The debate has long reigned supreme in the anime community, whether or not subtitled anime was truly superior to dubbed. In the early days of anime dubbing, this fact was undisputed. The clash in views only rose as certain English dubs, like Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist, came and proved that there was no reason that an English version of an anime couldn’t be just as good. That takes us to the modern day, where the truth of the matter has never been murkier.
Anime is often considered to be a product exclusive to Japan, which is…less than accurate. We could talk about how phenomenal shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Castlevania use anime motifs and tropes, and whether or not they count as ‘anime’, but we don’t even have to go as far as that. Most anime itself isn’t Japanese, at least not completely. A staggering majority of studios outsource anime production to China, Vietnam, and Korea, and no one is saying those series are any less anime just because non-Japanese people worked on them.
I am talking about the sub vs. dub debate, not to argue the merits of one or the other, but to ask whether or not it is still relevant in the community today. I generally think that more people enjoying anime is a good thing, and how you do it is secondary. If you want to enjoy something, it’s really not my place to tell you the right way to do it, and a lot of subtitle defenders tend to get very gatekeep-y. The worst parts of the fandom harass English voice actors; not indicative of every person who prefers subs, but it’s not a few bad apples that spoils the bunch, but the worms that make their way through the basket.
To start, a bit of background in anime dubbing and why it’s so controversial. It’s been tricky to get talent into English dubbing because there is not a lot of money in it. It’s challenge enough to get animators and voice actors in Japan paid as well as they should, but in the west where anime is less popular, most studios have to settle for amateurs.
It wasn’t until companies like Funimation and 4Kids started dubbing anime and putting it on as Saturday morning cartoons that it really attracted a new level of talent. Shows like Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh were instrumental in anime getting its foot in the door in the west. I could bet that most weebs born around 2000 and before can trace their first anime to Toonami and 4Kids, even if they were too young to differentiate it from any other cartoon.
Anime in Japan has had a lot longer for the quality of its voice acting to improve. Obviously the stuff coming out 50 years ago was shoddy compared to even the worst show airing today, but the scrutiny on it wasn’t nearly as intense as it was on English dubs. The time was given for the industry to develop the necessary infrastructure to support voice talent. How many specialized technical schools for voice acting do we have in the west? Not nearly as many as there are in Japan, and they’re a relatively recent development.
We also run into the common criticism that English dubs reuse the same voice actors for every project, which rose because of how little talent there was in the industry. In the early 2000s, they kind of just threw Steve Blum and Johnny Yong Bosch in every project because skilled voice actors were a rare breed. Most in the United States would be working on American television and movies, so the workforce was comprised of people who were passionate about anime specifically.
This changed around the start of the 2010s with anime’s explosion of popularity in the west. Pay rates weren’t great for voice actors even after that, and they were often better n comparable industries like video games, but more dubs being produced means that there’s more money going around, both in the industry and to the voice talent.
Now, the west, and specifically the US might be behind Japan as far as making place for voice acting, but that’s changing. Ten or fifteen years ago, it could take months and years for an anime to get a dub, but not anymore. Crunchyroll debuts its dubbed shows usually within six weeks of the first episode, and that’s in the midst of a pandemic where all voice actors are recording their lines from home.
Funimation, especially prior to the challenges unique to the pandemic, built most of their branding around their Simuldubs. A big show could receive a dub the same day as its Japanese release; that was simply unheard of. Over at Netflix, we’re a little less lucky. They maintain a high standard of quality in all of their dubs, but they hold them hostage for six months after the show finishes airing in Japan. I can tell you Beastars and Devilman Crybaby have great dubs, but that’s because I had to wait an obscene amount of time to see them at all.
And it isn’t just that the production of dubs has become more efficient than years past, but the quality has improved dramatically.
A lot of the criticism hurled at dubs doesn’t hold water at this point. I mentioned how often a few voice actors are used in every project, but we now have a wide pool of actors. There’s a lot of overlap between series, sure, but that has more to do with the speed at which dubs now move. Most ADR directors don’t have the luxury of spending time on open auditions and have to rely on voice actors that they know and have worked with before. If every show was going to hold open auditions to include a greater variety of voices, we’d be sacrificing the efficiency that these companies have worked to produce.
There’s the translation debates, but that has more to do with the debate surrounding piracy in anime and fansubbing, which I do not have the emotional energy to get into today. I’m already making enough people angry. To put it simply, people underestimate how hard it is to translate Japanese to English while matching speech length and lip flaps. The two languages have wildly different grammatical structures, and have to account for things that alter sentence flow like honorifics.
Looking past the rough history of dubbing, and the challenges that scriptwriters face trying to preserve both meaning and intent of art in a different language, dubs have gotten better. If you like dubs, you don’t have to cling to Cowboy Bebop, Code Geass, and Fullmetal Alchemist, you have your pick of shows with phenomenal English versions. I have not praised Re:Zero so far in this essay, and that’s a crime, because I legally have to or my handler will take away my Crunchyroll premium again.
Nowadays, most dubs meet the standard of the original, and some even exceed them. If you had told an otaku in 2000 that nearly every dub that comes out would be as good as the original, and within a few weeks of its release, they’d have called you a baka. Yeah, we’ve also improved on being cringey in public.
If you can’t tell, I appreciate some good dubbed anime. I don’t hold a preference for either, but the distinction at this point is minimal. When presented with the choice, I usually go with dub. My reasons for doing so is partly that dubs are far less common than subs, so my chances to watch them are slimmer. I also have personal problems, being fidgety and hyperactive, sometimes I need to be doing two things at once to keep stimulated. With the way my condition is, I often have to compromise my viewing experience of subtitled anime just to settle down.
I’ve glossed over maybe the biggest problem with the sub vs. dub debate; there are a lot of disabilities that make watching subbed anime difficult or impossible for so many people. There are a lot of anime fans who have disorders that affect their ability to look at a TV screen for long periods of time, like ADD or any kind of sight-impairment. When we talk about dubbed anime, it’s unfair of us to ignore that some people don’t have the luxury of being able to watch subtitled anime, and that doesn’t make them any less of anime fans.
For me personally, keeping focused and watching the same thing for long stretches is a daunting challenge, and subtitled anime requires all of your focus for several hours just to watch a single show. I’ve mentioned it before that I’m studying Japanese, and part of that decision was my physical inability to get through many subtitled shows without losing track.
My personal problems aside, dubs are about making the anime community bigger and more inclusive. When the community expands to include more and different kinds of people, that is universally good for anime. More seasons of your favorite shows get greenlit, the publisher releases more merchandise, and you have people to talk to about your passions. I write this blog because I want to put attention on things I love, especially if I can do it in a new way about something that’s been analyzed a hundred times before. The whole Otaku Exhibition is about showing off anime, and either opening up readers to new series, or to look at old ones in a new way.
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