It’s not called the Great Debate for no reason. The Subs vs. Dubs debate has dominated internet forums for the past decade. You’ll find convincing arguments for each side. In fact, there are quite a few excellent sources on the subject matter already. A simple google search for “Subs vs. Dubs” will net you a plethora of posts, articles, and blog columns that deal with the issue.
In my personal experience with anime watching and research on the internet, all of anime fandom can be put into four categories. The first two obviously being the extremities of both sides: the “purists” who want nothing to do with dubs, and the “anti-purists” who believe anime is always better dubbed. There are also the people too young or too inexperienced to care. Then theres the group of people who make informed decisions before hand whether to watch anime subbed or dubbed, the middle-group.
I am part of this “middle-group,” though that hasn’t always been the case. For a time, I watched only watched anime that had been dubbed into english. That all changed when I started watching fansubs. I would soon make sure all of my titles were either subbed or dual audio. I came to the realization one day, however, that restricting yourself to only subs or only dubs, is actually harming your overall anime watching experience. Now there is no clear winner in the Subs vs. Dub debate, but if I had to choose a leader, it would definitely be subs. It’s natural that the original source be superior to any sort of imitation of that source. However, when you look at many of the popular series, the reason they’re popular is in-part due to a comparable dubbed version. The challenge lies with finding the right balance between dubs and subs.
The argument towards the subbed version is inherently moot. There is no need to defend something that came first. The problem lies with trying to justify the dub that came afterward, and boy are there a lot of reasons why dubs are usually inferior.
Argument Against Dubs:
– Cheap VAs. This was a huge problem in years past, but not so much in recent times. There is a great divide between the Japanese voice actors who actually spend a great deal of time preparing themselves for a role (akin to how a movie actor would spend time preparing for a role) and the American counterparts who often show up to the dubbing studios with minimal prior knowledge of the anime. Studios don’t want to spend loads of money on dubbing, so they usually hire rookies or part-timers to fill the roles needed, many of which aren’t the greatest of voice actors.
– Celebrity VAs. The same argument can be made for the other end of the spectrum. A-list celebrity actors are often paid loads of cash to do voice overs for anime (usually high profile ghibli movies). Yes, they are seasoned actors but just because they’re famous does not mean they fit the role. Ok this may not be a huge problem, but its annoying to say the least, having Christian Bale voice the main character from ‘Howl’s Moving Castle.’ It just doesn’t seem right.
– Lip flaps create unnatural speech. This is a huge one. The lip flaps are designed to match the Japanese language, not the English. When inexperienced VAs are challenged with matching lip flap, they usually pool all their effort into the timing which leaves little room for feelings/emotions. Another problem is the speech pattern differential. Something that takes 3 or 4 seconds to say in Japanese may only take 1 or 2 seconds to say in English. It doesn’t sound like much but when you’re forced to match lip flap, the conversations are dragged out and it feels unnatural.
– Nuances of Japanese language are often mis-translated, or left out completely. There’s a reason fansubs love to use TL notes. It’s because the American audience can’t possibly understand all the puns, jokes, and other nuances that come with a different language and culture. Things like honorifics can potentially cause riots amongst fans if they are mistranslated. Also, traditional Japanese names can also be a nightmare to correctly pronounce without screwing up the accents. This usually varies per show and it doesn’t just apply to anime, it applies to any form of media that needs to be translated from one language to another. Many of the greatest dubs out there are great because they don’t have to deal with this issue.
– Americans aren’t cute, so stop trying. This is probably one of the greatest annoyances in the history of history. When American voice actors try to portray the “cute girls doing cute things” in English. It’s just not possible. It can’t be done. There’s no disputing it. Show me ONE example where the dub actors try to portray the “moe kawaii uguu~” and not fail completely. This is one thing the USA will NEVER be number 1 at.
Argument For Dubs:
– Seasoned and experienced VAs. This is a huge one. Having experienced VAs who are either fans of the show, or will prepare for the role is a huge step towards producing a good dub. Some of these VAs, who have proven themselves again and again include Steve Blum, Johnny Yon Bosch, and Crispin Freeman.
– Non-Japanese setting. This is another strong argument for choosing the dub over the sub. There are certain shows that inherently make more sense in English rather than Japanese. Shows like Berserk, where the setting is reminiscent of Medieval Europe makes more sense if the characters speak English. Shows like Baccano, where the entire story takes place in 1930s America features an absolutely terrific dub cast. It wouldn’t make sense for a Mafia member or a Yorker from the Bronx to be speaking Japanese, it wouldn’t feel right.
– Westernized names and speech. This isn’t that huge of a deal, but it is still irksome to say the least to hear “Arucard” instead of “Alucard.” This issue becomes far greater when dealing with not only names, but symbolism as well. The original Evangelion featured many references to the German language. Needless to say, it was butchered for the most part. The English ADV dub subsequently suffered because of this. An example from this decade would be Samurai Champloo, an unholy union between Edo period Japan and western hip hop culture. The original broadcast in 2004 garnered little attention from the general, despite it marking the return of Shinichiro Watanabe. The sub was decent, but if failed to capture the nuances of the hip hop culture that most Americans are familiar with. When the English dub hit the United States, everything changed. Suddenly, the once awkward dialogue flowed with captivating style. Coupled with an awesome rap/hip-hop soundtrack mixed by Nujabes and Midicronica, Samurai Champloo quickly became a phenomenon.
– A good production crew. This is probably the one that makes or breaks a dub. Having the right production company is essential. The reason why shows such as FLCL and Cowboy Bebop have such acclaimed dubs is because the creators actually cared enough to fly over to America and oversee the dubbing. Both Watanabe and Tsurumaki had direct involvement in the casting for the dub voices. In an interview once, Steve Blum, the iconic voice of Spike from Cowboy Bebop, confessed that the day he went into the studio to do Spike, he had absolutely no idea what he was getting into. He didn’t know the plot of the show and he didn’t know anything about his character. He said if it weren’t for the JAPANESE director Shinichiro Watanabe guiding him every step of the way, the dub would have never turned out the way it did. When all is said and done, Watanabe said that he preferred Spike’s English voice actor to the original Japanese. How cool is that?
Time to tackle the elephant in the room. The one case whom purists use as their ultimate argument against dubs. And that is: “Japanese language with English subtitles are always superior to English dubs because it conveys the message that the original creators intended.”
Well then, Mr. Purist. I have to ask. Who is the creator? What is he/she trying to accomplish? And who is the intended audience?
(2) Provide entertainment in the form of comedy, unwanted harems, and fanservice
(3) Japanese Otaku population
The argument holds true. The ridiculous amount of puns, jokes, popular culture references, and wordplay in both romanji and katakana is nigh impossible to translate into English while maintaining the original feel. The dialogue is very localized to begin with and the unlocalization process would require more than simple word for word translation.
As something that Americans are familiar with, take the “Jemima’s Witness” joke from the Fox animated comedy “Family Guy” as an example.
Family Guy Pilot from 1995 (Joke is around 0:38)
The joke is obviously a play on words using the American perception of “Jehovah’s Witness” and combining it with Aunt Jemima, an American waffle company. Thus, a “Jemima’s Witness,” an old, black lady with gray hair, going from house to house selling pancakes. In the words of Seth McFarlane himself, “It horrifies me to think of how that joke would translate to another language.”
The same examples can be found in Japanese animation. Thus, for these types of shows, it is imperative to watch it in Japanese with English subtitles and bare with the TL notes. I know of at least 2 fansubbing groups who ragequit during the 2009 broadcast of Bakemonogatari due to this reason alone.
(2) Portray liminal Japan in the form of characters and emotions in the form of angels, while self psycho-examining his own life
(3) Japanese middle class
Then the argument again holds true. Despite his inability to properly use western names and religious symbolism in Evangelion, the intended message was for Japanese audiences exclusively (made clear time and time again in interviews and QA panels). Case 2 is less severe than Case 1 however as over time, the audience from America has grown comparable to its original. The Rebuild dub is regarded by some to be among the best of the past decade.
(2) Intellectual commentary and portrayal of futuristic society
(3) Aestheticians and anyone who can appreciate philosophical storytelling
Case 3 is where the argument can potentially be disputed on even terms. Mamoru Oshii tends to tell stories that encompass a wide range of cultures and audiences that are not specifically targeted at the Japanese. The Sky Crawlers in particular is a rather grim look at what humanity must sacrifice to maintain a Utopian world. The Sky Crawlers is a peculiar choice for this example as it is still rather new and there is no English dub yet. However, I’ll venture a guess that once the dub is released, the result will be comparable and perhaps even superior to the original. The premise of the show is inherently multi-cultured. In fact, the dog fighters in the movie use English to communicate while flying as it is the primary language; they use Japanese when they are talking amongst themselves on the ground.
(1) RIN Mnemosyne or The Big O
(2) Film Noir style entertainment
(3) The general audience, but more specifically, those who watch Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim
Finally, it gets to the point where argument loses most of its validity. Mnemosyne and Big O are two vastly different shows. The former was an OVA, the latter a TV series. However, they shared two things in common. First, both shows were reminiscent of 50s Hollywood film noir style entertainment which appealed to the American audience. Secondly, both shows were produced with sizable R1 production involvement. In fact, The Big O was partly funded by the Cartoon Network. Despite being helmed by a Japanese production studio, The Big O was in many respects an American animated series intended for the American audience.
My conclusion in this great debate is simple: keep an open mind while watching anime. Sure, there are some absolutely terrible dubs out there. But every once in a while you’ll find a truly remarkable dub. Not to take anything away from the original Japanese, but some of these dubs should definitely be checked out.