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Anime’s Teen Boys and the Women Who Voice Them

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

If you’re under 30, Monkey D. Luffy, the zany captain of the Straw Hat Pirates, in the Japanese manga and TV show “One Piece,” and the ninja leader Naruto and his adolescent son, Boruto, from a different series, probably rank among your favorite animated characters. If you’re over 30, they’re the stars of the biggest franchises you’ve never heard of.

Their worldwide popularity is staggering. Since Eiichiro Oda began “One Piece” in 1999, more than 430 million books have been sold and 848 episodes of the television series have been broadcast. The two “Naruto” TV show ran for 720 episodes.

Fewer people know that the English voices of these rambunctious males are supplied by women: Maile Flanagan, 53, plays Naruto; Amanda Miller, 31, is Boruto; and Colleen Clinkenbeard, 38, is Luffy. In the United States, actresses often voice young boys — Nancy Cartwright has long played Bart Simpson, and the late June Foray did scores of kids in Jay Ward cartoons — but rarely do they speak for athletic teenagers or adult men. (In Japan, all three characters are also voiced by women.)

Ms. Clinkenbeard, who will appear at New York Comic Con x Anime Expo, which begins Thursday, said: “I’m always surprised when fans are surprised because it’s been going on for so long. Someone will come up to my table at a convention to get my autograph as one character, see a poster that says that I’m also Luffy and be shocked.”

Ms. Flanagan added, laughing, “Usually one guy drags his bros up to me and says, ‘I told you she was a chick.’”

At a time when who should play what role is hotly debated, the three actresses said there were challenges — and fun too — in portraying adventurous teenage guys. (Although Naruto eventually grows up, he sounds much the same.) “It’s such a different beast, voicing a male when you’re a female,” Ms. Clinkenbeard said. “The rhythms are different: Boys put things in a different way and are more forceful or forward.”

Ms. Miller, who will also sign autographs at Anime Expo, said she was a tomboy growing up. “I was this tall, awkward athletic girl who played soccer and hockey,” she said. “I find it pretty easy to tap into that. It’s not as much a male-female thing as it is capturing Boruto’s curiosity and the way everything he sees excites him.”

“My theatrical training helps,” she continued, “because in theater, it’s very much about manipulating your voice and creating something that isn’t actually happening. For Boruto, I get swagger-y — like the Fonz, ‘Ayyyy, I got this!’”

All three characters are highly physical: Naruto uses magical ninja techniques, which Boruto studies (but likes to think he’s already mastered); Luffy charges at any enemy, regardless of the danger. But the actresses must suggest those actions through their voices alone.

Ms. Flanagan, who once had to holler loudly enough to suggest Naruto and 500 magical “shadow clones” yelling in unison, said screaming can be exhausting. “When I do a lot of fighting, I’m a sweaty mess when I come out of the booth,” she added. “It’s not pretty.”

When it comes to the characters themselves, a lot of fans identify with Naruto “because he’s had to make his own way,” Ms. Flanagan said. He didn’t have parents and had to fight for everything. “What distinguishes Naruto from a character like Superman is that Superman never screws up, he’s always Superman,” she explained. By comparison, “Naruto has screwed up many times, but he’s learned from his mistakes.”

Ms. Miller is still exploring Boruto, who was introduced last year, but is aware than many “Naruto” fans disapprove of his adolescent misbehavior. “A lot of people have issues with Boruto’s character because they grew up with Naruto, and they’re very protective of him,’” she explained. “He’s a middle schooler, your hormones are crazy then. I was that way when I was a teenager — my parents didn’t know anything!”

In “Boruto: Naruto the Movie” (2015), when Naruto congratulates his son for doing well on his exams, Naruto replies, “O.K. whatever.” Once his father is out of sight, the boy does a happy dance and cries. “That’s who Boruto is,” Ms. Miller said. “He’s putting on this front: ‘I don’t need my dad, he’s stupid,’ but he loves his dad and wants his dad to be there.”

Ms. Flanagan is dubbing the last episodes of the second series “Naruto Shippuden,” which ended in Japan in 2017. Ms. Flanagan has played him for 14 years, taking him from a schoolchild to a father and chief of his village. “We only have about 15 episodes left to record,” she said. “I think I’ll just lie on the floor in a fetal position for a while after that final session.”

Ms. Clinkenbeard expects her gravel-voiced pirate to continue his misadventures indefinitely. Over the years Luffy (which rhymes, appropriately, with “goofy”) has never grown or changed, and he’s no closer to being King of the Pirates in Episode 848 than he was in Episode 1. Yet audiences — and Ms. Clinkenbeard — never tire of him.

“A lot characters do get stale, but not Luffy. He’s always hilarious to me,” she said. “The rhythms of Luffy’s speech come from the fact that he doesn’t think. There’s not a lot of layers to anything he says, which is very different from almost every female character I’ve played.”

She recalled an episode in which his crew describes a plan of action and Luffy says, “Got it!” Ms. Clinkenbeard said, “I turned to the director at the end of the take and asked, ‘Do I got it?’ He said, ‘You don’t got it.’ I knew Luffy was going to go blasting in!”

After hundreds of TV episodes, 13 movies and numerous specials and video games, it still makes sense for a woman to play Luffy.

“As an actress, my voice is less likely to change significantly than a male voice,” Ms. Clinkenbeard said. “Luffy’s voice hurts my throat intensely — I can’t do him for more than three hours, and even that’s pretty wearing. But if they had gotten a male actor who was young enough to sound like Luffy, 10 or 12 years later he would sound much more manly.”

New York Comic Con runs Thursday through Sunday at the Javits Center. More information: newyorkcomiccon.com.


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