Through five episodes, Aoi Hana is one of the best shows of the year: a yuri school drama beautifully animated, sensitively written and directed, and well voiced by a combination of new and experienced seiyuus.
The newest of the seiyuus is well-known swimsuit idol (see photos below), actress, and TV personality Takabe Ai 高部あい. Her tiny voice brings to life the show's tall but insecure heroine Fumi-chan.
The voice Ai-chin uses is close to her natural voice, as revealed in TV interviews. Some people on 2channel don't like it. There is a whole thread entitled: "Aoi Hana: The Main Character's Stiff Acting is Horrible 青い花 主役の棒演技がひどい".
Fortunately, there are plenty of 2channel posters who disagree, as I do. However, I do know what people are referring to: hers is not a smooth, professional seiyuu voice, with clear and controlled shifts of tone.
But I hear it as a more natural voice, and the voice of an actress. She may not be the absolute best actress in the world, but she is conveying this shy and uncertain character very well -- better than many top pro seiyuus would, I think.
Becoming a seiyuu
In interviews, Ai-chin says that people had told her that her high voice was a "seiyuu voice." In fact, she had a kind of complex about her high voice. But she had already played around with doing different voices, and asked her manager to get her an opportunity to watch some recording. Then she got an audition for this show. She was amazed when she was told she had got the role: she thought they were kidding her, at first.
She finds seiyuu work very difficult since, unlike live acting, you can't use gestures at all, and have to convey everything by voice. She had to practice a lot to get the whispering tone of Fumi's voice. To protect her voice, she has stopped going to her beloved karaoke, and wears a surgical mask when she sleeps.
The director guided her closely through episode one. But after she saw the episode, hearing both her own work and that of the others, she began to realize how many choices there were for her to make. She feels as if her understanding of voice acting broadened considerably.
Does she want to do more voice work? Yes, including possibly an animated film. But she does want to continue with live acting, too.
She was asked whether she could relate to the support Ai-chan gives her friend, despite it being a matter of loving a girl. She answered that she herself is texting back and forth to her friends all day long, and depends on their support. People around her find it quite weird, she says. And although she has had no experience of that kind of love, she now finds herself looking at other girls when she is on the train. For research.
Aoi Hana main cast: (l-r) Ishimatsu Chiemi (Sugimoto senpai), Takabe Ai (Fumi-chan), Gibu Yuuko (Ah-chan), Horie Yui (Kyouko):
From beauty queen to actress
Takabe, who will turn 21 next Sunday, came to prominence at 16 by winning the gravure (i.e., idol photo) prize in the 2004 All-Japan National Beauty Contest. She went straight into multi-member idol group Bishoujo Club 31.
In 2005, she won the grand prize in the Miss Weekly Playboy contest, put on by the Japanese magazine Playboy (no connection to the American Playboy), and her photo spreads began to proliferate through the Japanese media.
It was in 2006, at 18, that Ai-chin got her first role in a TV drama, and she has been in eleven dramas over the past three years. I'm not sure where her drama career is at: she was in more full-length dramas a couple of years ago, but she has more leading roles now, in what seem to be smaller shows.
But she is probably best known as a TV personality, having appeared on 22 variety and interview shows. Here is her recent appearance on the late-night entertainment magazine Nabeatsu, talking about Aoi Hana:
Now that is cute. She is known for her naturalness and amusing personality, and for the slow, calm way she speaks. In the interview, she admits that at the girls' high school she went to, she did get plenty of Valentine's Day chocolates from younger girls.
She is one of the members of Bishoujo Club 31 who star in a continuing show called “100 Scenes of Love.” in which each week a girl goes on a date to a scenic spot in Japan. Her date in March of this year was with...Barack Obama. Here is one from April.
Her most recent appearance on the show was on 13 July, in a show about things not to do when you're on a date – such as looking at your date's cellphone when he goes to the washroom:
This week, she is the featured performer on the daily show “easy sports,” in which an idol runs and/or walks over several kilometers in Tokyo, providing views both of herself and of various locations in the Capital. She is running a 7.5 km course from Toneri Park to the Nishiarai Taishi temple in Adachi ward.
I first saw Ai-chin in 2008, as the star of the late-night half-hour comedy/horror drama Cosplay Shoujo Guren Onna. This is about a highly ineffectual teacher who secretly goes out at night cosplaying as Guren Onna, the “Crimson Lady."
The Crimson Lady is supposedly a figure from an urban legend, the ghost of a girl who was burned to death and appears to men at night, asking if they are the one who set her on fire, and shooting balls of flame at them. After suffering all day as a put-upon teacher, Ai-chin's character gets great satisfaction from scaring people half to death -– until real ghosts start appearing to her. Ai-chin overacts in a way that is quite familiar from other Japanese comic dramas.
Here is the first part of episode one:
She is also one of the hosts of Aoi Hana radio, along with her co-star Gibu Yuuko, who plays Fumi's close friend Ah-chan.
Ai-chin has appeared in four movies so far, and this fall will have a role in a film about Anne of Green Gables, called Looking for Anne. The film was shot in Canada, on Prince Edward Island, where the fictional Anne lived. And next year she will star in a direct-to-DVD movie called Kurenai Airin.
She has even starred in a stage play, “College of the Wind,” performed by the Caramelbox theatre troupe in Osaka and Tokyo during the summer of 2007.
Here she is from Guren Onna:
And here are shots from earlier in her career:
Here are some more recent photos:
But Ai-chin's career is based in being a swimsuit idol. She has out two photo-books and six DVDs. Here are the covers of a couple of her DVDs:
And here are some gravure photos:
-- born 16 August 1988, in the Hachiouji district of Tokyo
-- height 165cm (5'5"); b-w-h 85-59-88cm (33-23-34 inches)
-- interests: likes running.
-- skills: swimming, calligraphy.
TV drama roles:
2006 -- 4
2007 -- 2
2008 -- 2 (one starring)
2009 -- 2 (stars in one episode)
2006 -- 2
2007 -- 1
2008 -- 1
2010 -- 1 (starring)
2004 -- 1
2006 -- 1 (continuing to the present)
2007 -- 1 (regular)
2008 -- 12 (one regular)
2009 -- 7
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