I Have already given my thoughts on the story of Kaguya-Sama, it’s the second essay I wrote on this blog. However, that was mostly about praising the strengths of its character writing, and the compelling drama that appears as a result. If you’re unfamiliar with the setting and story of Kaguya, though, I can’t say that I recommend reading my essay first, it was extremely primitive compared to the formula I’ve established. Thus, we’ll explain here.
Kaguya-Sama follows the exploits of the student council of Shuchin Academy; its president, Miyuki Shirogane, and vice president, Kaguya Shinomiya, are desperately in love with each other and far too proud to admit it. In their mind, love is about the superior’s domination of the inferior, and they mostly just use that warlike mindset to justify not putting themselves out there and risking getting their feelings hurt. They’re joined by their secretary, Chika Fujiwara, and treasurer, Yu Ishigami, both of whom always manage to throw a wrench into the two lovebirds’ conniving plans on accident.
In my previous essay, it was a general recommendation of the anime and especially the manga, particularly as how it’s a realistic portrayal of teen romance. The manga is one of my favorites, but today I’m only targeting the anime. I’ve also talked about the argument between subs and dubs, which you can read here, but the gist of things is that it’s kind of silly. Dubs that come out nowadays are serviceable at minimum, and often just as good as the Japanese. However, Kaguya’s dub doesn’t try to match the original at its own game, it does a 180 and plays something else.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t sold on the Kaguya dub when it first aired, but that’s because such a radically different experience can be off-putting. Doing something so unique, especially in a medium that is condemned for not conforming to the original, is bound to be criticized. That being said, I stand by my proclamation that you cannot get the full Kaguya experience if you only watch in one language.
Before I can explain the differences in Kaguya’s linguistics, I need to dive into the cultural differences of humor. To the surprise of no one, Japanese and American senses of humor are not the same. I mean, clearly, there is some overlap because I find plenty of Japanese media hilarious. The two aren’t completely different beasts, but the two just have distinct ways of approaching comedy.
Just, for example, Japanese comedy uses a lot more slapstick than American comedy. If you’ve seen any manzai duos perform, or even the episodes of Takeshi’s Castle that have made its way overseas, you know what I mean. There’s a place for slapstick in American comedy, especially with the popularity of comedians like Jim Carrey in the 1990s, but it’s largely seen as childish. If it’s used at all, it’s as cringe humor on a game show like Wipeout, or a comedy show that displays viral videos like Tosh.0 or Ridiculousness.
Japanese comedy is also heavy on wordplay, which comes as a result of a language where many words have similar sounds but radically different meanings, and the way the meaning of a kanji can complete change in a difference of pen stroke. Western humor might enjoy the occasional pun, but it’s not the dominant form of comedy. One of the most famous rakugo stories is about a boy who has many given names because his father was indecisive, and the joke derives from the storyteller having to repeat the silly string of names repeatedly. Amusing, sure, but it’s hard to think an American audience would line up for what is essentially a tongue twister performance.
American comedy hinges on sarcasm, being tongue in cheek, and often being downright offensive. Perhaps it’s the result of a culture that prizes free speech highly, but comedians often succeed by saying things that are upsetting or just horrid if they were taken seriously. Louis CK had a bit on letting children with peanut allergies eat the offending nut to stop holding back the human race. George Carlin actually got arrested because of his “seven words you can never say on television” broke obscenity laws in Wisconsin. Er, if you’ve seen the US in the past 50 years, you know how big we are on obscenity laws.
The conclusion to this grossly oversimplified discussion of cultural differences is that Japan has an alternate style of comedy that’s been influenced by their unique culture and values. That’s stupidly obvious, that a product of a culture would be influenced by that culture, but it leads us to the next question. How do you translate a comedy series from one language to another?
Translation is stupidly difficult and pretty much impossible to get right for everybody. You usually have one of two options when you’re trying to translate Japanese to English: you can translate it verbatim, or you can translate the spirit of it. Both have their own advantages and drawbacks, and you risk alienating purists by picking the latter, and confusing newcomers by picking the former.
Translating word for word, you run into the problem that some concepts don’t translate. The word ‘genki’ has no exact English equivalent. Its archaic definition refers to an energy that all living beings possess, while it gained a connotation for personal health and wellbeing. It was then incorporated into otaku slang much the same way a word like ‘tsundere’ has. If I describe a character as a ‘genki girl’, you know that she is energetic, happy-go-lucky, and likely not all that bright.
How do you translate that, though? If you pick the dictionary definition and say, “well, she’s healthy,” or “she is energetic,” you completely miss my point. You could otherwise try to find a word that communicates an equivalent to the intended audience. You can’t guarantee that your audience is familiar with terms mostly used online and in the anime community. If you’re active on anime Twitter, though, you might have seen a handful of recent debacles over the authenticity of translations and subtitles.
One such fiasco was over the most popular romcom this season, Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro. The titular Nagatoro labels her senpai as being ‘sus’. Now, a simple Google search will tell you that we’ve been abbreviating suspicious in English since the 1930s, but the term exploded in popularity thanks to Among Us. A viral Tweet criticized Crunchyroll for using a word strongly associated with a meme in their subtitles, even though Japan doesn’t have a clear word that would correspond to sus. However, this Tweet was probably just written because people like to trash on kids’ games because the internet is a weirdly vindictive place. Ignoring that, you could reasonably make the argument that sus was the right word; it conveyed Nagatoro’s playful tone, as well as what she meant to say.
Then, there was a snafu last year when the official Funimation subtitles for Kaguya differed from the original. Fujiwara exasperatedly yells at Shirogane why he was walking several paces ahead of her, but in the official English release, she uses the term “social distancing”. That raises the question of whether or not translators and subtitle writers should have the leeway to incorporate slang to make the translation more authentically English, or to reference current events. Ultimately the outrage won out, and the subtitles were changed to the more originally faithful, “why are you so far away from me?”
And Kaguya isn’t an easy series to translate for, as they frequently throw out obscure psychological and scientific concepts, reference Japanese culture, mythology, and things that might be common knowledge that doesn’t exist on the other side of the globe. So what do you do if your boss assigns you to work on an English dub for Kaguya? Well, you need to work something out.
Kaguya-Sama leans heavily on the use of its narrator, and the Japanese audio relies on the trope of an intense commentator. The narrator, voiced by Yukata Aoyama, conveys the silliness of the situation by maintaining his composure and energy at the hijinks of the student council. It doesn’t matter that the premise of these mind games is childish, because the narrator keeps it deadly serious by presenting it as Kaguya and Miyuki see it. This type of chunibyo delusion is kept alive by the fact that an outside source is behaving as though the stakes are high, even if they’re not.
This trope just doesn’t have a counterpart in American sports or game show commentary. An announcer might lend their personality to their commentary, but their levels of enthusiasm are largely dependent on the activity on the field. Japanese TV often employs reaction cameras as though the audience needs to be told how exciting what’s going on in their screen is. So when the narrator in Kaguya had to move stateside, they employed the talents of Ian Sinclair, who brings a similar energy over from his role as the talented and chipper but emotionally volatile Bokuto from Haikyuu.
Sinclair initially gives the impression that he is playing the narrator role straight. His opening monologue made me think he was doing a good job of imitating Aoyama’s intense earnestness. However, as the series goes on, the English narrator makes jabs at how absurd the situations and characters are, and hams it up for the audience. In essence, doing the opposite of the intended purpose of the narrator.
This doesn’t reduce how funny Kaguya is, but it takes it into a different direction. Rather than being this imaginary figure who exists in Kaguya and Miyuki’s shared consciousness, one who believes this situation is as dire as they do, this narrator takes the role of an audience member. In that way, it feels as though he is speaking to the viewer, breaking the fourth wall in a way that has become increasingly popular in the west in the last decade or so.
The rest of the dub cast performances range from serviceable to excellent. Alexis Tipton and Aaron Dismuke both lock in on the earnest and ridiculous personas that the two leads embody. It honestly is difficult for anyone to compare to the original Kaguya, Aoi Koga, but there’s no divorce in quality from the sub to the dub.
Watching anime in different languages is one of my favorite parts of the medium. There’s no other industry where dubbing has a similar level of quality to the original, though I admit I don’t watch films in other languages often just for the heck of it. I admitted in my essay on the argument between subs and dubs that I prefer to watch both for a show I really like. The Japanese usually has superior voice performances and comes out a lot sooner, but watching in English gives me an excuse to rewatch a show I like, as well as the convenience to multitask during.
However, Kaguya-Sama: Love is War is one of the few anime that everyone has a genuine reason to watch both. By doing so, you have two different experiences. It was a little weird getting here, considering the dub came out after the second season, but only for the second season. There was some time before the dub for the first season came out, but now that the series has been completed, it is an excellent end result.
So while you’re watching Kaguya-Sama in English, that means you’ll be able to look away from your TV and go on your phone, so you can follow the Otaku Exhibition on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. If you don’t use Twitter, it’s just as good to follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, so you’ll get notifications whenever a new essay goes live, like that next Kaguya essay I plan on writing soon. The manga’s gotten really spicy in the last few months, and I gotta capitalize on that. Until next time, thanks for reading.