In appreciation of English-voiced anime localizations.
I’m going to kick the hornet’s nest here, so bear with me. As every anime fan knows, a huge divide exists in the community regarding voice-overs in a non-Japanese language. It’s not something that’s exclusive to only Japanese animation, but extends to all forms of foreign media and their respective adaptations. In the case of anime, however, fans rest anywhere on the spectrum from “Japanese only” to “English only,” with a select few embracing both equally, but by far the most vocal (oft outspoken) fans are those that favor the foreign purity of the original work. And then there are those who not only prefer the Japanese voices, but belittle other fans who enjoy the localized experience. Is this scorn really warranted? I can understand people that simply wish to best maintain the work as it travels from one language to another (and thus opting for subtitles of the original Japanese), but aside from that the most common argument is simply this:
“Dubs are bad.”
If it was ten years ago, I would probably agree with that statement wholeheartedly. When my interest in anime was really starting to blossom, it was near the turn of the millenium. High-speed internet was starting to become more accessible in the U.S., and I soon found myself in a sea of fansubbed material, grabbing series left and right just trying to build a collection. Before anime really was available over the internet, the best I could make do with was sending mail orders to certain people who would happily send second-hand VHS copies of a series. The internet really opened up a whole new world to me.
But if there was one thing I quickly ‘picked up on,’ it was that subbed material was the way a true fan should watch anime and that dubs should be avoided like the plague. That was the trend, and the overwhelming majority of content available on the internet was indeed subbed, since companies simply weren’t licensing many series. Regardless, I found myself hopping on the dub-hate bandwagon. I won’t make any excuses — it was a pretty bone-headed reason to hate something, but that’s how teenagers are at times. I completely disregarded the fact that was drawn to anime in the first place because of early morning showings of the (highly controversial) Sailor Moon dub.
Okay, okay, so I’ll at least try to present a reasoning or excuse — a lot of dubs at the time really were pretty bad. Among these, however, the one series that stands out in my mind as the worst localization ever done in anime is Cardcaptors. There are other arguably bad dubs like Yugioh, Tokyo Mew Mew, Escaflowne and One Piece, but when it comes to Cardcaptors, it failed completely because the localization tried to shift the target demographic of the original content.
Card Captor Sakura began as a shoujo manga by CLAMP. It was written to emphasize the relationships between characters and the various ways that ‘love’ is portrayed — in CCS’ case, there are many love interests: Sakura/Syaoran (typical), Sakura/Yukito (young-old), Rika/Terada (student-teacher, distinctly underage), Touya/Yukito (boy-boy), Tomoyo/Sakura (girl-girl), Meilin/Syaoran (cousins) … that’s a lot of romance content, and it was definitely intended for a female audience.
So what did Cardcaptors do? It tried to turn this shoujo series into an action-packed monster-romp for young western boys. It went so far as to cutting out the first few episodes because Syaoran (the lead male protagonist) did not appear in the beginning, since Sakura is the main/titular character. Even the title reflects this — Sakura’s name is nowhere to be found. Cardcaptors is probably the rawest form of series bastardization I’ve ever encountered in anime, and is substantial grounds for the dub-hating anime fan to demand their series purity. But what’s going on in the industry today?
I watch a lot of anime. I often favor the original Japanese (simply because I have an interest in it) but I have a very fine appreciation for the English voice-overs of today. As much as I love Kugimiya Rie, Hanazawa Kana, Hayashibara Megumi and Hirano Aya, I also enjoy the work by Cherami Leigh, Laura Bailey, Tabitha St. Germain, and Kari Wahlgren. I know I named all females here, but I won’t discount Vic Mignogna or Steve Blum either. Their many performances could easily draw parallels to big names like Miyano Mamoru or Ono Daisuke. It takes a lot to be a voice actor, no matter what country you’re in. But my point is this: today’s dubs are much more professional and of higher quality than five, ten, fifteen years ago. The years of experience in the industry, both by studios and by individual voice actors, is definitely showing. Really, if ‘voiceover quality’ is at the heart of the conflict for any fan with reservations about dubs, then there shouldn’t be any reason to worry.
It ends up boiling down to how much a fan values the preservation of the original work. Some people are quick to point fingers at these fans and throw the ‘weaboo-bomb’ around, but preserving the total authenticity of the work is a valid concern. After all, anime is a type of animation that we, as fans, know originates in Japan, and many of us like the culture escapism. For those that only expect the spirit of any given series to be present in an adaptation, almost any dub these days will satisfy that prospect. However, there are some aspects of the Japanese culture or language that simply will not translate, so for those instances, more creative liberties are necessary to convey the original intent of the dialogue or cultural reference.
What boggles my mind, however, is that the feverish schism between translation cliques does not really apply to manga or light novels. Fans don’t usually make fusses about manga translations or how much of the original work is preserved, probably because there isn’t an obvious thing to take exception to. What they will complain about is the quality of the grammar or something as frivolous as the correct romanization of names with no language origin. The same applies to panel orientation and how physical, translated manga volumes are read in the west. Tokyopop did everybody a service by exposing potential fans to the ‘correct’ way of reading manga but to be honest, if I could read manga from left-to-right, top-down without risking awkward ‘mirror-flip’ situations, I would. I read a lot of books, so I’m used to flipping pages from the right, and sometimes even visiting my favorite webcomics can be a chore, since I’ll immediately read panels from the incorrect side due to the mental training from manga. But I understand that expecting a full shift to western reading orientation is a pipe dream and I wouldn’t expect any publisher to really cater to an exclusive whim like that.
So what else is there not to like about anime dubs if they faithfully preserve the content of a series with a markedly positive degree of professionalism? The actual voices. Of course, fans who watch a series first in one language and then again in another language will typically have invested a lot of emotion into the characters and their nuances, and voices are a big part of how a character unfolds on-screen. Some people think that the Japanese language “sounds funny,” or that English voices aren’t as “cute or bad-ass” as their Japanese counterparts. There’s no real stopping this, but it’s something that’s applicable to music as well, especially in the Asian market.
Take BoA, for example. She’s an international pop star with songs released all over the world and anime fans will probably best know her as the idol who sang the fourth ending theme for Inuyasha, Every Heart. But did you know that the single was released in Japanese, Korean and English? It’s her voice for all three, but I’d stake my livelihood that the Japanese version would be the go-to version for most anime fans. Why? Because that’s what they’re used to — they’ve already invested emotion into that particular aural experience and will likely remained their preferred version.
I’ve avoided talking about fansubs until now, mostly because when I want to draw examples from series, I want to use official, professional translations that (usually) have some input from the original studio. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a justified expectation, considering that money is changing hands for the service. Fansubs are a mixed bag — they can provide an outlet for other fans to put their own creative spin on a series and, in some cases, provide additional insight or humorous explanations for trivial situations since they are not held to the same professional standard as a large company. Some are meme-worthy when taken out of context. And of course, others are just plain bad, especially when they go through language gauntlets during translation.
Recently, I’ve been trying to watch series in both English and Japanese, intermittently switching between English and Japanese audio between episodes. For many series such as School Rumble, Death Note, Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, Code Geass, Guren Lagann and Black Butler, not only did I find the English performances to my liking, I was bewildered by the amount of visual content I missed simply because my attention was divided between enjoying the animation and reading subtitles. If you asked me if my teenage opinions had any merit in today’s industry, I would dismiss them immediately with a resounding “No.”
Dubbing is difficult work. Fans may disagree with particular voice casts or how unavoidable creative alterations are handled, but the industry as a whole is a far cry from the demographic-shifting bastardizations of previous decades. Like them or hate them, localizations can do nothing but help extend the fandom to an audience that may simply find subtitles unappealing. That alone is something to appreciate.