Spirited Away: English Language Analysisby Zac Bertschy,
I have good news. They didn't. I saw a brand-new 35mm print of the dub, presumably the very same print that will eventually be playing at a theater near you.
Disney's English version of Spirited Away is done with an obvious love for the original. John Lasseter clearly had a tremendous amount of respect for this film, and as producer, put together an English version that's as close to the Japanese version as you can reasonably get without showing it subtitled. I've seen the subtitled version twice now, and I paid very close attention to what they'd changed in the dubbed version. Fans will be pleased to know; the only frames of film that are changed even slightly for the English version are the opening title card, which now reads “Spirited Away” instead of having subtitled Kanji, and the closing credits, which retain the background painting slideshow but scroll in English as opposed to Japanese. That's it. Every other frame of this film is intact. Yubaba smokes, orders Sake for the house after they release the river god, and steals Chihiro's kanji until only “Sen” is left. They did no digital editing whatsoever, otherwise. Frame for frame, it's perfect. There are no digital overlays. Also, there is no red tint whatsoever. Colors are vibrant and beautiful. It's a crystal clear presentation with accurate colors. They didn't master the 35mm from the DVD release, as was postulated by some fans. Don't worry about it. I repeat: no red tint.
As for the dubbing, it's excellent. I personally felt that Miramax's dub of Princess Mononoke was well-done. Probably the best dub I've ever seen. Spirited Away follows in that tradition. I found Sen's voice to be somewhat grating at times, but the Japanese version as just as shrill and somewhat over emotive at times. They were clearly trying to match voices in this version; everything sounds very, very similar to the Japanese version. Yubaba's voice in English is a much better performance than the Japanese version. It's perfect for the character. She is sly and aged at the same time. The Japanese voice seemed a little too high-pitched at times and somewhat overdone.. again, a slightly more understated performance in the English version seems to suit the character better. Haku is very well done. He does a great job bringing this character to life, as does the voice actress performing Lin. Lin is just as spunky and sarcastic in English as she was in Japanese, and the performance is dead on. I enjoyed the English characterization of the little Frog who's consumed by Noh Face – in fact, his voice while he's inside Noh Face is so close to the Japanese original that it could have very well been the same voice actor, simply speaking English. It's amazing to hear and compare the two. Oh, and for video game enthusiasts, the voice for the Colonel from Metal Gear Solid shows up as an employee of the bath house. They left in a few of the Japanese voices as well; Noh Face's insistent “Eh! Eh!” noises are the same as the Japanese, as is the River God's hypnotic, echoing laugh as he exits the bath house. It's a treat to hear that they left some of the original Japanese voices intact.
As for changes, well, there aren't very many. They added a few lines of dialogue to clarify matters in certain cases. I feel it helps the script somewhat, and irons things out a bit more for the viewer. They did this in Mononoke, too – when they cut away from a character who can still say something that they perhaps didn't say in the Japanese original, they take advantage of that. There are three instances in Spirited Away. One, when Chihiro watches Haku fly away as a dragon for the first time, before being followed by Noh Face, she says “Haku is a dragon?!” instead of just walking away. The first time I saw this film, I didn't know what it was she was seeing; this clears things up a bit. They add a few jokes as well; one scene, where John Ratzenberger's character is spat out by Noh Face, has an added line of dialogue regarding Noh Face's throat. The song the bath house foreman sings while heralding the approach of Noh Face (asking the employees to start begging for tips) now goes something like: “Our richest guest is coming, and he's hard to miss! His butt keeps getting bigger, so there's lots for us to kiss!”. It's a little off-color, but it works. Also, at the very end of the film, while the car is driving away, there's an added bit of dialogue between Chihiro and her father that wraps things up. It's a small summation and it works, in my opinion. The Japanese ending was a bit abrupt. Fans will be pleased to know that the closing song has been left in its original Japanese; they didn't record a new song, as they did for Mononoke Hime.
All in all, the English language version of Spirited Away is very, very well done and the utmost of care has been taken in keeping this as close to the original Japanese as possible. Fans should flock to the theater to see this version, and then watch the Japanese version when it's released here on DVD, and form your own opinions about the voice casts. Celebrate. Disney didn't screw it up.
Incidentally, I dragged Ms. Answerman with me to this screening. She hadn't seen the film at all before this, so here are her comments, from the perspective of someone who had no familiarity with the Japanese version:
I saw the dubbed version for Spirited Away this morning without having seen the original Japanese version, and I was impressed by it. The voices are wonderful and fit with the character design, especially Haku and Yubaba's voices, and the movie has a lot of flavor and life to the story that Miyazaki is known for. There was little doubt in my mind that Disney did anything to change around the original and I think anime fans and regular American audiences alike will enjoy such a lovely movie.
Looks like there's hope for US audiences at large.