Ever since foreign film and television have become popular in the English-speaking world (and title cards were a thing of the past, of course), there has been the great debate over whether subtitles or dubbed-over voices are the more appropriate method of viewing material in other languages. Many, many, many anime fans will tell you that the only way to watch anime is subtitled, regardless of what it is or how many different formats it’s available in. In anime, the stereotype of mismatched mouth movements and words is very prevalent (perhaps moreso, since the Godzilla films and Kurosawa’s samurai flicks which came out of Japan made that stereotype possible). But I think the answer is less straightforward than that.
It is certainly true that there are atrociously dubbed anime in the world. Often times, when a production company takes on an anime for a non-Japanese market, they dub it beyond recognition; they change character names and relationships, for example. The best examples of this that I can think of are Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon and Yoshihiro Togashi’s Yu Yu Hakusho. In the former, DIC Entertainment changed the first names of most of the main characters (Usagi became Serena, Mamoru became Darien, Makoto became Lita – etc.). DIC also changed the gender of a character (from male to female) in order to make a homosexual relationship a heterosexual one, and turned a lesbian couple into “cousins” in order to explain their close relationship. On top of that, they cut out entire episodes that they deemed somehow inappropriate for a young American audience (not really taking into account that Sailor Moon was really intended for a 10+ audience). As a child watching the dubbed version, it would be years before I discovered that I had been totally fooled. I wanted to go back and watch the series again the way it was intended, in the original Japanese with subtitles. At this point, I was accustomed to reading subtitles and hearing Japanese. But still, I was unprepared for the shrill voice coming from Usagi’s mouth. Yikes! I was between the proverbial rock and a hard place – an anime that I had grown up with and loved most dearly was unwatchable in either English or Japanese! I forged ahead with the subtitles anyway, keeping my laptop speakers at a lower level than normal. (Thankfully, there’s going to be a brand-new Sailor Moon reboot this summer! I’m so looking forward to watching the show the way it was intended – I hope.)
Yu Yu Hakusho‘s English-language dub is actually quite excellent [fun fact, the creator of Sailor Moon is married to the creator of YYH]. This version was released by Funimation, and the series was directed by Justin Cook, who also voiced the protagonist, Yusuke Urameshi. Cook seems to have been very dedicated to keeping as much authenticity as possible; none of the names were changed, the violent plot stayed intact, and the dialogue was as laden with as much sarcasm and swearing as the original. Yay! The hitch here comes in the Philippine version of the show; Yusuke is turned into Eugene, Kuwabara becomes Alfred, Kurama is Dennis, and Hiei lands the oh-so-mysterious name of Vincent. Name-changing in dubbed versions has always been a huge peeve of mine (this happened in a LOT of anime that made it overseas in the 90s). I struggle with understanding why it’s so difficult to keep Japanese names. There is, of course, the argument that changing their names to something more Western makes them more relatable to that audience, but I would also argue that it narrows our worldview and our ability to understand other cultures tremendously. Also, I find it about as easy to relate to someone named “Eugene” as I do to someone named “Yusuke” – less so, perhaps. Changing names also makes finding information or merchandise more difficult.
In the case of a really bad dub, I totally condone watching anime with subtitles. Not only does this give you a better sense of what the story is about in some circumstances, but it familiarizes you with a new language. However, I also think that a really good dub is much better than good subtitles. When you can watch a show or a movie without having to read every single piece of dialogue, you can more readily internalize and appreciate the action on screen without having to digest words. How do you find a good dub, then? In most cases, the answer is just watch one episode and see if you can stomach it (an awful lot of dubs are very cheesy). But there are also a few really good companies who consistently produce enjoyable dubs: Funimation, Animaze (which does the dubs but doesn’t necessarily license for North America), Bandi…get to know the companies that produce anime in your part of the world, and be able to recognize which ones are putting out quality dubs.
Don’t worry about becoming an anime elitist. Subtitles are “more authentic” at times, but there is a lot to be said for a really well-done dub. And then again, if the subtitles are poorly translated, they can sometimes be worse than a bad dub, solely because you can’t understand what’s going on at all! In the end, you have to understand your own preferences and be prepared to wade through a little bit of research (read: a quick Wikipedia search!) in order to get the experience you want from a series.
Happy watching, folks!
(P.S. Bonus obscurity points to anyone who can figure out what this post’s title is referencing! Hint: It has nothing to do with anime.)