• remind me tomorrow
  • remind me next week
  • never remind me
Subscribe to the ANN Newsletter • Wake up every Sunday to a curated list of ANN's most interesting posts of the week. read more

Regret-tinged Nostalgia

by Justin Sevakis,

No time for chit-chat this week! I have a plane to NYC to catch!

Skyler asks:

Why were there so many terrible dubs made in the 80s and 90s? I don't have a problem with dubs or anything but some of the scripting and voice acting in dubs like Garzey's Wing and Angel Cop wouldn't be acceptable for a fandub, so I don't understand why a professional dubbing studio and the original Japanese company would allow voice acting that bad, especially since voice acting in animation isn't exactly a new profession. Could they just not afford better voice actors?

Well, first of all, take Angel Cop out of the equation. Angel Cop's English dub was very obviously MADE to be campy and stupid -- I mean, look at the ludicrous dialogue. From 1992 to 1998 the team behind it at Manga UK's old London dubbing studio, under veteran BBC radio drama producer Michael Bakewell, brought us a bizarre mix of great dubs (Patlabor 2, Heroic Legend of Arslan, Roujin Z), weird and mediocre dubs (Project A-ko, Genocyber, Cyber City Oedo 808), and just plain bad dubs (Appleseed OAV, X: The Movie, Devilman). Most of their best work holds up today quite well.

I take issue with the notion that most 90s dubs were terrible. There were a LOT of terrible ones, to be sure, but there was definitely quite a bit of quality work being done. Coastal Recording gave us Ah! My Goddess! OAVs and You're Under Arrest. Animaze gave us Black Magic M-66, Macross Plus and Wings of Honneamise. After a bumpy start, the Ranma 1/2 dubs from Ocean Group sounded pretty good, and their dub of the Fatal Fury OAVs are pretty decent too. ADV's output was pretty bleak in this era, but their Matt Greenfield turned in some hilarious work on Nadesico and Compiler. Those dubs above are often held up as classics, and most of them hold up even today.

But I digress. The truth is, dubbing anime was a pretty new thing back in the 90s, and many of the people in charge simply didn't know what they were doing. Many were fans who had only recently "gone pro" and were totally faking being a professional. They had to hire specialty Audio Production studios to oversee what was then a very technical process, and many of those studios had never specifically dubbed anime before and had to learn as they went. It took years to develop best practices, and to find cheap voice actors that could actually do what was being asked of them. Japan was of no help, since back then there was no high-speed internet on which to send things like casting choices and dub scripts for approval. In fact, licensors were extremely hands-off until the early 2000s; they often wouldn't even hear a dub until it had been on store shelves for months.

Also, the technical aspect of dubbing has changed almost entirely since the 90s. ProTools wasn't in widespread use for video until the late 90s; prior to that dubbing had to be done on digital audio workstations, which often involved a computer synchronizing with the timecode from a professional video tape recorder. The process was a lot more tedious than it was today. Recording every take meant rewinding and replaying the tape at the right moment, and managing different takes was much harder. Some dubs were even recorded on analog tape!

The kludgy nature of the technical side of dubbing back then often meant that you couldn't work nearly as fast as we do today, so actors couldn't do as many takes in the booths, good takes got lost, and studio time cost a lot more money. Anime dubbing was never a high-budget venture, so most professionals' standards for what made for an acceptable line reading simply had to be tuned pretty low. That, and a lot of people didn't know what they were doing. Many dub studios were run by washed up musicians-turned-Recording engineers trying to fake an enthusiasm for anime so they could put food on the table. They often had no actual directorial experience, and approached the work with a "git 'er dunn" sense of drudgery. Whoever was supervising the work for the anime distributors often had no real experience with this stuff either. Either they would try and micromanage a process they didn't know how to do, or would give the dub staff free reign, only to later get a dub that kind of sucked.

The problem with bad dubs is that it's hard to point to anything specific and say, "you're doing this wrong." Someone who didn't actually care about the work would just get defensive, and it was often too late to change anything anyway. Bad dub vendors seldom turned into good ones because the client gave them good notes. Slowly, as the studios experimented with different dub vendors, the ones that consistently turned in crappy work were given nothing but hentai and C- and D-list shows, while the dub studios we know today got more and more work, but that took years of learning.

There are plenty of terrible dubs being made today. Anime dubbing is such a low budget affair that turnover is very high, so many people working on dubs these days simply haven't been doing it for very long, and are still making rookie mistakes. The very tight time and budget constraints put on dub production also don't help matters any. But there is some excellent work being done as well. In that regard, I'm not sure things have changed much at all.

Also, dismissing a decade of anime dubs by pointing to Garzey's Wing is like dismissing every film Hollywood made in the early 2000s by pointing to Battlefield Earth. It's just not fair.

Ashley asks:

So, a while ago you talked about the programs that are generally used during the actual animation process itself. On the flip-side of that, what are the programs the Western companies generally use for the video production and digital/printed graphics? I'd imagine since FCP flushed itself down the toilet with X, it'd be either the Adobe suite or AVID, or is it something else entirely?

Sure, this is easy. Most of the US companies used Final Cut Pro 7 to do basic editing-related things like formatting. A few companies used FCP to do title work as well, but FCP was never very good with titles. Fancier projects, like trailers, promos and animated credits use Adobe After Effects. Since Final Cut Pro 7 was discontinued years ago and almost no professionals take the new, drastically re-built Final Cut Pro X seriously, many are switching to Adobe Premiere Pro. It integrates with After Effects quite nicely, but Final Cut Pro 7 is still pretty useful and is still in widespread use. I'm not sure if anyone uses AVID for English-side anime post-production. It's a very useful platform for huge editing projects like cutting together a movie or a TV show, for simple tasks like this it seems like overkill to me.

For dubbing, pretty much everyone uses some flavor of ProTools. For DVD and Blu-ray authoring, it's all over the place. Some use Scenarist for both. Some use DVD Studio Pro or its now-ancient Windows ancestor Spruce DVD. Some companies use Sony DoStudio for Blu-ray, but at least one uses the mega-expensive Sony Blu-Print software ($50,000!!!). Choices of subtitling software is even more spread out, but these days many are adopting the free Aegisub subtitling platform popularized by fansubbers, since it's incredibly flexible (though not without its kinks).

For print work, pretty much the entire world is now running the Adobe suite of apps: Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign. Between those, the web tools and the video apps, it's really amazing just how much you can do with the Creative Cloud suite. It covers almost everything. It's huge and expensive, but well worth it in my opinion.

For the record, I personally use Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition, Sony DoStudio, DVD Studio Pro, Aegisub, and a small truckload of other apps. Ya gotta keep on top of this software stuff these days!

Edgar asks:

I grew up in South America back in the 80s. Back then kids' anime was nothing short of mainstream in our country. We had several hours of anime in TV each day (such as the World Masterpiece Theater franchise) and some series were popular enough to get promo merchandising in products aimed at kids like cereals and ice cream. This continued into the 90s we got specialised anime magazines in normal book stores, many of them imported from Europe. From them, we learned that the fandom was as strong in countries like Spain, France and Italy as it was across the Atlantic in the opposite hemisphere. Then the Internet came around and I started speaking with people from North America and learned that in comparison, anime had a slower and humbler start in there. My question is, do you know whether Japanese publishers had an easier time or a preference dealing with countries in Europe and South America back in the day than with the U.S. to explain this?

The US has always been the toughest market to break into, specifically because we make SO MUCH STUFF. For the entire 20th century the US has been the #1 producer and exporter of pop culture material -- that's true today just as it was back then. The reason is that all of the major companies that distribute content -- the major TV networks, the record labels, the movie studios -- only really look to either make or shepherd new content to market themselves.

This has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but in some ways it hasn't changed at all. TV networks now look at shows from other countries, but not for stuff to license, but stuff to remake. Movie studios will join onto foreign films when they're still in development, rather than buy the rights to films already made. Those companies think of themselves as master tastemakers, so they insist on being able to influence the content of the shows while they're still in production. The stuff that's already made is nearly entirely left to small, independent outfits to buy the rights and get them seen in North America. That's why so few anime has ever seen broadcast on a major TV network here.

This is not at all how the content business works in smaller countries, where they produce and/or supervise very, very little of the shows they consume. Instead, they buy most of their content from other countries. How it works there, is every year, there are several trade shows -- MIPCOM/MIP-TV, American Film Market, TIFFCOM, and a few others, where content sellers (licensors) meet up with content buyers. They swap screeners and one-sheet flyers, have meetings, discuss deal terms. But the remarkable thing is, the content from America, while often clearly the highest budget, doesn't really stand that much separated from that of other countries.

So, yes, it was far easier for Japanese licensors to make inroads on other continents than it was in North America. Luckily times have changed, we have way more TV channels, way more independent distribution, and the internet. There are very few barriers to American fans seeing new content from anywhere in the world. The big media companies are pretty firm in their need to have a hand in creating everything they release, but that's nowhere near the barrier it once was.

mdo7 asks:

Why and how did Cool Japan fail when South Korea succeeded? What do you think Japan can learn from South Korea so Cool Japan in the future can rival Hallyu in the future? Do you think the 14 billion Yen investment on Cool Japan will work or not?

"Cool Japan" is such a vague term encompassing so many things that it's hard to point to any one thing and call it a failure. Since the term was invented by journalist Douglas McGray back in 2002 (in an article that went viral in political circles called "Japan's Gross National Cool"), the slogan was seized upon by the political world until it became the banner under which all sorts of government programs dedicated to boosting Japan's pop culture now run, even if some of those programs had been around for years. These programs include investment funding, subsidies for producing English translations for export, an awards ceremony, and many other initiatives.

Despite all of this effort, it's unmistakable that other countries, namely Japan's rival country South Korea, have made far more headway into the hearts and minds of Westerners over the past 5 years or so. Korea's TV dramas and pop music have had a huge cultural impact on American shores. I wouldn't call them mainstream per se, but the audience for these things went from seemingly tiny to roughly as significant of a force as anime fandom (overplayed, inexplicable hit "Gangnam Style" notwithstanding). That fast ramp-up was quite a boon, and got a lot of press attention. Anime did too, back when it was growing by leaps and bounds. By comparison, Japanese music and TV dramas haven't had anywhere near the same levels of success. In fact, the few times any have been given a real release in the WEST., they've largely face-planted.

"Cool Japan" -- an easy to ridicule phrase if ever there was one -- has been sharply criticized as a waste of money and overly complicated, as such things often are. That's probably accurate, but even if it's not, government programs can only do so much. The real ideas and meaningful effort have to come from the companies in charge of making the stuff. And therein lies the real problem: while Korea's pop culture is very internet savvy and visually stunning, Japan's media business is still very much grounded in the 20th century.

Compare, if you will: piracy has always been a problem for K-pop, so the industry was one of the first worldwide to jettison physical CD sales and make their money via touring and merchandise. They spend money on lavish, pretty and/or funny music videos that are very YouTube friendly. Fan-made images and wallpaper are everywhere, and the talent spreads themselves thin trying to be as visible as possible on every platform possible, every time they have a new album to promote. Meanwhile, TV networks SBS, KBS and MBC sell streaming rights for their drama series to nearly every platform possible. All this casts a wide net, allowing the fanbase to grow organically, much like anime did.

Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to get rights to show or stream a music video from a major music label in Japan. Physical CD sales are still a hugely important revenue source. Most talent agencies and record labels are resolutely sitting on their "don't give away more than 40 seconds of each song" rule, which shoots down most major marketing initiatives. Huge and powerful talent agencies like Johnny's Entertainment, who control most of the TV dramas their stars are in, forbid licensing anything their stars appear in without a ludicrously high licensing fee (although recent new licenses by Crunchyroll indicate this might finally be changing). Their music videos are usually spartan affairs, with a few noteworthy exceptions. The talent agencies also control images of their stars with an iron fist, forbidding unofficial photography in US magazines and web publications, and even withholding use of the official press photos for no obvious reason. The Japanese record labels typically don't put their artists on iTunes or other music stores for overseas users, and when they do, they do it with as little effort as possible.

I've spent years trying to navigate and understand the Japanese reason the entrenched Japanese entertainment business refuses to do things that will clearly make them money, and start growing a bigger audience overseas. Part of it is definitely arrogance ("This is one of the biggest stars in Japan! If we're going to invade America now, I want my client to be paid what he's worth!"), the ever-present expectation that audiences in the WEST. will work exactly like they do in Japan (ludicrously priced CDs and all), and a demand for control that simply isn't tolerated elsewhere. In my opinion, the Japanese entertainment industry has sabotaged itself with its methodology, and until that changes they won't be able to grow much of an overseas audience.

Meanwhile, the anime business, largely self-contained and insulated from the insanity of the more mainstream entertainment world, continues to make limited inroads outside of Japan, though some of the same control freak attitudes that hamstring the mainstream also limit anime exposure. But by being far more flexible, they've been able to stay surprisingly relevant to each new generation of fans for several decades now. The Cool Japan initiatives aid this by subsidizing subtitle production for streaming, and by raising awareness among showbiz types in other countries with sponsored events.

Honestly, my biggest problem with "Cool Japan" is the name. Nothing is less cool than having to call yourself "cool." Well, except maybe having a government initiative to call yourself "cool."

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

discuss this in the forum (93 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

Answerman homepage / archives