Why Can't I Change The Subtitles and Audio on My Blu-rays?

by Justin Sevakis,

Before we get started, a foot note to a previous column... My assessment of the English-speaking acting scene in Japan was quite scathing, but was only part of the story. There is, as it turns out, a small community of actual, professional multi-lingual TV hosts, voice-over artists and actors working in Japan. (And yes, they DID tweet at me to let me know they were not happy with that article.) Glancing over a few of their reels, they do a lot of commercial work, as well as industrials intended for promotion overseas. Very, very little of what they do is anime, so it's hard to tell if the truly rough English performances we hear in anime (the actual subject of that column) are the result of these actors not getting the direction they need, or if anime producers really are asking unqualified talent to do the handful of English lines that come up in anime. Neither one would surprise me.

Quinn asks:

I've been wondering for a good long while now if there is any particular reason I'm not allowed to change audio and/or toggle subtitles on and off on the fly while watching a blu-ray disc? Whenever I watched anime on DVD's I was always switching back and forth between the two - in varying combinations - as it was fun to compare things between the original Japanese and English versions of a show, but now whenever I try to change the audio and/or subtitle preferences while watching a blu-ray disc on my Sony stand-alone blu-ray player it says, "This operation currently prohibited for this disc" and forces me back to the main menu if I want to make any changes. Yet the same player will still operate with DVD's as previously described. Could you enlighten me as to why the blu-ray format doesn't allow on the fly changes?

Japanese licensors are perpetually worried by the prospect of "reverse-importing" -- that is, Japanese fans importing our cheaper anime Blu-rays back to Japan instead of buying the high-priced ones being sold there. Sales of those high priced discs are usually essential to the show making money. (More info here.) DVDs divide the world up into 6 different regions, with discs being able to flag which regions they'll play in and which they won't. As a result, most Japanese fans won't bother with American DVDs, since our discs are Region 1 and theirs are Region 2. Most of our discs won't play on Japanese players.

But with Blu-rays, there are only three regions, and both North America and Japan share Region A -- meaning our discs are entirely compatible. This led to some major importing of American anime discs -- by companies buying them wholesale and then selling them on Amazon Marketplace in Japan. There's no way of knowing how many discs get sold like this, but at one point several American editions were outranking the Japanese discs in's search results. It freaked the Japanese producers out so much that we came very close to getting no more anime Blu-rays in North America, ever.

There were two solutions that were found. The first was the use of a seldom-used part of the Blu-ray spec that allows a disc to ask what country a Blu-ray player is sold in, and react according to the answer. Nowadays, the vast majority of American anime Blu-rays ask the player, "hey, you're not from Japan, are you?" If the player responds, "why yes, I am actually," the disc will either jump to a lock-out screen, or refuse to play the Japanese audio track.

This country lock-out functionality isn't 100% foolproof, however. To make the discs themselves less attractive to Japanese fans, licensors will also sometimes insist that there be no way to play the show in Japanese without subtitles. This means that all possible audio/subtitle combinations must be selectable from the menus, and that the AUDIO and SUBTITLE buttons on the player have to be locked so that you can't make that selection manually. American publishers know this is annoying and will only do it if they have to.

You can still toggle between dub and subtitled versions with the disc's pop-up menu; there's no need to go back to the main menu screen if the disc is designed correctly. If the disc doesn't allow you to watch the dub with the full subtitles turned on, however, I encourage you to write to the American publisher and let them know that's important to you. It's something that many DVD producers just don't think about, but it's often essential for fans that have hearing problems.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

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.

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