Otaku* Overload!!!

After Monster Island Studios sank, Austin's acting community and Houston animé giant A.D. Vision unleashed talent bent on vengeance and redemption (*otaku = animé geek)

<i>Magical Play</i>'s Pipin
Magical Play's Pipin

Some of my earliest memories are of woefully dubbed English emanating from the mismoving mouths of Japanese people. This is, on the face of it, peculiar. I've never been to the Land of the Rising Sun. I'm not a war baby. And my experiences with Japanese women – despite a passion for the now defunct Austin zine AGAR (Asian Girls Are Rad) – have thus far been limited to ordering the odd bubble tea from Momoko and having a (decidedly rad) Osaka girl teach me how to say "Are you the god of death?" at a party some years back ("Omae wa shinigami desu-ka?"), a phrase that has come in handier than you might expect.

Still, casting back, I can clearly recall a preadolescence awash in Japanese pop culture, then, as now, mysterious, alluring, and infinitely, deliciously other. There was, of course, towering, irradiated Gojira, king of Toho Studios, who sparked in my 8-year-old mind a monstrous passion for all things saurian, which eventually led me to the University of Texas in pursuit of a degree in paleontology. (Who knew math skills would turn out to be a key requirement?) Gamera, too, Daiei Studios' competing behemoth, a flying turtle internationally known as Friend to All Children and possessor of one of the most wicked underbites this side of Hello Saber Tooth Kitty. For years, my backyard sandbox-cum-mudpit was Monster Island, and, three decades later, I remember painstakingly constructing intricate Lincoln Logs cityscapes only to have them toppled via Giant Monsters' All-Out Attack and a little kid's runaway imagination. If I built it, they would come (and conquer). I even had a yen for Blue Öyster Cult based solely on their lumbering, inexplicably popular hit "Godzilla."

Then there were the weekend snippets of what is now universally known as animé, or Japanese animation. Devo-coiffed Astro Boy; Captain Harlock, with his wind-whipped cape and black eye-patch marking him as cool as surely as the Fonz's leather jacket; mighty Space Battleship Yamato (whose namesake, I was later to learn, was sunk by the Allies in World War II); and, yes, Speed Racer. "Go!" they all commanded. Grinning, I went, and still do, despite, like many Americans, a lingering feeling that when it comes to Japanese animation and monster movies, that if the character's words match their lip movements, there's something funny going on in Fujiyoshida.

Now, here, the once ridiculed, utterly formative Japanese imports of my youth are increasingly a part not only of American pop culture, but also of the very fabric of America itself. Sony owns half of Hollywood, my shower curtain is from Sanrio, and I pilot a modified Subaru WRX that resembles nothing so much as one of Toei Co.'s multitasking Transformers (it's more than meets the eye). Every single entertainment component in my home, from my region-free JVC DVD/karaoke player to the Hello Kitty screensaver on my otherwise Finnish Nokia to the Puffy AmiYumi CD currently spilling out of my speakers in a frothy, J-pop tide of kawaii (literally, "cute"), comes from Japan.

And always, the animé, the voices, the lips.

Off the Island

Austin has played a pivotal role in the influx of Japanese pop-cultural eye candy during the past decade. These days you can't walk into a video store without imperiling yourself and your wallet amid a dangerously overstocked animé selection. What used to be called Japanimation is now the single most popular form of episodic entertainment in the country among the key 8-38 age demographic. Imported animé series (and their myriad interactive video game offshoots) have become so prevalent in our society that the visual and kinetic aesthetic has been applied to all other aspects of American culture, from advertising to television programs to the teak coffee table in my living room that wouldn't look out of place in a Hiyao Miyazaki film. Our neighbor is Totoro.

It was not always so. Adults of a certain age and minus a specific type of internal cultural barometer that I like to refer to as "paying attention to what's really important" still think in terms of those cruddy, off-kilter lip movements (professionally referred to as "flaps" and roughly corresponding to the number of syllables in a given word) when they think of animé at all. Mostly, they don't, but as Generations X, Y, and Zed age, their offspring, like their parents before them, immerse themselves in what's cool, and what's cool in millennial America is animé. Show me a person older than 35 who can tell me what the word "cosplay" refers to or why April 7, 2003, is the most important day in the year, and I'll show you someone I want to hang out with. (For the record, cosplay is a contraction of "costume play," i.e., dressing up like your favorite animé characters, a core component of such animé conventions as Austin-based Ushicon, and April 7, 2003, is the mythical date of Astro Boy's "birth." Or, if you want to get all otaku on me, "Mighty Atom," as creator Osamu Tezuka originally christened him.)

Crux from <i>Final Fantasy: Unlimited</i>
Crux from Final Fantasy: Unlimited

Locally, this has everything to do with a now defunct outfit called Monster Island Studios, which, as a satellite of Houston-based animé giant A.D. Vision – the largest distributor of animé in the United States today – shuttered its doors in March of 2005 after a seven-year run as one of the most prolific and professional animé-dubbing and -distribution companies in the country. Its sudden departure – due to inexpert management from home base Houston or, alternately, cost-cutting necessities, depending on whom you ask – has left a void in the Austin acting community that has yet to be filled.

While it was operating, however, Monster Island attracted the best and the brightest of Austin acting talent and, in doing so, created not just a superior and highly polished brand of animé but also opened up a new creative outlet for the Texas capital's legions of thespians who gamely put their vocally emotive skills to work in the service of, among other things, intergalactic war (and, every so often, peace); demon-fighting (and, in the more adult, tentacle-rape-heavy genre known as hentai, demon-lovin'); and Bushido-bladed martial arts mayhem that puts Jackie Chan's real-world kick flips to shame. They sang, screamed, and sighed with orgasmic pleasure through an astonishingly varied menagerie of characters that ran the gamut from helium-voiced naughty schoolgirls to elfin sprites, from noble-if-conflicted warrior man-children to shrinking, shrieking violets. At its peak, Monster Island employed more than 50 Austin actors, guaranteeing them a paycheck and a claim to fame that might never have made the front page of Variety, but to this day reverberates in countless animé-fixated Internet chat rooms, forums, and conventions on both sides of the Pacific and beyond.

Founded in 1998 by Gary Lipkowitz and producer/director Charlie Campbell, Monster Island's dubbing technique continues to serve former parent company ADV. It's standard practice, actually, for American distributors of animé to purchase the domestic rights to Japanese television series and then farm out the dubbing to other acting agencies. At Monster Island, Campbell's close connections with the Austin acting scene – particularly with writer/director Lowell Bartholomee – resulted in the company giving rise to its own very nearly in-house talent pool.

"When we set up Monster Island in Austin in 1998," Campbell says, "there was already an established acting community for theatre in town, but the reason that so many people in Austin have become proficient and well-known for doing the animé thing is because we were there for so long and we had so many people come in to do so many different roles that we ended up kind of training this whole raft of actors in the process of doing the specific tasks that make up animé voice work.

"And it is difficult. The actor comes to the script cold, with no preparation, gets in the recording booth with their scripted lines, and then, as they watch their scene on a monitor, they have to match not only the emotional tone of the scene but the exact number of mouth-flaps that their character does as they're talking, or screaming, or whatever, and to make it sound natural. It's much more difficult than the average viewer suspects, and it involves a whole new skill set for most actors. It's like being able to act in Morse code."

Bartholomee, a Frontera Fest-award-winning playwright who, although he's no longer working for ADV and currently helms his own Bayou Radio Productions, agrees, explaining the process thusly:

"After ADV purchases the rights to distribute a show here in the States, they get a script from Japan and then one of our translators here turns it into an English version. That doesn't mean the dialogue is going to be any good, or match up with what the characters are saying or doing on screen, so that script is then handed off to a writer who polishes it while watching the show. You have to attempt to replicate what the original intent and tone of the dialogue was in the original Japanese version while at the same time making your new dialogue match up with the number of times any given character's mouth moves. It involves a bit of math, and it's a really strange way to write, but it actually helped me in my other writing because it's something of a five-finger exercise for other types of dramatic writing.

"Once Monster Island closed," Bartholomee adds, "it put a huge dent in the amount of work a lot of actors were getting. So, there are all these stage actors who have these highly trained vocal talents just lying fallow here, for the moment, but at the same time, because of their work on animé, they've garnered these huge followings online. Joey Hood, for example, has a massive following from his work on Dai-Guard, and so does Sami Harte Inoue, Shawn Sides, Larissa Wolcott, and, of course, Ed Neal, who was very nearly in every single thing we did at Monster Island."

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galax(ies)

Austin voice actor and animator Samantha Inoue Harte: I started out wanting to be an animator, Harte says, but I've ended up being an actor in the same animés I grew up with, which is very cool.
Austin voice actor and animator Samantha Inoue Harte: "I started out wanting to be an animator," Harte says, "but I've ended up being an actor in the same animés I grew up with, which is very cool." (Photo By John Anderson)

I know what you're thinking: Ed Neal? The Ed Neal?! The same actor who starred in Tobe Hooper's seminal splatter film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Hell's own hitchhiker, thumbs up for horror? That guy?

Yeah, him. It always comes as a shock to discover that longtime Austin actor Ed Neal, along with having one of the lengthiest track records in horror-movie-character-actor history, a huge collection of Polish film one-sheets, the passing acquaintance of one Liza Minnelli, and a blinding white Caddie parked in front of his house with a rip in the upholstery caused by Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister roughhousing a topless dancer one late, late night, long, long ago, is also one of the most accomplished animé voice talents in the country.

Disconcerting, isn't it?

Not as much as what followed Monster Island co-founder Charlie Campbell's first meeting with the manic panic that is the former hitcher.

"I'm a huge Texas Chainsaw Massacre fan in the first place," Campbell says, "so I was really stoked about Ed Neal showing up to read for us. But what's really weird is that just a few days later, Gunnar Hansen [Chainsaw's legendary Leatherface] showed up on our doorstep to audition, too. What's even stranger was that, for whatever reason, he was in a very low-key mood that day, lethargic even. And, so, I got him in the sound booth and fed him some action sequences with some yelling and so forth, and he ends up kind of just mumbling+ his way through the sequence. I remember I told him to try and get a little more into it, to pump up the volume a little, and he says, very quietly, 'I'm sorry, but I don't want to hurt my voice.' And we're, like, Leatherface is worried about his voice? Man. That was really a surprise. It was neat meeting him, but I never saw him again."

Neal, on the other hand, has become a cottage industry all to himself, ADV's reigning king of voice work, so much so that his current project with the company, a retooling of Seventies-era superhero favorite G-Force – now re-released in its proper format with the original title Gatchaman – has him performing 16 separate roles. (And they're only halfway through the 105 episodes, meaning Neal almost surely will shatter some sort of voice-acting record.)

"He came in for an audition when we first opened up in Austin," Campbell recalls. "It was for a show called City Hunter: Secret Service. I'm always looking for people who are really versatile so that I can cast them as more than one type of character, and he's just fantastic with that. It also makes it more fun.

"The thing about Ed is that he makes even his bit parts unforgettably memorable. He's got great comedic timing and really fantastic acting instincts. A lot of times ... I can give him a jump-off point, and he'll just run with it places no one else would ever think of. For instance, I'll tell him, 'You're doing this big talking cat in a show called Moyoken, but do it as [former Hollywood Squares panelist and Bewitched actor] Paul Lynde, and he just nails it. There's not a lot of talent that can just do improv like that."

Lowell Bartholomee (r) as Iizuka in <i>Samurai X: Trust</i>
Lowell Bartholomee (r) as Iizuka in Samurai X: Trust (Photo By John Anderson)

Neal, still recognizably the grim hitchhiker and having just returned from one of his many horror-movie conventions (where he chummed it up with new best pal and legendary Z-grade horror icon Herschell Gordon Lewis), is, like the Anime Network, on all the time.

Asked to explain the leap from Seventies horror icon to Devil Lady's scheming Kazar or Cosplay Complex's "Priest," Neal's responding riff encompasses everything from his five-year stint with Austin improv breeding ground Esther's Follies to, well, pretty much everything you can think of.

"Lemme tell ya," he says between mouthfuls of – what else? – barbecue, "I've been talking stupid all my life. One minute I'm a 7-foot-2 cowboy and the next you're a 4-foot gnome. These people in my head just appear and disappear with alarming alacrity, and this same thing that got me thrown out of the third grade – making silly voices – I now make a living at. So, now, whenever I get another big job, I always reach for the phone and call my third-grade teacher: 'Hello? Mrs. Feldman? It's Ed Neal. I just made another $800!'"

He continues: "You wanna have some fun? Sit down and watch some of the Gatchaman episodes and try and figure out which characters I'm doing! I don't know of anybody else who's done that many voices in a major release. Every time Charlie Campbell shows me a new character, I pull out a new voice and suddenly it's in the show! If there's several characters speaking to each other, I can jump from voice to voice without any additional editing, too, which is great, because it saves money in studio time, and, therefore, I get more work. ... Even my own kids have only ever got 12 of the 16."

And it's true: Even as this conversation occurs, Neal is switching from voice to voice – now a wizened old timer, now a dopey turtle, now a gravel-voiced demon – with the crazed unpredictability of an old Zenith TV console on the blink. The effect is flabbergasting.

"I've done musical comedy," says the voluble actor. "I've toured 178 towns with Sandy Duncan. I've done Esther's Follies. I've done every conceivable form – opera! I do cartoons. There's really no form of entertainment I haven't tried, so, getting into voice acting for animé was really a piece of cake for me. A lot of people have trouble with it because they're looking down at the script and then looking up at the monitor and the trick is to match those mouth-flaps. You can't look at both at once and manage it. It's almost instinctual for me.

"Here's the strangest thing you will ever hear when you are doing voice work for animation of any sort: 'Try this one in your normal voice.' The only thing that's ever struck that kind of panic into my heart was 'I missed my period.' It's that kind of intensity. Because, as a performer, you have no idea what you – the real you – sounds like. Or if you do, and there are some people who do, then you don't trust that voice, because your average artist's creative mind and slug-level sense of self-esteem won't let them trust it. Which is why a lot of performers are who they are anyway. And the truth of it is, it's simply another character."

A Chocobo Is Not a Candy Bar

In fact, a chocobo, aside from being Japan's bizarre and decidedly noneducational answer to Big Bird, is Samantha Inoue Harte. Rather, Choco the Chocobo is Harte's role in Final Fantasy: Unlimited. While Ed Neal represents the more, let's say, adrenalized end of Austin's aminé voice-acting spectrum, there's another performer here in town who's nearly as well known and can more than hold her own against Neal's panoply of creepy ne'er-do-wells.

<i>Gatchaman</i>'s Berg Katsein, one of Neal's hundreds of chracters
Gatchaman's Berg Katsein, one of Neal's hundreds of chracters (Photo By John Anderson)

Harte, unlike most animé voice talent, actually grew up in Japan and was weaned on a steady diet of animé and manga (the films' printed, comic-booky counterpart). Indeed, the 26-year-old – her voice pitched just shy of the requisite helium-voiced, borderline serious gigglefit necessary to play all those risqué parts with just the right amount of bespectacled, sexy sass – holds a theatrical screening of Eighties animé chestnut Macross: Do You Remember Love? as her earliest kidhood memory.

"My father was in the military, and my parents own a Buddhist temple in Yokohama," she says. "I ended up in Austin because of the mistaken belief that the University of Texas had a huge animation program. When I discovered there wasn't, I went into the art department, instead, but kept studying animation in my spare time. Preston Blair's book, Cartoon Animation, was a big influence, and I used to read Disney animators Frank and Ollie Johnson's The Illusion of Life cover to cover.

"In 2000, I discovered Monster Island Studios through a mutual friend, Joel Sweeney, and eventually I went and auditioned for them. Like a lot of people at that time, I was under the misconception that dubbed versions of animé were automatically inferior to the original Japanese. I was one of those animé fangirls who refused to watch anything that had been dubbed, simply on the grounds that it wasn't the real thing.

"My initial audition, over at their offices in 501 Studios, was a nightmare. I met Lowell Bartholomee, who scared me half to death because I just didn't know what I was doing, and he's an imposing presence. He and Charlie put me into the sound booth and gave me a script and some lines, and I just remember panicking because I'm in this little tiny booth that's so quiet you can actually hear the silence. I didn't even know enough to put on the headphones so I could hear Lowell and Charlie's direction. I was terrified."

Lowell and Campbell, for their part, recall things a bit differently.

Here's Campbell's recollection:

"The first time I met her she showed up for a crowd session for, I believe, Samurai X – where we had a bunch of actors doing various parts – and we put her in the recording booth with another actor and had them both do death scenes. In the episode, the characters are on horseback and are being pursued by a murdering hoard. The guy gets cut down with a sword first, then the girl. So, the scene plays, and the guy gives a really solid death cry – 'Aargh!' – and then Sami, just out of the blue, lets loose with this Halloween, bloodcurdling scream that just sent a chill up your spine. I mean it was just horrific. And real! The guy standing next to her in the booth just went white as a sheet and the 20 or so people we had in the next room waiting for their turn in the crowd scene burst in to see if everything was all right. It was just an amazing, raw scream, and I told her, 'You know, if I ever need a really good scream, you're coming in!'"

Like Fay Wray, who, as the story goes, was cast in King Kong solely on the basis of her gamine shriekability, Harte has made good on her tentative first sound-booth foray and moved from animé fan to borderline living legend (at the many animé conventions she attends each year, she's an object of adoration from fanboys and -girls alike). She's been in nearly as many ADV productions as Neal (and frequently starred right alongside him), including the wildly popular Cosplay Complex and Getbackers series.

Shawn Sides (l) as Lisa in <i>Final Fantasy: Unlimited</i> (right) and Jun in <i>The Devil Lady </i>(middle)
Shawn Sides (l) as Lisa in Final Fantasy: Unlimited (right) and Jun in The Devil Lady (middle) (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"I started out wanting to be an animator," Harte says, "but I've ended up being an actor in the same animés I grew up with, which is very cool.

"In terms of the voice acting, everything is cold-read. There's no preparation other than what the director tells you to do over the headphones. They'll tell you what your lines are; you watch the scene over and over until you get the flow and the timing of the words; and then you just get into character and say the lines while doing your best to match the movements of the character. It's really tough. The funny thing is that when you watch American animation, the vocals are done first, before any of the animated images are drawn, so, in animé, we're doing the whole process backward. Some people can get it and some people can't, but because I already know what they're saying in Japanese – and I think I'm the only voice actor at ADV that's fluent in Japanese – I have it a little easier than most voice actors. I can add and subtract words, or even pauses like 'oh' or 'ah' to make the English have a smoother flow."

In a way, Harte brings the Austin animé scene full circle. She's not just a pretty voice (or a high, squeaky one, as needed) but also, as of last month, the head of her own animation studio right here in Austin. Monster Island Studios might be no more, but Harte's fledgling Saiko Studios is suddenly there to fill the vocal and animatic void.

"'Saiko' is an 'Engrish' term," Harte explains, "meaning it's a phonetic take on an English word, but the meaning is less 'psycho' than it is 'cool' or 'awesome' or 'the best.' Dominic [Vitucci] works with me, and Korey Coleman from Horseback Salad and The Reel Deal [who illustrated this issue's cover], and a couple of interns. Right now, I'm working on a project for Spike TV, which I can't say anything about except that it's going to begin airing on Spike in January of 2006. We don't even have a title yet, but it's a live-action TV show with animated segments."

As if that weren't impressive enough (and talking to Harte you get the distinct impression she's just getting started), she's also sharing the wealth by teaching animation to kids and adults alike over at the Motion Media Arts Center and Austin Community College.

"At MMAC, I teach kids, and, at ACC, I have a 2-D animation class for adults. I've been teaching since 1998, actually, over at the Dougherty Arts Center, the Austin Museum of Art, and for a while Dominic and I had our own animation school over in Cedar Park teaching mostly home-school kids. It's great to see these kids that I've been teaching since they were 10 years old getting into the animation field and recognizing their work."

The obvious question, then, is this: Can Austin's animé talent recover from the blow dealt by Monster Island's departure? Both Harte and Bartholomee think it's far from impossible.

"We're still in the early phases, of course," Harte says, "but because Austin has the talent, the manpower, and the base, all we need to do to kick-start the scene here is to get some animé to dub. And that's basically it. I've been talking to [Dallas-based animé distributor] FUNimation and, right now, I'm waiting for a response back. Fingers crossed. So far, though, some of the people I've spoken to up there acknowledge that there's no reason why Austin shouldn't have its own animé studio much like we once had Monster Island. All the pieces are in place except for the animé itself."

And why not? Today's animé have come a long way from the days of inadvertently ridiculous dubbing and cookie-cutter storylines about princesses, maidens, and some guy on a white horse with a ponytail and a sword.

In the end, Ed Neal, as is his way, says it best somehow.

"What's fascinating about animé today is the depth and the breadth of the storylines. It's no longer just samurai warriors, or just monsters. It's everything. We've got all these animés now exclusively about kids in high school. We've got them about little fuzzy dice that talk or whole storylines about people who live on boats. The divergence is what continually astounds me. I mean, there is no dearth of ideas in the world of animé today, and anyone who thinks there is hasn't been paying attention." end story

Wonder what in Toshiro Mifune's name we're talking about? Need those all-important visual aids? Go here: www.advfilms.com/FILMStrailers.asp.

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