You might not know her name. You probably wouldn’t recognize her face. But if Ikue Otani were to speak just one simple word, you’d immediately know who she is. “Pika-CHU!” That’s right; Otani is the voice of everyone’s favorite Pokemon character, Pikachu. As one of Japan’s most in-demand seiyuu, or voice actors, Otani has brought dozens of anime characters to life.
This interview was conducted by Manga University founder Glenn Kardy in April 2004.
MANGA UNIVERSITY: How did you became a voice actress?
Ikue Otani: At first, I tried to get into theater. I found plenty of places to practice, but not enough jobs. I took a weeklong course in voice acting, and that was the first time I really considered it. Like so many people, I had this misconception that voice acting was different from regular acting. When I realized this wasn’t true, I began to work at it more.
When I got to my first voice audition, I realized we didn’t have much of a choice, as the management companies choose whom they send to each audition.
My debut was on Ganbare, Kickers, an anime series about soccer. I auditioned for the role of one of the boys, and I got the part. It made me realize that if I couldn’t act with just my voice, there was no way that I could ever become a stage actor. So I decided to pursue voice acting. The only difference is whether the audience sees me, or just hears my voice, so to me it's the same thing. I have to learn and study the same way stage actors do.
Could you tell us about some of the roles that you’ve had before becoming the voice of Pikachu?
I’ve had several; so many, in fact, that I’ve forgotten some of them! The most memorable one is hard to pinpoint. The talent agency that helped me get the job on Ganbare, Kickers also did a lot of voiceover work on American television programs being broadcast in Japan, and I got some jobs that way as well. For instance, I worked on Family Ties, a U.S. sitcom starring Michael J. Fox. I was the voice of his brother, Andy. Basically, because of my (high-pitched) voice, I did a lot of young kids, from babies to boys and girls around 11 years old. In fact, the only time I haven’t done the voice of a child was on an anime series for girls called Himechan no Ribbon. Oh, and I also did an adult voice on the Japanese dubbing of the American TV show Dallas. But most of my parts have been as the voice of children.
And how did you get the role of Pikachu?
Well, I was invited to an audition, and there many other voice actors there as well. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, the Pokemon Gameboy games were already big hits in Japan. I didn’t have a clue! There were Pokemon posters all over the room at the audition, and production officials were telling me that the characters were really popular among kids. All I could say was, “Oh, really?” The other voice actors auditioning for the roles had the same reaction. None of us knew how popular these characters really were!
But even the production side wasn’t really sure how they would depict these characters in an animated series. At first, they thought the monsters would be learn how to speak. So, in the beginning, Pikachu would only say its name, but eventually it would start speaking Japanese. They eventually changed their minds on that, though, and most of the Pokemon only speak their names.
Were you auditioning specifically for the role of Pikachu?
The producers called me in for Pikachu, but there was a misunderstanding and I thought I was there to audition for Nyasu (Meowth), so that’s the script I had with me. There were many other people auditioning for other parts. So when they called for Pikachu, all the people with Pikachu scripts went over. I didn’t go because I didn’t have the script. Then, someone came over and told me to come, but I said I wasn’t there for Pikachu. He said, “Yes you are.” (Laughs)
How many different ways have you learned to say “Pikachu?”
I really don’t know. It’s tricky, because a voice actor has to make whatever is spoken match the way the character’s mouth moves on the screen. Of course, it also depends on the situation in which the character is speaking (happy, sad, excited, frightened, etc.). “Pika chu!” “Pi-ka...” “Pika-CHU!”
So you don’t receive a script, but decide what to say only after seeing the animation?
No, the role is scripted, but the mouth movements may be a little different from what’s written in the scrip. So for example, if Pikachu wants to say something like “Yatte yaroze” (“Let’s do it!”), I would say “Pika-pika-chu!”
Do you have a favorite way of saying it?
There’s one sound that I don’t use too much. In the very beginning, there was a scene where Pikachu yawned. But there’s no yawn sound within the “Pikachu” sound. So instead of using “chu,” I made this yawning sound at the end. It’s also a sound Pikachu makes when it wants to get a little attention. It’s a sound Pikachu doesn’t make very often, and that’s why it’s special to me.
Do you ever randomly say “Pikachu” when you’re by yourself at home?
Um, not really all of a sudden, But yeah, sometimes it does just come out! (Laughs)
So you’ll be at home, washing dishes or something, and the sound “Pikachu” just pops out?
No, not that like! (Laughs) Here’s a funny example, though. I was the voice of a baby on an anime series called Ojamajo Doremi, about four girls who have magical powers. The baby really loves the girls, and wants to be with them when they are doing their magic. I had to make a sound that would convey that message. And as I thought of what sound to make, I said “Pi!” just like Pikachu would. It just sort of slipped out!
The names of some Pokemon characters are different from one country to the next. For example, the character known as Squirtle in North America is called Zenigame in Japan. However, Pikachu’s name is universal. So, your voice is used for the character worldwide. That makes you possibly the most famous voice actress in the world. Anywhere you go, you can make the “Pikachu” sound, and someone will know who you are. How does that make you feel?
It’s really amazing. I went to New York around the time the series started in the United States, and was so surprised by the reception. I had no idea...
And those talking Pikachu toys, is that your voice as well?
Yes. No one else has ever done the voice of the Pikachu owned by Satoshi (Ash). There are other Pikachus owned by other trainers, and other actors do the voices of those.
Any chance we’ll ever hear Pikachu speak a whole sentence?
As I’ve mentioned, Pikachu was supposed to learn a language, like a baby learns a language, and that’s the way I was doing it at first. Then, a few months later, the producers told me Pikachu wasn’t going to speak. At the time, I was disappointed. But because Pikachu doesn’t speak Japanese, children all over the world can hear my voice. So it turned out OK. I’ve since given up any dream of Pikachu ever learning or speaking Japanese.
Why do you think Pikachu is so popular with young people?
I think it’s like being the owner of a pet dog; you’re always wondering what your dog is thinking, but you also believe that you understand your dog better than anyone else could ever hope to understand it. You can tell its thoughts just by looking at its face or how it is behaving. Whether it’s hungry, happy or sad. That’s exactly how Satoshi and Pikachu communicate. Because Pikachu can’t say anything other than its name, the audience has to think about what the “Pikachu” noises mean and learn to understand the character. Ultimately, I think kids feel like they are Pikachu’s owner.
Is Pikachu a he or a she?
When the first game came out, the Pokemon were neither male nor female. But by the second version, some Pokemon were male, others female. But in the second series, in the game, some were boys and some were girls. To me, they’re neither. But the production staff thought that Pikachu should be a boy, because if he were a girl, it could change the relationship between Pikachu and Satoshi. I didn’t totally agree with that, so for the English version, I suggested that Pikachu be made an “it” rather than a “he” or “she.” Then, the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t like hearing Pikachu referred to as an “it.”
Do you ever get tired of doing Pikachu?
Not at all. I just need to be careful not to think of Pikachu as just a sound. I could still make it work, and voice out what he’s saying, but as someone who chose the art of expression for her career, I really want to make sure that I get into the character of Pikachu.
It seems as though it may actually be more difficult doing a character who only says one word compared to say, Satoshi, who can speak a language.
You’re absolutely right. It’s very difficult. Sometimes, we have to take on two roles in Pokemon. So in one episode, I sometimes play Pikachu as well as a human character, and that’s when I realize how easy it is to express something in full sentences rather than just sounds.
Are you sometimes envious of the other voice actors (who voice human characters) because they have it a little easier?
Well, it’s not necessarily easier for them. I do, however, feel envious at times, because the human characters have personalities and backgrounds upon which the roles can be developed.
Do you provide the voices for any other Pokemon?
Yes. The first one I did was Tosakinto (Goldeen), the very sexy goldfish. Then, I did Saniigo (Corsola) and Nazonokusa (Oddish)—there are a lot of those Pokemon, so many other voice actors have done them as well, but I was the first.
What’s the funniest question anyone has ever asked you about your role as Pikachu?
Your question, when you asked me a few minutes ago if I ever get tired of being Pikachu! That was an interesting question, because there really are times when I want to take a vacation and get away from it all. But since the show is weekly, I have to be in the studio every week, so I can never take a long vacation.
Do you love Pikachu?
Absolutely. I love Pikachu.
This interview is one in a series conducted by Glenn Kardy for the Tokyo Foundation's "Super Cool" manga-and-anime project. In 2004, the foundation embarked on an ambitious plan to involve universities, high schools, arts programs, community groups and media throughout the world in the study and analysis of Japanese manga and anime. Glenn Kardy, a longtime journalist, is the president and CEO of Japanime Publishing in Kawaguchi City, Japan.