Sayaka Kanda (1986-2021)

December 19, 2021 · 0 comments

The actress Sayaka Kanda, who died yesterday, will be remembered as a media hyphenate – on stage and screen, and a voice performer not only for animated characters, but for their songs. She was, in fact, even more than that – a lyricist under several pseudonyms, and a producer for her own record label. Throughout her short life, however, she fought hard not to be pigeon-holed as a child of celebrity.

She was born as Japanese media royalty, the only child of actor Masaki Kanda and singer Seiko Matsuda. She was sent, incognito, to a school in Los Angeles, where she won a role in the short film Bean Cake (1999), which subsequently won a Palme d’Or at Cannes. Thereafter, she continued in several vain attempts to find artistic achievement without reference to her real name.

Taking the pen-name Alice from one of her mother’s songs, she wrote the lyrics to Matsuda’s “Love is Always 95 Points,” a fact not revealed until sometime later. Her lyrics deftly capture the doubts of a girl for whom romance is itself a performance – a tense preparation before the mirror, an agonising choice on costume, and an entrance into public space, ever fretful that her date is going to laugh at her.

At the turn of the century, she was subjected to the usual indignities required of a rising Japanese starlet – a bubble-gum pop single, used as the hook to sell a series of commercials, in which she enthused about how cold a Glico ice cream was. She did, however, write the song lyrics herself. Under the mononym SAYAKA, she released a few more singles, and after multiple auditions, found a role onstage in a Japanese revival of Into the Woods. After appearing in the finale of the long-running Mito Komon TV show, she suddenly announced, through her grandmother, that she was taking a sabbatical. She disappeared for 18 months, during which time she worked as a waitress.

In 2006, using the names PawPaw and Jun Uehara, she both wrote and composed songs on her mother’s new album – this, like the Alice pen-name, was not revealed for many years. The story helps the eternal dilemma at the heart of Kanda’s career – eternally struggling to escape from her mother’s long shadow, but also often happy to ride her coat-tails. In 2011, she performed the classic hit “Ue o Muite Aruku” (Sukiyaki) at the New Year’s song contest as a duet with Matsuda, itself a publicity stunt to push the album that celebrated the tenth year of her performing career, even though it was also her first album.

In the second decade of the 21st century, Kanda found a firmer footing. She stopped trying to appease or appeal to her mother’s generation and found a certain joy in the attention of younger fans. For Millennials, to whom Seiko Matsuda was just a name on a karaoke box, Sayaka Kanda was one of them – that girl who did the Vocaloid impersonations on social media, and who played famous gaming characters on stage.

Kanda cultivated an image as the anime fan’s fan. Her first anime role was as Nadeshiko, the imperious child of privilege in Good Luck Girl (2012), for which she threw herself into the publicity circuit with tales of how she adored Sailor Moon as a child, loved “genuine” anime so much that she was a connoisseur of the late-night shows, and that her idea of a vacation was a trip to the otaku mecca of Akihabara. That, at least is what she told Sankei Sports, a magazine prepared to decree that she had found her true vocation in voice-acting, whereas elsewhere she was keen to stress that voice-acting was but one pillar of her career.

In 2014, she finally broke out as a star in her own right, with a performance on the New Year’s song contest of “For the First Time in Forever” from the Disney film Frozen. Frozen, of course, had stormed the Japanese box office that year, taking Kanda, who both voiced and sung the role of Anna in Japanese, to true recognition, to the extent that her partner in the New Year’s performance was not her mother, but Idina Menzel.

Kanda formed and reformed several bands and music “units” in the 2010s, but the bread and butter of her work was onstage, as Wendy in Peter Pan, as the titular Anne of Green Gables, and as Carol in the theatrical version of the manga Crest of the Pharoah. In the anime world, she also had several prominent roles, including Miharu in Convenience Store Boyfriends and Yuna in Sword Art Online Alicization: War of Underworld.

In Space Battleship Yamato 2202: Warriors of Love, Kanda played the role of Teresa. “Yamato is a work from before I was born,” she said, “and I had this impression of the older generation passionately singing the theme song in karaoke. In fact, the reaction was greater than for any other work I’ve been involved in so far.” On Warriors of Love, Sayaka also sang the ending theme, once again asserting her individuality in the face of an overwhelming artistic inheritance. “There is the famous opening song, which everyone knows,” she admitted. “But in the context of the original, I think the ending theme song is also very important. It leaves you with a lingering view of this magnificent world and leads you into the next, so it occupies a necessary role.”

In 2017, thirteen months after meeting the actor Mitsu Murata in a stage production of Dangan Ronpa (in which she played Junko Enoshima) she married him in a star-studded Tokyo ceremony that was nevertheless closed to the Japanese media. Oddly, she was chaperoned by her father, both in the announcement of her engagement and on the couple’s honeymoon in Hawaii. “Getting married brought on a sense of responsibility,” she said, “and there’s a feeling of relief that I’ve never experienced before.” She split from her former agency the same month, but two years later announced that she and Murata had themselves just conducted a “perfect divorce” (enman rikon) – a quick and clean break with no attachments or riders.

During her Dangan Ronpa stage run, she was handed the script for the video game Dangan Ronpa V3: Killing Harmony, for which she was offered the part of Kaede Akamatsu. “I didn’t find out Kaede-chan was the protagonist until much later,” she said. “I remember talking to my managers about how ‘her lines are very protag-like’ and I was surprised when the staff at Spike Chunsoft responded ‘She is the protagonist!’”

Her last and most memorable role is liable to be that of Mana in both the game and series of Idoly Pride, for which she got into the spirit by showing up for motion capture with the same colour hair as her character. “I was really looking forward to the day of recording,” she said, demonstrating a common enthusiasm among COVID-era voice actors for the sheer excitement of being back in the studio, “so I actually made my hair dark blue and studied movements and gestures. When the crew who were looking into the monitor started cheering, I thought: ‘Okay!’”

When asked if there were any past idols that she considered herself to be a fan of, she answered only in anime terms. “I don’t know if this is a cliché,” she said, “but for me it’s always been Lynn Minmay from Super Dimension Fortress Macross.”

2021 should have been a banner year for her, with the release of Idoly Pride, a revival on tour of her Eliza in My Fair Lady, and the announcement that she would be taking on the role of Maetel in the forthcoming Galaxy Express 999: The Musical. However, she failed to show up for a matinee performance of My Fair Lady in Sapporo, and attempts to reach her failed. The Japanese news reported on 18th December that she had been “found on the floor of the lobby” of her Japanese hotel, although within a few hours, overseas media offered a clearer picture – that she had fallen six or more floors onto the outdoor plaza on the 14th floor. The ongoing police investigation seems to centre on the question of whether it was an accident or suicide.

Jonathan Clements

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