Today, March 16, is the birthday of Japanese voice actress Asami Imai, one of the most distinctive, recognisable voices in modern Japanese entertainment.
Since her debut in 1999, she has racked up an impressive number of roles to her name across a variety of different media. Among enthusiasts of Japanese gaming, she’s probably best known for her roles as Noire in the Neptunia series, Makise Kurisu in the Steins;Gate visual novels, and Ikaruga in the Senran Kagura series.
She’s had an interesting career, for sure — so let’s take a look at it!
Imai first came to voice acting while she was still studying, and got off to a good start in 1998 by winning the Grand Prize for the Voice Actress category at the Enix Anime Awards. A year later, she made her debut on a drama CD for Toki no Daichi ~Hana no Ōkoku no Majo ~ (Witch of the Kingdom of the Time of the Earth Flower), a work based on a manga by Miyuki Yama which also saw a three-episode OVA release around the same time.
From 2000 onwards, Imai built up a solid base of work in anime, with contributions to a variety of different series — though primarily in supporting roles. The most well-known of these include Snow White reimagining Prétear from 2000, in which she played the character Eiko; and visual novel adaptation Da Capo in 2003, in which she played the part of numerous background characters.
Imai began working in video games not long after her anime voice acting career was well underway. One of her earliest credited video game roles was in the visual novel Muv-Luv in 2003, in which she played the role of Keiko Horikoshi, but it would be two years later with the release of The Idolmaster in Japanese arcades that Imai would take on one of her most recognisable and enduring roles: Chihaya Kisaragi, which Imai has played in every incarnation of the series except the 2007 anime adaptation Xenoglossia.
Imai has enjoyed steady work in both anime and video games pretty much since her debut, but it would be 2011 before many Western game players would become a lot more aware of her, since this was the year in which both Gust’s Atelier Totori (in which Imai plays the title character’s sister Cecilia) and, more significantly, Idea Factory’s Hyperdimension Neptunia.
These games are important for Western fans of Imai’s work because they were some of the first examples of Imai’s voice acting to see a Western release. Since 2010, a number of her earlier roles (most notably Muv-Luv and Koihime Muso) have subsequently been localised, but it was Neptunia in particular that helped make her name among Western otaku.
Today, Imai’s portrayal of guardian goddess and PlayStation personification Noire is as much an iconic part of the character as Tsunako’s distinctive artwork and the series’ trademark snappy and satirical script. In many ways the quintessential tsundere — twintails, hot-and-cold attitude, a perpetual state of denial — Noire quickly became and remained a fan favourite, and Imai’s stellar voice work was a big part of that.
Combining slight whininess with a strong sense of femininity in her human form — and emphasising the latter in particular with a strong dose of confidence, assertiveness and even aggression in her goddess “HDD” form — Imai’s performance fit the character absolutely perfectly and, along with equally strong performances from her castmates Rie Tanaka (Neptune), Kana Asumi (Blanc) and Rina Sato (Vert), played a big part in giving the Neptunia series the strong sense of identity it has today, not to mention helping to kick off one of the most surprisingly prolific phenomena in all of Japanese gaming.
Noire isn’t Imai’s only role of particular note, however; a year before Neptunia released on its home turf, she put on one of her most beloved performances as science prodigy Kurisu Makise in 5pb. and Nitroplus’ mindbending visual novel Steins;Gate. It would be 2014 before Western players would get the opportunity to experience this time-travelling, wordline-hopping adventure in full for themselves, though in the meantime, many Western otaku did take the opportunity to enjoy the excellent 2011 anime adaptation in which Imai reprised her role.
In many ways, Kurisu is a similar character to Noire. She has somewhat tsundere tendencies, can be rather hot-headed at times, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly — though in the case of both Steins;Gate and Neptunia, Imai’s characters find themselves reluctantly dragged into a web of ridiculousness by the works’ respective protagonists, and end up learning that they don’t necessarily need to keep their “walls” up all the time when they’re with people they love and enjoy the company of.
Imai has been in a number of games since these important watershed moments in her career, and with increasing numbers of dual-audio (or Japanese-only audio) localised releases here in the West, we’re hearing her voice more and more frequently, in games ranging from the BlazBlue series of fighting games to Monster Hunter-like Toukiden: Kiwami and peculiar roguelike The Awakened Fate Ultimatum.
Aside from Noire and Kurisu, Imai’s other most well-known role in the West is that of Ikaruga in Kenichiro Takaki’s Senran Kagura series. Ikaruga is a proud character rather than a tsundere, and very much concerned with propriety and tradition. Given the energetic, chaotic nature of much of the rest of Senran Kagura’s cast — particularly her classmates in Hanzou Academy — Ikaruga often finds herself playing “straight man” to all sorts of shenanigans, though as the series has gone on, her character has developed and softened somewhat, showing a less up-tight side that is more willing to have fun.
Once again, Imai’s performance of Ikaruga is as much a part of the character as Yaegashi’s distinctive character art; her voice is recognisable for those who have previously spent countless hours in the company of Noire and/or Kurisu, but Ikaruga is very much her own character. Rather than being the type that is quick to anger, Imai plays Ikaruga in a relatively understated manner, reflecting her calm demeanour and respect for her place in society. This makes for a dramatically strong contrast when Ikaruga is forced to raise her voice — both during times of crisis and simply when her classmates’ nonsense is getting out of hand — as well as a strong sense of Ikaruga being one of the most grounded, “Japanese” members of Senran Kagura’s core cast.
Imai is a prolific voice actress and one of the most beloved parts of the modern Japanese video game and anime industries. Today, she continues to perform in ongoing series such as Neptunia and Senran Kagura, and is also enjoying a successful career in music alongside her voice acting work — both as a soloist and as part of the duo Artery Vein with her Senran Kagura and Neptunia castmate Eri Kitamura (Homura and Uni, respectively).
Many of our favourite characters are richer, more distinctive and “complete” thanks to Imai’s contributions. So I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing her a very happy birthday — and perhaps indulging in some of her work to celebrate.
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