Akemi's Anime World

A Case for Subs Editorial

A historic view of why sub fans remained sub fans in the face of expensive, harder-to-find VHS tapes.

[Editor's note: This editorial was written in the early days of DVD, the end of the "dark ages" of anime. The situation throughout the VHS era was much more polarizing, as English dubbed anime was usually much cheaper and easier to find than the same tape subtitled, and the dubs were often of poor quality.]

There is one topic in this world almost guaranteed to cause arguments, make tempers flare, and incite violence, even between the closest of friends. The topic is not whose god is better, which political party is lying to the people, or whether Bill Gates is the devil or not. The topic, as any anime fan will tell you, is whether Subs or Dubs are better. The ancient argument has to an extent polarized anime fandom into two camps: the haters of all that is dubbed, and the worshippers of dialogue they can actually understand. One group calls the other illiterate. They retort with taunts about high pitched voices and actually looking at the art instead of reading the words covering it up. Which one is legitimate, and which are the fanatics? For any reasonable person, it should be clear that there is no real answer to that question--you should be watching what you enjoy more. But, this little piece of writing will attempt to look at the main arguments on both sides, and explain why I, based on more than a knee-jerk reaction, prefer subtitles. Hopefully, it'll also make a case for why subtitles, if not worthy of worship, are at least worth serious consideration.

Before I even get rolling, I'm going to deal with a couple of interesting gray areas. First, there is actually a growing third group of anime fans--the ones who basically think, "Who cares what language they're speaking, as long as they sound OK and it's anime?" This group is probably the most reasonable, but I'm going to ignore them. There was also the fact that dubbed VHS tapes were generally cheaper than subtitled ones, but DVDs have rendered that point moot, and besides, we're talking about quality here, not price.

I need to put in a big plug for the wonders of technology here, and the value of experimenting for yourself. If you have a DVD player, you most likely own an anime collection that is both subtitled and dubbed. This technological fix provides subtitle lovers with programs that cost the same as the dubbed version (even if they are the dubbed version), and it allows both kinds of anime fans to get what they want, while enabling them to take a quick peek at the other side of the fence. If you have a DVD player (and if you're an anime fan, you should--most new anime is DVD only, partly for this reason) you might want to try a little comparative experiment: Switch back and forth between the two languages to see the differences in the actors, or try watching the same scene twice, from opposite sides of the linguistic looking glass. You just might be surprised by what you hear, whichever language you usually prefer. At worst, you'll confirm what you already thought, and you might find out that you've been missing something. With DVDs, you also have the option of enjoying your favorite anime, in Japanese, without the subtitles. It might be a worthwhile experience, if you've already seen it several times; if you're a diehard sub fan, you may have never seen your old favorites without text on the screen.

And that brings us to the first common argument for dubbing: If you're reading the words at the bottom of the screen, you're not watching the picture. This is, unfortunately, true, and is for me the most convincing of the pro-dub arguments. The fact of the matter is, even if you know the story well, most people will still find themselves looking at the words more often than not, out of reflex if nothing else. If you don't believe me, try watching a movie in English with the closed captions turned on; I'm willing to bet that you end up glancing down at the words, even though you have no trouble at all understanding the dialogue. There is really no way around this argument, and for that reason, I would make the following recommendation to sub-lovers (as sacrilegious as it sounds): Watch the dub at least once. Seeing your favorite anime without the subtitles in the way can be a surprisingly satisfying experience, even if only once. I still think that you should see the subtitled version, preferably first, but watching it at least once when you have no choice but to concentrate on the art is worthwhile. Again, note that if you're a real fanatic, you could can always turn off the subtitles on your DVD, but this only works if you already know the plot well (or if you speak Japanese, in which case you don't really need the subtitles anyway, do you?).

Moving on from that worthwhile gripe, we get to the second commonly mentioned argument, and this one is more flawed: "It's animation, so it's already dubbed in the first place. What's the difference if you re-dub it into English?" A common example is that sub fanatics would scream bloody murder at the sight of a movie dubbed from Japanese into English, but would think it was pretty cool to see, say, Batman dubbed in Japanese. The first argument is partly accurate; animation is, by definition, dubbed (as are many special effects-heavy live action films, as a matter of fact). The second argument, sadly, does in fact hold true for some devoted sub-watchers, although it shouldn't.

The flaw in both arguments is the "original language" factor, which I consider to be by far the biggest factor in choosing to watch a sub. Try this: Listen to a character (preferably a teenage girl) speaking Japanese in an anime program. Then listen to the nearest teenage girl speaking English. Notice any difference? The fact of the matter is, Japanese and English (particularly anime-style Japanese and English) not only sound different, but they involve different inflection--often very different. Furthermore, some things that could be gotten across in just a few words of Japanese might take a long sentence to explain in English, and the opposite can just as easily be true. The point is that, even though anime is "dubbed" in Japanese, it was also written and animated with dialogue spoken in Japanese in mind.

As a result, even if you replace that dialogue with English, the tone of voice and inflection can't always be matched (or produce some rather unnatural dialogue if the actor attempts to), and the same amount of meaning doesn't always take the same number of words. The upshot is that, particularly in more peppy dialogue (which Japanese is particularly well suited to) dubbing frequently has to compromise; in some cases, there is no way to cleanly bring the intended meaning of a sentence into spoken English--the tone of voice will have to be either unnatural or not jive with the character's facial expression. In other cases, the timing doesn't match; unless the meaning of a sentence is changed, either too much dialogue is crammed into too little time, or a few words have to be stretched to fill a lot of mouth movement.

Even with the best dubbing voice actors and translation, this kind of situation just can't be avoided, and in fact some of the best dubs tend to take the most creative liberties with altering dialogue. This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument for subtitling. If it was created around dialogue spoken in Japanese, it's just going to sound more natural if you hear it in Japanese. The same holds true for other languages; Mulder and Sculley just don't seem right speaking Japanese, and if you ever try watching a Jackie Chan movie, even where he speaks his own dialogue in the dub, you'll see what I mean. Funny, maybe, but it just doesn't seem natural.

Speaking of funny, there is one thing that almost no one will argue with: The wacky breed of humor that makes shows like Urusei Yatsura so much fun just doesn't convert into English. As proof of that, witness the less-than-overwhelming popularity of the Urusei Yatsura dub (only the first tape of the TV series was ever completed; apparently that sold poorly enough to convince AnimEigo not to try the rest). There are other things that, though frequently subtitled, just aren't quite right in English. All those cute teenage girls just don't sound as cute when an American tries to give them a voice (even if the character may become a little more believable). And, no matter how good the actor is, a Samurai just shouldn't be speaking English.

That deals with the arguments most frequently brought up by dub lovers, but I would be lax if I didn't mention the most common argument that subtitle worshippers frequently make use of. As you probably know, that little pet issue is quality of acting. Even if you are a diehard fan of dubbed anime, you would be lying to yourself if you didn't admit that in the past many anime dubs were of poor quality, to say the least. This isn't to say that North America is devoid of people who can act without the benefit of their bodies; there are some skilled actors involved in the Saturday morning cartoons, and big-budget animated movies generally feature very good acting (though in the latter case, it is usually by people who mainly do the other kind of acting, and do it well). More importantly, this is becoming less of an issue--the quality of anime dubbing has increased dramatically over the past few years, and there are some particularly well written and acted dubs around now.

However, I believe the issue is still valid (mostly as a result of older dubs, but not all of the newest ones are great, either), and I'm willing to venture a guess as to why. Mainly, dubbing anime just isn't a high-profile (or high-budget) career in the US, so directors, actors, and writers are working on a limited schedule and resources, and don't have a large pool of talent to draw from. That combines with the fact that dubbing, particularly dubbing anime, isn't an easy skill--it's different, and probably harder to learn, than "straight" acting. Since the overall standards of anime dubs aren't (or at least haven't been) very high, the result is not-so-great dubs. In contrast, Japan has a booming voice actor trade (partly because of the popularity of anime, which has its own style of voice acting, and partly because of the popularity of Hollywood movies and TV shows dubbed into Japanese). As a result, there are actually voice acting schools in Japan, and studios only hire the pick of the crop from these schools. Even then, only the best ever make it into repeated lead performances; the rest are stuck doing minor characters or "adult" films for a living. Taking this into account, it shouldn't be so surprising that there are a lot of skilled "anime-style" voice actors in Japan, and a lot more than there are in the US.

That pretty much covers my view of the situation, but in closing I will say that, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks, you should just go with whatever it is you enjoy the most. If you enjoy dubbing more than subtitles, then just watch it and have fun, and if you are one of the subtitolics, then ignore the pressures of the masses and go for what you really like. But, whichever side you are on, before you completely write off the other, you should at least have a look at it (for educational purposes, of course).