Hey, Answerman! - Japanese & Legalese

by Brian Hanson,

Greetings, friends and family!

The temperature has reached critical levels of coldness. Oh boy - I get to experience my first East Coast winter!!! I can't wait to step outside for five minutes and not be able to feel my fingers, toes, and other unmentionable extremities!

So while it's cold enough to stick my tongue onto every light post and mailbox around, enjoy these questions you were kind enough to send me. And I, in kind, am kind enough to provide responses to them. Kindness squared. Exponential kindness.

Hi, Answerman. One of the column questions have made me both intrigued and irked enough to ask you this: Does an anime being "too Japanese" imply that it would never hold up to par to those that have "universal appeal"? I'm also wondering about this because there have been discussions about how Japan's taste in anime (media in general) seems to veer from the rest of the world. Some would dare say they even have bad taste because the Japanese like what they don't like.

To sum it all up, does an anime have to conform to Westerners and click with every single demographic out there to be considered good?

I don't think I ever explicitly stated that "universal appeal" also means "quality." The math goes like this: Something can have "mass appeal" but not really be "good" (Ex: the Shrek movies), but true, unfettered "quality" is always appealing. If that makes any sense.

Remember that LA Times review of Madoka Magica I linked to a few weeks ago? I don't really remember the last time the LA Times paid one of their writers to do a short review on a magical girl show. In fact, I don't think that's ever happened. Madoka Magica's quality is pretty universal; the style and the characters might not be everybody's cup of peculiar tea, but there's no denying how wonderfully constructed that series is.

And yet, the show Animal Practice, by all accounts one of the worst TV fiascos of recent memory, still gets about 4 million viewers an episode. If any anime series ever got 4 million unique views, sold 4 million copies, or sold 4 million tickets, everyone would go bananas. It would be the biggest thing since ever. And by this, I'm talking about strictly Western viewers here; globally, something like One Piece has a big enough footprint to get close to that amount of viewership.

Hey, One Piece is a pretty good example of what I'm talking about: it kind of perfectly encapsulates what I think is important about "appeal" versus "quality." For some reason, One Piece is rather popular and beloved around the world. Why? The concept, the characters, and the story are uniquely Japanese - steeped in generations of Shonen Jump tradition: the spunky, endlessly earnest and energetic, if otherwise dopey, main hero who dreams big and thinks of little else. Alongside an ever-increasing cast of weirdos, freaks, friends and foes. It's also incredibly violent, and yet targeted mostly towards children. And yet, it is one of the top-grossing, most popular and beloved manga and anime franchises across the world. All this, despite a story and characters that are intensely molded and shaped from very Japanese sources. Just because the characters aren't technically Japanese, let's not kid ourselves into thinking that One Piece isn't a very "Japanese" property. It is.

I don't think that anybody who truly enjoys any artistic medium would ever argue that it has to hit every single demographic in order to be "good." Unless you're an investor. Then, yes, being able to hit every demographic and turn a tidy profit is indeed "good."

I've said before, and I'll say it again, but the industry does need some sort of mass-appeal properties or two in order to subsidize the riskier bets. No genre or medium of entertainment has ever truly survived by either selling out completely to the mainstream (hey, how's Zynga doing these days?!?) or by completely shutting itself off from the outside world, chasing a narrower and narrower clientele before reaching obsolescence (i.e. all those times Marvel Comics nearly ran itself into bankruptcy).

And then there are those rare beasts that are both four-quadrant balls-out hits, and also quantifiably great. Cowboy Bebop didn't turn into a huge Western success simply because it "wasn't too Japanese." It succeeded because any audience with a brain and a heart could see how well constructed it was. Plus, it was entertaining as hell! I mean, I could just keep going down the line through every major franchise in the West and point out how it's all about the quality, not the "Un-Japanese-ness" of it. And also, several shows that were very very rooted in Japanese culture that were nonetheless big hits. (You gonna tell me that Tenchi Muyo and Rurouni Kenshin aren't particularly "skewed" to Japanese tastes and sensibilities? Spare me!)

But I don't have time for that. Neither do you, I think. This is a logical fallacy, and irrelevant. Taste is subjective, and what the hardcore Japanese otaku love and cherish occasionally overlaps with stuff I love, but not always. And so it is with everyone, I assume.

I'm not one to complain about American voice actors being re-used often because I feel that as long as they're good, I don't care. However, I do love both CA and NY talent pools and wish it was possible for them to get more work. Unfortunately, dubs are rare, mostly, done in Texas, outsourcing to other studios is expensive, and actors flying in is also expensive. And then it hit me: Instead of having the out-of-state actors fly to Texas, why doesn't Funimation or Sentai send their directors to CA or NY?

I'm gonna stick with Funimation here because there was once a question asking about why they don't outsource more often to alleviate their work load, and your answer was basically "They like to keep it 'in the family'". Well, since all the usual directors have worked at Funi for a long time and have worked with each other for a long time, couldn't the "Funimation way" be preserved even if they're using different actors? The directors would be Funimation usuals, the writers would be Funimation usuals, engineers would the be Funimation usuals, the only thing different would be the actors. And I know directors like to use talent they're familiar with, but I doubt someone like Mike McFarland would have a hard time working with long time pros like Veronica Taylor or Crispin Freeman.

There would be the added expense of flying the director out and renting a booth, but at minimum it's good PR and that can sometimes get more buyers. I'm not saying load up casts with the out-of-state, best of the best talent because that would really add to the cost. But renting out a studio for a few hours to fill out a cast with two or three actors willing to work non-union plus other utility actors could be a good move.

I'm not really sure I buy the "it's good PR and that can get more buyers" argument. The amount of dubs that are being made these days isn't in any way related to "good PR," it's related to sales, pure and simple.

And it's funny you bring this up, because that's almost exactly what Funimation did when they licensed the newer Tenchi Muyo! episodes. The ADR script was written by Funimation's in-house team (including Mike McFarland!) and the process was farmed out to a Los Angeles studio, in order for series mainstays like Matthew K. Miller and Kate T. Vogt to reprise their roles. But I can't imagine that the process was all that cheap, especially since Funimation already has their own studio. And really, that's what it boils down to - Funimation has their own in-house dubbing studio, with all the equipment and engineers it needs. And they own it. Why bother spending any money to rent a studio when you already have one?

In the case of something like Tenchi Muyo! and Slayers Revolution, it makes sense only because it's the easiest way to attain most of the original cast. And that was purely out of the goodness of their hearts, in order to please the hardcore fans who've grown attached to the voices. They could've simply re-cast it with their usual stable of actors to make things easier (and cheaper) for themselves. With the exception of Spike Spencer, that's what they had to do with the Rebuild of Evangelion movies.

Not to sound so blunt, but the notion that Funimation would spend more money to rent out and hire additional talent and crew in Los Angeles or New York - ESPECIALLY Los Angeles, where they would have to deal with pricey union fees they could completely avoid by recording in Texas - just to diversify their talent pool a little bit is... foolish. It doesn't really make sense, all things considered. Maybe if they had a backlog of dubs to burn through and they were forced to rent another studio elsewhere in order to reduce the workload and meet certain deadlines, I could see it. But, come on, we're quite a long ways away from the days where such a scenario would be plausible. Funimation is in a lucky spot to be afforded as many dubs as they currently have.

The only thing that could be plausible, insofar as attaining a wider range of voice talent, is if said voice talent is able to work remotely. Steve Blum, for example, has his own little recording studio in his house, essentially replicating a studio space. If a dub is being "recorded" anywhere in the world, so long as they've got an internet connection and the money to afford Steve Blum, they can hire him. But the only guys and gals who have their own home recording studios are those same seasoned veterans you've all heard before. Vic Mignogna is in the same boat, which is why you'll hear him in tons of Funimation produced titles, as well as something like Bleach, which is recorded in LA. It's kind of a major personal expense to gather the necessary equipment to build your own, professional-grade recording studio, so the only people willing to do it are those that can guarantee themselves a lot of work in order to profit from the initial expense.

Honestly, I know we're all a little bit tired, in some way, of hearing the same dozen actors over and over again. I hear it a lot, and so does Funimation, really. But, again, let's not try and look a gift horse in the mouth; we are lucky to still get dubs at all, and sadly we're not really in any sort of bargaining position in regards to casting.

Hey Answerman,

This may seem like bait but I am wondering how you feel about it. I know you feel strongly about not pirating anime, getting it through legal means, and not doing anything illegal once you have it. Did you know that loaning DVDs to friends is illegal? Having a public screening is also illegal. (A Public screening could be just to a few of your friends) I know you don't care what other people do and I'm not asking you to judge me if I do these things. I'm asking if you do, if you feel bad, if you would do them again, and why it is/isn't different than watching anime you don't have permission to watch in other ways.

Loaning DVDs to friends is illegal?!? I had no idea!!! I had no idea because that is so untrue it's comical.

Here is the official text on every FBI Anti-Piracy Warning label since August of this year: "The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by fines and federal imprisonment." Loaning your DVD copy is hardly an "unauthorized reproduction," since it's, y'know, the same disc, not a copy. And, uh, no, no. A "public screening" is NOT just a few of your friends hanging out at your house, watching TV with you. It's not like your house suddenly turns into public property when people other than yourself are inside. "Oh crap! The pizza guy is here! Turn off the DVD in case he steps in the doorway and looks at the TV, I don't want to get sued for unauthorized distribution!!!"

So, those scenarios are completely insane and I won't bother explaining any further. But I see what you're getting at here. There might be some otherwise reasonable situations I've found myself in that are complete legal morass. I used to do scheduling and other things for my campus anime club, and yeah, we screened fansubs. We didn't get any official "permission" to do so. Hell no. We had a svelte, nice SVHS tape that we made copies of. We traded back and forth. None of this was legal or sanctioned in any way.

"Perhaps, then!" the cynic might say. "You are no more than a hypocrite, Mister Hanson! You often decry pirates who use twisted logic to defend their piracy, when you were guilty of the same thing! I shake my head and bite my thumb at you, sir! Your entire platform of anti-piracy bullying has crumbled into wafting particles of dust and shame!!!" Hey now, relax man. If I were still running some kind of back-alley anime club these days, I probably wouldn't just screen whatever .avi-filled thumb drive I was given that day. I'd probably make sure that I had at least requested permission to show the things I was screening.

Not that this line of reasoning makes a lot of sense. Anime clubs aren't terribly popular anymore - anyone with an internet connection can watch the latest, subtitled episode of Naruto just by typing in the word "Naruto." No need to sit in a dark room with 20 other strangers every other week to get caught up on your favorite show. Say what you will about the death of the community and social aspect of anime fandom, but when it comes to simply getting the titles themselves in a fast and convenient way, we've never had it better. And even if I did want to subject a darkened college lecture hall with a cultivation of anime episodes of my choosing, it's a whole lot easier to obtain permission these days.

I guess I can't say I'm entirely enthusiastic about some of the dubiously sketchy viewing habits in the past, but... that's all in the past, anyway. That was literally a decade ago. I've moved on, I've grown up, and I've learned. No need to repent for those forgotten sins, I don't think. I've discovered a deeper appreciation for creativity and the arts, and I wish to reward those who inspire me, in the hopes that someone would do the same for me.

I look at it this way: when I was in high school, I heard many of the same arguments - that my Irresponsible Captain Tylor fansubs were technically piracy since at no point did any money change hands between myself and the people responsible for its creation. I certainly didn't like hearing that. I didn't like being told what to think; especially being told to think that I was a criminal. Lord no! I was an appreciator of fine art. I took to Usenet to defend my lifestyle with a fervor and zeal comparable to any current torrent-defender. I didn't care, anyway. I got to watch the things I wanted to watch with as little effort as possible, and that's all that mattered at the time.

The arguments persisted, and as I grew up, they started to make more sense. I stopped arguing, because deep down, I knew why I was pirating stuff - it was the cheapest and the easiest way to get what I wanted. All pretense of having a valid cultural point of reference regarding my crappy choice of obtainment completely left my brain. I just figured I'd stay silent, which is a great way to avoid having to face any troubling moral issues. Then, and now, I simply see no need to pirate things anymore. Recently I read a piece on a music blog, which pointed out the incredibly small amount of revenue musicians are making from things like Spotify and Pandora. "SEE???" the internet shouted from the comments page. "THIS IS WHY I STILL PIRATE MUSIC. NONE OF THE MONEY EVER GOES TO THE BAND, ANYWAY."

Never, of course, does the thought enter their heads that... I'd rather at least some money goes back to the original musicians who created it, rather than none.

So, no, I don't exactly "feel bad" about the way I watched anime in days gone past, because I was a completely different person back then, and the way we watch and enjoy digital media of all forms has completely changed, radically and violently, from 2003 to today. No, I wouldn't do them again. No reason to. Unless I was the sort of person who likes to throw bizarre nostalgia parties. (Not really.) Simulcasting, and having Crunchyroll on my PS3 hooked up to my HDTV, has completely killed any desire I might have festering inside of me to pirate anime.

That's just the way I live my life, bud. Look forward, never backward. Gotta keep movin', no time for lookin' back. (Except for all the times I do exactly that. Some of which are already in this same column.)

Okay, this is working out well, timing-wise: I feel like I'm out of breath, talkin' about piracy and its insipid forms, so here's YOUR chance, readers, to outshine me!

This time, we had a few people who took time out of their busy lives to tap out a response to this query about localizations:

We start with Joe, who is quite fond of his reading comprehension:

Hey Answerman,

While a great many shows can get away with slavish translations, I feel that anything set in Japan in the past or present automatically should be considered for the heavy western rewrite treatment. Dubs target a larger audience that probably isn't aware of a lot of the cultural or historical nuances that might crop up, especially in dialogue, so rewrites are necessary for the audience to understand what's going on. While I also agree shonen anime should get the western rewrite treatment just to avoid those often repeated lines that everyone is tired of, any series with lots of infodumps should get rewrites. It probably won't fix all the problems, but it could make the exposition a bit less painful to sit through by tweaking the dialogue to sound a bit more natural.

Ideally, the people doing the localization should be open to major rewrites, but deal with each line individually, because sometimes the literal translation can work just as well or better than a rewritten line. For example, in Steins;Gate, there's a scene where the main character discovers that one character has become a girl through temporal hijinks; in the dub, he goes “You're a female?”, where as the subs go with the more natural sounding “You're a girl?” It isn't going to kill the dub for me, but it is distracting since it doesn't sound natural as dialogue or in the context of the character at that time. You can get away with a lot in localization as long as the line sounds like something a person would actually say, fits the character, and conveys more or less the same thing as the Japanese line, in roughly that order.

As for manga, I feel there's less need for heavy rewriting, because the medium provides the opportunity to explain things through translator notes. The only real localization they need is dropping the honorifics, which mean nothing to people who don't care about them, and not leaving in Japanese phrases that have English equivalents and aren't proper nouns. Those decisions seem to be based on the translators placing priority on the “coolness” of Japanese, rather than focusing on ensuring that the reader comprehends the story.

You are allowed to ponder all you like, Liana:

Hey Brian,

When I first read your question, the first thing that came to mind was Yu Yu Hakusho. I've been a long time fan of this show and it remains one of my favorite dubs. While I haven't watched in in Japanese, I remember reading in Allen Divers's review of DVD 1 that the dub takes some significant license with the translation. He says that some of the scenes, like Yuusuke meeting King Yemma, loses some significance. And I agree. However, the way I see it, Western audiences may not understand that significance regardless, even with a little translation blurb included on screen. I think it's really difficult to feel the impact of what King Yemma is without some sort of correlating belief in Western legend/religion, which I can't think of off the top of my head. For me, it was enough to know that he was King of Spirit World. In any case, I enjoyed Yu Yu Hakusho's dub a great deal, and that's what entertainment is for at the end of the day.

As for a bad example of localization, I can't help but remember how painful it was to hear "dude" and other such nonsense every other word in Initial D, dubbed by Tokyopop. I also didn't agree with the name changes to Takumi and Itsuki. I know they were trying to Americanize it, but I'd much rather watch a story about a young race car driver in Japan than watch some weird retelling that tries to change the characters and setting without messing up the experience of the plot. And while there may be some series out there that have accomplished that intricate balance, I don't think Initial D was quite up to snuff. Or maybe I just really take offense whenever dubs use the word "dude".

But anyway, to answer your question about the types of anime/manga that benefit from localization, I think that really depends on just how much of the source material a Western audience can understand/relate to and how much of it we just won't get. The way I see it, this bridging of cultures can be addressed three ways. First, you can concentrate on completely Americanizing the show and pretty much abandon the original work (Samurai Pizza Cats comes to mind). Which can make some really great stuff, though it's also completely different from the source material. Second, you can try to perform a balancing act by tweaking a few things so Western audiences get the gist of it without being distracted by nuances they can't understand. Or providing annotations to explain tricky translations. Third, you can be really faithful to the original and trust that the message will still connect regardless of cultural differences. Which it does, in some cases. In the end, it comes down to how much the Western distributor decides is an appropriate level of detail for their audience. And the audience doesn't always agree, which is why we have questions like this in the first place.

Rounding out this week's crowd of responser-ees, here's Kristin, speaking about the lost art of amalgamimation:

Localization is probably one of the most interesting things to me, as there are people who only like the localized version of an anime and not the original at all. The biggest thing I've probably seen this happen with is Digimon, where fans seem divided into either enjoying the original Japanese version or loving only the American one, despite the clear differences and odd censorship that sometimes occurs.

Possibly one of my favorite examples of localization is Robotech, the great amalgam of the eighties. Although way before my time, I enjoy it a great deal, for the sort of campy lines it presents throughout the series. Because of it, I've branched out to other Macross series and am even starting in on the new dub. Has the massive combination and rewriting of scenarios ruined it for me? No, on the contrary, it's actually made it more fun. I'm able to go back and take a look at the differences between the two.

Thanks for the answers as always, friends and possible enemies!

Next week, I think you all might already know about this, but there's a holiday coming up - something about mashed potatoes and weird religious dudes who wear belt buckles on their hats - and, at the interest of being a corny sad man, came up with something seasonally appropriate. Read!

Now you've got this week's question, and it's time to get answerin'.

For those of you new to Hey, Answerfans!, I'll explain the concept.

Believe it or not, I'm genuinely curious what you think.

That's right; as much as I love the sound of my own voice, I do love to listen to what other people have to say on a subject. I'm finding that over the last few years, the attitudes, reasoning and logic that today's anime fans use eludes, confuses or astounds me; I have so many questions for you, and I'm dying to hear what you have to say in response.

Welcome to Hey, Answerfans!

Basically, we're turning the tables. Each week I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to email me your answer. Be as honest as you can. I'm looking for good answers; not answers I agree with or approve of, but good, thoughtful answers
. People feel passionately about these subjects and I'd like to see that in the responses I get. I'll post the best answers I get, and maybe some of the crappy ones. Sometimes there may only be one or two good ones; sometimes five or more. It all depends on what I get in my inbox! Got it? Pretty simple, right? Start writing those answers and email them to answerman [at] animenewsnetwork dot com.

We do have a few simple ground rules to start with.

Things To Do:

* Be coherent.
* Be thoughtful.
* Be passionate.
* Write as much or as little as you feel you need to to get your point across in the best possible way.

Things Not To Do:

* Respond when the question doesn't apply to you. For instance, if your email response starts with "Well, I don't do whatever you're asking about in the question... " then I'm going to stop reading right there and hit delete.

* Be unnecessarily rude or use a lot of foul language.
* Go off-topic.

That is all the content still lingering in my brain - it must recharge! In the interim, don't forget to drop me a line - such as a question, or, say, a response to Answerfans - by emailing me anytime at Answerman(at)AnimeNewsNetwork.Com! Needless capitalization! See you next week!

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