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Indie Spotlight: An Interview with SXSW Special Jury Award Winning Short Film ‘The Voice Actress’ Writer-Director Anna J. Takayama

'The Voice Actress' writer-director Anna J. Takayama shares with Script her personal connection to the story and world, the passion behind bringing this story to life as a beautiful homage to her mother who is a master of her craft, the attention to detail that she poignantly crafted, and her filmmaking journey.

Kingyo, a veteran voice actress working in Tokyo, possesses a unique ability to see the soul in all things, living and inanimate. The voice acting world is changing and she must find a way to reconcile her way of living with the modern industry. As Kingyo prepares for an upcoming audition, she seeks inspiration from the world around her and from her pet goldfish, Asatte. In the face of professional and personal adversity, Kingyo looks decidedly inward for strength through empathy and kindness.

The Voice Actress is a touching and poetic inside look in the life of a professional Japanese voice actress, who is feeling seemingly on the outside and disconnected as the industry around her not so subtly has cast her aside. Writer and director Anna J. Takayama delicately and personally explores the inner sense of loss of self, grief, and renewal in this short film which had its world premiere at SXSW 2022 and took home the Special Jury Award in the Narrative Shorts competition. 

I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Anna about her personal connection to the story and world, the passion behind bringing this story to life as a beautiful homage to her mother who is a master of her craft, the attention to detail that she poignantly crafted, and her filmmaking journey. 

Urara Takano as Kingyo in The Voice Actress. Courtesy Anna J. Takayama.

Urara Takano as Kingyo in The Voice Actress. Courtesy Anna J. Takayama.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Where did this story idea come from for you?

Anna J. Takayama: So, the actress in the film Kingyo is actually my mom.

Sadie: No way! She’s phenomenal.

Anna: Yeah, so my mom's actually been a voice actress in Japan for about 30 years. And I always knew I wanted to document her work. It's just such a niche world and it's so unique. And my mom used to have a nickname, which is goldfish in Japanese Kingyo, and she told me that she got this nickname because she had this strange dream of flying goldfish. And so that kind of inspired me for that kite scene, that was the first scene that I came up with. And then I was building on that a little bit. That's kind of the conception of the beginning of the story and how it happened.

[L-R] Anna J. Takayama and Urara Takano behind the scenes of The Voice Actress. Courtesy Anna J. Takayama.

[L-R] Anna J. Takayama and Urara Takano behind the scenes of The Voice Actress. Courtesy Anna J. Takayama.

Sadie: I love that personal connection to this film. During the writing process, were you consulting with your mom about her daily routine as a voice actress and what she's observing in the voice booth, that tension, and the unknown for her?

Anna: 100% I wanted to make sure the things that were happening in front of the mic, for example, I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, although, the story is obviously fictional. I wanted there to be authenticity. And part of the story came from the fact that my mom celebrated her 60th birthday last year and she had been talking to me about how the industry is really changing, it's getting younger, and I think sometimes voice actors these days even get cast based on social media, and how many followers people have, and feeling out of place sometimes for being an older voice actress. So, I wanted to incorporate that kind of feeling of being you don't belong, you're getting aged out in a way - I wanted to take that into consideration. And then with the producer's booth, even things like where each person would sit - there's usually a standard place where people would sit, so I definitely asked my mom a lot of questions - she advised on a lot of things.

Anna J. Takayama

Anna J. Takayama

Sadie: Growing up, did you ever go with her to any of these auditions or recordings?

Anna: Yeah, when my mom couldn't get my grandma to look after me, she would just bring me, and then I would sit literally in front of the glass on the other side, just watching her. Funny story, I have a little bit of experience as well, I think it was my mom's influence, but there were some auditions that came up, and there was this show - my mom does a lot of American movies and TV shows for Japanese dubbing - and there was a show called La Femme Nikita, and she was dubbing the main actress, Nikita, and there was one episode where there was this clone daughter character and they thought it would be funny if they cast me as that clone, because it was this little girl. I had like two lines, maybe. But that was kind of my first experience voice acting myself.

Sadie: Watching her from the other side of the glass, I'm thinking of that scene seeing the assistant that comes in serving tea and that awe and the respect for this artist on the other side she has.

Anna: In that scene, I was playing with the idea of the glass looking like a tank. I wanted the actors on the other side to all be wearing blueish costumes, and the walls are kind of blueish - I was playing with this idea of it looks like water on the other side. And this assistant has kind of this moment with Kingyo, kind of like when you go to an aquarium and you're looking at a tank - and I've had this experience where I feel like I have a moment with a fish. [laughs] Another reason why I chose fish is because I think I feel like dogs and cats and other mammals, they're a little bit easier to relate with, but fish live in this completely different environment, so it feels like it would be really difficult to relate with them. I felt like if this main character has this deep connection with a fish that kind of shows how much empathy she can have for other beings.

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Sadie: Color palettes are a big nuanced part of this film as well, from wall colors to costumes and to what she's wearing – was the motivation for her character to be very bold?

Anna: Yeah, 100%. And I love that you mentioned color, because there's a lot of intention and thought behind it. Even before the script stage, I really wanted to play with color - there's a lot of blues, reds, oranges - blue I obviously connect it with water. I think there's been this trope in cinema where blue is associated with rationality, with male energy and kind of coldness, and being analytical. And then red is usually, often used as a sign of danger, risk, and also for women. For example, a lot of Hitchcock films play with that a lot - I'm thinking about Vertigo, green is this unhealthy, sickly and again, dangerous symbol. And so, I wanted to flip that and sit and kind of end on the note of the stop sign, for example, like where you can take a breath, and it's sort of more liberation and self-acceptance. Her costume also goes from blue to red at the end. And then of course, like goldfish, there's a lot of warmth. I wanted to play with that stereotype a little bit. Orange is a really important color for Buddhism. It symbolizes enlightenment and things like that. So yeah, I wanted to kind of put an Eastern twist to it and reinterpretation of color.

Sadie: Tell us about the collaboration process with your cinematographer Conor Murphy, because your shots are so very poignant and very specific, even down to angle choices for when Kingyo is performing. Did you come in with storyboards, have movie references, and a shot list?

Anna: I knew I wanted to try and shoot on an Alexa Mini. I thought it would be awesome if I could shoot this landscape in Japan that was a little different with this camera that's not always used. So, I started a hunt for an Alexa Mini and my producer Joe [Skinner] went to Tisch and my DP also went to Tisch, so they knew each other through mutual friends. And we heard that he had an Alexa package, so we reached out to him, and told him about the story. In the beginning, it was just intended to see if we can rent his camera, but when we told him we were going to Japan, he had never been there, he was really interested. And so he was like, ‘If you're looking for a DP, I'd be interested,’ and we were like, ‘Yes, absolutely, please.’ [laughs]

[L-R] Urara Takano, Cinematographer Conor Murphy and Writer-Director Anna J. Takayama behind the scenes of The Voice Actress. Courtesy Anna J. Takayama. 

[L-R] Urara Takano, Cinematographer Conor Murphy and Writer-Director Anna J. Takayama behind the scenes of The Voice Actress. Courtesy Anna J. Takayama. 

Conor is really experienced. He shot Mickey and the Bear, which also played at South by Southwest a couple of years ago. And he's really talented in terms of storyboarding, as well. We had a couple of sessions where we sat down, we went through the script, and instinctively he has these ideas about blocking and what might be a good idea in terms of shots. There were certain shots that I knew, for example, the yellow tiles with the umbrella and she's just poking at the yellow tiles, I knew what I wanted that to look like, or the kite scene, I knew I wanted to do a wide shot of this sprawling landscape. And then the producer’s booth, I kind of wanted it to have a newsroom, documentary feel to it. I had a script written, but I pretty much told the actors they can improvise and go with the flow. And Connor of course, doesn't speak Japanese, and I had him and our amazing AC Sunnie [Kim], who was doing the focus to follow whoever they thought would be good to follow in the moment to feel the energy. And that's how that scene was made. It was definitely super collaborative, and I was really lucky to work with an experienced DP.

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Sadie: What initially sparked your interest in wanting to become a filmmaker?

Anna: I grew up watching a lot of films and shows, partially because of my mom's work. Whenever she had a film that she had to work on, she would get a tape to practice, and I would always hear her in the other room practicing her lines. And then, of course, once the film was dubbed, we would go and watch it sometimes in movie theaters, and it had a huge impact on me. In college, I studied film studies - I watched a ton of movies. I focused on a lot of French New Wave films - watching so many back-to-back, I think that's the best way to learn. And then, I was in New York for college and there's this amazing organization called Mono No Aware led by Steve Cossman, he teaches classes on 16mm and 8mm. And he has all these different cameras, editing gear, projection setups, for celluloid filmmaking and so I took a bunch of filmmaking courses with him. And that's where I started. I was reading all these interviews with filmmakers, and a lot of people developed their filmmaking skills by shooting things on 16mm. And so, I was like, I want to go on the same journey with them - and I became really obsessed with this one camera called the Bolex camera. I love the fact that it doesn't use electricity. It's kind of like this bicycle in a way - you hand crank it. I think it's so cool that you have this analog machine. That's kind of how it all started, was with 16mm filmmaking.

The other thing is when you shoot on film, you learn to be a little bit more efficient, because you have a limited amount of film. With this project, I started writing the script, and I kind of wanted to shoot on film partially, which is also why I picked the Alexa Mini because I think you can kind of replicate a lot of those textures. It was an international shoot, there was way too much risk and it was kind of my first foray into shooting a film with a whole crew.

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Sadie: Yeah, there's something about like that hands-on celluloid filmmaking. The Alexa certainly offers those similar textures. However, shooting on film is not as time-efficient whereas you get some more leeway with digital.

Anna: Yeah, for sure. And a lot of my crew came from New York. So, we flew a lot of the gear from New York to Japan, which wouldn't have been possible during the pandemic - we shot this in July of 2019 - it's been kind of a long journey. But we were really lucky to be able to do it right before the pandemic when there was no quarantine or restrictions.

Sadie: Wow, you shot this film just in time. I was wondering how you were able to get all of those people safely into the producer’s booth and studio?

Anna: That’s a really good point, too, because I think these days with voice acting, my mom keeps telling me that they don't record like that anymore. That was the standard way they record voices in Japan, you usually have the loop group style, where you have a group of people in one booth. The way you see it in the film is usually the way you would record voices. But now with the pandemic, I think it's been similar to the American style of recording where it's one person, or maybe a couple. My mom has expressed feeling a little bittersweet or a little sad that she's not able to act with a lot of the actors, because I think that's one of the things she really enjoys is feeling the energy of the other actors and responding to the way they say their lines and the way they're acting.

Sadie: Right. Regarding editing, was the decision of you editing more of logistical reasoning because you already had a clear picture of the layout of the film?

Anna: I've always loved the process of editing. In my nine-to-five job, I work in post-production, so I wanted to give it a shot and try it out. And of course, I had a lot of people helping me like my producer, Joe, who had all this knowledge and all these skills too. But I was pretty set, because this is such a personal story, too. And it's about my mom and of course, the lines are in Japanese, so I felt like I wanted to give it a try.

I will say, from script to the edit, there were all these other shots that I really loved, but I realized like, with the short film form, it's important to simplify and figure out the core message of your story. It was a whole process of eliminating what's extraneous, what's needed for the story. And then what are the things that might not be needed? That was a painful process. [laughs] And then the other thing is with a short film like this, it's not like you have a deadline, necessarily - you don't have someone looking over your shoulder saying, ‘When are you going to be done with this? You have to deliver X, Y, and Z by this day.’ I was really able to take my time with it and step away from it. There was like a month or two where I just didn't look at it, because I had lost a sense of objectivity. And then I came back to it with a renewed sense of distance and was able to make better decisions. That was really key. And that was a luxury that we had, I think because it was more of a passion project.

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Sadie: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the poem that she recites at the end of the film. What was the personal connection for you to this poem and why was it important for you to put it in this film?

Anna: Nobody’s ever asked me that before. That poem is really famous in Japan. That message has always resonated with me, I think there's something deeply culturally Japanese about the poem. I had heard of it from my grandfather, who used to be a teacher in Japan. The message of it just resonated with me a lot. I think it describes strength, but also kindness and being humble. But that mix of being humble and modest, but also in this very strong way. I felt like that was the message I wanted to express in this movie, and it just felt like the perfect thing. And so the poet's name is Kenji Miyazawa and he wrote this poem, I think, really close to right before he passed. And they found it posthumously in his notebook. And he's a writer that my mom really loves as well. It just clicked. He was a Buddhist monk and a poet. And there are elements of Buddhism in my movie. It just seemed like the perfect fit.

The Voice Actress will be playing at these upcoming film festivals:

Lighthouse International Film Festival (Long Beach Island, NJ): 6/2/2022 - 6/5/2022

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia (Tokyo, Japan): 6/7/2022 - 6/20/2022


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