It’s not long before Judgment releases in the West. A spin-off of Sega’s long-running Yakuza series set in the same streets of Kamurocho, it differs from the mainline series with a dose of detective work and Ace Attorney-style objectioning, while also being the first in the Yakuza universe since the original PS2 game to receive an English dub. We had the opportunity to sit down with Greg Chun, the English voice of Judgment protagonist Takayuki Yagami, to ask him about voice acting, the Yakuza series, and video games.
Push Square: How did you get into voice-acting?
Greg Chun: I was originally planning to be a Computer Science professor. I was also dabbling in musical theatre and directing, and it was during a show I was conducting when I had the good fortune to meet one of the greatest voice actors of all time, Don LaFontaine, and learned about voiceover as a career.
Around 2009 I started working with a voice coach, who then introduced me to an agency. When I first auditioned for this agency, they asked me to come in and read for these characters that turned out to be from World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria. I ended up booking the job, and I thought, “Oh, this is easy, this is gonna be cool.” I then didn’t book another job for a year and a half [laughs].
It was pretty brutal. It took years of training and learning in front of the mic to eventually get the ball rolling, and for my agent to tell me when to get out there and not make an ass of myself.
Were video games a big part of your childhood?
I’m pretty old, so my childhood was the Atari 2600, followed by Colecovision. I took a bit of a hiatus but got back into it with the very first PlayStation where I bought Resident Evil and Tomb Raider. The first night I got it, I played from 7pm until 7am, and then I realised in horror that I had to go to work that day!
What’s your experience with the Yakuza series?
I always knew of its presence but never had the opportunity to jump in. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise to be brought in for Judgment. It was definitely exciting to know it was based on a known franchise because it’s always been on the back of my mind.
Given its realistic Japanese setting, the series has avoided English dubbing after the first entry. Did you feel a lot of responsibility getting this right for fans who have experienced the streets of Kamurocho in Japanese all these years?
Absolutely, there was a lot of pressure. I respect any IP with a fanbase - all we’re trying to do is please the fans, so knowing the context around it was pretty intimidating at first. But once I got into the studio, I just had to put the pressure out of my mind to do the job and do it well, and that’s how I got through the process.
You’ve also done voice work for other Sega titles like Valkyria Chronicles 4 and Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise. How different is it from voicing anime-style games to a title grounded in realism?
I actually really welcome that experience, because that is ultimately a style I enjoy more. Anime is great fun, and it is fun to be over-the-top, but when you talk about being challenged as an actor, having to put an authentic raw performance that you don’t have much to hide behind is very gratifying if you’re able to make it work.
It’s similar to the difference between anime dubbing and live-action dubbing. There’s a lot of live-action dubbing now, and I always enjoy those because it is extra challenging to sell a lie and make it work when you’re trying to fit into the restrictions of existing lip flaps and cadences. In a similar way, Judgment was extremely gratifying because it really did require me to let go of the tricks that you use to push a performance through, and I really did need to fall back on authenticity and genuine groundedness. That’s a very fun challenge to take on.
Do you listen to the original Japanese voices or does that get in the way of your own performance?
Typically, we will preview the original Japanese for each line, but we generally use that just for timing, level of emotion, and intensity. But once you hear that, there is a moment where you detach from it, get back into the context of your own voice very quickly, and then deliver the line as you would. If you get caught up in the meter, pitch, or inflections of the original Japanese, it doesn’t make sense in English. It’s important to take in the information you need from the Japanese, and then quickly discard what you don’t need to make it your performance.
What highlights did you have playing Yagami? Is it right to assume that like mainline Yakuza games, there’s a mix of sincere intense melodrama with absurd surreal comedy?
It was a joyful process to just switch gears from these very serious moments to then something quite silly that might happen that you start talking about. I think that falls in line with my sense of humour, and it’s a very real representation of how you do go on tangents in real life - you’re maybe talking about something serious and then something silly catches your attention and then you go off on that for a while. It wasn’t much of a stretch, because I do a lot of that in my own life.
What’s the most challenging thing about voice acting?
When you need to scream a lot [laughs]. Vocal stress is a very real thing you need to be mindful of when you’re in the studio, so you need to be able to tell them, ‘I need 5 minutes’ or ‘I’m done for the day’.
Given the length of story-driven games, how much of the script do you see before recording and do you get the chance to get to experience the whole story yourself?
When I was recording, they did their best to keep it linear for me. A lot of incidental lines we did as necessary, especially the stuff that required more vocal stress.
We kind of get the cliff notes version of the story so you know loosely where you’re headed and then we’ll attack each scene beat by beat, and then you try to keep the bigger picture in mind as you go through it.
In theory, a voice actor doesn’t need to look like who they’re playing, doubly so when it’s a dub. But how important was it for you as an American-Asian actor to play a lead character like Yagami?
Most of my time growing up, the portrayal of Asians in the media was very narrow and stereotypical in general. To live most of my childhood thinking I’m meant to be just the butt of a joke, or there’s no way there would ever be an opportunity that I can really sink my teeth into and be proud of, and then now get to play somebody who is way cooler than me in real life, it’s really fantastic. I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed at this point my career to be able deliver an audition that really resonated with the company at the time.
Is there a game character from an older game that you would want to play if there was an opportunity of a remake?
To be honest, if they there was a Final Fantasy VIII remake, I would love to be Zell. He always made me laugh. I do have a tendency to have the darker brooding characters like Squall or Seifer, but I would want to play Zell.
Judgment releases with dual audio. For die-hard otaku Yakuza fans likely to pick the Japanese and never look back, what would you say to them?
For the established fans, I truly hope I’m able to maintain the experience for you because I know the franchise is very near and dear to your hearts. Sure, do a Japanese playthrough, but maybe give me a chance on the second playthrough. It’ll be a different experience for sure, but there may be things in there that you’ll be surprised by and appreciate. You never know until you try it.
Are you looking forward to Judgment? Will you be playing with the English dub? Give us your best performance in the comments section below.
[Thanks to SEGA for making this interview possible. Special thanks to Greg Chun for taking the time to talk to us.]