A few days ago, I logged into My Anime List at the request of a friend. Since I have essentially abandoned my profile on that site, I was curious to see how outdated my list would be. It was completely up to date. In the circles that I hang around in online, I am probably one of the less avid fans of anime, at least in terms of watching every new series that comes out. I tend to instead go for the series that are either recommended to me by friends or shows that I have heard about enough to pique my curiosity. However, the fact that I haven’t watched anime in a while is not because I have nothing to watch (on the contrary, I have a rather large backlog) but rather because I consider the experience a special one. When I prepare to watch anime, I pay special attention to my mood and level of fatigue so that I can approach the story that is about to be presented to me with an open mind– I want to immerse myself in the environment and interact with the characters in an involved manner. It is for this reason that I find it completely absurd and petty when I see people on anime-based message boards arguing over which shows are good, which ones will “waste” your time, whether to watch the dub, etc. Needless to say, I tend to avoid such communities and the people within them– they’re often not worth wasting any brain power over.
My undergraduate college was an interesting school. Due to the sort of people a college with no atheletic scholarships tends to attract, the course listing would include classes on Star Trek, anime / manga, Harry Potter, etc. I actually ended up taking an elective class that included a unit analyzing the art medium of anime and the psychology involved in the differing perceptions of the artform between cultures. I particularly enjoyed how the professor started the unit– he asked “What is this?” after drawing the ^.^ emote on the board. Most of the students enthusiastically replied that it was an anime-style smile, charmed by the fact that they were watching a published PhD. in Space Physics use such an emote in a classroom. “No!” the professor retorted as the class fell in his trap. “This is a series of three written characters– two caret symbols separated by a period!” His point was that we assign meaning to more simplistic representations in order to communicate with one another. That is what anime started out as and still is today.
Despite the fact that we are watching an amalgamation of lines blurring past our eyes at 24 frames per second, we assign meaning to the characters and the environment being depicted on our screens. A few things are easy to interpret as intended– no one would argue that the school featured in Azumanga Daioh is anything other than a school or that Arthur is supposed to be a cat in Code Geass. Other things are more open to interpretation such as some of the characters’ races. Depending on the level of detail we are given, we can sometimes assign tentative races to characters in our heads (we may decide a name sounds “Western” or that a character looks more “Asian” because of her hair color/style), but in some cases it is difficult to do even that such as in the case of Code Geass where the Britannians and the Japanese are, for the most part, drawn with no real visual differences.
So why does it even matter whether or not such distinctions are clear? By all accounts, it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, these very distinctions are the sorts of details people relentlessly argue about, simply because they are unable to cope with the fact that alternate depictions of characters and ideas differ from what they had personally imagined. In an analogous non-anime example, some of you may recall the “fan” outrage upon finding out that the character Rue was cast as an African American female in the Hunger Games film. Since many readers had missed the extremely brief moment in which her skin tone was described in the novel, many people imagined the character of Rue as a Caucasian female. The release of the movie brought with it a deluge of contemptible tweets such as “why did the producer make all the good characters black smh” and “why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie”. Keep in mind that such comments were made even despite the fact that the author did mention Rue as having “dark skin”; the outcry was horrific enough that a number of journalists wrote articles about it with provocative titles such as White Until Proven Black.
Similar arguments (and the dismissal of each others’ equally valid opinions) are seen from time to time regarding the races of anime characters, but more frequently one can find such levels of ignorant passion in debates regarding regional adaptation. In any anime-based community, one would be hard pressed to finder a deeper cesspool of pretension, ignorance, and thinly veiled elitism than the forum threads “discussing” anime or video game localization, particularly the translated voice acting.
Whenever talking about dub voices, the knee-jerk reaction is to mention how “bad” they sound or how they don’t “go” with the characters compared to the superior Japanese acting. Regardless of whether commenters even have any significant opinion either way, their thoughts become polarized by the fact that, in the anime-community, the “correct” opinion is to dislike localized audio tracks (much the same way that it is just “cooler” to talk about how much one hates studying as opposed to potentially admitting that he or she finds peace in it). Regardless of the reasons for making such comments, the truth of the matter is that people are once again just making noise because the dubbed voices do not match their preconceived notions of how the voices “should” sound and feel insecure once these values are threatened by others feeling differently. Cue the passionate paragraphs from both sides attempting to explain how their way of thinking is “right”.
So why is it that to many people (especially new anime watchers) Japanese voices sound “better”? Simple, familiarity breeds contempt. Aside from the fact that we find foreign speech, spellings, mannerisms, and traditions charming, when listening to someone speak a foreign language, it is impossible to pick up on all the nuances and inflections in the speech at the same level as one’s mother tongue. Because of this slight disconnect, one has no frame of reference to judge how “well” the language is being spoken and how “believable” the delivery of the lines is when the language is being performed in a play. As a result, we simply accept the delivery as being correct; this tendency, though natural, is the reason why there are so many people who believe that anime-style Japanese is the type of Japanese spoken all the time in Japan. Now upon hearing the English dub, it is very easy to feel that the voice acting sounds “fake” because we can pick up on the subtle cues in the dialogue that sound “off” because we know that English speakers don’t talk like this.
In addition, the “types” of voices that we hear on screen tend to get categorized as “types” of people that we have met over the course of our lives. Public school teachers often have a hard time picking out names for their children because they are almost always subconsciously reminded of someone else’s child that they had the displeasure of teaching, causing the name to not sit well with them. In dubbed anime, someone’s voice may sound “bad” or “annoying” simply because it subconsciously reminds us of the type of people whom we shared unpleasant experiences with in the past (such as in the classroom) or other characters we have seen elsewhere. Couple these sentiments with the previous topic about picking up on the theatrical artificiality of our native language being used in performances and you can see why one may automatically feel that dubbed voices are “worse” without actually considering why they feel that way in the first place.
Tales of Graces intro theme Mamoritai (White Wishes), as played in the original Japanese release
Tales of Graces f intro theme Mamoritai (White Wishes), as played in the English release
If one views the YouTube comment section for the English performance of the Tales of Graces opening theme, he or she would notice that there are a multitude of comments talking about how the Japanese performance sounds “so much better” and that the English version does not “go as well” with the animated intro video. The problem here is that the same singer performed both versions of the song. There should be no discrepancy in the voices. Naturally, there is a noticeable accent due to a cultural barrier, but the pronunciation is not less comprehensible than some native English songs– definitely not to the point that the song is ruined. There is no reason why the Japanese performance should sound “so much better” than the English one.
This brings me to the next point– archetypes. Another reason why some may be compelled to feel that a dub voice is “bad” is because they feel that the voice is just “wrong” for the character. When Bandai Entertainment released the English dub for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, people honed in on how “bad” Mikuru’s voice sounded to “prove” their point about how terrible the dub was. The recording studio was actually attempting to voice her with the same sort of delivery that her Japanese voice actress had performed (a soft spoken “moe” voice) since, after all, people wanted the dubs to sound closer to the original so that they wouldn’t sound quite as “wrong”. The problem however is that spoken language simply doesn’t work like that. Yes, people got what they wanted– a Mikuru sounding closer to the original voice, but they also found that she sounded faker than ever. This is because different cultures have different sets of character archetypes in their media. There is some overlap, such as having the hero look tall and edgy or having the comically fat guy also be dumb, but there are also a few archetypes that don’t quite translate over properly such as the tendency for anime pop idols to have voices making them sound 11 years old in Japanese anime (which, by the way, is not how Japanese pop idols sound by default in real life). This is why anime and games are not translated, but localized— the characters need to be portrayed using the target region’s archetypes and pop culture references in a manner that is superficially different, yet still true to the character. Avid anime watchers are often familiar with Japanese archetypes and are horrified when a character or idea is depicted slightly differently in the dub despite the fact that a straight carry-over of the original archetype would make the character seem legitimately out of place otherwise. Think about how off Google Translations seem after literally translating text.
A good exercise to better understand why something sounds the way it does is to actually think about it; how would you voice the character? More than likely, you will end up utilizing a more familiar archetype in the process while also realizing that perhaps the dubbed voice isn’t such a neglectful job after all. (We are talking about the same voice actors who dub video game characters that people oddly tend to have less of a problem with!) Sure, the western world had a rocky start in picking up anime (a whole other topic and also one we covered in my university class) but the industry has had decades to improve and has definitely learned from its mistakes. I mean, logically speaking, just how can it be that Japanese voice actors are always “so much better” by default? How can it be that after all these years, people in the west simply cannot replicate the “genius” that is Japanese voice acting? Logically, it makes no sense. The East has its famous voice actors and so does the West– it’s just a matter of understanding that there is no 1:1 conversion of communication between cultures.
This actually brings me to my final point, and usually the last foothold that irrational denouncers of dubbed anime cling onto: watching the original version. If there are so many cultural barriers that localizations must pass through, wouldn’t the original Japanese version be better by default? The answer is… maybe. The fact of the matter is that this point isn’t as nearly as big a deal as people make it out to be. As a society, we take pride in owning “original” or “genuine” items– first editions of books, watching Star Wars without CGI effects… the fact that something is “original” means something. The people that such a distinction means the most to however, are the ones who are the most insecure about how “loyal” of a fan they are perceived to be by others. We all know the person who insists on calling Mega Man “Rockman” or the guy who loves to bring up the fact that he followed the series way before it became an anime, back when it was still a light novel. These sorts of people are simply being pretentious because it makes them feel that they have a one-up on the others who are “encroaching” upon their fan-territories.
Now, there is an important distinction to be made though if someone is legitimately interested in the culture (legitimately as in not simply wanting to only immerse oneself into the Japanese entertainment industry because that is the part he or she finds “cool”). For these people, it is perfectly understandable to want to listen to the original audio track, but these people also have no business criticizing dubs either (unless it is a legitimate mistranslation of course). Aside from this however, even if one is not watching the “original,” does it really matter? Experienced dubbing companies such as Funimation and Sentai Filmworks rarely make changes to the original script as early dubbing companies did. If you honestly cannot enjoy the show being played in front of you simply because you know it is not the original, you have far worse issues to sort out first. If you can sit down in front of a show and get entertained by it, the show has served its purpose.
…because that really is the point honestly– to be entertained. A large portion of our generation grew up watching shows such as Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! and have fond memories of them despite the fact that they were localized terribly. Back then, did we whine when they changed the name from “Pocket Monsters”? Did we complain that Yu-Gi-Oh! removed all instances of death and completely invented the concept of the Shadow Realm to avoid touching on the topic? Of course not– we were young and did not care. Even so, we enjoyed them because we took the entire experience at face value and didn’t sit there nitpicking over what sounds “bad” or why the translators decided to refer to something the way they did. That is what I was referring to when I opened this post talking about how I consider the experience of anime a special one– just as we do in life, what is presented on screen should be approached with acceptance. We aren’t going to leave the room if someone talks with an accent unfamiliar to us; we accept it as a quirk of the person and go with the flow. This is how I personally approach anime, be it dubbed or subbed. To me, the characters and environments depicted are real. They may be a little different than how they might be depicted over seas, but does that make them any less real? Is “Ash Ketchum” less real than “Satoshi”?
As I said, if one is entertained by the anime they are watching, that anime has carried out its purpose. The bottom line is that the “battle” between dubs vs subs simply boils down to personal preferences and one’s capacity to respect the preferences of others. Whether it is on Blu-ray or VHS, whether it is subbed or dubbed… as long as you were able to join the characters on screen in their journey, what right do you have to criticize the way others enjoy their entertainment? So the next time I see someone dramatically showcasing their disgust or theatrically cringing with their hands over their ears just because it is “cool” to firmly state one’s stance as disliking dubs, it will tell me that person is exactly the same as this “debate”… superficial.