End of Anime: English Dubs

by Chris Bourke, Aug 9th 1998
Within the already esoteric and limited genre of Anime are two competing sides: those who support English dubbed Anime and those who support English subtitled Anime. Each side has their supporters and critics. Unfortunately due to many factors involved, English dubbed Anime has generally, though with a few exceptions, been poorly done and continues to be adequate at best and unbearable at worst. There is hope though. With work, Otaku everywhere can support and foster a better Anime market.

Amazingly enough, despite consistently bad dubs, dub support in the US is strong. First, the fan base that prefers dubs is significant. Organizations like Anime Online (animeonline.org) and the Save Our Sailors Campaign vehemently support the English dubbed versions of Anime. Particularly Anime Online prefers dubbed versions for the sake that they are in their own language, easy to watch, and more accessible. Save Our Sailors at least recognizes that the original Japanese is usually much better, but supports dubs in order to strive for a more main stream and wider audience. Secondly, the American Anime industry also has a strong preference for dubbed Anime. Carl Macek noted that "to make any goal attainable in marketing reality, these films could only gain critical initial interest via English language translation." Given the relatively large investment and subsequent risk in producing commercial Anime here in the US it seems sensible to target a large of audience as possible. Consequently, companies assume that most Americans will not purchase subtitled Anime when given a choice. Companies then market and plan unit quantities and prices such that dubs outsell subs three to one. This becomes an even more important issue when companies try to bring Anime to the syndicated television market. No network would ever air a subtitled show, especially one that is initially targeted toward children. Others, like Stuart Levy base their support of dubs on a more aesthetic basis, "the idea of covering up that beautiful artwork[Kenji's Spring] with subtitles seemed really horrible." Simply put, most American TV/tape watchers don't have the patience or in most cases the capacity to sit through an entire episode, much less a movie of subtitled dialog. They consider subtitles to be cumbersome, distracting to the action, or too fast to be read. Additionally, mainstream Americans are not film connoisseurs or purists. Many fans only casually enjoy Anime or movies. As a result many cultural references, sexual content, and violence are censored, altered, or are totally dropped because they are perceived to be unimportant or unacceptable. All this lends itself to a more mainstream acceptance, but many of the vital elements of Anime are lost. Many viewers don't even realize that what they are in fact watching is foreign. It is doubtful that Americans would care one way or the other given the predominately ethnocentric attitude of most. Anime as a genre at best is misrepresented, and at worst, ignored.

This is not to say that dubbed Anime is inherently bad. As Stuart Levy recognized, all animation is originally dubbed, regardless of what language it is in. However, there is a noticeable disparity in the QUALITY of English and Japanese dubs. The major reason for this disproportion is of course the economic situations of American animation versus Japanese animation. In Japan, animation is their main entertainment market. Anime is basically the Hollywood of Japan. Conversely in America, emphasis is placed more on live action productions. Only a handful of companies produce animation with only a single major player (Disney) producing the bulk of movies, and very few of them at that. Furthermore, The underlying mentality in America is that animation is primarily for children. So much so in fact that most American animation is not accepted or targeted at older age groups, it is dismissed as merely "cartoons." Only a few shows have overcome this mentality, reaching a more mature audience. Shows like "The Simpsons", have proven that marketed and produced properly, Americans can and do accept animation as a valid form of art and entertainment. As generations that grew up with animation get older, perhaps animation and Anime in particular will appeal to a more mature audience. Until then, the American "cartoon" mentality will be an impediment to Anime. As such, Anime will continue to be targeted and conceptualized toward children and a mainstream audience.

As small companies try to establish successful markets in Anime they face many other hurdles. Because Anime and animation in general is not mainstream these companies tend to be small, high-risk ventures. Despite the relative success of the Direct-To-Video market and video sales in general, Anime distribution companies remain less profitable. As such they cannot afford, or don't want to pay for decent voice talents, at least not those that would be equivalent to the caliber of actors Japanese companies can afford. Even in instances where big names are employed such as the recent Pioneer dub project "Armitage the III," we are not guaranteed stellar performances. Kieffer Sutherland had no experience in voice acting and Elizabeth Berkley had no acting talent to begin with. In addition to voice actors companies must make use of experienced, competent directors and in the studios. Many times less money means less quality talent. As a result for many years we have endured really horrible dub projects. Poor direction and inferior acting have been an unfortunate and sadly common place trend in the commercial American Anime industry. Better productions are impossible for companies without enough capital to initially produce the project. Companies can't earn the capital until Anime sales are profitable enough and Anime sales can't be profitable until it's a mainstream genre, and Anime won't be a mainstream genre until enough people are exposed to it and enough people won't be exposed to it unless more Anime is released. You can see the complexity of the issue, we can't have eggs until we have a chicken to lay them, and we can't have a chicken until we have eggs to hatch one! Many burgeoning markets have faced the same problems.

This process has been going on ever since Carl Macek's Streamline was formed almost ten years ago and yet the same trends in poor productions persist. This is mainly a failure by American companies to capture any large audience. They have alienated many core-Otaku from the commercial market altogether, failing to gain the loyalty and respect of die-hard Otaku while at the same time have fallen short in gaining a large, mainstream audience because many don't recognize and appreciate this distinct genre due to the Americanization process. Many of the idiosyncrasies of Anime are lost, perverted or censored including humor, language, story, names, characterization, and cultural references. Rather than making Anime clearer for an American audience the Americanization process insults the audience's intelligence and precludes them from even attempting to understand Anime in its original form. Though given the already depraved and stupefied American culture many would not want to even try to understand the minutia involved in watching even a single episode, though it requires very little thought.

A few American companies must be commended for their exceptional projects, however. ADV, Central Park Media, and Pioneer have produced remarkably decent dub projects. These few exceptions are mainly companies that were either founded or run by Otaku, people who have a vested interest in releasing the best, as close to the original product possible. Though these projects are exceptional examples but they come at a high price, forcing the companies to charge more for their products. Pioneer and ADV placing fewer dubbed episodes on a $20 tape and AnimEigo charging up to $40 for certain tapes. Only a true Anime enthusiast would ever consider paying these prices. Truly good productions are left out of the mainstream because of their consequent expense and relatively low number of units.

For almost ten years now the dub supporters have contended that the Americanization of Anime will give it the legitimacy and a mainstream audience. Despite Anime being available at your local Blockbuster, on television, cable, and in limited theatrical releases, such a wide reaching audience has not materialized. Instead we have hyperbolized news reports of the harm, violence, and sexual content of Anime as a whole prompted by nothing more than a completely clean children's television show (Pokémon) causing a few isolated incidents of epileptic seizures. Many have the notion that Anime is nothing more than animated pornography. Though credit is due to these pioneers and fellow Otaku in many cases, Americanized Anime has done very little to capture a mainstream audience. The fears and preconceptions of Anime continue and a mainstream audience still eludes us. It should be asked, is Anime worth presenting to mainstream America if it means that it has to be watered down, censored(television market), edited, and dubbed to the point that it loses what we Otaku love most about it? Absolutely not. But what can we do? Simple, we must empower individuals with awareness of REAL Anime, original Anime. We cannot push out the neophyte Otaku, those that have only seen Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or Ninja Scroll and show a slight interest in Anime. We cannot be elitists. We must invite as many people as possible into this particular fan world, help and nurture their eager minds and pursuit of Anime. Create clubs in your town or university. Provide assets and resources to those who seek them. Fansubs are a perfect outlet for Anime that would never otherwise make it to the US.

Secondly, we must not support poor productions. Express your discontent of the quality of English dubs to the persons and companies responsible. Do this in an intelligent, rational manner, no flames, threats or name-calling. Send letters, email, and fill out those little reply cards. If you are given a choice between a poorly dubbed Anime and a subtitled version, buy the subtitled version. It may be a little more expensive, but it is definitely worth it. On the other hand, support GOOD commercial companies. PURCHASING an ADV, Pioneer, or AnimEigo product enables them to continue with their efforts and invest in future, better, bigger productions. We must establish an Anime market based on GOOD Anime, Anime that is as close to the original product as possible rather than a market based on degraded, Americanized Anime.

Fortunately the Sub vs. Dub debate may solve itself. Newer mediums like VCDs and DVDs promise a potentially cheaper and more versatile format for Anime. DVDs have multiple audio and subtitle tracks. No longer will companies have to release two versions of their products. People who enjoy subtitled Anime and those who would rather watch dubbed Anime only have to buy the same product. DVDs seem like the perfect medium for foreign films and Anime in particular.

Until this new medium becomes common place the debate will go on. Perhaps it will continue even after the DVD transition is complete. Otaku must continue to strive for legitimacy as well as appreciation and recognition of Anime in its original, Japanese context.

Note: Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Anime News Network.

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