Hisashi Katsuta, who died yesterday, provided one of the most recognisable voices in anime, but only came to that career after a decade in radio. He was one of the teenagers drafted to work in military factories in the last, desperate days of the Second World War, but was just young enough to avoid military service. In 1946, he began drama studies in Kamakura, and by 1948, his schooling still not completed, he was performing in Kazuo Kikuchi’s The Hill Where the Bell Tolls, a long-running melodrama about country-people struggling to cope with an influx of wartime evacuees. His most memorable early role was as Shi Jin, the “Nine-Tattooed Dragon” in the NHK radio series of The Water Margin. He spent the next six years as a contract player for NHK, before going independent in 1954 as Japanese television began to flourish, and the national broadcaster gained a vibrant set of competitors.
Although he did appear in front of the camera in numerous roles, voice work remained his primary income. As rival TV companies struggled to fill ever-expanding airtime, he found a new niche dubbing foreign television shows, starting with The Buccaneers, “starring Robert Shaw as Dan Tempest.” His dubbing work would run throughout his career, and saw him playing roles on the Japanese soundtracks of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Thunderbirds, The Professionals, The Prisoner, and two parts in ER. In the movies, he stood as the Japanese proxy for actors including Donald Pleasance and Denholm Elliott.
When The Water Margin was turned into a puppet show, he reprised his role as Shi Jin, and was hired again for the subsequent puppet version of Journey to the West, in which he played Pigsy. He was still only in his thirties in 1963 when he scored the role that would dominate his voice acting career thereafter – Professor Ochanomizu, the kindly surrogate father-figure to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. He would reprise the role in multiple outings and reboots, up to and including the 2003 remake. Other roles in anime includes stints on Speed Racer, Megazone 23 and the obscure World Masterpiece Theatre tale of Finnish farm folk, Katri the Milkmaid.
As retirement age loomed, he wrote two books, The Road to Voice Acting and All About the Unseen Performers, which served as advertisements for a new change in career direction. In 1982, he started a workshop group that would eventually be known as the Katsuta Voice Actor Academy. Its first year’s graduates included Gundam’s Mayu Okamoto and Miki Ito; later years supplied cast members for Naruto, One Piece and Bleach. The school only shut down in 2015, when his ill health prevented him from teaching.
His last work was the book Biographies of Showa-era Voice Actors (2017), a series of pieces on 32 of his colleagues, whose reminiscences about their own lives inevitably formed a piecemeal memoir of his own – in a metaphor for his own career, he let others do the talking, even in his introduction, in which he could not resist impersonating, even in print, the kind of reaction his work would elicit.
“Cor! All those cartoons on television speak Japanese!”
“Wow! Those foreigners on telly speak brilliant Japanese. That’s amazing!”