Origin Story #5: Twenty-Two Dollars (Moneylessness)

Japanese animation, also known as anime, refers to cartoon films and series produced in Japan. Anime art has a very distinctive style – characters often have large eyes and spiky hair. The numerous genres of Japanese anime (tailored to suit different tastes and ages) share certain qualities, such as a Japanese cultural perspective, the martial arts, and a recurring collection of stock characters. Anime proudly boasts an enthusiastic and enormous fan base. These legions of fans are called otaku, or “fan-boys/girls.” The otaku hordes watch and buy anime obsessively – and this means big money for anime producers. With fans all over the world, English dubs – or new recordings of the spoken sound track – are needed to meet the demands of an international market.

What I know about anime is that despite the multitudes of dollars made each year in this industry, the producers of these shows (and their English-speaking dubbing houses) pay their voice actors – of which I am one – almost nothing.

In July of 2008, I think I might have mentioned that I wasn’t working. I think I also might have mentioned that I was really worried about money. It was for this reason that I took a job in anime, dubbing Japanese voices into English through a process called Automatic Dialogue Replacement. It was a cute show, but this job would earn me less than ONE TENTH of what I usually made doing the same work for an American original animation studio.

Making matters worse (oh boy) my director really didn’t like me. He used a new directing style I’d never encountered before, known as “sit there, shut up, and do what I tell you to do.” While the Japanese clients were nice to work with, my American director did his best to make every session as unpleasant for me as possible. To add injury to his insults, I was – let me say it again – making less than ONE TENTH of what I usually made doing the same work for a more reputable studio. As amazing as it may seem, I would have made more money (and had a better time) working at Shop Mart than I was earning voicing the female lead in a twenty-six episode series for broadcast television.

Every time I worked on that show, I came home angry. I knew I shouldn’t let them treat me like a punk, but that “beggars and choosers” thing really had me over a barrel. I had no other job. And as skimpy and thankless as this one was, wasn’t any income better than no income at all?

The final straw came when the studio refused to pay me TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS for work I’d already done, recording new or adjusted lines in previously recorded episodes. As embarrassing as my Screen Actors Guild Foreign Dubbing Contract was, it did actually say that they owed me for this extra work. And this extra work would cost the studio a whopping eleven dollars per episode (horrifying, embarrassing, mortifying rate!) Yet this TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS was conspicuously missing from my paycheck.

Assuming it had been a simple over-sight, I went straight to the people in charge. But when I told them about it, the owner of the company’s terrifying assistant Tina Marie (was her name really Tina Marie? Now I can’t get the image of Ginger on Gilligan’s Island out of my head) put her index fingers on the corners of her mouth and shook her head like a giant animated baby: “oh, oh! Frowny face! We don’t have to pay you for that! Sooooo sad!”

It was one of those eyebrow-raising moments: I’m sorry, did you really just say that to me, Ginger? It was not the reaction a professional such as myself would expect to get from an employer regarding a matter of business. I walked away from her with my head hung low like an anime zombie, super-deformed to exaggerate my emotions. Quick as you can, Tina Marie and the unpaid TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS had reduced me to nothing – less than nothing – they’d reduced me to the level of the undead. I drove home in a stupor, surprised I wasn’t pulled over by the Burbank police for driving while being a cartoon ghoul.

At home I picked my plum tree and mulled the matter over.

My first reaction was that I should refuse to record any more shows until they paid me the – I’m sorry – TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS they owed me. But having spent a lifetime in show business, that horrible “show must go on” mantra kept getting in the way. It’s not just a saying; it’s really more of a religion. That’s why actors have been known to do all manner of stupid things, like go out and stomp dance on a broken foot rather than miss a single performance.

After all, wasn’t I a “trooper” (also known as an archangel in the church of “the show must go on”)? Shouldn’t I just suck it up? How could I leave that poor studio in the middle of a season?

But then, I thought, popping a sweet plum into my mouth, why couldn’t they just pay me the TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS they owed me? They did owe me; it was in the contract. By not paying me, they were essentially telling me that I wasn’t worth it– that I wasn’t worth TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS. “Go ahead,” they seemed to say to me, “sue us. See how much that costs ya.” But how could I wager my self-respect against what basically boiled down to a roll of quarters?

I’d always believed that life was about being brave. And for me, in this moment, being brave meant walking away from a terrible job, even when I had no other job or income with which to replace it. Being brave meant trusting that something else would come – a good idea, a real job, something better. Yes, once I purged this blood blister of a show, there’d be room in my life for something good again. Something better.

Grabbing a plum, I stabbed myself on a branch and sucked my finger.

The plums I was picking were delicious – and free. They were nutrient-rich, royal violet, and grew in my very own yard without price tags or stickers. They didn’t hold out on me for TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS.  They didn’t make me feel valueless; they made me feel rich and gave themselves freely, whether I made a lot of money or none.

And that’s when I thought of the produce cooperative – as a forum for giving, where it wouldn’t matter how much one gave or how much money one made. If you gave food, you got food in return. Everyone’s contribution would weigh the same, regardless of what or how much it was. The co-op would never use money and because of this, everyone in the co-op would be equal.

A heavenly sweet abundance of juice exploded in my mouth, casting a beautiful ruby tint on the world that had nothing whatsoever to do with Japanese animation.

I jumped down off the hill with my two paper bags full of sun-rich plums. I called Tina Marie and told her that I wouldn’t record any more shows until they paid me the money they owed me.

The next day the studio replaced me and I started the Hillside Produce Cooperative.

It was the best TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS I never made.

(read more Origin Stories)