Kari Wahlgren gave voice to such anime characters as Haruka of Cartoon Network's FLCL and Robin of Witch Hunter Robin. This afternoon she is talking to Square Haven about some of her experiences portraying two of Square Enix's most memorable recent characters: Final Fantasy XII's Lady Ashe and Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII's Shelke.
Kari Wahlgren's name reads as it would in Japanese, rhyming with "starry." Raised in Hoisington and having graduated as a Theater Major from Kansas University, Kari began her career as an actress working in regional theater and singing Mezzo-Soprano in musicals. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actress, and after some struggling, began booking anime voice acting roles, such as Haruka on Cartoon Network's FLCL, the eponymous role of Robin in Witch Hunter Robin, and Scarlett O'Hara St. Jones in Steamboy, Katsuhiro Otomo's first film since Akira.
Having established herself as a prolific voice actor for Japanese animated films and television programs, Kari has more recently become recognized for her participation in high-profile videogame titles. She has appeared in such games as Tales of Symphonia, Halo 2, and Jade Empire, and in the retro action title, From Russia With Love, she acted in a scene opposite Sean Connery.
However, Kari is perhaps best known among fans of videogames for her roles in two of last year's Final Fantasy titles. In Dirge of Cerberus, she voiced Shelke, a withdrawn adolescent girl who is controlled by the story's villains and gradually undergoes an emotional awakening as she befriends the protagonist Vincent Valentine. In Final Fantasy XII, she voiced Ashelia Dalmasca, a stoic queen who becomes a freedom fighter after her husband is killed and her kingdom becomes tyrannized by a ruthless imperial force. The latter title is one of the best selling and most critically acclaimed games in the Final Fantasy series, selling over two million copies in the United States within weeks of its release.
Kari Wahlgren agreed to sit down with Square Haven this afternoon and share with us some of her experiences in anime and games, and lending a voice to two of Square Enix's most intriguing characters.
Square Haven: Hi, Kari. Thank you for joining us. We're very happy to have the opportunity to talk with you.
Kari Wahlgren: Thanks! It's a pleasure to talk with you guys!
Haven: You've said in an interview that through college, the furthest away from home that you'd lived was on the Missouri side of Kansas City. Now that you have a growing fanbase here and abroad, do you feel compelled to do more traveling?
Kari: Moving to Los Angeles was definitely a culture shock! The pace of life here is very different than Kansas! Working on so many international projects has really stirred my desire to travel more. I now have a number of Japanese friends and clients that say they'll show me around if I ever visit there! And it's been fascinating to get e-mails from fans as far away as China and Poland! Right now, it's a matter of finding the TIME to travel....
Haven: You're a very hard worker. Did your upbringing in Kansas have anything to do with that?
Kari: Yes, most definitely. My parents were big advocates of hard work. They told me I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it. And folks in the Midwest tend to be very solid, hard-working people in general. I'm proud to have grown up there.
Haven: You've attended plenty of anime conventions to meet with your fans. Any particularly memorable experiences?
Kari: I've had a couple of people burst into tears, which is pretty surreal. And it's always wild when people wait in line to meet me....I try to take a minute to connect with each person, even if the line is long, because I really, really do appreciate that they are there!!
Haven: Your website is really cool. What was it like putting it together?
Kari: (laughing) Very frustrating!!! I tried doing it with a friend, but it was too overwhelming! I finally turned the whole thing over to an amazing web designer named Rollence. You can see more of his work at designbyrollence.com. He's just amazing, and I'm really happy with how the website turned out. (For anyone who wants to check it out, my website is kariwahlgren.net
Haven: We were rather surprised that you have a particularly Japanese-sounding name, especially for someone hailing from the Midwest. Is there a back story to your name? Do you think you might have had some sort of pre-ordained role to play bringing together Japanese and American culture?
Kari: There's a lot of Swedish blood in my family, and "Kari" is apparently a Swedish name.....but it's really funny, because I met a Hispanic woman recently who said "Oh, I love your name! 'Kari' is a very popular Hispanic name!" And now, I'm hearing that it's a very popular Japanese name! So I don't know if I was destined to bring the cultures together or just have my name mispronounced a lot! : )
I do know that in Czech my name means "glue." There was a foreign exchange student in school who used to giggle everytime she said my name.......
Haven: Participating in Final Fantasy XII is rather monumental. In Japan, it was the sixth game ever to receive a perfect score by the top gaming magazine, Famitsu. Just looking at the artwork involved or listening to the soundtrack, one must come away with the sense that working on this project is rather a big deal. What were your thoughts entering into this epic production?
Kari: Final Fantasy was one of the video game franchises I definitely wanted to work on one day. I was thrilled to finally be cast in one (or two)! I think the artwork, characters and storylines are just fantastic; they're really in a league of their own! I didn't take the experience lightly. I was very excited to work on the FF games.
Haven: Lady Ashe is perhaps one of the most independent female figures in the Final Fantasy series. Her husband is killed at the beginning of the game and she seems to resolve to be completely self-sufficient from then on. This is a very different image of a videogame leading lady than, you know, the princess who's basically there to be kidnapped by the bad guys. What were your feelings taking on the role of self-reliant Ashelia?
Kari: Ashe is one of my all-time favorite characters, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. She's independent, strong, a great political leader, and can kick butt and look good doing it!! I think Ashe is a great female role model; she's someone that my 14-year-old niece could look up to. I am so glad I got to play this character, and I'm hoping to see more females like her in video games in the future.
Haven: In Dirge of Cerberus you voiced perhaps the most interesting character in the game. While she is certainly cold and withdrawn, Shelke has more of an arc than anyone else in the story, as she comes to trust the good guys and help them out. Were there any qualities you wished to endow her with, or places you might have taken her were the story further developed?
Kari: Shelke was an incredibly difficult character to play, because the clients wanted her very expressionless. They kept saying "Do less! Do less! Less emotion!!!" when we were recording. So it was hard to find a balance between showing Shelke's cold, detached side, while still getting across all of the conflicting emotions goin on inside of her. Luckily, we had an amazing director, Bob Buchholz, who really helped me develop Shelke into a cold, but sympathetic character.
Haven: You leant your abilities as a singer to the Lemony Snicket videogame. If there's another sequel to Final Fantasy VII, could you imagine, say, Shelke bursting into song?
Kari: Ummm.....to say I leant my singing abilities to "Lemony Snicket" is a bit too kind....I believe the director's exact words were: "We need you to sing this as BADLY as possible!!" So if you like the sound of nails on a chalkboard, you'll like my performance!! : )
I don't see Shelke breaking into a song and dance anytime soon, but if they write one....I guess I'm game!
Haven: It seems that in the entertainment industry there's still some stigma involved with making videogames, though the bad rap appears to be gradually falling by the wayside. Were there any rewarding aspects to working on the Final Fantasy games that people who aren't involved in the medium might not be aware of?
Kari: The old stigmas are definitely dying. Nowadays, there isn't any celebrity who's too "big" to do a video game. They've even got the annual video game awards show now on Spike TV, where celebrities present awards and talk about the most popular games. It's not the same scene it was ten years ago. Video games are hard work, but extremely rewarding!
Haven: Games are currently experiencing more growth and change than any other form of entertainment by a considerable margin. Where would you be interested in seeing interactive entertainment go in the coming years?
Kari: I'm not sure.....but wherever they go, I hope I'm employed somehow! : )
Haven: You are a public personality now. Two million people have experienced your performance as Ashe and many were really impressed by it. Is there something you wish to communicate to your fans? In particular, what would you like to give young women who play as your characters?
Kari: I can't tell you how much I appreciate the Final Fantasy fans. They are truly some of the sweetest, most passionate fans I've ever met!! It means a lot to me that they enjoy what I do... In particular, I hope Ashe and Shelke appeal to the girls who play the games. Our society gets so caught up in the "princess complex" sometimes: where the girl is helpless until she finds a boyfriend to rescue her. While Shelke and Ashe do get help from the people around them, they are strong, interesting women on their own. Don't be afraid to be strong, Ladies!!
Haven: Thank you for sharing your time with us today, Kari. It's been a great pleasure.
Kari: Thanks. It's been great talking with you guys.