Back in 1999, an anime series by the name of Digimon: Digital Monsters teamed up everyday kids with otherworldly creatures that evolved into ever more powerful states. Surprising no one, Digimon became a huge success the world over thanks to its adventurous storytelling, focus on character relationships, and incredible cast of characters. Bringing those characters to life is an all-star cast, fronted by voice-actor Joshua Seth.
With the arrival of Digimon Adventure tri.: Reunion on Blu-ray this May 16th thanks to Shout! Factory, I had a chance to chat with Seth about his long history with Digimon and what it meant to him. The new adventure, just one installment in a six-part series from Toei Animation, is getting an English dub and coming to home video for fans to enjoy. And it’s the fans Seth really wants to thank, both for making Digimon so popular in the first place and for bringing this new story to his attention. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s take some time to get to know Seth a little bit better.
When I talk to folks in the animation business, I like to start by asking them to think back to their childhood and tell me the first few cartoons that come to mind. Here’s what Seth came up with:
Definitely Bugs Bunny, Warner Bros. Animation. I thought of Grape Ape, I think that was Hanna-Barbera. The next one that popped into my head was Underdog. I always liked the cartoons that had a bizarre physicality to them. Some of those early Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros., they had, for the time, cutting-edge humor. “Sufferin’ succotash!” And “Exit, Stage Left!” Or they would say ridiculous, made-up phrases and things. Like Droopy. Or Yogi Bear.
Clearly Seth was inspired by some of these beloved cartoon classics, so much so that he broke into various voices impersonating those characters–and more of his own creations–throughout the interview, which was delightful. Seth talked about how a childhood spent enjoying cartoons surprisingly translated into a career acting in them:
I remember when I first moved to Los Angeles and I did an audition for Hanna-Barbera. I didn’t get the gig but it didn’t matter because I felt like I’d already scored just by walking in there and walking those hallowed halls. And then I ended up living right down the street from Warner Bros. Animation, doing a lot of work there. It’s funny how things come full circle; you watch something, in my case, as a kid growing up as a kid in the Midwest and then suddenly you’re in the room where it was recorded and are recording your own new thing. It seems impossible in a way that, in my own room, growing up looking at cows and cornfields, that a few years later I’d be doing the things that I was watching and listening to as a kid.
So how did a kid from the Midwest, who did eight shows a week for off-Broadway productions in Akron, Ohio, end up starring in one of the most beloved anime series of our time?
I liked the look of [Digimon] when I first walked into the casting studio to read for Tai and I saw the drawing of this character. It immediately resonated with me because I felt like he was a projection of an aspect of myself, that youthful, courageous abandon. I instantly knew I wasn’t going to put a voice on, I was just going to do a younger, more reckless and enthusiastic aspect of my own voice and personality. [In Tai’s voice] Really, Tai is me just pitched up and hyped up. [Seth’s normal voice] That’s it.
That was quite unique because usually I’d walk in to do a read and think, “Well what sort of a voice should I do? How should I pitch it? Is there an accent? Is there a funny laugh? Is there some weird vocal tick?” But with Tai, I went, “No, no, no. I got it. I understand Tai.” I knew when I was like 10 years old and racing around the schoolyard trying to make something happen. That was the only time that ever happened. Just me.
Despite getting the opportunity to use his own, slightly modified voice for the lead character, there was no way Seth and the cast could have predicted Digimon‘s success:
When we were first voicing it, no, we had no idea it had legs that would stretch out 15 years and beyond, certainly. There was no YouTube, Netflix, Hulu; these types of delivery devices didn’t exist. However, we did know that what we were working on was special, you could feel that. I always treated it that way, like it was special and important. Certainly when we did the original movie back in 2000 and Jeff Nimoy directed that, he and I had many conversations about how we could stay true to the intentions of the Japanese writers but also give it as much passion and honesty as possible.
Back then, for anime, I don’t think that was approached in those early anime. You approached it more like a series that happened to be drawn. That style is more the norm now across all performance art where honesty and authenticity is a desirable way of engaging your audience and expressing your character. Back then, coming out of early animation where everything was all silly stuff, that was not the norm; the norm was to be hyped up, frantic, and silly.