Otakon 2017: Interview with Stephanie Sheh

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This year at Otakon, I sat down with veteran voice actress and director Stephanie Sheh to talk about the current state of the industry, the rapidly-evolving world of anime dubbing, and what anime has to offer young women. Sheh has been working in the dubbing industry since debuting as Silky in I’m Gonna Be An Angel in 2001 and has played a number of significant roles including the title character of Eureka Seven, Yui Hirasawa in K-On, and the iconic Usagi Tsukino in Viz’s dub of Sailor Moon.

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CM: What are some changes you’ve seen in anime since you started? You’ve been in the dubbing game for a really long time. Have you noticed any major shifts in genres or character types?

SS: I think the main shift is moving toward the simultaneous type of dub release. The dub releases are much quicker after the Japanese. The other thing is streaming services totally changed the game. In the past, there was a much bigger audience, but that audience was at least paying for their stuff, and then bootlegging and all these free streaming services really changed the shape of the industry and we’ve had to change to adapt. On the dubbing front, you see Japanese companies be more involved, care about American audiences, give their say. Now, sometimes you need approval for casting, for scripts, for things like that. I think that that is… most of the time, a good thing.

I think, now we’re getting more interesting stories, but for a while, when piracy was really impacting the industry, not only in the United States but also in Japan, we were getting a lot of fanservicey, stereotypical… Because the thing was, the hardcore otaku was going to buy it anyway. The hardcore otaku loved the moe, very superficial genre stuff. That was the kind of series they would spend their money on, and merchandising for that. So, these beautiful, beautiful stories that were not being told, if you couldn’t market it, couldn’t merchandise it, couldn’t sell a toy, it just wasn’t getting created. I think that we lost a lot of stories. I feel like now, it’s coming back a little bit, so that’s good. I think it needs to come back a little more.

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CM: Yeah, I don’t think some of my favorite series in the last couple of years would have been made ten years ago.

Do you ever get confusing requests from Japanese producers? For example, in the dub of Persona 5, they were calling characters “Tuh-KA-maki” or “Suh-KA-moto”, and it turned out that was a note from the Japanese producers. Do you get any strange requests like that?

SS: It happens every once in awhile. Sometimes the Japanese producers will want to Westernize things, because they that it won’t play, so then you’ll get a request to have an odd pronunciation. The other thing is, the language of Japanese is a bit tonal, so sometimes their words, to them, that are no accent. There’ll be three syllables, and to them, none of them are accented. But in American English, we can’t pronounce it that way. We have to favor one syllable. So, if it’s a tonal language, they might choose these syllables that are a little bit odd, so that happens. Other times, like in the case of Eureka 7, it’s spelled like the word English speakers pronounce as “yoo-ree-kah” and they made us record it like the Japanese pronunciation, “Eh-u-reh-kah.” That’s a little strange, but that’s their prerogative and their request, so now it seems just accepted. Nobody says, “Yoo-ree-kah Seven”, they say “Eh-u-reh-kah.” In the beginning it was a little like, “Wait, what?”

Sometimes the thing is, the person in Japan giving approvals is not always a creative. They can be a producer that is like a managing producer, and so it can be up to them. They might not always be making the best creative decision, but because they’re from Japan, you just have to go with.

CM: I majored in Japanese and worked in Japan, so I’ve seen how inflexible some of the Japanese policies can be.

SS: And it’s still only sometimes! Other times it’s really great, and you work and it’s totally sympatico, and you have discussions, and they fly people out. Some of them are really honest. You send them a cast and they’re like, “I can’t tell the difference. I just need this guy to sound nerdy, so which of these two guys sounds nerdy?” And at least they’re being honest instead of latching onto something that doesn’t work.

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CM: What do you think anime has to offer young women in particular?

SS: I think that there are genres in anime that have strong women characters, and I think that’s great. I think that it’s not perfect, because a lot of these writers and directors are still men, they present maybe a kickass heroine, they may miss the finer aspects of the female identity in that character. I think that it does offer different types of characters and strong characters. I think that’s great, because in Western cartoons, we’re still dealing with mostly male character leads. In anime, there are more female character leads. And, there are also more subgenres that are geared toward women, like shoujo, yuri, all of that. I think that’s wonderful. While I think the sexual dynamics between men and women in society is not always… there are things about it that I think are not very feminist in a way, or equal, but there are other things in anime that have been at the forefront of discussion. You look at Sailor Moon, and they had lesbian characters on a show that was on TV that was on TV how many years ago? And only now is it becoming okay here? In the later series with Stars, you have elements that are basically dealing with transgender characters. I think that Western animation doesn’t really touch that. The end of Korra was amazing… but then, it wasn’t on television.

CM: You’re seeing it more with Steven Universe, too.

SS: Oh yeah, Steven Universe is amazing.

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