Every watcher of anime or proud otaku worth their salt are well aware of the question that has existed since the media form was first brought to the US and the UK from Japan. Which is of higher quality: Watching anime in Japanese with English subtitles, or dubbed with voice actors speaking in English?
First, let’s look at Japanese dubs. It is of course, the original audio of the anime meaning that the lip syncing, and the context behind the events and the dialogue are going to be accurate. Even if this could be because of the language barrier, it is almost certain that the acting performance of the voice actors (or seiyuu in Japanese) is going to be at least decent, and at most brilliant. Also when you think about the setting, in the age of the samurai or in a Japanese high school, it makes perfect sense to hear them speaking in Japanese, instead of talking in perfect English.
Khai Yuen Cheng gives her reason why she prefers Japanese with English subtitles, ‘I can kind of learn a new language that way and I think watching it in its original language is more respectful to the culture. Also I think some dubs seem weird, like Naruto dubs just sound weird somehow-the catchphrases especially, sounds way cooler in Japanese.’
Despite the everlasting prestige for the original dubs, there are still flaws to it: First of all, since it’s going to be at best uncommon for anime fans to be fluent in Japanese, shows are almost definitely going to be watched with English subtitles. This means that the viewer cannot really do anything else except read the subtitles, so it is hard to do a secondary task at the same time. And that’s in the event that the subtitles are done right, which for the most part they are, but there have been moments…
Secondly, the Japanese language is full to the brim with phrases and references that would require context in order to make sense, so a viewer wouldn’t be able to grasp the full purpose and extent of the dialogue. This is especially a problem when it comes to comedy, since a lot of the jokes are going to fall on virtual deaf ears, with only the reactions that can provoke a response. A very good example of this is in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, when one of the students refers to their teacher’s younger sister as ‘Peerless Teacher’. The response is hilarious, but you are left wondering why exactly did she respond in that particular way?
Personally I have never really been able to get my head around the statement ‘I watch the show in the Japanese Dub so that I may learn a new language.’ Granted you can pick up a good number of common words and phrases the more anime you watch, but becoming fluent is quite a long shot: It’s like watching Downfall repeatedly to become fluent in German; or City of God to learn Portuguese. Wouldn’t it be more effective to take a class and learn the language from someone trained in teaching it?
And now we come to dubbing the voice acting in English. English Dubs of anime since the beginning have been taken with a grain of salt. In the eyes of Western fans, at best they have been decent but at worst atrocious. A good example would be the 4Kids’ dubbing of the behemoth of an anime that is One Piece, or Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni.
The main problem with English Dubs is that for the most part, they just don’t seem to fit with the visual content. Aside from the fact that you could be hearing either samurai or Japanese schoolgirls speaking in perfect English (which could be solved using the suspension of disbelief), it’s also the problem of ensuring that the English voice actors are able to lip sync with the characters they are cast as. A task much easier said than done, since Japanese and English are very different languages, and a word that only needs two syllables in one language could have five or six in another. It’s not surprising that in some English dubs, it feels like the voice actors deliver their lines at a much faster pace than usual.
There is also the problem of localizing the anime, and making sure that the content is suitable for the target audience. This can lead to names, lines and even whole plot threads being changed or ignored completely, distorting the entire narrative or message of the show completely. As nostalgic an anime as can be, Cardcaptors is a prime example of this as almost all of the romantic side of the show is removed from the dub, despite developing into a major plot point.
But if this is the case, then why do people still go to the trouble of dubbing anime, despite the stigma? Surely there must be a continued demand for it. Ryan Wilson gives his reason for preferring dubs, ‘I’m more comfortable listening to a language I fluently understand. Even with undivided attention I find it much easier to follow English voices than foreign voices with subtitles. I rarely watch subbed anime and I’m not familiar with how the more subtle vocal variants are used in the Japanese language to convey emotions. Soundtrack, visuals and tone of voice mostly make up for it as they’re easy to replicate across any language barrier but there are subtleties I don’t pick up on.’
English Dubs in general are a lot more familiar to a Western viewer, and it is easier to detect the purpose that the performance is aiming for. Despite the quality of the original, a lot of the details that make the performance unique or even praiseworthy may not pass through the language barrier, leaving one with the impression that all Japanese voices sound the same. There is also the uncommon but not rare event that the English dub proves itself better than the original such as Cowboy Bebop, or that the only reason why the anime is in the public eye is because of the English dub like Ghost Stories, despite its ridiculousness.
And that is the Sub vs. Dub debate in as big a nutshell as can be accommodated. But what is my opinion on all this? I take a neutral stance, because to me it depends on the setting of the anime. For example, it’s weird and even unsettling to hear Hellsing Ultimate in Japanese, since a good number of the show is set in the city of London, since I live there and they speak English. As stated before, the English dub of Cowboy Bebop, but that can be attributed to just how American the anime is, with the Wild West tones and the soundtrack consisting mostly of jazz and blues. However, if set in a Japanese setting such as Samurai Champloo then it feels right, even respectful to watch it in the language of origin.
So, where do you stand? Sub, Dub or both?