“Afro Samurai” is a stunning and violent piece of anime. So it’s a little unsettling to be sitting with Yuri Lowenthal, the voice of Kuma, (that crazy, blood-lusty, semi-dead samurai who wears a robotic teddy-bear head) discussing our favorite cartoons, and hearing him speak like a nerd from Ohio instead of a screaming like a maniac.
Lowenthal is a superstar of the voice-over world. He’s the voice of Sasuke Uchiha on fan-favorite “Naruto: Shippuden.” He’s also heard on “Bleach,” “Prince of Tennis,” “Kyo Kara Mao,” “Monte Cristo,” “Noein,” “Gunxsword,” “Mar,” “Kamichu,” “Saiuki Reload,” and “Ergo Proxy.” Not to mention his work on video games such as “Prince of Persia” (he’s the prince), “Resident Evil,” “Everquest II,” “Vampires Reign,” “Saints Row,” – the list goes on and on.
Fans of American cartoons including Cartoon Network's “Ben 10,” (to which Lowenthal shares an eerie, All-American likeness,) “Teen Titans,” “Young Justice,” “Legion of Superheroes,” even “Veggie Tales,” are used to hearing his voice, too.
(Cartoon Network, like CNN is owned by parent company TimeWarner.)
He’s even investing his talent in ShelfLifeSeries.com, an animated webseries he developed with his wife and frequent collaborator, Tara Platt, which takes an anime-like, direct approach to sexuality as seen through the after-hours lives of toy figurines.
And yet, when Geek Out! caught up with Lowenthal at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, he left himself out of the influential group of voice actors bringing Japanese cartoons to U.S. audiences.
That’s because Lowenthal is a die-hard fan of his colleagues’ work.
Lowenthal is a life-long Otaku – a fan of Japanese entertainment and culture. [Editor’s note: Otaku is a word that in Japanese loosely translates to “house” and is used derogatively to mean “basement dweller” or someone who spends all their time at home indulging in nerdy pastimes. Outside of Japan, many fans of the country’s anime, manga, music, video games and culture have assimilated the word and used it as an insider term to describe themselves.]
“I speak from a nerd's perspective,” Lowenthal said, “because I've been watching anime since I was a kid. I grew up on “Speed Racer” and “Star Blazers” and “Battle of the Planets,” and those were some of my first A) cartoons and B) introduction to Japanese couture before I even knew they were Japanese.”
That’s one thing you learn about Lowenthal – he’s a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, and he can talk about cartoons, culture and even the winning aspects of zombies for a good, long while. Here’s what he had to say about the attraction of anime to Western audiences and more:
CNN: So Yuri, tell us about the cabal of Western voice actors who have a stronghold on anime?
Lowenthal: It is sort of a cabal, and I think the fans would tell you that too. “Why is that guy in all the anime series? Why do we keep seeing that guy over and over?”
It's interesting, it's a small community of actors, based primarily in Los Angeles, but there's some in Dallas as well, Vancouver, who are sort of known for dubbing Japanese animation into English. For a while it was a viable source of income for a lot of actors. And recently because of rampant piracy - and I don't mean like, on the high seas per se, I mean video piracy - it's been a lot less viable. A lot of Japanese companies have said, "It's just too expensive for us to dub, we'll just put subtitles on." And some of the work has gone to other countries. But we're still out there, we hang on.
As far as actors who pop up again and again in Japanese dubs, and because they're really good actors, people like Steve Bloom, not only in “Cowboy Bebop,” but also he's sort of the de-facto Wolverine. If you're doing an animated Wolverine anything, Marvel usually just goes to Steve first because he's recognized as that voice.
The same names come up: Crispin Freeman, Vic Mignogna, Liam O'Brien and Sam Regal, Roger Craig Smith. The John DiMaggios, who is in “Adventure Time” and “Ben 10” and “Futurama” and pretty much every show - there's a reason for that. We've found that with voice actors, the people who really have longevity are the ones who are good actors. Not just people with funny voices. They are people who really know how to communicate a story and really invest in it. Andrea Romano, Jeff Bennett, Corey Burton.
CNN: Americans have not always had the best political relationship with Japan. Why do you think so many Americans love anime?
Lowenthal: There's a generational divide but we certainly don't see it. I think it's far enough removed that even today the older generation might not recognize Japanese cartoons as Japanese - they're just cartoons. A lot of the times, weird cartoons, and it's one of the things I love so much about Japanese cartoons and Japanese culture.
It's very different than what we have here. Often times much more direct and cutting to the bone and not sort of tiptoeing around sensitive matters - like death or violence or sex - that our animation in the United States generally tries to avoid because we don't want to scare the kids. They sort of deal with it right up front. And I think that's what attracts a lot of people, but I don't think that the older generation - it's either too far removed to be an issue or they don't even recognize these cartoons as coming from Japan.
They may have their own issues with them, "oh, they're too violent, they're too sexy," whatever, but I don't think it has to do with that post WWII mentality.
When I was living in Japan, going to school there - and it was the only time that this happened - I would say the Japanese certainly don't seem to, on the surface, hold any kind of grudge about that sort of thing. And yet one day I was at a park and this old woman, who had clearly been alive when we were bombing and they were bombing and we hated each other, and she came up and just started yelling at me. Blaming me for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I thought it was odd because it was the only time that it happened. Clearly some people hold on to that, but I would say most people don't.
CNN: Anime is upfront, like you say, but it's also very extreme. It's extremely cute, or extremely violent or extremely pornographic. What is it about that extremity that makes the light bulb go off in a certain faction of the nerd community's heads?
Lowenthal: It is the extremity, It's one of the things that attracts American viewers to it. Often one of the things American animation will do is to kind of scattershot to get as many people as they can, and I think the Japanese are not afraid to say, “Oh, we're going to do a cartoon for people who like ninja who are into S&M.”
They hit these very narrow pockets. And as a result they come up with really interesting programming. Really incisive and direct programming, and it gives viewers, whether they're American or Japanese the choice - "Oh, that's exactly what I love, I'll watch that," rather than leaving them searching, It’s like, "I want something that's right for me. Oh yeah, that's right for me and not necessarily for other people." I think they're unafraid to hit those extremes of cuteness or specific violence or sex or history.
CNN: Anime characters don't always look Japanese to an American audience. Sometimes they are obviously not, like in “Full Metal Alchemist,” which takes place in an alternate Germany. How does that affect Western understanding of anime?
Lowenthal: There is a weird mix. If you watch Japanese anime you look at it and say, "all those characters don't look Japanese they look American or European or African," or whatever [Japanese culture] is fascinated with at the moment. And I think it comes from a lot of different things. It's sort of their take on their own Japaneseness and what that looks like might look different to us.
There is an expressiveness, people make fun of it all the time, but it's true - you see a lot of big round eyes. Not only bigger than any sort of Asian or Japanese eyes, but bigger than any human - European or American - eyes either. I think one of the things that they really took to is that the eyes are so expressive. That Western eyes are much rounder and more open - if it was something that could lend to the expressiveness of a character, they would glom on to that.
That and I think there's also a fascination with the West because the Japanese are fascinated with how different our culture is from theirs. In the same way that we will throw ninjas or Yellow peril into our mythology because it's so strange and mysterious. I'm sure there are many sociological treaties on why so many of the characters look more European and Western than Japanese but that's my experience with it.
CNN: What are the cosplay characters you see time and time again at conventions? [Editor’s note: Cosplay has developed into such a pervasive part of Western pop culture that even non-Otakus know what it is. But just in case you have been avoiding nerds and news of their interests, we’ll let you in on the secret: Cosplay is the practice of dressing up like Sci-fi or fantasy fiction characters. The Otaku community is especially noteworthy in their attention to detail when cosplaying anime characters.]
Lowenthal: For 2011 I think there's some new ones. it's hard to keep my finger on the pulse of what's coming out of Japan - there's so many shows I wish I had time to watch or video games I had time to play, because I do come form a real fanboi perspective. I've loved that stuff for so long, but there are only so many hours in the day.
I would say the standbys are “Naruto,” and “Bleach,” and “Dragonball Z,” “One Piece.” All of these are ones that have come over and really survived in the West. “Death Note,’ recently “Soul Reaper,” “Durarara” is a big one, recently. But also a lot of the classics, a lot of “Gundam” and “Robotech.” I'm trying to think who I've seen on the Comic-Con floor - lots of “Naruto.” And every now and again somebody comes up with something that I haven't seen in a long time, and it's exciting. Of course you've got all your “Power Rangers,” that still soldiers on.
You know, giant robots always win. Whether it's “Gundam” or “Robotech” or “Evangelion” or any of the “Macross” stuff. I'll always love that stuff. “Naruto,” - ninjas still rule. That show has been pretty popular. I see it when I go to conventions, a lot of the kids dressing up are from that show and it's five, six years since we started dubbing that show. It's interesting to see the trends, but certain things are it. Giant robots will always be popular! We love ninjas and robots! Who doesn't?
CNN: Does the Western relationship with anime ever get deeper than ninjas and robots?
Lowenthal: That's one of the things I love about coming to conventions, is that you get to connect with the fans. It's one thing to get in the booth and go, "OK, here's a job we're doing as actors and we want to portray these characters."
But when you go to a convention and somebody comes up and says, "Hey, I came across “Naruto” in a really dark place in my life and I was thinking of killing myself, and your character Sasuke deals with a lot of darkness, and it hit me at just the right time. And I thought, wow, you can find a way to live with that and soldier on, and I decided not to kill myself," you can't just go, "Oh, awesome! Great! yeah, congratulations!" I mean, you gotta go up and give that person a hug and go back and think.
Because sometimes at the end of the day, as an actor, I go, "Yeah, but am I building hospitals in Africa or am I changing the world?" I may not be changing the world, and I do believe there is a value to entertainment, but then every now and then somebody tells you that. And it makes it OK that I do what I do. And if I met that one person, hopefully that means that there are ten more people like that, and all of a sudden it makes me feel a lot more energized and not so superficial and narcissistic about this process.
Anime reflects whatever's going on in your life. You can find things in cartoons whether they're Japanese or they're “Ben 10.” You can find it watching “Batman,” or “Animaniacs.” Sci-fi deals with those big, heavy issues but couches it under colons or whatever, and all of the sudden people are like, "this is really great story telling, it's so dramatic and they're telling current political stories under the guise of sci-fi." And animation. That's one of the reasons why I think this is so powerful. A story telling device teaches. I hate to say it that way, because kids tune out. I don't teach on purpose but I'm glad that it happens sometimes.
CNN: So. Vampires or zombies, and why?
Lowenthal: Aw, you're killing me! Vampires or zombies?? (sigh) Zombies. Because you simply hit them in the head and they're dead. But vampires are sexy. I grew up with both of them, they go back and forth, it's like a wave. Vampires are hot! Zombies are hot! Vampires are hot! The beauty of them, much like their undead reality, is they keep coming back!
There's something about those elemental characters that can always reflect something going on in life now, whether it's corporate blood suckery or the mindless media masses. Let me put it this way: if it was the apocalypse, which I not only hope for, as an apocanerd, I think I'd rather have zombies than vampires, if I were fighting them. What's embarrassing is, I've thought a lot about it.
It's a commitment to my imagination in that every building I walk into, I subconsciously assess for zombie defensibility. In the event of. As if it were going to happen. Is this a good place? Would I want to find a different place? Why do we do that?!