Producer Sakabe Koji tells DQ how the creative team strived for authenticity when making Japanese miniseries Deaf Voice, in which a man from the CODA (child of deaf adults) community working as a court sign language interpreter becomes involved in a murder case.
A year after 2021 feature film CODA took home the Academy Award for best picture, a Japanese miniseries is now putting sign language and the children of deaf adults centre stage.
Based on the novel by Maruyama Masaki, Deaf Voice is a two-part crime mystery starring Kusanagi Tsuyoshi (Midnight Swan) as Arai Naoto, a CODA (child of deaf adults) and ex-police official who is struggling with loneliness and personal challenges after losing his job and his marriage.
Seeking a fresh start, he uses his proficiency in sign language to become an interpreter in court – but his new role leads him to become involved in a murder investigation.
The drama is directed by Watanabe Kazutaka (Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan, An Artist of the Floating World) for Japanese public broadcaster NHK, with NHK Enterprises distributing.
Here, producer Sakabe Koji explains how the production put the deaf community front and centre, with authentic casting and an extensive pre-production process to ensure the story was told as truthfully as possible.
What are the origins of the project?
The project was introduced to us by Ito Manabu, a producer for Kadokawa Corporation, who had been developing it for several years. The novel depicts the reality faced by CODAs and the deaf community and the difficulty they have living within Japanese society. Manabu said it was an eye-opener, a glimpse into a world he had never known before.
Manabu was attracted to the novel due to its awareness-raising and its exploration of socially significant themes against the backdrop of a gripping mystery thriller. Recognising the profound social significance of a drama focusing on the deaf community, we decided to collaborate with Kadokawa to produce the programme, before the film CODA’s numerous Academy Award nominations and its global acclaim.
How was the series developed?
Script development commenced swiftly and pre-production spanned two years, culminating in filming in 2023 – a notably prolonged period in comparison to typical Japanese TV dramas.
During this phase, we engaged in numerous fact-finding interviews, consulting sign language supervisors, interpreters and members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to ensure authentic representation in both script and production design.
As we delved into understanding the deaf world, it struck us that the deaf community, despite residing in Japan and sharing the nation’s ethnicity and societal structures, possessed their own distinct language and cultural identity. This revelation strengthened our conviction that this was indeed a narrative and a community deserving global attention.
How did you want to adapt Maruyama Masaki’s novel for the drama?
Firstly, I aimed to maintain its intrigue as a mystery drama. Sometimes in dramas and films, individuals with disabilities are portrayed as helpless and vulnerable, primarily to evoke sympathy or produce touching moments. Given that our programme isn’t centred on overcoming disabilities, we were meticulous in crafting engaging narratives and relationships for characters with disabilities.
Secondly, I endeavoured to intricately detail the character development of our protagonist, Naoto, capturing his nuanced emotional transitions and shifts in perspective. My vision was to portray not only the overarching plot but also spotlight Naoto’s personal journey as he confronts and wrestles with adversities.
Tell us about Arai Naoto. How do we follow him through the story?
Arai Naoto is a CODA. A former police official, he is now retired and has a part-time job as a night watchman. His marriage ended in divorce, leaving him single.
He is dating Miyuki, a single mother, and he seeks a steady job to take the relationship to the next level. To achieve that, he reverts to using sign language, the only naturally acquired skill he has.
Later, when Naoto is appointed to be a court’s sign language interpreter, he meets Tezuka Rumi, a representative of a deaf and hard-of-hearing support group, and decides to assist Rumi by serving as the group’s sign language interpreter. One day, when an operator of a social service facility is murdered, Naoto discovers a connection between Rumi and the case’s suspect, who had ties to a cold case on which Naoto had previously worked as an interpreter during his police days.
As Naoto attempts to solve the mystery behind the two crimes, he becomes more empathetic towards the deaf community, prompting him to confront his own past and his relationship with his family.
What makes him a compelling lead character?
As a CODA, Naoto experienced internal conflict due to his unique upbringing. He felt that he and his deaf family lacked true understanding, but he knew that the hearing world around him wouldn’t understand his inner conflicted feelings. Over time, it became extremely difficult for him to open up to others.
Naoto’s attempts to evolve, to marry the woman he loves, and to build his own family, despite his bleak outlook, make him a compelling lead character.
How did you work with the deaf community to develop the story and how did you find actors to play the 20 deaf characters featured on screen?
Our initial contact with the deaf community began with Masaki, who had established a significant network within this group and was a respected and trusted figure therein. Through his trusted contacts, we formed a production team, beginning with Kimura Harumi. She is a sign language educator at the National Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disabilities. Others involved included people with vast experience supervising numerous TV dramas, and a CODA.
We engaged them at critical stages of production, including auditions, script revision readings and pre-production interviews. At every stage, a sign language interpreter, well-versed in drama production, facilitated communication between the deaf and hearing teams.
For the audition process, a coordinator, with a vast network within the entertainment industry, identified potential candidates from among deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, as well as auditioning nearly 80 individuals from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
Ultimately, while not all, the majority of roles intended for the deaf, hard-of-hearing and CODA communities were given to individuals fitting those specific characters. Additionally, we enlisted several individuals from the deaf community for supporting roles.
How did you try to reflect or replicate the real-life experiences of deaf people for viewers watching at home?
Many viewers may have little opportunity to come in contact with a deaf person in their everyday lives. By casting genuine deaf individuals as characters, we allow audiences to witness, even if just on their screens, a representation of the sign language that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community genuinely use.
Japan has a regrettable history of subjecting deaf people to prejudice and discrimination. Because they personally experienced it or inherited that legacy, the deaf actors’ emotions and lines in the drama come across as spontaneous and genuine. By casting deaf actors to portray these experiences, as depicted in the source novel, we can say that their real-life experiences and history are directly reflected in the drama. Every gesture and sign made by a deaf actor encapsulates the collective experiences and history of the Japanese deaf community.
How is sign language used throughout the drama?
About one-third of the named characters in the drama use sign language. Because of that, scenes with important interactions that go to the heart of the mystery are sometimes conducted only through sign language.
In adapting the novel for television, we had to reconsider the visual appeal and characteristics of sign language. Under the supervision of Ezoe Satoshi, an experienced sign language acting coach who has worked on numerous TV dramas, the team came up with nuanced differences in the sign language the characters use according to their age, background and personality.
At times, adding ad-libs or changing the script during the actual filming, the director, sign language instructor and actors, through in-depth discussions, tried to come up with the most appropriate signing that fit the emotional tone of the scene.
Does the show have a particular visual style, and if so, how was this achieved?
First and foremost, we were aiming for a suspense-filled entertainment programme in the style of a classic crime mystery. Sign language is an important component of the programme, but this drama is neither intended to be a language-learning show nor an educational one. The director aimed to keep the sign language visible and comprehensible during filming and editing. However, at times, he chose to prioritise the emotionality and tension of various scenes over clearly showing the signing taking place.
While you might assume that signing is soundless, the programme’s sound design and recording factored in sounds like the rustling of clothing from hand movements and the actors’ breathing.
What challenges did you face in development or production?
Before this project, many of the hearing staff had little to no interaction with deaf individuals. And while some deaf actors had experience performing on stage or participating in educational programmes about sign language, few were familiar with filming TV dramas. Since no one knew what challenges they may face in the actual filming, we conducted a mock filming session where numerous details were addressed — like the initial call to begin filming and, if using sign language for direction, where the signer should stand.
This approach gave everyone an opportunity to start working as a team at a very early stage of the production so that deaf people began to believe they were a part of and had a stake in the production.
Our goal was to transform the portrayal of deaf individuals in Japanese drama. We wanted the deaf actors to participate with the understanding that this was ‘their drama’ and feel free to offer opinions and make it known when they were uncomfortable with how things were done.
Many of the film crew had learned simple sign language so they could say hello. But among them, some went the extra step of learning job-related signs like ‘wait,’ and ‘I want to reposition the microphone,’ so that they could communicate directly on set. We also saw instances of a deaf and hearing person chatting amicably, somehow able to communicate even when the hearing person did not understand sign language. Although far from perfect, I think we were able to break down the wall and narrow the gap between the deaf and hearing people in some way.
Why might the series appeal to international viewers?
I’m confident the authenticity and eloquence individuals bring from their lived experiences to their roles in this production will resonate with international audiences, especially given the visual intricacies of sign language. If viewers also reflect on how the production managed to engage the deaf, hard-of-hearing and CODA communities, I’ll feel we’ve made a modest contribution towards fostering a more inclusive and diverse society.