Answerman
Why Do Edited for TV Dubs Change An Anime's Music?

by Justin Sevakis,

Denzel asked:

I was wondering why some English dubs that are made to air on US TV get new music. I understand well enough they change music with Japanese vocals as to not alienate their audiences but I never understood why they would change the soundtracks.

There's two reasons for that. One is technical, and one is... for lack of a better word, "artistic."

The technical reason is that when the American company gets a master tape from Japan, the video is synchronized to the audio -- both the full Japanese audio, as well as a special track made for dubbing known as the Music & Effects track, or M&E's. If they chop down the video, the audio also gets cut. Music has to be cut in a way that makes sense musically -- if you don't, it sounds like a mess. That's really limiting when you're trying to cut down a scene, since usually the natural places to cut the video don't match up to good places to cut the music. It's much easier just to rip out all of the audio and start over.

The "artistic" reason is that anime is not scored the same way as Western TV, especially children's TV. Anime music makes use of subtle and contrasting emotions, minimalism, myriad different musical styles, chirpy otaku-techno and silence. Music is often used to contrast with a scene's emotions, and silence is liberally used to create moods and even to ramp up tension.

Western film and television is much more up-front in how music is used. The entire Western filmmaking style is based on the concept of the "leitmotif" (basically a melodic theme for a specific character, place or idea), but over the years this has typically morphed into something of a direct cue for a scene's emotions. Adventure scenes have sharp symphonic scores that match the action and ratchet up tension. Comedy scenes have wacky music. Sad scenes have melancholic melodies. This is especially true of children's entertainment, where creatives have spent decades trying to hand-hold viewers through the emotional trajectory of the stories being told.

American popular animation has its roots, of course, with Disney and Warner Bros. and their contemporaries, most of which utilized a full orchestra to achieve this feel. Since electronic instrumentation has improved to the point that it pretty much sounds like a live orchestra, modern Western children's entertainment is now basically wall-to-wall faux symphonic music with very over-the-top and obvious emotional cues. This is there to keep kids with short attention spans interested: it's as if there's a constant fear that the viewer will get bored and change the channel.

This is just inherent to the way American children's television has worked for decades. Most professionals who've worked in television, especially children's television, for a long time just do NOT understand the Japanese way of scoring a scene, and all of their years of experience screams out, "OH MY GOD, YOU HAVE NO MUSIC GOING ON!!" or "What's with that weird sad music box?? This is supposed to be a creepy scene!" And so on.

I guess you could call that artistic intent. Certainly not what I like, but there's clearly a creative instinct at work there. The disregard for the filmic language of a cartoon isn't just some arrogant, old-school American showbiz way of doing things, but a willful attempt to take something intended to be mass-market and accessible kids' programming, and make it moreso. It's stripping out something that would be seen as esoteric in the West. And for the record, now that anime isn't commonly hacked up for American TV very often anymore, this very seldom occurs these days. It's slowly dying out. For example, the English-language version of the most recent Pokémon film - Pokémon: The Power of Us - uses the complete original Japanese score.

One could argue that shows like Pokémon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and all the rest would not be as successful overseas had they kept it intact. We'll never really know if it makes a difference. The thing is, nobody wants to risk a hugely expensive new series' once-in-a-lifetime debut in the West to find out.


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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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