Or, How I Found a New Hill to Die On
by Bolt Vanderhuge
Arguing about whether it’s better to watch anime in a language you can’t understand with subtitles you hope are accurate, or to watch it in a language you can understand and hope is accurate and well-acted is an argument that’s as old as the practice of localization itself. There are a lot of good arguments when it comes to artistic intent and some good horror stories about re-edits and script changes thanks to the likes of 4Kids Media and Fox Kids, but there is also one to be made about accessibility and watchability. Of course it doesn’t help that a lot of the people making the pro-subs argument can be real elitist assholes about it.
I actually started out as an ardent dub-watcher, with my main argument being that I wanted to watch anime rather than read it. I honestly didn’t care about bad readings or poor acting, much in the same way I am forgiving of the bad animation that comes from low budgets, as long as the story was interesting. If anything, bad dubs were all part of the fun, especially when it came to janky old anime (like say Angel Cop) anyway. I also have never been very fast at reading, and actually had a hard time keeping up with dialog if the characters were just standing next to each other having a rapid-fire conversation, let alone if there was any kind of action going on. Also, if it was just a conversation going on, I could go into the other room and get something from the fridge and not actually miss anything as far as the story if it has an English dub. So I am understanding of people who are intimidated by the thought of watching subtitled anime, and of the argument that not having dubs will limit the amount of people who get into anime.
On the other hand, there is the issue of changing the intent of the artwork, and censorship in general. This is not a new phenomenon, as a lot of the first anime to be brought to the United States through localization had this issue from the get-go. Usually this had to do with someone’s sensibilities being offended, like a couple of the Sailor Scouts being a couple, or Ghost in the Shell’s Major making a period joke, or “you got me,” which is pretty much everything 4Kids ever did with their “by the time we get through with it, the kids won’t even know it’s from Japan” mentality. There has thus always been a lot of back and forth on the issue, with the justification for changes made when creating a dub amounting to “it’s localization, therefore any changes are justified.” This is a simplification, but I don’t have the word count to get into it. This has gotten to be more of an issue for me because more recently there has been something of a shift in politics, which is making its ways into dubs. Whether this amounts to making fun of acceptable targets or just being prudish, it all goes back to artistic intent being changed, whether one considers seeing an awkward male protagonist accidentally groping his female coworker to have artistic merit or not. This goes hand-in-hand with the revelations that a considerable portion of the localization industry frankly hates its customer base, so the question then becomes, do you really want to give people who hate you what little money you earned while getting yelled at by Karens for an inferior product? Do you really want to keep hearing the voices of scummy people over and over in everything?
Eventually I got over my own reluctance to watch anything that didn’t have a dub, and I got better at reading subtitles. Further, I’ve come to appreciate the voice acting done by the Japanese voice actors, because even if I can’t understand the words, the tone, delivery, and emotion still come across. I still have a love for certain dubs which will never go away, whether they were actually good or just funny, it’s just that I find myself not really able to watch new dubs anymore with some of the knowledge I’ve gained. I suppose it’s kind of like going back and watching the Naked Gun movies with what we know about O.J. Simpson now – some people are just fine doing it, but for others it can be pretty awkward. So I can’t help but hope that some Japanese studios will do their own translations so they can create products they can sell directly to fans on this side of the pond.