Kaiji Tang Interview - Ichiban's voice talks Yakuza: Like a Dragon, 13 Sentinels & Trails of Cold Steel
Kaiji Tang is a well-known voice actor within the anime and video game industry. He’s the lead voice actor in the upcoming Yakuza: Like a Dragon, playing the role of Ichiban Kasuga. Kaiji has also been in other notable games this year, including Persona 5 Royal, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV.
I had the chance to chat with Kaiji about his experience working on his voice acting projects in 2020, especially in light of current events with lockdowns and working from home. You can read our conversation below.
RPG Site: How did you get the role of Ichiban Kasuga in the first place? You've already worked on plenty of other SEGA games in the past, so obviously, they know you and what your strengths are. Did you have to audition or do anything like that?
Kaiji Tang: A couple times actually! I read when the sides initially went out and I read for them again in a call back. I recall not hearing back after a couple of months and I figured that was that. A little while later I got the happy call!
RPG Site: The first Yakuza game on PS2 actually had an ENG dub, but then subsequent releases were subtitled only. The spin-off game that released last year, Judgment, was the first Yakuza-related title in a while that received an ENG dub. How did you prepare in which direction you wanted to take Icihiban Kasuga in Yakuza: Like a Dragon? Did you check out Judgment or PS2’s Yakuza ENG dubs at all when studying up?
Kaiji Tang: I absolutely am familiar with the original Yakuza dub on PS2. Those were good times. I also got to catch a bit of the gameplay from Judgment through videos! I benefited from the very beginning by having access to the good folks at SEGA who helped me to step into Ichi’s shoes every step of the way. He’s very much Kiryu’s opposite in many aspects and we had a wonderful time fitting his whimsical demeanor into the underbelly of the Yakuza.
RPG Site: Yakuza: Like a Dragon plays differently from its predecessors as it’s turn-based and falls in line with what a classic JRPG is like. You’ve voiced many characters in JRPG games in the past, such as Wingul from Tales of Xillia and Gaius Worzel in Trails of Cold Steel, so I’m sure you’re aware of the common JRPG trope of characters “calling out your attacks.” When voicing the various summoning lines and attack names in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, did it feel familiar to you as if you were voicing another anime-styled RPG game?
Kaiji Tang: Like slipping into a warm bath! I think the fact that Yakuza: Like a Dragon lampshades the whole summoning bit is such a strong choice for this wacky universe. And it fits perfectly in line with Ichi as a character. The man eats, breathes, and lives Dragon Quest. The fact that they’ve tied his personality into the very combat mechanics of the game itself is pretty enchanting.
RPG Site: Very quick note here, you also voiced Munehisa Iwai in Persona 5/Royal. Iwai, an owner of a gun shop, strikes me as someone who could have ties to an organization like the Japanese Yakuza. Did you take any inspiration from past roles you’ve played into new ones like Ichiban Kasuga?
Kaiji Tang: Look, am I saying that Ichi grows up to open an airsoft gun shop and changes his name to Iwai? No, that’s for someone else to say. I try to come to each new role as their own separate entity with no connection to any other characters I voice. Though there has been one instance in the past of it happening, hilariously on another game SEGA published. In Valkyria Chronicles 4, I voice a character named Odin. A character very much like my character from another game, Fire Emblem Warriors - also named Odin. What a happy coincidence, right? So in that specific case, yes. Inspiration was definitely taken from a previous character.
RPG Site: Speaking of Judgment, Greg Chun is voicing a character in Yakuza: Like a Dragon as well. When voicing Ichiban Kasuga, did you consult with him or ask him about how he approached Takayuki Yagami in Judgment since both games are in the same franchise?
Kaiji Tang: We have definitely chatted about our characters, but since Yagami and Ichi are so vastly different in character, I don’t think we’ve ever had that specific conversation, no. But if you’re asking me if I steal Greg’s acting sometimes, hell yeah. Greg if you’re reading this, I’m stealing your stuff. Like a lot of it. Dragon’s Dogma? Mmm, on repeat buddy. Ike from Smash Bros? I’m fighting for my friends now too!
RPG Site: I know that as Asians, we don’t necessarily have the most opportunities to portray roles, especially ones that also look like us. However, there’s the argument that we as Asians aren’t a monolith, and a Chinese person should play or voice a Chinese character, a Japanese person should be cast in a Japanese role, etc. You’re Chinese, but Ichiban Kasuga is Japanese. Can I ask about your opinion about Asian actors playing roles that aren’t the exact ethnicity?
Kaiji Tang: Casting in voice over is a chaotic hydra that can never be fed. Who is available when and for how long is a fluid thing that changes at the drop of a hat. In a perfect world, whoever is best for the role would get the role. What’s important is that we get to the point where everyone is getting an equal opportunity to read, and I believe we’re on our way. Now I can’t tell you I’m intimately familiar with the casting process for Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but what I do know is that casting was given a good amount of time to find the actors they were looking for. By the will of whichever deity, that ball landed in my bucket.
RPG Site: Did you draw on any personal life experiences as an Asian person when it came to playing Ichiban Kasuga since he's an Asian character? Perhaps some aspects of your life that could have related to his?
Kaiji Tang: There was one instance where my life experience came in handy. No one on the team had tasted any Peking duck before we started recording. Ichi has this moment where his mentor promises to take him to a Peking duck restaurant and it becomes a fairly important thing to him. So for this one instance, Method [acting] was really useful. I brought in some Peking duck from my favorite Chinese place for everyone so we could really get into character as it were. Not just an excuse to eat Peking duck randomly throughout our recording session, no sir.
RPG Site: You also worked on 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, another title under the SEGA banner. Were you working on 13 Sentinels and Yakuza: Like a Dragon simultaneously or back-to-back? I was wondering this because according to another interview, you were the only VA to have finished their lines before COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect.
Kaiji Tang: Oh my December through February was crazy. I was recording Yakuza: Like A Dragon back to back with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, the latest Cold Steel game, Ghost of Tsushima, and another couple of projects that aren't even announced yet. My life was just yelling and then not speaking for the rest of the day. The last thing I did was 13 Sentinels and the lockdown started basically the day after my session. Hey, I wanted vocal rest, I got it.
RPG Site: How did you decide how to approach character in 13 Sentinels? He actually reminds me of Gaius, who you also portrayed in Trails of Cold Steel. They both have similarly long brown hair!
Kaiji Tang: When you portray a character like Hijiyama, you have to really lean into the character’s vulnerability. He’s interesting because there’s a fairly obvious squishy interior beneath the military training and brusqueness. Hijiyama is a character who is still searching for himself whereas Gaius is very comfortable with who he is as a person. There’s also an element of change in Hijiyama’s story. He progresses very far emotionally as you play through the game. Gaius changes stations in life but remains more or less consistent with his nurturing and laid back ideology. He’s the rock the party can rely on.
RPG Site: What were your favorite things about Hijiyama? Are you a fan of Yakisoba pans as well?
Kaiji Tang: Yeah, it’s hard to top the Yakisoba pan thing. I didn’t know what they were until 13 Sentinels. On the last day of recording, they surprised me by getting me an actual Yakisoba pan! It was FANTASTIC. I totally get what all the fuss is about. We make it at home now semi-regularly. I also enjoy that Hijiyama is awkward. So hilariously awkward when he’s not talking about things he’s familiar with.
RPG Site: With Trails of Cold Steel IV having recently released, were the logistics of voice work with NISA affected by the COVID-19 pandemic too?
Kaiji Tang: Not for Cold Steel! We were able to comfortably finish that game before any of the lockdown started.
RPG Site: You’ve now voiced Gaius for four games in the Trails of Cold Steel series. After seeing Gaius develop and grow as a character over each entry, did you change how you approached him initially starting with the first game until now with Cold Steel IV?
Kaiji Tang: When I first started voicing the character, I was told his role was to be a reliable older brother for the rest of the group. And honestly, the way he’s written, Gaius is the most mature and reliable character I’ve ever had the pleasure of voicing. Though the world around him changes and changes drastically, Gaius never allows those changes to affect who he is as a person. There’s something nice about voicing someone who always places wisdom before all else.
[Jokingly] Though, we do now use 34% more wind puns in the script than when we started.
RPG Site: That’s it! Thanks for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Kaiji Tang: Hang in there. 2020's almost over.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon releases on November 10 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC, along with a PlayStation 5 version on March 2, 2021.