In the last post, I spent hundreds of words spewing my love of American voice actors and American voice acting. But I didn’t stop being an anime fan after 2012, no, my appetite for anime may be different than it was when I was a wee little demon but I am still a rabid otaku but my adoration and respect for American voice acting has changed just like my relationship with anime has changed.
So let’s talk about the fall and my newfound appreciation for subbed anime.
2011 brought with it a little show called Attack on Titan which may have the distinction of being the first anime that I just didn’t like. Normally even if I’m not crazy about a series, I can see good in it but AoT did nothing for me and its rabid fanbase of mostly younger fans who had never seen an anime before wore me thin. And out of all the things I don’t like about AoT it was in fact was the rather lackluster voice acting that to me just hallmarked on all the weaknesses of the dialogue and plot. AoT was just the start for me and as I continued on watching anime, a few things changed for me. One, was that I was in college and my tastes had started to change from shows that were being picked up by big studios to shows that weren’t just yet (thus I resorted to the evils of piracy) and the second was that as some series began to be dubbed, I had previously watched the subbed version and the dub finally did not meet my expectations.
When the horrible 4Kids Sailor Moon is all you know, then sure you accept the horrible Americanized names, the removal of queer characters and the bad voice acting: it’s all you know. So for me, that was how I could rationalize, especially in hindsight, terrible dubs. But I remember watching Hetalia subbed and loving it only to be horrified by the choices Funimation made in the dub. I didn’t really have a frame of reference for that until college and it really started to turn my opinion on newer dubbed series.
Another factor that I do think matters but doesn’t fit into a neat group is that in the late 2000s is when I was able to give more time and attention to subbed anime. Especially in college, I was willing to set aside time for subbed anime and not having cable fed into my rationale to continue to be a better pirate than Luffy ever was and I could just sit and watch subbed anime and read and gasp in Japanese. To this day, if I have work to do, I will watch a dubbed anime so I don’t have to focus on it or a sub that I can practically recite like Antique Bakery or Maiden Rose. I spent many a college night wrapped in blankets watching subbed anime while on an IM chat with a friend, reacting to episodes that just got leaked in real time and even now in adulthood if I set out to watch an anime, now I go for subbed first because I rarely attempt new anime nowadays so I set that time aside and don’t mind reading.
While I still have an immense respect for the “old guard” of voice actors, the newer ones seem particularly lazy. And even though “sameness” is a common gripe against American voice actors, usually that sameness is for a reason. Spike Spencer has one voice and he plays similar characters in most shows he’s cast in and thus that one emasculated, tired male voice works. Johnny Yong Bosch has one shonen protag voice and guess what: he plays shonen yelly protags. A lot of Japanese voice actors have a similar sameness including my favorite, Kazuhiko Inoe, but he plays the same character a lot: aloof bad boys that I have unnatural feelings for and thus his similar sounding voice works. Japan does have some amazing chameleon voice actors like Daisuke Namikawa who has ranged from Northern Italy in Hetalia to being a villain in Bleach.
The newer guard of American voice actors just seem lazy and it seems that the Japanese voice actors have only been getting better. All that expressiveness and fun and passion that I felt in most dubs I now feel in subs. A great example of that is in Devilman Crybaby (which does not dub well just due to the flow of music and trick of words often used) where due to Netflix deciding to fail for a moment, I was given a glimpse at the dub. For a series that is mostly two men screaming each other’s names, oh boy, do I not buy the two American voice actors caring about what they’re doing at all. It’s just plain lazy and tired and all of the vague threats in Ryo’s voice and subtle kindness in Akira’s voice is entirely lost by two Americans who sound like they simply do not want to be in the booth that day.
That does not mean I have entirely abandoned dubs. One of my favorites is still somewhat recent but I think it speaks to the bigger issue and that’s Space Dandy. There’s something about Watanabe-sensei’s work that really lends to dubbing because so many of his series are so heavily influenced by Western culture. So it makes sense that a series where a man with excellent hair goes on a weekly Flash Gordon space adventure with a weird little auto-tune robot and a strange alien cat would have the voice if Ian Sinclair doing his best. The whole work just translated better into English and the staff was so stellar that it easily placed itself high on my list of favorite dubs of all time.
I think bad voice acting reminds me that anime can be a tough sell. Suspension of disbelief is something we’ve talked about a lot over on the blog and a solid performance can help ground a show back in reality. If you had told me that one of my favorite series of the summer would be about three boys who turn into kappas and the two murder cops trying to kill them I’d laugh at you and I’m a dedicated anime fan, I am not new to obsurdity. But one of the things that kept me in Sarazanmai was the fact that everyone sounded great, even when the singing wasn’t as key as others, you could still buy that these actors cared about the roles they were playing. Especially with the isekai boom, one of the things that really got me turned off on these shows (think of like Sword Art Online) was that the American voice acting sounded so bland for a premise that I already find incredibly boring. If the main character doesn’t sound like he wants to be in this fantastical world, why the hell do I want to watch him on this fantastical journey?
Voice acting is an art form and I find that I don’t have the same reverence or enthusiasm for Bryce Papenbrook as I do for Eric Vale and that doesn’t mean that the new guard are all full of bad voice acting: I’ve changed, my tastes in anime has changed, a lot has changed and it means that I am now a far more harsh critic than ever.
If you like these dubs, I’m not here to take that from you. Hell, I still stand by some of the early dubs. And it’s here that I want to talk about one aspect of the new era of dubbing that I’m all too aware of now and that’s how loose some companies play with translation. Especially Funimation is very bad about playing hot and loose with how Japanese is translated and they will throw in jokes and memes that just don’t age well anymore. My biggest gripe for that comes with how one word is translated and that word is aniki.
Aniki, to those in the yakuza, means “older brother” but it’s more than just older brother. There is so much respect, history and more in that word and Funimation, in all their wisdom, translates aniki, consistently, as “bro”. Does one refer to the Emperor as SOME DUDE? One would never refer to their aniki, imoto, ototo, aneki, ani-san or ane-san as something so casual lest they love a finger or their life from the sheer amount of disrespect.
Dear reader, the first time I heard that in a series, I screamed profanities into my pillow.
That’s a choice. That’s a translation choice. Funimation has translators. Funimation has been doing this for nearly as long as I have been alive. They know the context behind what that word means. WHY TRANSLATE IT AS SOMETHING SO CASUAL?
It’s a lazy choice. It’s not trusting the audience. It’s being afraid to risk that maybe, just maybe, that the audience won’t care enough to look it up. I remember reading the InuYasha manga as a kid and in the back there was a guide with all the suffixes because I did not, at 12, know what -sama meant. But I was also voraciously curious enough to study suffixes and want to learn more so of course I know what all the yakuza familial terms mean and I am bitterly disappointed every time they are translated as sis or as bro.
My new issues with the sub vs. dub debate don’t just boil down to lazy voice acting or lazy translations it’s just that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the 90s and 2000s, there were actors that cared so much and you felt every bit of their passion as they learned new languages, new names and more. And I feel that now with subbed VAs, honestly starting with Hetalia. To see how much effort these actors went into learning their country’s languages is just damn inspirational.
Japanese is a tricky language. I love it most when it’s clever and innuendo and puns don’t translate well, I respect that. But I think you lose something when you don’t bother to translate those moments. In Death Note, Mello refers to Matt as his dog. Not just because of Matt’s loyalty to him but also in Japanese “inu” is a slang term for top in the relationship, the inverse of that being “neko” for bottom. That little moment, that piece that is in some translations but not all speaks so much about their relationship and tells you more about their dynamic than all of the 17 words Matt ends up saying before he’s shot and Mello ruins everything and dies.
I will always respect voice acting: both Western and Japanese. I will always respect those who strive to bring anime and manga into Western audiences legally. Some of the proudest moments I have in all my conventions years have been meeting voice actors. Spike Spencer, Eric Vale, Ian Sinclair and more have made my childhood and my current adulthood. A good voice acting performance can make or break a series and I have been blessed to be exposed to so many wonderful voice acting performances regardless of language. Voice acting is an art and one I admit that I am not professional in, so feel free to take this as one fan pining for the Fjords but it felt appropriate to go over.
As far as the state of the debate? Well, we’re nerds. We have to have something to argue over. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. There are some dubs I’m willing to die on the hill for and others that I won’t defend as much. As far as subs go, wow, they sure have been great recently. I do think that we can have this conversation about honestly, what boils down to taste and preference, more respectfully; but that’s sort of been my constant feeling about most things on the internet nowadays. I remember getting pretty heavily shamed for liking dubbed anime and being called lazy for enjoying and and thus I perpetuated that negativity calling those who liked subbed snobs. We can all do better as far as how we discuss what are true issues facing anime and manga fandom: translation, censorship, and more.
Thank you for sticking with me through such a post.
I invite thoughtful and kind discussion in the comments below.