Tom Smith interviews the legendary Megumi Hayashibara
“People tend to take an easy road, but I think it is important for us to dare to go against it” You tell ‘em Megumi. With over 27 years in the anime industry, there are very few who can go toe-to-toe with dear Hayashibara-san in terms of experience or sheer number of roles. She has reached legendary levels of voice acting, featuring in over 300 anime titles, on top of work in video games, the dubbing of movies into Japanese, an endless amount of drama CDs, and she’s even released a whopping 13 studio albums as a singer – a selection of which have just been released on iTunes here.
She’s been there as technology has evolved and changed her industry; as analogue recording went to digital; and when even the singers themselves are being replaced by digital counterparts – Vocaloid, I’m looking at you.
“When you rely on the ability of digital technology too much, there’s a tendency to put less feeling into things, which can be only done by human being and also is the most important thing. Pitch and even little lag in the rhythm can be fixed digitally.
“In fact, it is now possible to record ‘A’, ‘RI’, ‘GA’, ‘TO’, ‘U’, separately, and then edit the sounds together to create ‘ARIGATOU’ – or ‘THANK YOU’ in English. However, I believe that our minds and feelings themselves that are put into these words cannot be expressed by digital technology, or maybe I just want to believe so, for example; ‘Thank you’ to your mother for application, ‘Thank you’ to your girlfriend for a present with delighted tears, ‘Thank you’ to someone saying roughly but feel grateful at the bottom of the heart, ‘Thank you’ to someone saying superficially because not feeling grateful at all… I want to believe that all of these ‘arigatou’s or ‘thank you’s are not just the collected piece created on the computer screen. I want to use my voice not only to tell words precisely, but also to address the real meaning of things and the real feelings of us.”
To paraphrase, Miku Hatsune and her virtual chums won’t be putting anyone’s career at risk any time soon. From day one Megumi has approached her work with the same ethos, and it’s something artificial idols will never be able to master; a balance between a real person and an anime character. That’s the reasoning behind the title of her very first album, Half and Half.
“The special meaning for the album’s name is that one half represents me, and half is the character. I am really grateful that I have been able to continue my career for this long. I think this is the result of the good chemistry with the [anime] characters I have met thus far, and that those characters are loved by the fans.”
There have been plenty of anime characters to love through the years. Since her debut playing a minor part in Rumiko Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku in 1986, Megumi’s gone on to star in pretty much everything; from playing such classic roles as China’s gender-bending schoolboy-girl Ranma Saotome in Ranma ½, to treasure-obsessed gallivanter Lina Inverse in Slayers, to the blue-haired anime icon Rei Ayanami in Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as singing that ending theme, ‘Fly Me to the Moon’.
More recently she’s featured as Cowboy Bebop’s sexy and stylish femme fatale Faye Valentine, Love Hina’s hot headed Haruka Urashima, as well as landing possibly her most famous international role as the mighty Pidgeot and Pidgeotto in the Japanese AND the English dub of Pokémon – that’s when you know you’ve hit the big time.
Surprising, then, is that Megumi Hayashibara managed to become possibly the biggest name in the seiyuu industry completely by chance. The anime which triggered Megumi’s imagination for voice acting was Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato. It captivated her so much that she didn’t even realise that there was real people behind the film’s characters. “When I read a magazine and found out that there were voice actors and actresses behind the scenes, I was really shocked! I had believed that the characters appearing in animation actually exist in this world…”
“It’s like you would think that Pikachu actually talks with its own voice in Pokémon, but in fact it is not… At the time [of Space Battleship Yamato], voice acting as an occupation rarely had a chance to shine in the limelight and mostly existed in the shadows, so it couldn’t be helped that we didn’t know much about the voices behind the characters.”
Megumi’s eyes were suddenly opened to a whole new world that she previously didn’t know existed. From there, aged just ten years old, she decided that her dream was to be one of the voices behind anime. She wanted to be a voice actress.
However, it didn’t all go according to plan. When Megumi had reached junior high school her father had fallen sick and would often spend time in hospital. Powerless to help her dad recover, Megumi decided to train to be a nurse and after high school she went on to eventually obtain a national nursing qualification.
“At the same time I could not give up my lifelong dream of being a voice actress. I’d wanted it since I was a fifth grader…”, Megumi’s passion for voice acting still burned on while she studied to be a nurse. It was during one particular lunch break that this passion got the better of her. While browsing magazines on the way back to study she found an advert for an audition which offered the winner free voice acting lessons. “I applied for it, and passed the audition! I was studying at the nursing school and having lessons of voice actress at the same time.”
After graduating from nursing school, Megumi told her parents that she wanted to give voice acting a crack, and set herself three years to do it in. “If there was no future as a voice actress after that time, I promised them I’d return to being a nurse. “ And the rest, as they say, is history. She took the helm of a few minor roles, but then in 1989 she smashed it with her first major break; Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. Megumi featured as the voice of the red-headed pilot Christina MacKenzie, and also sang a song for the series ‘Yoake no Shooting Star’. From there her career was set as a voice actress and a singer, and it continues nearly 28 years later.
“I never got back to the career path as a nurse. But everything I learnt at the nursing school is the pillar of me.”
So there you have it, straight from the queen herself. If you want to be a voice actress, it’s off to nursing school for you. Or something like that.
On parting, Megumi mentioned that she is a great lover of the Japanese language and that she hopes that through her music, people outside of Japan can become interested in learning it. “We use a number of different expressions to describe one thing. You can see these in some of my lyrics. The words that I personally wrote from my albums are credited as ‘MEGUMI’, please look out for them.”
She also mentioned that she loves tea. “I heard that tea is delicious in the UK. It would be supremely happy if one of my songs came on while you are having tea and scones. I would love that.” Go on, have a tea break on us, you’ve deserved it.
A selection of Megumi Hayashibara’s studio albums are now available from iTunes, courtesy of Gan Shin Records.