On June 13, 2013, the world of Japanese VO suffered a really terrible loss when Kenji Utsumi, one of the most veteran seiyu (Japanese voice actors) in the business, lost his battle with cancer, passing away at age 75.
As the Wired Fish’s resident anime geek, as well as one of a relatively low number of passionate “voice actor enthusiasts”, I find that I grow fond of certain voices. Certain actors who fill a niche well, giving me a fond thrill whenever I hear them. “Ah, there’s X actor, good to know this hero’s in good hands!” or “Oh, she’s voiced by Y, no wonder I hate her.” Utsumi-san had made a career out of voicing rough and tumble guys, his lower register voice giving many a throaty growl to characters both old and new, and I’d like to highlight a few here.
Easily the role I know him most for, Kenji Utsumi was, and always will be, the voice of Raoh from the original Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) TV anime. The primary antagonist of the show, Raoh is widely considered one of anime’s great anti-villains; a prime example of the positive and negative sides of absolute ambition. In a world that needed order, where violence and madness ruled the post apocalyptic wasteland, he chose to assert it through power and terror, making him a stark mirror to his brother, the kind and just protagonist Kenshiro.
He was also a stone-cold badass, giving the show some of its greatest fight scenes (his climactic first fight against Ken, and his late-story battles against Juza of the Clouds and Fudo of the Mountains stand out in the mind), and the final image of Raoh, fist to the sky as he expends his life energy in defiance of God and the world, is an iconic image that has been oft-repeated and parodied, as much as it been homaged. It’s a classic character, and arguably Utsumi’s most well-beloved role. It’s also worth noting that he would later voice Kaioh, the final antagonist worth a damn in the story, but even though he is also a larger-than-life character, he feels somewhat…small compared to the glory of Raoh.
Moving to a more modern-day character, Utsumi would become known and beloved to millions of younger anime fans through his portrayal of perennial hammy badass, Major Alex Louise Armstrong, the Strong Arm Alchemist. A bombastic goofball of a man, part showman and part Mr. Clean, Armstrong is one of the most loved characters in FullMetal Alchemist, itself one of the most popular anime of the modern age. Portraying the character through two series and multiple films, Utsumi showed an ability to turn his inherently larger-than-life voice toward endearing comedy.
Armstrong is a marvelous creation, constantly flexing for no apparent reason (complete with sparkles), while taking every opportunity to give praise to his family name (“‘X’ HAS BEEN PASSED DOWN THE ARMSTRONG FAMILY FOR GENERATIONS!”) Utsumi gave life to the character, while still giving heft to his darker and more dramatic scenes. It’s this variability, while still keeping his characteristic hotblooded energy, that allowed Utsumi to stay in constant work for decades.
Finally, it is only fitting that my last entry be about a character from Hajime no Ippo. Much like the elder seiyu himself, Coach Genji Kamogawa is a crusty old dog of a boxer. A former contender himself, world-class in his prime, Kamogawa is a rough and tumble grouch, broaching no bullshit from any of his pupils. He takes to them all with fervor, seeing the amazing potential in all his students (well, except maybe Aoki), especially Takamura, in whom he sees potential to conquer the world stage. But a special place in his heart goes to Ippo himself, the young, spirited lad who dropped into his lap with the will to go for the championship no matter the cost.
Kamogawa is a purebred archetype; the feisty old vet training the new generation, all snarling and impatient. But like all the roles he played, Utsumi imbued him with a heart and fire that only someone from the golden age could produce. In a way, Kamogawa reminds one of Utsumi himself: a member of the old guard who was still there at the forefront, doing his own thing while watching the new generation.
And that is the greatest tragedy of his passing. There’s a certain quality that you only get with old seiyu. A certain assuredness and ease-of-performance that can only emerge when you were there when the art-form was still young. And from narrating Tatakae Dragon, to giving voice to Buraiking Boss from Casshern, Utsumi was there in the thick of it. He was a marvel, a truly unique voice from a truly unique time, and his characters, both new and old, will never be the same without him.