Thursday, December 17, 2020

The 3 Years I Spent Recording Shenmue at SEGA: Susumu Aketagawa | Translation

This is a translation of an interview published by Japanese website Anime Hack in 2019, in which sound director Susumu Aketagawa talks about his time spent at SEGA during the creation of the original Shenmue games.

Susumu Aketagawa in 1999 directing a voice recording for Shenmue

About Susumu Aketagawa

Susumu Aketagawa is the president of the company Magic Capsule and a director of the Japan Audio Producers' Association. He has been involved in the field of sound since the dawn of Japanese animation, and his works as a sound director include Princess Knight, AKIRA, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Mistin (Kasumin) and many others.

The 3 Years I Spent Recording Shenmue at SEGA

I was working on several games, but the one I was most involved with was the Sega Shenmue series (Shenmue: Chapter 1: Yokosuka and Shenmue II). I was in charge of some casting and dubbing direction, and although I wasn't involved in the music or sound effects, it was an interesting job, recorded in a completely different way than my animation work.

Shenmue became a topic of conversation due to its huge budget and large-scale production, but the method of voice recording was also very different from usual. For about three years I went in to Sega's studio in Haneda, Tokyo, for three days a week to record from about 10 a.m. until evening. As well as being used in the game, the recordings made were also useful during the game's creation.

Until I got involved, they had been recording test voices in-house to serve as a guide for movement of the CG models, but when it was time to start casting, they asked me if I could help them, as they couldn't do it all internally. At first, I thought it was going to be a normal game recording, but as soon as I got involved in it, I realized that this was a project that I would have to put a lot of effort into, so I decided to ask the head of our production staff to start working at Sega. Otherwise, I knew I wouldn't be able to communicate well with the game staff who were in-house at all times. The situation was changing constantly, you see, even on days when I wasn't at the studio.

In the beginning, the recordings weren't the final performances, but instead we had various people perform for us, rather like a study session. The purpose was to let them get used to the experience of voice acting. It wasn't like a normal animation recording where the times or roles were all planned out first, but rather in many cases we cast the actors on the spot, and since the actors were not always certain about the role, on occasion they didn't take it seriously enough and the result didn't turn out well. Some of the voice actors who usually work in anime were flummoxed by this approach.

Based on the provisional voice audio we had recorded, CG for the movement was created and when that was completed, we started recording in earnest. But the hardware was changed from the Sega Saturn to the Dreamcast in the middle of the game, and so we had to re-record the same thing again from the beginning. In addition, we were often asked to record the same lines again, while small corrections were taken care of by someone in-house I think.

Voice actor Hazuki Ishigaki recording Shenhua's recital of the prophecy in 1999 as Yu Suzuki watches on (NHK's "Making Of" video)

Aketagawa directing the recording session.

I only directed the recording for voices, and left it to the game staff to decide how to match the music and sound effects to the dialogue. That left some parts that I couldn't fully digest, and I didn't have a complete grasp of the flow of the story. There were times when I was handed a fragment of script and was told, "Please just record this for today," and there were times when I was recording without fully understanding the flow of the whole story. I suspect that the same thing happened on the game [development] side, but I got the impression that there was a lot of trial and error, where they would gracefully stop what they were doing halfway through and go in another direction. As a result, I wasn't really able to say definitively "Please say the lines like this". I think I often recorded with a nuance that allowed for a variety of options and left it up to the imagination of the game players.

Compared to anime or film, where you have a limited time to record from a fixed script, it was a very unpredictable project, but I thought it was very interesting work. It was very different from the way I had been recording games until that point, and I wanted to experience this kind of work at least once. However, it was quite difficult to keep going there for three years, and I used to look forward to eating at a Japanese restaurant near the Sega offices where they served a delicious shirasu kamaage don (boiled whitebait on rice) for lunch.

"Shirasu kamaage don" (boiled whitebait on rice) with miso soup.

I don't play games myself, but I've heard that Shenmue is a precursor of the "open world" genre of games. There are just as many people in the game as there are in real life, each with moving with their own purpose. I think the fact that such a huge number of characters has been voiced in the game is thanks to three years of trial and error. As those who have played the game may know, I also appeared in the game as Susumu Aketagawa, the owner of a soba noodle shop. Initially, I was asked if I would voice myself in the game, but I wasn't willing to go that far [laughs].

Susumu Aketagawa's same-named counterpart in Shenmue, the owner of Yamaji Soba Noodle restaurant.

This topic was selected by the Phantom River Stone blog patrons via our monthly poll on Patreon and available to all patrons for early access.
  • Source: Anime Hack interview series with Susumu Aketagawa Part 21 (Japanese).
Next time: Aketagawa talks about the casting of some Shenmue's main characters.
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