First published in Newtype USA.

A Bouquet For Kanuka


Her real name was Yumi Urushikawa and she wanted to be an actress. Born in 1946, she was only nineteen years old when she joined one of the best-known talent houses in the business. She took the stage-name Yö Inoue, and her unique talent lay in her voice. Yumi could go deeper than most other actresses - it meant that she could play certain male parts as well as female ones - she got to be Manabu in Dartanius, and the pretty-boy bad-guy Gepelnich in Macross 7. And when she played a woman, she often snagged the bad-girl parts. She played the slightly unhinged Ran in Urusei Yatsura, and for an entire generation of viewers she was Sayla Mass in Gundam. But Yumi was always a bridesmaid, never the bride - Japanese producers' eternal obsession with the timid, unthreatening, childish voices for a female lead, meant that Yumi hardly ever got to do romance or appear in a long-running series. Instead, she embraced her fate, and became one of the toughest anime women around.

I first heard her voice in Patlabor, when she cut a swathe through the cast as Kanuka Clancy - a name that could be translated as Fragrant Heartfelt Flowers. A relatively minor role in the original manga, Kanuka stayed for much of the anime remake, as she was too good a character to waste. An American-born Japanese with a strange accent and an imperious contempt of her co-workers, Kanuka knew she was good and wanted to make sure everyone else did, too. In a workplace drama that glorified teamwork and camaraderie, she railed against Japanese sentimentality and bureaucracy. They didn't like what she said, but what irked them most was that she was normally right. Kanuka was a mandatory inclusion in the first Patlabor movie, and audiences cheered when she was seen getting back off the plane from New York and standing impatiently in front of a Japanese customs officer.

"Business or pleasure?" he says.

"Combat," she replies.

I suppose it's one of those things that tells you anime is starting to take you over, when you start recognising individual voice actors. When you find yourself saying "My, isn't that Nozomu Sasaki I hear?" it's probably time you had a break. Either that, or make sure such observations are how you make your living, because people will just stare at you in a cinema otherwise. Despite advanced training that gives them ability to alter their voices and maintain them over long recording sessions, they always resort to their natural setting for longer roles. They don't have any choice - you might think you can impersonate Excel or Akira's General for a line or two, but do you think you could do it for two days.. three… an entire series, of multiple takes in the studio? And when you hear the actors playing themselves, it's like meeting an old friend.

The Anime Encyclopedia has neither the time nor space for actors - doing them justice would have required several hundred more pages simply to list them show-by-show. But there were a handful of voice actors who somehow still sneaked in - people who my co-author and I could not resist mentioning, people whose work we had come to know and love in the course of countless hours of anime viewing. Yumi Urushikawa, a.k.a. "Yö Inoue" was one of them, not for her role in Patlabor, but for a miniscule bit-part in Domain of Murder, where she plays a bar-girl past her prime. With only a few words, she conveyed a woman who knew the good days were behind her, a voice resonant with the comfort of whisky and cigarettes, but a mind sharp enough to sniff out a cop on her premises. Realising that her latest customer is in search of information, her Japanese switches from friendly flirtation to icy politeness - the interview is over, and she has shown him the door without lifting a finger.

In anime and audio, an actress's voice is unquestionably her greatest asset - there is literally nothing else by which an audience can recognise her. Voices have to be preserved and cossetted, treated with care - one day of screaming in a studio can ruin a narration job the next morning. But in 2001, it was clear that Yumi was ill. She was hospitalised in 2002, but countermeasures were not successful. Even as the Patlabor series came back in the public eye with the release of the new movie WXIII, she was rushed back into hospital, with reports of serious difficulty breathing. Her condition was clearly worsening. She died this February, aged just 56, of lung disease.

That's life. Time is short. It could happen to any of us tomorrow. But when it happened to Yumi Urushikawa, she left us with many mementoes of her career. Her friends and family said goodbye to her at a small Tokyo funeral, but for those who fell in love with her through her performing, if you seek her monument, you only have to listen.

Jonathan Clements