Friday, May 1, 2009

The Blessed Mystery of Anime - What Makes a Good Dub?

I love dubs. That fact would be obvious to anyone who reads my blog with any sort of regularity. However, whilst I would passionately argue in the defense of dubbing, I also understand the fact that that debate is old, tired and essentially a relic of the VHS era.

However, there is more to argue about dubbing then just it's merits as compared to subtitles.

Oftentimes, I hear people tell me that they're happy to listen to dubs so long as the dub is good. This raises a rather pertinent question; what the hell actually makes a good dub?

Obviously good acting is a prerequisite that I'm sure everyone can agree on, but beyond that, the waters are insidiously murky.

Between what I've read around cyberspace, and the discussions I've had with fellow fans, I think it is safe for me to say that there are two general schools of thought regarding what makes a quality dub.

The first school somewhat resembles the subbing fan community, in that they prefer that the English dub matches the original Japanese dub work as closely as possible, given the constraints of language.

This school believes that the English and Japanese voices should match closely, and that all references to Japanese culture, even the exceptionally obscure, should remain in order to best preserve the creative vision of the original director.

In contrast, the second school of thought takes a more creative bent on dubbing, arguing that whilst the original spirit of the anime should be honoured, room most certainly exists for creative reinterpretation in order to adapt, or even improve the original work.

This creativity manifests itself in different ways, be it reinterpretations of characters (be it in voices, traits or even personalities), replacing Japanese cultural references with Western ones (though the extent varies, from 4Kids butchering, to only changing incredibly obscure references) and so forth.

Proponents of the first, more purist school of thought, often cite anime such as FLCL as a shining example of a dub done right.

This hardly comes as a surprise, as director Kazuya Tsurumaki famously oversaw the entire English dubbing process. As a result, with the exception of a few references to Western pop culture, the dub was almost hauntingly faithful to the original Japanese dub. The characters themselves sounded so similar to their Japanese voices, it may as well have been the original actors speaking English.

On the other hand of the spectrum, the more creative school of thought (and I rank myself among them) cite other dubs, such as Martian Successor Nadesico and Black Lagoon as being the pinnicle of dub work.

Nadesico for instance added greater layers of complexity to characters by adding traits not originally found in the Japanese work. For instance, resident fangirl Hikaru's otakuness was made all the more pronounced by her propensity to write self insert slash fanfiction, a hobby that was nonexistent in the Japanese version.

Black Lagoon on the other hand overloads the English dub with Western references that never existed in the original. Far from distracting the viewer, this makes the world they live in far more believable and real then the Japanese dub ever managed.

However, whilst I believe that creative reinterpretation often improves upon original works, there is always the risk of tarnishing or even omitting traits in the original Japanese that appealed to the audience in the first place.

Kamina in the Gurren Lagann dub for instance, sounded far more brotherly to Simon then his Japanese counterpart did. However, this more human sounding interpretation came at the cost of his over the top manliness, which was what drew most fans to him in the first place, thereby lessening his character in the eyes of many fans.

As the dubbing industry grows, I believe this will be the crossroad that we will ultimately reach. The two schools of thought are, I believe, antithetical to each other, and thus a conscious choice must be made as to what exactly constitutes a good dub.

As I have already stated, I believe that we should not be constrained by vision of the original director; they are not perfect by virtue of their Japaneseness, and thus room most definitely exists for dubbing companies to retain the essence of the director's vision, whilst improving on his or her work.

This philosophy also comes with the obvious risk of potentially ruining characters or even stories, but it is a risk I am willing to take. Ultimately, I have faith in the Western dubbing industry, and their ability to improve on an original work.

However, this is not a decision for me alone. It is for the greater fan community to decide on which direction these companies should take. And with that in mind, I ask you; what is the place of creativity in dubbing?


  1. Dubbing - its a tricky beast.

    Generally, whichever version you see first, be it a sub or a dub, that generally is the version that keeps with you.

    For me, the pinnacle of dubbing goes to shows like YuYu Hakushou (Justin Cook is BRILLIANT as Yusuke), and Hellsing (Crispin Freeman IS Alucard and the other voice actors are all incredible). Also the dubbing of the entire Ghost in the Shell franchise has been consistantly excellent as well - especially in the two TV series.

    DBZ, for what it's worth, did a pretty good job. I mean, how many of us cringed when we heard Goku in Japanese? ... I rest my case. XD Magic Knight Rayearth, Saber Marionette J, I noticed that much of the dubs I like were done in the 90s...^^

    For Yu Yu Hakushou, I couldn't believe how much emotion and feeling Justin Cook placed into Yusuke's character - it was mind blowing. Sure, they didn't follow the script but they put in dialogue that matches OUR vision of a middle school delinquent instead of keeping him as a straight 'japanese kid'. It was obvious that Justin Cook put a LOT of effort into that role and it shone through.

    Same with Hellsing - the voice actors really seem to hit the stride of being IN the story - that they ARE the characters.

    We can tell when we hear someone who is just 'reading the script'. I really don't care if they match the exact dialogue - as long as the dialogue and the tones sounds like it is coming from the character instead of from the voice actor - that is what matters to me the most.

  2. I count myself more to the first school but I tolerate minor changes to obscure references.
    While the second school can enhance the anime experience it isnt the original work of the people behind it.This can be for the good or for the worse.You may end up with a crappy or good anime that way.
    I know this is nit pickery but i rather watch a crappy directors envision rather than an enhanced localized version.

    Thats just my opinion and I dont wanna argue with anyone whats better.In the end it all comes down to personal prefernces.

  3. When I look for dubs, I tend to look for two things.

    First, the voice has to feel alive. In Singapore, Animax dubs most of the animes (with the recent exception of FMA and Tears to Tiara), and the dubs are, frankly speaking, shitty. They are monotonous, horrible-to-listen and doesn't suit the character's image at all. Imagine a tall, slim, sexy female character having the voice of a monotonous loli. Or some gar character with a sissy voice.

    Second, they need to try as much as possible to retain the original meanings. If I watch dubs, I tend to read the subs as well (the Chinese subs are provided with the English dubs), and most of the time, the original meaning is lost in translation. I think that really kills the flavor, something which I pay really close attention to in the case of dubs and subs.

  4. I love dubs. I'm not so bothered by liberal translations of scripts as long as the spirit remains intact. As far as voices go, they don't have to "sound like the Japanese", and sometimes it's for the better (See Cowboy Bebop). A lot of times Japanese VAs are too high-pitched or sugary sweet for the same interpretation to be taken seriously in English.

    One thing you never hear people talk about is the Japanese cast performance, or rather, I've never heard people be as critical of the native language performance as with dubs. Is it because everyone just considers Japanese VAs as "right" and good? Or they aren't as attentive to it as with English language actors?

  5. To me, very simple, as long as the voice managed to attract me to it's unique character which is poured out - I'M SOLD! Hahahaha.

    I dunno WHY most ppl hated the Samurai X Sony version dub, BUT I FUCKIN' LOVED IT. I actually LAUGHED and CRIED more compared to watching it on subs or other dub languages.

  6. @Kadian
    I dont criticize the Japanese cast since I cant really tell if they are good or not.
    Im in no position to tell if they are good or bad actors.I find some annoying though but thats totally based on teh sound of the voice.I cant stand Aya Hiranos voice for example

  7. When you talk about dubs I always come to think about latinamerican dubs, which are very rare in here,...

  8. Pretty much the issue right there. I'd also like to bring up the Princess Mononoke dub as an example of the latter strategy working brilliantly, largely thanks to who they got for the script. (Nadesico, by the way, is on my list.)

    Partly it depends on the anime. For instance, FLCL is flat-out insane. I love its dub -- I never watch it in Japanese -- but would its dubbing method have worked as well with a series more concerned with making sense? Got me. (I was quite satisfied with ADV's Macross dub, though, which among other things left in "sempai" and had Mari Iijima dub her own lines.)

    Much of it is also historical. Dubs, including "creative" dubs, have come a long way in the past fifteen, twenty years, but the stigma they had back in the days of Streamline et al has been retained from one generation of anime fans to the next. And 4kids hasn't helped either, since they've dubbed some very mainstream anime and they seem to equate "cultural adaptation" with bowlderization.

    Then there's the idea that the work is the product of the original creator, and to properly respect it one must watch it as close to the "original" as possible. (Again, same argument as with subs.)

    And here's one of the big ones: people will almost always prefer a story in the form that they first perceive it. They love the first version, they compare the second version to the first, loss aversion and so forth come in, and you know the rest. You can guess what this means in the age of fansubs, when it's typical to hear the Japanese voices and familiarize oneself with them months, if not years, before the English voices come out.

    I know a lot of anime fans realize this, but...Jun Fukuyama's Lelouch is not the "true" Lelouch. It is how Jun Fukuyama played him, under the direction of a voice director. Johnny Yong Bosch likewise, under another voice director, who decided it wasn't worth it to try to mimic Fukuyama. There IS no "true" Lelouch -- there are scripts and character designs and voice directors and voice actors and animators and so many more, all working together to tell a story. And this story did not come from Sinai.

    This, by the way, is part of why I like Avatar. Many of the good things about anime, and the version "adapted for American mindsets" IS the "original" version. (It's also made me more cognizant of differences of rhythm and pacing in American cartoons and anime. Avatar has a great storyline, and it looks a lot like anime, but it doesn't FEEL like anime.)

    Side note: have you seen the El Hazard dub, reportedly considered by the Japanese staff to be the definitive version? Where does it fall?

    Other side note: manga scanslations generally take the same hard-line literalism stance fansubs do. Great if you're interested in the idiosyncrasies of Japanese, but compare the average fan translation to the average pro translation and see which one flows better.

    Third side note: The Evangelion self-insert fic I Was A Teenage Dummy Plug has a bit where the protagonist observes that in a Rei clone, his voice sounds like Megumi Hayashibara's, rather than Amanda Winn-Lee's. If I ever found myself in an Eva self-insertion (he said with complete seriousness), I wouldn't expect her voice to sound quite like either's. The performance is an approximation of the character.

  9. English dubbing is one of the primary reason I go for US Code 1 anime DVD. My wife often tells me the English dubbed sound weird and lost the original accent of Japanese anime. I on the other hand prefer English dubbing cause I can better focus on the anime motion rather than chasing after the subtitles. Usually I would watched the anime twice. Once on Japan dialogue with English subs and another time based on English dubbed.

  10. does anyone know where we can get animax/sony dubs for download. its been impossible to find for me.