalwart Ken Webster, who has contributed his considerable talents to 25 ADV titles. In fact, the only Austinites who don't seem utterly in the dark about this are the actors themselves. Although ADV has employed some film actors, like Edwin Neal (who played the hitchhiker in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the list of ADV regulars reads like a who's who list of local stage talent: Kathy Catmull, Dan Dietz, Scotty Roberts, Shawn Sides, Sarah Richardson, Lana Lesley, Judson Jones, Larissa Wolcott, Dirk Van Allen. And, yes, even Joe York. ADV's Lowell Bartholomee and Charles Campbell admit they don't pony up the cash of companies like Human Code, Digital Anvil, or Origin -- who also employ local voice talent -- but ADV work is more frequent. So many local actors have lent their voices to AD Vision dubs that it becomes more surprising to hear that some local luminary hasn't worked for them. Or, as local stage veteran David Jones was heard to remark to a young upstart: "If you haven't worked for them, you will."
ADV Films was founded in Houston in 1992 by Matt Greenfield and John Ledford, two anime fans who sensed the increasing demand for anime stateside. When their first project, Devil Hunter Yohko, became a hit, they continued acquiring Japanese titles, making them Anglo-friendly, and distributing them. In a recent e-mail correspondence, co-founder and vice president of production Greenfield claims ADV is "the top producer/distributor of Japanese animation on home video in North America, both in dubbed and subtitled versions." Their Web site at www.advfilms.com touts their distinction as "the Microsoft of Anime" -- at least according to Wired. (By the way, few know what the AD in the title stands for; the Web site claims it's "one of the most closely guarded secrets in the universe.") In eight years, they have produced hundreds of anime titles, including Tekken, Bubblegum Crisis, Gasaraki, Master of Mosquiton, Ruin Explorers, and Gamera, all of which were produced out of Houston.
'The Microsoft of Anime'
In 1998, however, when producer Gary Lipkowitz refused to move to H-Town, he convinced ADV to build a studio in the capital city, at 500 San Marcos, on the basis of the rich vocal talent available here. Lipkowitz worked with engineer Charles Campbell until last February, when Lipkowitz left and ADV hired Lowell Bartholomee, a fixture on the local theatre scene whose résumé includes acting, playwrighting, and, as of last Monday, emceeing the B. Iden Payne awards. Now, with both Bartholomee and Campbell producing and directing (Bartholomee also writes scripts and occasionally acts), the pair turn out about two or three anime dubs per month, which require about 15-20 actors each. Their latest project, the second installment in Samurai X (the first was released last August), calls for the largest cast the Austin ADV branch has ever assembled -- 26 cast members plus crowd scenes. The popular historical series follows the adventures of folk hero Kenshin, a former assassin trying to preserve peace during the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s. Or, as Bartholomee describes it: "Swords! Swords! Swords!"
Before the actors can get their samurai on, there has to be a script in place. These are often written by Bartholomee (Pam Ribon has also contributed) from a word-for-word translation of the original, which is often rough and awkward. In the translated script of Samurai X, for example, the character Hiko muses, "In current times, which is heading toward the disturbance day by day, even if somebody has the incredible power, they wouldn't be able to stop this stream." Huh? It sounds like a seventh-grader went to town with the thesaurus. So a scriptwriter has to wrangle these ideas into something comprehensible, while maintaining the dark poetic flourishes of the original text. Therefore, in the ADV version, you will hear: "There is no cure for the disease. An entire race vaults mindlessly into destruction. Not even a man of colossal power would be able to prevent the inevitable."
'It's Kind of Like Writing for 1950s Television'
It is at this stage -- from translation to script -- that some dubbed anime has been butchered. Fans of Sailor Moon (Pioneer Video) railed against the decision to change a lesbian storyline into a platonic friendship between two cousins. Greenfield claims that's not ADV's style, explaining that if they're uncomfortable with the content of an anime film, "we'll pass on it in the acquisitions stage rather than try to make it something it's not." However, there are certain cultural differences between the two audiences that demand alteration. Take this example, from ADV's Neon Genesis Evangelion: In the film, a "mathematical dog" is asked the answer to three minus two. "Won!" the dog answers. Don't get it? That's because in America, we think of dog sounds as "bark! bark!" or "arf! arf!" rather than "won! won!" as they do in Japan. For the English version, the "mathematical dog" was changed to a "talking dog," who is asked the question, "What's the texture of sandpaper?"
To which he replies: "Ruff! Ruff!"
There's also the tricky issue of "mouth flaps." These "flaps" refer to the number of times a character opens his mouth while he's speaking. It's not necessarily the number of syllables in a word. "Extraordinary" has five syllables (or six -- it's hard to tell), but only two mouth flaps. Although it's reputedly less crucial to Japanese audiences, careful synchronization of these mouth flaps with spoken English is the mark of a good dub in America. So many satires have poked fun at the old, carelessly synchronized Godzilla films that it's almost impossible to watch them without snickering. So ADV is careful to massage each actor's spoken dialogue with the moving mouth of the animated character onscreen. Which is often difficult. Which is often very difficult.
I took to the sound booth to contribute a line or two to the upcoming Samurai X. The part was that of a generically concerned woman, who says during a fight: "This is only going to get worse, Toki." As is my tendency, I said the words too quickly, and so the line had to be padded to "This is only going to get much worse" and, when that proved too short, "This is only going to get a whole lot worse, Toki." This kind of expansion (or contraction) is given to almost every line of text. Of course, my line was a throwaway -- I could have just as easily said, "Stop all this crazy fighting, Toki" or "For the love of the children, Toki." It becomes more complicated when the character's lines are more crucial and specific, especially considering that some Japanese words convey the entire history of an ancient battle. How can you do that in two mouth flaps? For the scriptwriter, it's a constant challenge -- perhaps the most difficult part of the job. Bartholomee, who is the primary scriptwriter for the films at Austin's ADV, explains it this way: "It's kind of like writing for 1950s television. The producer says he wants a show where a guy hunts down and kills a priest who got his daughter pregnant. Only you can't use the word 'pregnant,' the guy can't be a priest, and it has to end happily. So, it's really about finding a way to tell a story within strict parameters."
Next up for ADV-Austin is Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, a high-profile title with a rabid following. Bartholomee and Campbell know this one better be good, or they'll get reamed in the huge online anime community. There's also the possibility that the Alamo Drafthouse might run some of ADV's films this October, which would give the Austin actors the rare opportunity to see the audience's reaction to their work. Meanwhile, many of the ADV titles can be found at stores like Sun Coast and Animagix, where a mere glance at the spines on each shelf is sure to turn up a dozen or more ADV logos. To prove just that, I walk over to Animagix, the small, upstairs anime store in between Mango's and Longhorn Po-Boys on the Drag. On a Friday afternoon, it is mostly empty, aside from a vaguely college-age-looking guy playing a video game with his heels kicked up on the counter. I ask him all sorts of questions, which he answers noncommittally.
'I Didn't Know That'
"Just out of curiosity," he asks, "what's this story about?"
"Well," I say, "it's about AD Vision, this anime studio that has an Austin branch."
His voice smacks of youth and disinterest. "Uh-huh."
"And how -- well, like, a lot of people don't know that."
"Right." He stares at his paused video game longingly.
"But they employ a lot of Austin actors."
"Mmm." His head bobs.
"Okay, well, like, if you see Sonic the Hedgehog, you might not know that the voice of Sonic is a guy from Austin. Martin Burke. Or that City Hunter is a guy who stars in shows around town."
He considers this for a moment and looks at me for the first time. "I didn't know that," he says. "Cool."
For a complete list of AD Vision titles, see www.advfilms.com/catalog.html. For audition times or other information on ADV-Austin, call 485-3080x1.