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Andrew Osmond talks to the voice of Lunatic and Gaara

At October’s MCM Expo, we caught up with the American voice-actor Liam O’Brien, whom you may know from a great many things, including Naruto and Naruto Shippuden, where he plays the orange ninja’s evolving adversary, Gaara of the Sand. He’s also Jushiro in Bleach, Lunatic in the new dub of Tiger & Bunny and the troubled hero Doctor Tenma in Monster. He’s handled voice direction and script adaptation, and is truly one of us – he was an anime fan years before he entered the voice-acting game. He grew up on Voltron, a “hidden import” anime in the ‘80s, then graduated to Akira and the manga Ranma½.

Tiger and Bunny is one of O’Brien’s newest projects; how would he describe the series? “Tiger & Bunny is a sort of twist of the superhero story, imagining that if there were superheroes, in our world that’s becoming so corporate, wouldn’t they be corporatised just like everything else? There are some comics like Powers and Invincible which ask what would it be really like if superheroes existed. Tiger and Bunny does that in a very Japanese, fun and futuristic way.”

O’Brien has participated in non-anime superhero cartoons: he was in the feature-length video Planet Hulk and the TV show Wolverine and the X-Men. “Anime dubbing is always a more difficult job [than them],” he says. “You’re matching pictures that exist already, so working on Tiger & Bunny is like my work on Bleach or Naruto. I’m looking at a screen; we do a preview of each line as we go, so I can understand the tone the Japanese were going for. I have to start on time, pause at the right times, and end on time. It’s the technical tapdance that we do.”

O’Brien has handled anime on both ends of the spectrum; giant franchises like Naruto and niche dramas like Koi Kaze (unavailable in Britain) about forbidden desires. “Technically, they’re mostly the same,” he says. “Naruto obviously has battles and kung-fu theatrics, and Koi Kaze was a kitchen-sink drama. Koi Kaze was the first series I directed, and I gave it a lot of love and care, though I know it’s a very uncomfortable subject. For some reason we had a little more time than usual for the dub, so I was really able to massage performances and work with the actors, to get things I thought just right. I’m very proud of how it turned out. However, it was short and sweet, a beautiful project… There’s not seven seasons of Koi Kaze!

Naruto, on the other hand… “It’s just epic storytelling, like being part of an ancient Chinese epic! We’ve watched the characters evolve, and my own character Gaara is nothing like he was when he started. I find myself feeling very blessed, to be along for the ride on a project like Naruto. All of us who work on the show, Maile Flanagan who voices Naruto and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who plays Kurenai and is our main director… We all just sit around and shake our heads. We hit an episode number recently and went, ‘My god…’ and it’s still fun, still a great story.” (O’Brien declines to say what the episode number was, for fear of snipers.)

Given that Naruto is so long, and the characters change so much, does O’Brien feel obliged to read ahead in the manga, so he’s forewarned about the next twist? “It depends on if I’m an actor or a director,” he says. “Since I write (the English version) for Naruto, and occasionally direct for it, I think it’s my job to know where it’s going. Because you don’t want to crescendo too big with something, not knowing that something twice as big is coming twenty episodes down the road, and blowing your wad early! I think it’s the director’s responsibility to know, as much as we can… Only the manga writer knows the total end goal!

And as an actor? “I’m of the school of thought – and a lot of my peers don’t think this – that I also like to know what’s coming in the future. Because again, if you put everything into a moment, thinking it’s the crux of the character, and then something much deeper comes out later… But it’s a moot point, because as an actor in games and animation, I wouldn’t know what’s coming because I work so often and have two kids – there’s no time! Early in my career when I had fewer jobs, I would watch an episode or two so I could understand what’s going on, get a feel for the show… but now I just go in, trusting in a director who knows everything about it!”

Obviously, some episodes of a long franchise like Naruto have more dramatic weight than others. (“You’re telling me the Naruto peeing episode didn’t have a lot of weight?” O’Brien quips.) Given the tight schedules for dubbing, can O’Brien allot more time to the ‘heavy’ episodes, to given them full justice? “I think that boils down to the prep work that a director does,” says O’Brien. “If it’s a jokey episode, you can just watch it and prep normally. If it’s a very heavy episode, or a heavy arc, I and people like Mary, will watch and rewatch and think.’

O’Brien cites the Capcom horror game Resident Evil 6 (or Biohazard 6 as it’s called in Japan). “I directed the voiceover for that, and there’s a scene where a character is tied in a chair in a basement, watching her sister get whisked away for torture. And so before that day, I made sure I knew what I was doing – I wasn’t going to wing it, like some days. You will take a little more time on those scenes, and then move faster on the lighter stuff, but you won’t be given 50% more hours. The budget’s the budget, and an episode’s an episode!”

Wrapping up, we ask O’Brien about the differences in voice performance in Japan and the west. When Japanese actors voice, say, a crazy character, will they play the character in a different way from an American dub actor? “I know what you mean,” O’Brien says, “and it’s true for all character types. What plays there (in Japan) doesn’t always play here. I’m not sure how to articulate it… All I can say is we will often consciously say, Let’s not clone what’s being done in Japanese here. Gaara in Naruto is one case where I think he’s actually pretty similar in Japanese and English, but that’s usually not the case…”

O’Brien tells a story to illustrate the point. “A director told me about what happened when he was in a session for a Japanese game being localised. The Japanese producers were saying, we want the character to be a little more sexy, so the director got on mic to the actress. She voiced the character a little bassier, a little slower. The producers said, More sexy way, more sexy way. So the actress was a little deeper, a little smoother… and the producers still wanted More sexy…

“So the director thought there might be a disconnect here,” O’Brien says with perfect understatement. “He asked the producers to give an idea of how they wanted her to sound. Their answer was” – and here O’Brien launches into a series of soft girly coos that are, tragically, impossible to replicate in print. “We have the Catwoman in the west and high-pitched blushing flower in the east…”

Tiger and Bunny is released in on UK DVD from Kaze.

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