In Fear Of Dub: How Should You Watch Your Anime?

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.)

Image courtesy (Rei, Makoto, Minako, Chibi-Usa, Artemis, and Usagi seem unimpressed!)

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.

Does this guy look like a “Eugene” to you? Image courtesy

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.)

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  1. " 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."

    I'd say it is a matter of habit. Being from a non-english speaking country where there's not much dubbing tradition, I don't find the subtitles distracting at all – after so many years, I don't even notice I'm reading them. Plus it can be argued that the original voices are an integral part of a movie or a TV show.

    Still I remember that "Sailor Moon" had the same issue here, with names being adapted and all. The worst case was Dragonball Z though – by far the most atrocious dubbings I've ever heard.

    Disagreements aside, this was a very interesting article 🙂

    1. I definitely think you're right, that it's a matter of habit. I'm a fast reader, so I don't have any trouble reading and getting the information with enough time to appreciate what's happening. But I think that for a lot of people who are not accustomed to watching foreign-language film or television, subtitles can definitely be distracting or daunting, and they don't appreciate what's going on in the show at all. And yes, it can definitely be argued that the original voices are integral…but I think that a really well-done dub would take that into account and try to find a good voice match.

      Like I said, there's no right or wrong way, and I don't think people should be judged for how they choose to watch their anime. If they prefer dubs, that's fine. And if they prefer subs, that's also great. Lately, I tend to prefer subtitles myself – mostly because I hate feeling like, somewhere, they're going to change the content of the dialogue. I learned a harsh lesson with Sailor Moon. =P

      Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  2. Since I am visually handicapped I ALWAYS watch the dubbed version.

    I asked an anime session at WorldCon which series are particularly well or poorly subbed. I was told most recent series are well dubbed. They specially mentioned Ranma 1/2 as sounding the same in English or Japanese.

    A number of shows I have watched turn recent Japanese culture Jokes into American ones for an American audience, (Shin Chan especially).

    The original Japanese women's voices sound very shrill to an American ear.

    I enjoy anime a lot and enjoy it dubbed. I can not read subtitles, especially white letters on a white or light background,

    1. Yeah, many recent dubs are very well-done. Though I have to say, I am not a fan of turning Japanese culture references into American ones, mostly because I'm endlessly intrigued by other cultures and those references shed a light on what's going on in pop culture.

      For the most part, Japanese voices (men or women) don't really sound that shrill to me (maybe because I've listened to tons of J-pop, who knows). But there are a few series, mostly those geared toward a younger audience, that are very squeaky. Like I said, Sailor Moon was particularly bad. But I've been watching Bakuman in Japanese, and I've had no trouble with the voices there. The girls are normal-sounding teenage girls. Which is a relief, haha.

      I never really understood why there is so much shrill-ness in anime, actually. In traditional Japanese music, women sing at an alto level almost across the board (especially folk music). I kind of wonder if the introduction of soprano/high-pitched/squeaky voices is actually a Western influence. In the West, the higher your voice, the more feminine you are! Women with lower voices are considered sultry, perhaps, but not really girly. Things to ponder….

  3. "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."

    Thank you! Gah, I've been saying this for years.** I like to be able to see what is going on and appreciate the art of my anime as much as I want to understand what is happening. If I have to read subtitles then I'm missing half of what's going on… or everything, if it's Hetalia, with it's entire screens covered in subtitles.

    I generally watch both. Whichever I happen to get my hands on first doesn't matter, eventually I'll watch the other version (although not always all the way through… the Death Note dub hurts my soul). I'll generally go with the dub for a rewatch as well, unless it's particularly bad.

    I have a fair few favourite VAs, so if they've done the dub I'll be more inclined to watch that than the sub.

    I'm of the opinion that it doesn't matter which one you prefer, especially if the anime is based on something else you are already familiar with (book, manga etc). Sometimes a VA will hit the mark better than the seiyu. However you enjoy your anime shouldn't matter to anyone else, although you might be missing out if you outright refuse one over the other.

    Unless it's live action. I can't even watch English stuff that's slightly out of synch, never mind dubbed non-English language live action stuff.

    And no, I have no idea what the title is referencing.

    **I actually wrote a blog post about it 4 years ago… not read it over in years though so read at your own peril XD

    1. I'm glad you agree!

      There are certainly some dubs that I really prefer to the subs. I decided not to mention Cowboy Bebop this time around, but that dub is SO perfect for the action, that there's really no need for me to watch the sub (though I have seen a few episodes with them).

      Dubbed live-action is a totally different story, obviously, since the open-and-close mouth movements of an animated character are so much easier to synch than the movements of a real person's mouth. Dubbed live-action stuff is very hard for me to watch, as well.

      Perhaps someone will guess the reference soon.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. A wonderful story about translation is what happened to the kind of not really that great anime Ghost Stories. In Japan, it was a mediocre series about a group of middle school kids getting into kind of horrific, mostly kitschy scenarios involving ghosts, ghouls, and demons. It was to be localized to the US and when the studio got their hands on the script they sort of took a step back and went "what?"

    It was terrible.

    So, instead of keeping it as it is, they rewrote the entire series keeping only the bare minimum intact to make sure the visual made *enough* sense with the dialogue. What resulted was one of the most enjoyable anime farces I've seen. With Ranma-esque hijinks and a penchant for utilizing pop culture references, it was an absolute joy to watch. Think the various abridged anime series that's not abridged and has a semblance of a budget.

    It rocks.

    1. Oh goodness, I tried watching that one at your recommendation a while back. I couldn't handle it. But I think I was watched the subbed version? I can't remember. I might have to try it again.

      Thanks for the comment, dear! =]

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