Maaya Sakamoto recounts 15 years since her debut
First solo performance at the Budōkan on her 30th birthday
Maaya Sakamoto will soon reach her 15th year since making her music debut. With her newest song “Magic Number” flying off store shelves, of late she has played countless voice roles in popular animations, to include last year’s headliner “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance”. In the theater, she has exhibited her talents in many venues over the last seven years, such as on the stage of the musical “Les Misérables”. She has announced a best-hits album for release on March 31, her 30th birthday, and on the same day will put on her first solo concert at the Budōkan.
With the plentiful events of this momentous date ahead of her, Ms. Sakamoto revealed to us that until recently she actually approached concerts with fear, and worried that she might not be cut out to be a voice actress.
“In a concert setting you can’t hide anything. It was frightening.”
Since setting out as a singer she has had a hand in writing lyrics. Her 15 years of work in music and lyrics, which began in her high school years at 16, has been “a time that has saved me.”
“Writing lyrics is how I give the vagueness inside me a form for the first time. It was the only tool I had to connect my inner self with the world around me. Had I not had this way to express myself in my adolescence, I wonder how else I would have discovered my individuality. I was able to sort out my thoughts, as well as show people who I am inside. It’s been like that ever since, and still is today.”
Her first solo Budōkan performance is days away. Its popularity made it an immediate sellout, but in a concert DVD released last year, she confesses that she in fact was afraid of and uncomfortable with concerts. That year’s tour across the country brought a significant change in her perspective.
“In my heart I love music and singing, but standing up in front of a crowd is an entirely different issue. I struggled with picturing how to express myself in concerts, and I was afraid in the sense of not knowing what I should do. Although maybe I should have just gone with a concert where I have a detailed plan for what I would say for my speeches, the choreography, where I would stand, and the cute outfits I would change into, and then do everything by the script (laugh). But my idea of a music concert doesn’t look like that. I think it’s a setting where everything inside you is on display and can’t be masked. That’s why it challenges you as to whether and how much you’re prepared to accept who you are and put yourself out there. It took me a very long time to reach that point. Last year, for whatever reason I had a strange suspicion that the timing was right, and I planned a tour across Japan. But I was still afraid, so much that I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t enjoy this tour, I’ll give up on concerts.’ But the moment it ended was such a life-changing turning point that I was already talking with the staff about the next concert.”
In that packed concert hall, amid the warm applause and cheers of the audience, something had changed.
“I think I used to feel a lot of pressure [when faced] with a crowd. I’m always lacking self-confidence, and I had this idea that an artist has to be polished and on a level beyond other people. It was kind of like, ‘I’m a really average person, so how do I handle people thinking I’m some sort of angel?’ (laugh). But accepting myself with all my plainness in my own heart was the most crucial thing, and it didn’t matter if there was a large crowd [in the audience]. Now I think that’s all there was to it.
“To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible for the fear and unease to completely disappear, since I’m human. I feel pressured by the next concert at the Budōkan, and since my last concert went as I expected I have high hopes, and I’m raising the bar for myself. There’s that kind of fear, but actually it probably has to be that way (laugh). It’s not an unfathomable fear like last time, but I feel it’s a nervousness that comes from being able to focus on many things on my own.”
A “place to belong” found while traveling alone through Europe
Having conquered her aversion to concerts, following this tour Ms. Sakamoto somehow arranged a vacation over May and June into her busy schedule and set out for Europe. Her solo trip by train included stops in Paris, Vienna, and several cities in Italy over the five weeks she spent in eight countries. It was a journey of abundant inspiration for Ms. Sakamoto. “everywhere”, the first song she composed herself, had its beginnings in her travels.
“It was a trip that came from a longing for a place that fit me, and I thought I might just find some special town where I can say, ‘This is it!’ But the more I walked, for some reason the less I thought of that……. I have a tendency to count what’s missing, but this trip actually opened my eyes to just how much I already have. Being alone made me notice shades of emotion in the people around me and made me feel closer to my family. It gave me an acute sense of how precious everyday things are to me. And I started to think that the place where I belong isn’t a particular location, but that it could be anywhere. As I traveled, I started to feel as though for me, every country was joined together. So it’s ‘everywhere’ in the sense that every place is a place I can call my home, and a place I can call my destination.
“The song came to me when I was staying in a sort of guest house in the outskirts of Rome, Italy. It was in the mountains, and one quiet evening as I was playing around on the piano the melody jumped out at me, and that tune I rushed to capture on my voice recorder was the beginning of the song. The owner had asked me to watch the house with his 19-year-old dog. Although he was a very old dog with a strange cough that never went away, while I played the piano he never left his spot by my feet. I kind of think he was the reason [the song] just appeared like that. I felt sorry for him, but he had a peaceful look, and I imagine he had been raised in a loving home. If life is a journey, then I suppose he’s likely not far from the end of his travels, and the end of his life. That much is clear, but if this dog, who has been loved this much, were me, what would I want to say? When I asked myself this, the words I thought of were, ‘It’s not as though I’m going very far away.’ Life and death always come as a pair, and I think you have to take them together. When he looks at the worried face of his owner, I’m sure he’d want to say, ‘I’m not going far away; my feelings will never leave your side.’ ……The song came from the intermingling of these various kinds of ideas.”
Her motivation for choosing “Gift” as the title of her Budōkan concert draws from the ideas found on her travels.
“The Budōkan concert is an extremely important day for me out of the 365 days in the year, but it doesn’t change the fact that tomorrow and the day after are also extremely important. In that sense, it’s like tying a bow on everything taken for granted……that’s the idea. I don’t know if I’ll be able to present this clearly in the concert, but I want to have that theme in my heart while I’m there. I hope I can convey this theme not in the sense of some specially valuable thing, but that everyday things are all gifts.”
Yōko Kanno is like “a cross between a mother and a big sister”
Since Ms. Sakamoto’s debut, the composer Yōko Kanno has forged a deep relationship with her as her producer. In 2008, their first collaboration in years on “Triangler” (opening theme to the TV animation “Macross F”) was a huge hit and reminded fans of how unstoppable is the duo of Ms. Sakamoto and Ms. Kanno.
In Ms. Sakamoto’s eyes, what kind of existence does Ms. Kanno have?
“I simply love Ms. Kanno’s music, and I think she’s the kind of person you call a genius. There’s a certain unfathomable quality to her……so I look up to her, and she’s one of my favorite artists. But since I’ve known her since my first recording session when I was 15, my impressions of her from that time stand out, and so rather than merely an artist she’s really not a mother nor an older sister, but like something in between (laugh). As a fellow woman I’ve looked to her as my mentor in life. Those nine years I spent growing up as I observed her style and the way she approached her work were huge. There were hardly any times when Ms. Kanno herself took me by the hand and said, ‘Do this, do that.’ I constantly watched her work, and that was the best way to learn. I feel the various things she pointed out to me really helped me later on in life.”
A unique sense of being as a voice and stage actress—“Les Misérables”, “Evangelion”, “Final Fantasy”……
Ms. Sakamoto began her career as a child actress. Her acting talents have since become increasingly more polished, and on the stage she has played the role of Éponine since 2003 in the musical “Les Misérables”. Her résumé also includes numerous Japanese dubs for live-action dramas, and starting in March of this year she will provide the voice for Koh Un-son (played by Han Hyo Joo) in the Korean drama “Brilliant Legacy” (on Fuji TV).
However, the work that especially widened her fan base is arguably her more than 15 years as a voice actress for animation. She has commanded lead and major roles in countless series, such as “The Vision of Escaflowne”. In last year’s film “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance”, she drew attention when she was selected for the role of Makinami Mari Illustrious, a new character key to the reconstructed story. In recent memory, the voice she gave to the gallant female character of Lightning in the massive “Final Fantasy XIII” shows confidence and poise.
This spring her appearance in much-anticipated productions continues with the part of Nino in “Arakawa Under the Bridge” (airing from April 5 at 1:35 a.m. on TV Tōkyō affiliates), the part of Akashi in “Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei” (airing in April on Fuji TV’s “Noitamina” and elsewhere), and the role of Amelia in the theatrical animation “TRIGUN Badlands Rumble” (in theaters everywhere on April 24). Even in the world of Japanese animation she could very well be called a signature voice actress with a unique sense of being.
In Ms. Sakamoto’s mind, does her creative work revolve around being a singer, or a voice actress?
“It’s all connected into one. The various roles I play feed into the lyrics I write, and the things I sing about play into my acting and stage roles. I have a sense that this reciprocal connection between everything has formed my character bit by bit, and removing any one thing would upset the balance. But when it comes to what I find exhilarating in acting, it’s that for a brief span I can enjoy a life I don’t have. I feel like the fun of acting is in those times when I recite lines I would never ever say outside the theater, and when I can live in settings inconceivable in real life. I can become someone I’m not. Music, on the other hand, gives me a sense of going deeper into myself the more I work at it. It’s the same with writing lyrics. I personally think the two balance out amazingly well.”
“Voice acting became fun just a few years ago”
With a repertoire that encompasses everything from cheerful girls to unfeeling villains, she leaves an impression of a voice actress whose talents are steadily becoming more and more spectacular. When we asked about her work as a voice actress, we received an answer we didn’t expect.
“I didn’t start to really enjoy [working as a voice actress] on a personal level until a few years ago, actually. When I was first given the heroine’s role for a TV animation I was really in over my head and didn’t come up for air until it was over. Since then I’ve had many other roles, yet all along there was this nagging feeling of not quite having a grasp on them. My thoughts were more on how difficult the work was. I actually went through a time in my career when I thought that I wasn’t cut out to be a voice actress. One day, when a kind of role I had never played before was dropped in my lap, for whatever reason I felt a tremendous freedom, and my outlook changed overnight. It was amazingly, incredibly fun. Strangely, after that I started to get roles in different productions and more and more I became able to take on new characters.”
According to Ms. Sakamoto, the turning point came when she played the role of Haruhi in the 2006 TV animation “Ouran High School Host Club”. The show aired a mere four years ago. From the average viewer’s perspective, it’s inconceivable that her work before “Ouran” was done while thinking she “wasn’t cut out to be a voice actress,” but perhaps this feeling stems from Ms. Sakamoto’s insatiable drive to perfection.
“When you compare it to dubbing [lines] for an actress in a foreign live-action movie, I think animation calls for a unique skill. But for ‘Ouran’, I acted by feel before my mind had a chance to chime in. I suppose you could say I stopped trying to fit myself into a mold. I was able to enjoy acting with a very free feeling and from my heart.”
“I actually feel like I’ve just now begun”
As a result Ms. Sakamoto has also expanded her depth as a voice actress. Having entered her 30s, one wonders what the future will bring for her development as an artist.
“My 20s were a time of challenging and exploring myself in many areas. Finishing the previous tour and releasing the ‘Windreader’ album last year when I was 29 gave me a sense of having accomplished something, and I honestly feel rather like I’ve just now begun. I have several friends in their 30s who say that everything after 30 is the most fun, and that’s what I’m anticipating. I feel like over the last half of my 20s a lot of things suddenly became fun and interesting all at once. It makes me think that everything until now was a time of gathering, and now I can finally transition to bringing that out in a form that I molded myself. In my career, I doubt anything will change radically from the way it’s been. But overall, I’ve finally caught sight of the songs I can sing and what my music is, to include the lyrics, and I want to dig even deeper into that. Rather than the idea of spreading out into some wide area, I’d like to send my roots down even further.”