Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Fragile Strength of Hirano Aya 平野綾

In the spring of 2006, 18-year-old voice actress Hirano Aya's exciting performance as Suzumiya Haruhi made her a superstar. She ended the year having made more public appearances than any other voice actress. It was a year of sunshine and roses. But in October, a sudden cloud blocked the sun: she collapsed at a recording session and had to spend a month out of the public eye.

Aaya あーや, as she is called, has a sharp, strong voice that gives her roles a kind of restrained power. She said early in the year that she was glad that at 18 her voice now had the depth to play more than just young girls. In Haruhi and NANA's Layla, she showed that her voice had depth of expression as well as depth of tone.

Aaya started show business at age nine. She was in a children's theatre company by the time she was eleven, and appearing in TV commercials (right, YouTube).

Her first voice acting role was at age 13, as Monkey Momo in Tenshi no Shippo. At 14, she was the computer prodigy Lumière (left) in the moe SF adventure Kiddy Grade.

And in her mid-teens she was a member of the briefly popular idol unit Springs (right, YouTube).

Until last year, her voice work was limited to only a couple of anime a year. Then in 2006 -- the year she graduated from high school, started college, and turned 19 -- she released three singles and appeared in nine different anime roles, including her breakthrough performance as Suzumiya Haruhi (below, YouTube). And she appeared at 67 live events.

The tremendous amount of work her agency got her may have been too much. In October, she collapsed at a recording session for the anime Death Note and was rushed to hospital. The exact nature of the problem has not been revealed, but it kept her out of public events for the month of November. She says it was something that could have been extremely dangerous if left untreated. She did not stay in hospital, but found herself commuting back and forth for outpatient treatment. The problem may limit what she can do, and she will have to continue dealing with it throughout her life.

Even earlier, at an event in Tokyo in May, there had been warning signs. She burst into uncontrollable tears (YouTube) at the enthusiastic reception given her by otaku during an event commemorating the launch of her second single. "I will keep doing my best. Please don't forget me," she sobbed, to wild applause. She is an experienced pro, but was being pushed -- by herself and others -- beyond her limits.



Aaya is a thin, seemingly high-strung person. Like her mother, she believes she has powers of precognition, dreaming events in her friends' near future. She speaks quickly in a high voice, at an extreme of the pert cheeriness affected by some Japanese women. Her public persona seems forced and unnatural. Since her early teens, she has been determined to be a stage performer. With her weeping and her collapse, I can't help thinking of Judy Garland: a superlative and driven performer whose emotionality and personal problems gave her special depth as a singer.

Since her return from the month off after her collapse, people say Aaya has seemed altered. She now gives a somewhat sexier, more mature impression. She herself has written that she looks like a different person. She has changed her hairstyle for the first time in years -- dyeing her hair slightly brown, giving it a bit of body, and spreading her bangs off her forehead. She and her agency had apparently discussed a change, but she went ahead and did it on her own, without consulting them.


Perhaps in her month of comparative rest she had a chance to actually become a normal college student, and maybe even to begin to bring forward her own desires from behind the excessively genki young star's public personality. She is attending Tamagawa University, a well-known private college that has produced many actors, as well as other performers and public figures.

There were fears that she would cut back drastically or even drop out of show business after her collapse. But after taking November off, she bounced back to make 11 live appearances in December.

Her personal problems take away nothing from her tremendous achievements in 2006. Suzumiya Haruhi became a classic anime character, a tsundere like no other. Aaya's voice gives all her roles a special force. It is a smooth voice, but sharp rather than soft, and even a bit thin and breathy. But there is so much force behind it that it is emotionally penetrating. The restrained force in Aaya’s voice helped make Haruhi the interesting person she was. And her voice as Layla in NANA almost makes me cry every time I hear it, revealing the sadness in Layla's rock-queen soul. That same melancholy edge gives emotional depth to Sanae in the comedy Sumomo mo Momo mo.



Last spring, she amazed the audience of a popular Japanese TV interview program with her verbal skill (YouTube). From her normal high voice, she was able to suddenly drop to a lower register that made her sound like an entirely different person.

According to her own web site's tongue-in-cheek biography, she spent two of her first three years in America and on Halloween one year won second prize in an Alice costume. At ten, she entered the drama club at her school. At 11, she was secretary of the student council. At her elementary school graduation, she said she wanted to become a detective. At 13, she had the nickname Ayanami Rei. At 15, she first wore loose socks. At 17, her speech on love at a school church service gained wild applause. She won first prize in her year at school for a program which she wrote, did the music for, directed and starred in. At 18, she entered the photography club, and cried at her graduation.

She plays piano well and has a trained voice. She sang "Ave Maria" in Canvas2 (YouTube), and sang pop and rock in Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu (YouTube).

Various behind-the-scenes video features are available on YouTube (here and here). You can see her seamless super-genki politeness, the uber-cute presentation of a teen star. To me, she seems always on the surface of things. She has been a performer since her early teens and now, as a new adult, must find her own personality beneath the accretion of years of playing to her parents, handlers, and the crowd. This is a difficult process for all of us, and even more difficult for someone who has been under such pressure for so long, and who has to grow up in full view of many thousands of fans.



Whatever the case, her fans love her. On 2channel in early 2007, there are more than a thousand posts a week in the thread devoted to her. Otaku pore over the photos and text she posts on her interesting blog. Several posters have said they want to marry her. One gushed about how unbelievably cute she was when he saw her at a live event. Another cursed his fate that he had been to a temple she visited on the same day in early January, but did not see her. Another said he did see her, but wasn't sure it had been her until she posted pictures in her blog: she was wearing an enveloping black toque-like hat. There is great concern over whether or not she has a boyfriend and whether or not he is an otaku. There is no chance that her fans will forget her any time soon.


And I'm one of those fans. She gives her better roles a unique restrained energy that penetrates to the heart, both the character's heart and my heart. And she herself is not just entrancingly pretty, but has a personality and a history that make her an interesting person to watch.

ADDED INFO: (I keep reading things I want to add to the piece)
In a December article in a new seiyuu Magazine, Voicha, she says that each new role is a chance to create a new self. She says she has long enjoyed reading Sartre, and quotes Bergson that to exist is to create oneself. An existentialist voice actress, no less.

On Galaxy Angel radio, in an "angels' revelations" corner, she apparently said that her early ancestor was in the Genji clan, and that she has relatives at the famous Hirano Shrine in Kyoto. Whether this was just a tale or not is hard to say.

On Sumomo mo Momo mo radio on 12 January, Aaya said that her plan for 2007 was to become more sexy -- in her work, I presume, although the other seiyuu on the show talked about how short her skirt was and played with the zipper. She said at the beginning of 2006 that her plan for that year was to do a wide range of roles. She accomplished that goal, so....

More info:
Wikipedia (en)
Wikipedia (jp)
personal home page
photo blog
Hashihime Seiyuu Gallery (more links)
Anime News Network

More YouTube:
search Aya Hirano
search 平野 綾

TV commercials
Death Note commercials

creation of Springs
Springs videos

(Suzumiya Haruhi)
"Bouken Deshou Deshou" sung live
Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu voice actresses (Part A, Part B)

Aaya September photoshoot (Part 1, Part 2)