‘Star Wars’ Mythology & Meaning: Crispin Freeman at Anime Matsuri Hawaii
The gap between my adventures in the anime fandom had a good decade long gap in it, but one thing remained constant: Crispin Freeman is still voicing at least one character in pretty much every awesome anime ever. When I was in high school he was Alucard on Hellsing and Touga on Utena. While I was on my self-imposed anime fandom sabbatical, his wrap sheet grew to include voices on Wolf’s Rain, Read or Die, Naruto, and almost everything from the .hack// franchise. Seriously, he does a lot of voice work. When I saw that he was coming to Anime Matsuri Hawaii, I was pretty impressed that a first-year con was able to bring out such a well-known guest. Then I saw that he was hosting a panel called Star Wars: Mythology and Meaning and I slammed on the brakes on my little trip down anime fandom memory lane, inched closer to the screen to make sure I was reading the schedule right, and then wondered what the hell I’d missed in the ten years since I’ve been gone. That guy who does a million voices is lecturing on Star Wars? Where the hell have I been?
Somehow, between voicing every character under the sun, Crispin Freeman has begun a pretty impressive project called Mythology and Meaning, where he analyzes various narratives and forms of media in terms of structure and use of mythology. As someone who is known to go on long-winded tangents about media theory and modern story telling techniques, it would be an understatement to say I was thrilled at the prospect of having what’s pretty much a college level lecture given at a convention. The panel more than delivered and left me hoping he attends every convention I ever attend just so I can see the entire series delivered with the same enthusiasm and just the right levels of snark that Freeman brought to Anime Matsuri Hawaii.
He analyzed episodes IV, V, and VI in terms of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Monomyth, made some insightful comparisons between The Force, Daoism, and Zen, as well as the relationship of the Force to Abrahamic religions in episodes I, II, and III. Furthermore, when asked if something was missing from Campbell’s Monomyth, his response was ‘the female side.’ If I wasn’t completely enraptured by the panel already, that would have pushed me over the edge. But hey, I was over the moon with the panel already, so it was simply a wonderful cherry on top of an already awesome experience.
In short, Freeman blew my mind. From this point forward, I will go out of my way to see his panels and he shall henceforth be known as ‘the dude with the awesome voice and the awesome brain.’
After the panel, he took time to chat with fans and he was gracious enough to grant me an interview.
Angel: You are primarily known, at least in the fandom circles, for your voice acting. It’s really cool to see that you have other stuff going on, like [the Star Wars: Mythology and Meaning panel]. From your perspective, are you known more for your voice acting or do people come up and talk about your academic approach to media as well?
Crispin: I’m probably far more popular right now as a voice actor. The mythology stuff was something that I started for my own artistry and for my own personal satisfaction. I wanted to share that with others because it is what I found so compelling about animated story telling and sci-fi fantasy story telling. As time went on, I realized that there weren’t as many people who maybe were as knowledgeable or as excited as I was about things. Maybe they were curious but they didn’t know much yet. Instead of looking for other people just to talk about this with, I realized I would need to start creating more formal presentations to be able to get that kind of discussion going – that I would have to throw the party, so to say. So, I have been doing that more and more.
In the future I want to be doing more of my mythology work. I’m actually planning on starting a podcast early next year on my mythology scholarship. I’ve been running a podcast on voice acting for the past four years now. I’m doing my best to transition to more of the mythology work because that’s really what’s compelling to me right now.
Angel: How long have you been doing the mythology stuff? It sounds like it’s kind of in the early stages, starting the podcast next year.
Crispin: In terms of my mythology studies, that happened right about the time I was starting my work as a voice actor. So, about the time I started getting into dubbing Japanese animation, around 1997, was also the time that I first came across Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology. The two went sort of hand-in-hand for me personally as a creator and in my own personal life, but I didn’t start sharing my scholarship with others until later. I started doing some panels on The Hero Journey at conventions which I would go to sometimes on a casual basis.
The first sort of formal articulation of my scholarship happened in 2006, I believe, when I was invited to present at School Girls and Mobile Suits, which is an academic event that happens at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. And back then they would invite industry people as well as academics, and so they invited me to present, and that’s when I put together my first Mythology and Meaning presentation for that event. It was so well-received that they insisted that I come back every year and do another one. For the next four years I would come back and do a completely original presentation at School Girls and Mobile Suits. I did that for five years and then their organization changed and they didn’t have the budget to bring industry people anymore.
Then I had the opportunity to teach a continuing education program and they wanted to do one on sci-fi fantasy films, so I developed five presentations around that and that’s where the Star Wars presentation that I did today comes from. Eventually, I built the website that I have now (MythologyandMeaning.Com), and I started creating trailers for my work and everything to try to explain to people what it was all about, because people weren’t quite sure, so I said, ‘Well I’m from Hollywood. I know how to make a trailer.’ I made a trailer for my scholarship as well.
The podcast is the next logical extension of trying to reach as many people as possible. It’s a lot of fun to be able to go to these conventions and film festivals and academic conferences and give my presentations, but as you’ve seen now, [they are] very heavy on the audio-visual; not the kind of thing that’s easy to export broadly. A podcast is going to be a much better way of getting that out there. There’s just been some other business stuff that I needed to wrap up first before I could give the time and attention I want to to be able to do my mythology podcast.
Angel: So, a lot of what you went over in the panel that we saw today is the stuff I learned right out of college. I have a B.A in Film and Digital Media. Do you have a formal educational background or did you learn it from being in the industry experience and reading on your own?
Crispin: The vast majority of my studies in mythology have been on my own. I graduated college with a degree in theater and a minor in computer science. I actually only took one religion class in college, but it was very enlightening because the woman who taught it really brought a rigor to talking about spiritual texts that I did not know of before. People would get into the class and talk sort of airy-fairy about God, and she would really pin them. She would say, ‘Where in the text does it say that?’ We’d be reading the confessions of Saint Augustine and someone would say, ‘Well God is like this,’ and she’d say, ‘Where does St. Augustine say that God is like that?’ That kind of rigor was really appealing to me. I [said], ‘Oh! This isn’t just whatever you think. You actually have to back up what you’re saying with source material? Awesome! I’m in!’
I brought that rigor when I discovered Campbell’s work because he’s very rigorous. As much as I loved Campbell’s work, he doesn’t really deal with pop culture very much. He talks about Star Wars and James Joyce and that’s about it. He doesn’t really want to talk about much else in pop culture, and that was really where I was living. That’s where I was seeing most mythology being made: in pop culture. I wanted to try to use what I could learn from Campbell in terms of scholarship and apply it to pop culture. Also, Campbell didn’t really talk about certain things like Japan in great detail. He gestures Japan. He doesn’t talk in detail about Shinto or Buddhism in Japan, so I had to do my own research on these things.
It has been all of my own studies. I got a Masters in Fine Arts and Acting, but mythology has been my own work, tested against my experience in the industry. I find that academics will whip up these really fascinating theories that work in their head, but if you actually try to do that in a story, you’d lose the audience. For me the litmus test, the way of testing my theories, is does the audience applaud? Does it get butts in seats? That’s when I know something is actually working. I like having the proving ground of an audience of actually having to create art that communicates, to keep me grounded in my scholarly pursuits.
Angel: So, you said one of the presentations you have is about animation, is that correct?
Crispin: I have five presentations on animation and, if you go to MythologyandMeaning.com, the website is split into three categories: Animation, Film, and Video Games. In the animation section there are five presentations that I do, each one on different topics. Most of the animation presentations are cross-cultural comparisons between American animated story telling and Japanese animated story telling. The only exception is the fifth one about Evangelion, which I avoided talking about for a very long time until I was able to get that skeleton key to unlock it and really explain what it really was. Now, I have a presentation which I think really explains what Evangelion is about, and that’s not necessarily a cross-cultural comparison because it is just about that show. The other ones are very much cross-cultural comparisons between the patterns we find in American animated story telling versus the patterns in Japanese animated story telling.
Angel: So, it would be fair to say that you analyze the stuff that you’re in because you compare anime to American animation. You can kind of look at it with a critical eye?
Crispin: Yes! For the most part, as long as it is a show that has some depth to it. When I’m working on Digimon, [I’m] not always looking too deeply. I don’t always have the whole story. I’m just coming in to do my part and go. But if it is a show that is more meaty like Wolf’s Rain or Hellsing or even something like Eureka Seven, where there are explicit mythological symbols and meanings trying to be expressed, then yes! I don’t know how to play the character if I don’t know what’s going on.
Especially with a show like Wolf’s Rain, the director and I were geeking out about the mythology of the story all the time. She was actually asking, ‘So, can we use Heaven instead of Paradise when we translate this word from Japanese?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t think you can because the way the world works is sort of a Hindu cosmology and Heaven has Abrahamic connotations that don’t really apply in Hindu cosmology so we need to find a different word.’ This is something that I was very much focused on. Digimon usually doesn’t really play in waters that deep.
It depends on the show. If it is a more mature story telling show, I absolutely need to know what is going on mythologically or I don’t know how to play my character.
Angel: I have [another] question. Kind of backing off from the intensity of that and kind of going into something fun. First of all…
Crispin: Intensity is fun.
Angel: It is! Lighthearted would be a better word. My last question is, since the slogan of our website is ‘We’re Fans. We have Feelings. This is where we talk about them’, what gives you feelings? What are you a huge fan of? What makes you just geek out like crazy. Star Wars, a little bit I can see.
Crispin: When I was young, Star Wars was extremely influential on me. I saw the first, Episode IV, when I was about seven years old. It was not its first release; I saw it when it was re-released, I think, right before Empire Strikes Back. I saw it and then I saw Empire Strikes Back not long after that and then later Return of the Jedi. Star Wars is very influential on me.
I think [another] one of the big franchises that is influential on me is Doctor Who. I certainly grew up with Doctor Who. All the icons on my computer are Doctor Who icons. I grew up with Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor. He was my Doctor growing up, and I was fond of David Tennant as well. I thought he was sort of a younger, sexier Tom Baker. I’m very fond of both. There are certain aspects of Doctor Who lately that I’m not such a fan of, so I sort of have to pick and choose. But yeah, those were big influences: Star Wars and Doctor Who.
Lord of the Rings! I like to say I was raised on Tolkien. Some people were raised in church; I was raised on Tolkien. My mother used to read me The Hobbit incessantly, and so when The Lord of Rings films came out, people would watch Fellowship of the Ring and say ‘I wonder what happens next’ and I’d be like, ‘You don’t know? How do you not know?’ The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings [are] very near and dear to my heart. That’s the stuff that is most fascinating to me and that I spend a lot of time studying because I think there’s so much wisdom to find from it, especially artistically. Middle Earth is so well-crafted that it’s just this endless source of interesting scholarship that I really appreciate.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Crispin. The panel and our conversation were definitely the biggest highlight of the convention for me. I’d attend a con just to listen to your lectures for, like, an entire weekend. No joke. Hope to see you next year!
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and has essays published in Fandom Frontlines.
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