I feel like practicing some thread necromancy, and this looks like an interesting topic to resurrect. I'll be comparing the Japanese Light Blue and Green cast albums, both from 2003. Some fans (including myself) consider these to be the two best Japanese cast albums of the show. Perhaps in a future post, I'll compare the Violet (2003) and Blue (1994) albums, generally considered the two worst... and also the leftovers, Red (1994) and Orange (2003). It's kind of nice that the albums are color-coded, as well -- I can continue Schmerg's trend of having each album represented by a different color. Valjean:
It's a tough choice for me, as I like both for different reasons. Overall, though, I'd go for Tetsuya Bessho
. He has a rougher sound to his voice and tends to emphasize the darker Valjean, more prone to anger and flirting with selfish urges before overcoming them. Interestingly, he's the only recorded Japanese Valjean who hit the high B at the end of "Who Am I?" -- all the others stayed at G-flat the whole way.Kazutaka Ishii
, by contrast, has a lighter voice. I didn't realize until later that he was a former Marius (and also the Japanese dubbing voice of Aladdin), but once you know that, you can kinda hear it in his Valjean. He's one of only two Japanese Valjeans on CD who sings "Bring Him Home" in the regular key rather than transposing it down (the other being Kiyotaka Imai in the Violet cast). My gripe with both Bessho and Ishii, though, is that neither sounds very good in the bit where they harmonize with Little Cosette before "Waltz of Treachery" -- I felt the only one who did was Kiyotaka Imai, but that's for another post.Javert:
This one's a much easier choice -- Kojiro Oka
all the way. I love his voice, and most of his acting fits the character really well. There are occasional weird bits, like crazy laughing at one point during his suicide (which two other Japanese Javerts have done as well), but overall, I liked him in the role a lot. He also goes up an octave for the "And my thoughts fly apart..." section, like Norm Lewis and Drew Sarich have done, and seems to have been the only Japanese Javert to do that... I'm generally not that fond of that, but Oka sounds good all the while. (He was also Enjolras in the 1994 Blue cast, so hey!)
On the other hand, Masahiro Takashima
seemed a very strange pick for the role. I like a few of the things he did acting-wise, but in general, he seems to pick all the wrong moments to be subtle or over-the-top. In terms of vocals, he sounded like he was trying too hard to imitate Takeshi Kaga (Valjean in the Red Cast)'s voice -- he would often pitch-bend notes down and also speak-sing or growl low notes a lot more than necessary. This makes Takashima's performance a bit interesting, though, in that his portrayal may give a bit of insight into what Takeshi Kaga might have been like as Javert (since Kaga alternated as Javert as well as Valjean, at least initially, but no recordings of him as Javert are known to exist). I wouldn't call it good, though -- Takashima's Javert is the biggest flaw for me in the Light Blue cast, which I'd otherwise consider fantastic.Fantine: Marsia.
I liked both Fantines, and Yumiko Takahashi
has a great voice as well, but Marsia seemed to pack more emotional punch and inject more meaning into the lyrics. She made it completely believable to me that she'd had a horrid life and had just about given up completely, whereas Takahashi sounded sad but often too "pretty" most of the time. However, I will concede that Takahashi and Seiko Niizuma in the Green cast sounded the best out of all the Japanese casts when they harmonized in the "Take my hand; I'll lead you to salvation..." bit of the Epilogue. (Fun fact: Also in 2003, Marsia was playing another young lady who turns to prostitution, meets a really unpleasant customer, and dies. She was Lucy in Jekyll & Hyde,
opposite Takeshi Kaga -- the 1994 Red Cast's Valjean -- in the title roles.)Cosette: Yuka Koono.
Occasionally, she veers a bit into Tracy Shayne territory in terms of vibrato, but manages not to annoy me nearly as much; she projects a very sweet, naive, and believable Cosette, and makes me think she'd be a good Johanna in Sweeney Todd,
or perhaps even Christine in POTO. While I liked Tamaki Kenmotsu
as well, she seemed to struggle a lot more with reaching the top notes. (I also noticed that when listening to her as Sarah in Tanz der Vampire.)
She redeems herself a bit with her emotion in the finale, particularly on the line "You will live; Papa, you're going to live". But overall, I prefer Koono.Marius: Yohei Izumi.
Again, I like both and they each did well in terms of acting and chemistry with their respective Cosettes and Éponines, but I tended to prefer Izumi vocally. (He was a good Alfred in Tanz der Vampire,
as well.) I think my problem with Koji Yamamoto
has to do with his tendency to cut off really suddenly on the "big notes" (for instance, the last note of AHFOL) instead of letting them ring out.Éponine: Anza Ooyama
(often credited as just "ANZA," since she's apparently a J-Pop singer... Definitely much better than most other examples of pop singers being in the show). She's my favorite Japanese Éponine and among my top picks for the role in any language because she plays the role quite a bit more subtly than many others. If you were to only listen to her in the major songs, she might seem rather underwhelming, but when I hear her portrayal from start to finish on the album, I find it absolutely heartbreaking every time. The little things she emphasizes in the lyrics are probably what get me the most, and I suppose her portrayal works better for those who know how the translation works. The metaphor I like to use is that while other Éponines generally go for big, emotional gut punches in "On My Own" and "A Little Fall of Rain," Anza's portrayal delivers more of a "death by a thousand cuts" throughout her entire performance -- "Éponine's Errand" is a standout for her, in my view, and the fact that she doesn't have as big a voice and is thusly overshadowed by Marius and Cosette in AHFOL actually seems to work to her advantage. I'd love to find live recordings (video or audio) of her in the role.
Not to say that Seiko Niizuma
is bad by any means... She was the first 'Ponine I heard in Japanese (I heard Kaho Shimada before her, but that was on the CSR), and I do think she's excellent as well. She delivers a powerful OMO and is a fantastic Éponine overall. But her portrayal isn't quite on the same level as Anza's for me. (Interestingly, she draws a bit from Anza's style for OMO in her 2008 solo album.)Enjolras:
They're the same guy, Kenji Sakamoto. He has slightly better diction in the Light Blue
album than the Green
(creating less potential for epic mishearings
), but he's awesome in both, has an excellent voice and good rapport with the other Amis, and is my favorite Enjolras in the Japanese recordings.Thénardier:
I really can't decide. Aro Sanyutei
has a lighter voice while Hajime Komada
has a more rough and grungy sound -- it's almost like comparing Alun Armstrong to Barry James, actually, and I can't decide between those two, either. Both Sanyutei and Komada are quite funny in their early scenes and manage to be unsettling in "Attack on Rue Plumet" and "Dog Eats Dog." (They also both appear on the other 2003 albums -- Sanyutei on the Orange and Komada on the Violet.)Madame Thénardier: Miya Setouchi
. She sounds a good deal more intimidating without having to try too hard in the way Kumiko Mori
seems to. Her cackle sounds more genuine, as well. (Kumiko Mori seems like an incredibly nice person in clips I've seen of her when she's not playing a role, so perhaps it's a case where she has a hard time acting otherwise, a bit like Norm Lewis as Javert.)Gavroche: Light Blue.
Neither one is all that good, but the Light Blue cast's Gavroche is at least a bit more vocally interesting. The Green cast's Gavroche starts off a bit annoying in "Look Down," and although he gets a little better in later scenes, it's hard to overcome that first impression.Ensemble: Green.
The ensemble is absolutely spot-on, always -- technically flawless, and also very energetic and emotionally connected throughout the recording. The Light Blue ensemble is also very good (as are all the others in the Japanese recordings), but the Green album takes it up a notch. There are a few individual cases, though -- for instance, I prefer Feuilly in the Light Blue album, especially for his bit in DYHTPS. And neither album's Little Cosette sounds too great. Overall, though, the Green ensemble wins out.The Verdict:
Tallying up the votes, Light Blue
is the clear winner, 6-3. (Enjolras and Thénardier aren't counted since E was the same actor in both and I couldn't decide on T.) However, the quality of the Green cast's ensemble really can't be overstated, nor can the problems with Masahiro Takashima's Javert in the Light Blue cast.
My advice: If you can only get one Japanese recording of the show, go for the Green cast. But if you can get two, check out both the Green and Light Blue albums. Or alternatively, go for Green if you want a really excellent Valjean/Javert conflict, but try Light Blue if you lean more towards the Marius/Cosette/Éponine triangle or want a really stellar Fantine.