When it comes to the aspect of characterization, its construction is usually attributed to how the characters are written; what their dialogues contain, and how they work relative to their stories, as well as other characters’. However, what’s truly intriguing (and something I only recently discovered myself) is just how important, if not equally so, voice-acting is in creating identities and distinctiveness. It is the flavoring that provides zest to a character’s personality, enhancing their inherent qualities and elevating them into individuals that can be more relatable, interesting, more enjoyable to watch on-screen, or a combination of all three.
While not necessarily the most foreign concept in the community, dialogue delivery being a solid factor in character-building is a concept where discourse is sparse. Granted, this could be attributed to the fact that the number of shows with performances that are especially note-worthy in terms of characterization are either minute or rather obscure, but I digress. In any case, the purpose of this piece is to provide my two-cents on the role that dialogue delivery plays in crafting believable characters, grounded scenarios, and captivating interactions and dynamics, and how it transcends what the written word can do.
Prelude: Dialogue “Deliverance” in Shadows of Valentia
To begin, I’d like to provide an example that was more or less the main progenitor for this topic: Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. The most recent inclusion into the now-popularized franchise (though a remake of the 1992 Fire Emblem Gaiden), Shadows of Valentia boasts, among multiple other features, full voice acting for the huge majority of its cast. This, in my opinion, is what sets the game apart from its two predecessors (Awakening & Fates) in terms of characters. Comparing Shadows of Valentia to the two aforementioned entries is an example of how voice-acting (the mere addition of it) can develop more tangible personas from the get-go. The first time we see Alm and co., we are already shown, through their dialogue, their traits and how each of them interact with one another. As opposed to simply reading the dialogue on-screen (akin to reading a script, more or less), the addition of voice-acting throughout the conversations strike a more concrete chord that allows us to both relate and understand these characters, both as individuals and as a dynamic group, at a much quicker rate. Whether or not you’ve grown an attachment to any of the characters is, naturally, a bias that differs from one to another, but what is undeniable is the additional layer voice-acting brings to the table when it comes to understanding the cast’s own personalities.
From Gray’s carefree nonchalance, to Kliff’s pragmatic maturity, their dialogues not only make it so their qualities and idiosyncrasies are well-established, it also (more importantly) crafts them as real, autonomous people, not characters simply shackled to their archetypes. Even Alm & Celica, in contrast to the previous protagonists, are given more grounded personalities not only due to the writing assigned to their characters, but also with how their lines are delivered with both genuine emotion and a tinge of wit. A primary factor in my overall enjoyment thus far, the vocal performances were not only generously pervasive, but enjoyable to listen to as well. The mere addition of voice-acting manages to elevate both the experience with the game itself as well as my level of investment with regards to the characters, as it provided an extra dimension to the writing as well as with how it made them feel more organic rather than artificially synthesized.
In the same vein as how Shadows of Valentia’s voice-acting heightens its own interesting cast, I’d like to reference two anime that take advantage of the added layer of nuance that dialogue delivery can provide: Bakemonogatari, which highlights striking character interactions, and Sound Euphonium, which boasts some of the most evocative character moments in recent anime history. Both series supplement their already strong writing with stellar vocal performances, providing certain scenes with stronger dynamics and a sense of gravitas.
Bakemonogatari & Witty Banter
A feature of a lot of TV shows, more notably British serials, witty back-and-forths are a more natural method of enunciating conversations without sounding robotic or overtly scripted. The pace in which the retorts are uttered are generally faster, allowing for instantaneous remarks that sound more genuine and (oftentimes) clever due to how in-the-moment they are. Akiyuki Shinbo’s 2009 cult hit Bakemonogatari is a show with an abundance of dialogue, and while many are split as to whether or not all of them are justifiable, there are instances where the dialogue does legitimately become enthralling, in terms of how its delivery is both authentic and saturated with character.
Take this scene for instance:
Even with the viewer having limited/zero knowledge of Bakemonogatari, the dialogue in this sequence is laid out in a way that it quite literally speaks for what these character’s personalities are and their relationship with each other. Granted, the stellar direction is also a major factor in creating dynamics between both Araragi and Senjougahara, but there is a certain charm to the way they talk that also provide insight on their emotions at the moment. Chiwa Saitou’s use of a serene but engagingly condescending tone for Senjougahara bounces well with Hiroshi Kamiya’s matter-of-factly but awkward portrayal of Araragi, creating an air of familiarity between them. Saitou’s monotone-esque delivery also plays with the punchline of the “confession”, sounding like a powerful , climatic statement that turned out to be something more innocent. Kamiya’s inner monologues also play to the comedic aspect of the scene, playing off of Senjougahara’s aforementioned monotone-esque remarks with increasing frustration. Between that and how Saitou brands her performance with her own form of dry wit, this scene provides a solid back-and-forth that quite frankly makes the scene all the more enjoyable and insightful to each of their traits, proving how dialogue-delivery gives color to a conversation.
How Warm is the Sound of Wanting to Improve: Sound Euphonium & Character Growth and Expression
Writing, among other aspects, generates character. What a character says reflects how they feel, and vice versa. On that note, voice-acting can grant further emphasis and, in some cases, improves on the writing by grounding it to a more realistic portrayal, giving the moment a greater sense of weight and importance.
This is one of the concepts that makes Sound Euphonium’s Kumiko Oumae such a relatable and profound character. Her development throughout the series was subtle but substantial, the subtlety only aiding in the character’s realism, and Tomoyo Kurosawa’s stunning portrayal of her brings out the many colors of the young euphonium-player’s emotions.
And while there are a multitude of moments that we could point fingers at if we wanted a case in point of how much life Kurosawa’s voice-acting brings, there is one scene that undoubtedly drives the idea home:
Kumiko’s emotional breakdown in the 12th episode of the first season is a poignant look into a very palpable emotion. While the Kumiko we’ve seen up until this point was a character who feigns an amiable atmosphere around unfamiliar faces while showing cynical indifference to those she already knows, this moment presents a character displaying a rather vulnerable state: being completely frustrated with oneself, longing desperately for self-improvement.
There are multiple aspects to this scene that make it work, but amongst those aspects, Kurosawa’s voice-acting strikes out as one of the focal-points that give the scene its gravitas. The painfully escalating expression in her repeated utterance of “I want to improve” shows a character at the tipping-point of her dismay, leading to the loudest notch where she literally screams out her frustration. Her silly but nonetheless weighty back-and-forth with Shuichi (with both stating how much they want to one-up the other in terms of improvement) further enunciates the idea that Kumiko will not stand down to anyone who would oppose her goal of being better than everybody else. Finally, what I consider to be the apex of the scene: when she finally admits to being utterly upset and finally empathizes with the idea of failing at something she has put her blood, sweat, and tears into.
Kurosawa’s performance accomplishes a set-up that feels justified and not at all over-dramatized; you get a sense of Kumiko’s immense dissatisfaction with herself and her desire to be better. Additionally, her natural vocal articulations create a sense of realism and authenticity to the emotion; more specifically the inflections on the “I want to improve” sequence, with her tone and volume both increasing in intensity relative to Kumiko’s heightening expression of her frustration, compounding into a crescendo of emotion. Culminating in a more quiet, but equally as profound, moment when she completely breaks down and lets her emotions free, we see the snarky indifferent Kumiko finally letting her guise down; a vital moment for the character, and Kurosawa must be given major props for being able to portray such a substantial scene with emotions that mirror the intended feelings.
During her Q&A panel at Anime North 2017, I was lucky enough to ask Kurosawa-san what was the direction like during this scene, seeing as it is a vital moment in the show. Essentially, she stated that all Yamada told her was to be herself and to perform the scene as if she was in the exact moment. She didn’t provide any specific detail on how to approach the scene, just to do it naturally, what she would do if she was in Kumiko’s shoes. This, I believe, is the major factor as to why this scene was so profoundly natural in its execution, why it doesn’t give off the idea that it is overdramatized, and why the emotions portrayed felt concrete, sincere, and very, very human. The vividness of her performance harmonized with the vividness of Kumiko’s own emotions, creating a state of equivalence in which the emotions transcend the written word.
And, in summation, I feel like that is what voice-acting should strive to become: an aspect that transcends the written word, not just compliment its existence. Naturally, performances vary and directions for any given scene will differ depending on the situation, but seeing examples like the ones referenced truly support the notion that dialogue-delivery can be something more than just an aspect shackled to its writing. It is, in and of itself, an art form, one that is an influential factor in crafting characters beyond just the initial concepts of their personas. Despite being rather unsung, voice-acting can speak louder than mere words, and if spoken loud enough, can reach heights not known possible.
(For additional tidbits about the aforementioned Tomoyo Kurosawa Q&A panel, check out the thread I made on Twitter)