In Defense of Dubs (Opinion/Editorial)

Since Funimation partnered with Crunchyroll, more anime is now legally available to the public than ever before. Along with this change, the amount of dubbed anime currently available has increased significantly as well. Many of you will probably brush off the dubbed version of the shows and flock to the originals, but I am here to ask whether you should skip them or not.

If you spend enough time in the anime community, the question of “Which is better? Subs or dubs?” will appear time after time. This simple question is the cause of one of the community’s most divisive splits. I myself used to prefer subs over dubs, and even now I still watch most anime in its original Japanese form with subtitles. However, it was more a matter of necessity than of choice, as there aren’t many places find dubbed anime to legally and I did not know very much Japanese. 

An accurate rendition of a sub watcher and dub watcher’s relationship.

Ever since I developed an interest in voice acting, my appreciation for and awareness of dubs, has increased. In fact, I have grown to like dubs that many fans openly dislike. I have also become more aware of the sheer amount of hate dubs get all throughout the internet. Go through the comments section of a YouTube video or posts on different anime forums and you will find all sorts of people complaining about how bad a dub is. Although these people are entitled to their opinion, I think they are concentrating too much on specific details that cause them to overlook many of the outstanding qualities of a dub.

First off I’d like to clarify that you are entitled to watch anime in whatever language you prefer. There is nothing inherently wrong with watching dubbed or subbed anime; what’s important in the end is that you enjoy what you watch. I’m not trying to say that subs are bad. In fact, there are many numbers of reasons why someone may prefer subs. I am, however, arguing, that there is a difference between preferring subs over dubs and condemning a dub without giving it a chance. I believe the anime community often gets such a distinction confused, and I would like to point out a few arguments I believe are misguided.

Acting:

I firmly believe that the main factor for determining the quality of a dub is its cast. An anime, on a fundamental level, tells a story, just like a movie or an American TV show. An actor’s job is to bring the character in the world to life and connect the audience to the story. Their ability to connect a character to the audience is the key component of any story. In an interview with the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, one of the actor’s unions, voice actor Michael Sinterniklaas (Taki Tachibana in Your Name) argues that acting for anime is no different than acting in a play. Anime might have different styles and messages for different audiences, but the story and characters themselves as fundamentally the same as the story and characters in a play. The only difference, he says, is culture, which I will get to in a minute.

Nagisa Furukawa (Clannad)

If you watch anime to be entertained, it is essential to enjoy what you are hearing. With this lies the first complaint about dub which is: “The voice does not fit the character”. Saying the English voice does not fit generally means you think the character sounds too annoying, deep, high, bland, whatever. It is hard to sit through a dubbed Naruto episode when every time Sakura Haruno talks, it feels like something is drilling into your ear. The character isn’t necessarily poorly acted,(though that is debatable) but rather they just do not sound good. This is especially true with shows including lolis or otherwise moe (cute) characters. These kinds of characters in Japan tend to sound a certain way; they sound cute and lovable. For an American actor who has to emulate this type of style, this can be difficult. It is one of the reasons why shows like Clannad or Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid can be frustrating to watch if you prefer subs. There is a preconceived idea that these characters must sound a certain way in order to suit the character. However, problems arise when people claim a dub is bad on that basis. While auditory pleasure (or lack thereof) might be a reason to not watch the dub, it in no way reflects the overall quality and acting performance of the cast. Oftentimes, when you watch the original first, you create a preconception of what a given character should sound like. In the case of shows like Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, we are so used to hearing the characters in Japanese that anything different sounds odd to us. To us, characters like Kanna Kamui, who are purposefully drawn cute, have a certain type of voice that is hard to replicate in English. It is this preoccupied focus on a character’s voice that I, as an aspiring voice actor, find extremely frustrating.

Kanna Kamui (Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid)

There is a common misconception within the general public about voice acting: it’s about your voice, not your acting. Many people are told, “you have a great voice. You should be a voice actor”. They believe that the ability to do a good Bart Simpson impression or make funny voices is all it takes to become a successful voice actor. This mentality causes many aspiring voice actors to fail in the industry. Even among the dubbing companies, sometimes directors ask for “that anime sound,” as if it were an acting form itself. The main side effect of this notion is an increased emphasis on how a character sounds, but there is much more to a character than the pitch of their voice. Now, let me be clear. Vocal pitch is a large factor in voice acting. You do not want a moe character like Kanna to have a deep mature voice of an older woman. However, she is more than just a cute voice. Many other factors make up her character and are possible to analyze more than just her vocal pitch. Mr. Sinterniklass and fellow voice actor Stephanie Sheh (Hinata in Naruto, Mitsuha in Your Name) touched upon this point in their interview: “It is not about sounding high or cute. The task of being specific to the story and character needs to be the primary focus.”

A good example of good acting without the “right voice” is Clannad‘s Kyou Fujibayashi. Kyou’s English actress, Shelly Caylene-Black, gave her a deeper, more mature voice. I used to think the voice did not fit and that Clannad’s dub was not all that great, but then I watched the Clannad OVA dubbed and realized how wonderful of a performance Mrs. Caylene-Black gave. In the Clannad OVA, a very emotional scene occurs where Kyou pours her soul out for the audience to see. In that moment, she is at her most vulnerable. I have seen the scene in both Japanese and English, and I think, overall, the English version was more powerful. Despite the pitch of the voice, I was able to form a stronger emotional connection to Kyou in the dub, simply because I resonated more with the acting. This is also why I enjoyed the dubs for Sword Art Online, Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, and even the small amount of Attack on Titan I saw. The characters might sound different and, maybe at times, odd, but the casts give wonderful performances. They have a firm understanding of who their characters are and have the ability make their worlds come to life for the audience.

Although there have been impressive performances by many voice actors, in the end, there will always be those who criticize the acting. They think a character sounds overly bored, too monotone, not excited enough, or even too excited. The acting does not resonate with them, and the character does not feel real. This is the only critique that I believe has some merit. Acting is subjective; not everyone will like the same actor. Sometimes, even I find the acting to be lacking in some areas. If the world of the characters does not feel real, then that dub may not be the right dub for you. However, you must remember that every dub is different, and foreign languages may hide bad acting. Because we know English better than Japanese, it is harder to spot poorly delivered lines in Japanese. I even venture to say that sometimes dubs have done scenes better than the originals themselves. I have heard Japanese actors blow lines and I’ve heard English actors nail those same lines. Take the clip below as an example. Kari Wahlgren as Saber, in my opinion, made a stronger choice in this scene than her Japanese counterpart, Ayako Kawasumi, did. Also, in my opinion, David Vincent as Gilgamesh had a better performance in this scene than his Japanese counterpart. However, in the end, that is all my point is an opinion, but that just proves my point that acting is entirely subjective. You can find dubs that will have better actors and vice versa. It is not fair to label all dubs as objective trash.

Below are the scenes. Take a listen and decide for yourself.

Authenticity and Localization:

I once had a debate with a friend of mine who said they prefer subbed anime over dubbed. There are only a select few shows they will watch dubbed. When I asked them why, they said something very interesting. They said that they did not like dubs because it was hard to watch a Japanese show in English. Their main issue was authenticity. The argument is basically: Anime is made in Japanese for Japanese people. Therefore, there is often a significant amount of cultural references in a show that cannot be fully captured in a dub.  Anime contains certain themes such as being a team player and relying on others, which might be embedded in Japanese culture but do not resonate well with an American audience. This argument implies an emphasis on faithfulness. If you are to dub a show, you need to translate it completely, all the way down to the inflections. By doing this, anime can be viewed as an art form, conveying certain messages and cultural symbols to its audience. Dubs should be meticulous in preserving as much of the original material it can.

The desire of the fanbase for the original intent can breed narrow-minded opinions since viewers will label anything that is not a faithful replication garbage. This, in turn, prevents other interpretations of a show from receiving an impartial judgment. If anime is just a story, then preserving the culture doesn’t necessarily make an impact on the story. Making sure Japanese jokes or cultural references stay in the anime does not affect the plot. Is it possible that the show will be more meaningful keeping the references in the show? Maybe, but it also is not necessarily a central focus or even necessary in general.  Let us look at this from the other side of the argument. If anime is indeed an art form, that means people are free to make other interpretations and adaptations. Comparisons to the original are inevitable, but is an adaptation inherently worse? Ironically, anime will tell you that it is not (“There is nothing that says a fake cannot defeat the original” – Shirou Emiya, Fate Stay Night). Viewing anime as a form of art and clinging to the Japanese version is therefore limiting; you become blinded by, for lack of a better term, nostalgia. A dub’s goal, in the minds of some, is to bridge the cultural gap between a Japanese and American audience.

Furthermore, if you want authenticity, it’s not like watching an anime subbed will fix the issue. Most of us in the US who watch anime do not speak Japanese (hence why the debate is about Subs vs. dubs). No matter how you view your anime, there is a language barrier, whether you hear it in a dub or read it in subtitles. How you experience the show will be, in some shape or form, in English and you will lose some culture in translation; it is inevitable. Saying you watch subbed anime for cultural authenticity, therefore, makes little sense when viewed from this angle. There’s also an argument to be made about how such views transform anime into a sort of “exotic” creation that I will not get into.

In many instances, catching the cultural references or certain jokes requires an underlying understanding of Japanese. For example, the reason why Death Note is called Death Note rather than Death Notebook is that the Japanese word for notebook is ノート (Noto). An interesting factoid when you think about it, but understanding the reference requires a person know the Japanese language. Jotaro Kujo in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure uses てめえ (temee), a rude form of you in Japanese, but instead just says “you” in English. Jotaro’s use of てめえ is supposed to further emphasize his delinquent personality, but you would only know that if you knew the different forms of “you” in Japanese.  The subbed version of Yugioh Arc- V has a running joke where they constantly mispronounce a character’s name, Yugo, which sounds like the Japanese word for fusion (融合)yuugou. This joke is removed in the dub since it is extremely unlikely that American viewers who have little knowledge of the Japanese language will understand it. Appreciating the original joke is fine but even when the joke is removed in the English dub, the show still functions well without it. My point is that the cultural aspects of an anime are a non-issue. If they are relevant to the plot, they become plot devices rather than cultural references, and should be understandable. Unless the viewer is fluent in Japanese, they cannot fully appreciate the show as it was intended, and even if they know some, they lose some culture as soon as they read the subtitles. Anime, like other forms of entertainment, might be enhanced with some prior knowledge, but that should not be required.

Jotaro Kujo (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure)

The Final Verdict:

How you choose to watch anime ultimately comes down to personal preference. If you like subs, watch subs, and if you like dubs, watch dubs. There is no shame in doing either. All I am asking is for those who exclusively watch subs to give dubs a chance. Look past your preconceived notions of how characters should sound, watch the dub and let the acting be the judge of whether the dub is good or not. In fact, I challenge you, the reader, to watch a dubbed version before watching the subbed and see if your perception of the characters in the series changes. Ultimately, what matters is that you watch anime because you enjoy it and I think that’s something we can all bond over.

 

NOTE: This is an opinion article. The views of this author do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Anime Trending.

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