Anime: Let’s talk of Good dubs versus Bad Dubs

So anime has been bleeding over into the USA for since around the 60’s. During the 80’s so many shows were dubbed and renamed that companies are still trying to clean up the legal mess since so many fingers were in their pies. There’s also the matter of picking weird noises out our collective ears with decades of digging ahead of them.

Let’s talk about dubbing, a massively important part of bringing anime to our shores and something many purists aren’t quite off the fence yet in enduring despite it having come a LONG way from.. .this…

(“It wasn’t a person. It was a woman!” Bad dubs like this will always haunt us. They used to feel like punishment, but now they’re a hilarious inconvenience compared to the half-assed dubs people are seriously trying to sell us today.)

For every one success story like Robotech, Pokemon, Speed Racer and Voltron there were twelve shows like Macron One, Tranzor Z and Saber Rider & the Star Sheriffs popping up all over the place! Many of which had scripts that varied in what they did to the original anime source ranging from merely changing names from Hikaru to Rick, to changing the entire story and showing scenes out of sequence to add or remove content for air time or censorship purposes. So bastardization was a big deal at the time since Japanese television allowed things like blood and bared breasts to be shown and many of these anime were actually meant for a slightly older audience than the children that the US-based interests were applying it to… well, it was a mess.
Except for Robotech, that was a work of genius combining three loosely linked series into one mega series via an original dub script that localized everything and created generations of awesome. Why no one ripped off that idea since is beyond me.

You may ask yourself, “Self, why should I listen to Tekyu? He’s a pretentious jackass and has no soul!”

More to that bizarre attempt at a qualifying statement and more, after the cut!

Eh. You may have something there, but aside from that I grew up in neighborhoods where kids were thin on the ground, had extensively overprotective parents and had trouble socializing with humans until I became heavily involved in theatre arts and applying those skills to simply talk with people out in the daylight.

Um, anyhow, to enhance this description of qualifying statements this set of otherwise useless skills allowed me to analyze the cartoons I watched obsessively. I recorded and frequently re-watched shows and even went so far as to take notes in how people spoke and in the days before I wrote down voice actors and compared with other shows to develop my own notebooks on the subject. When anime came into the mix I applied he same methods of analysis and as my collection of anime grew, so did my wealth of knowledge and understanding about how the process worked in both Japan and in the dubbing for the domestic market. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to watch animation with me and I’m seeing it for the first time (original domestic show or anime dub, for instance) I will point out actors as I recognize their voices and even come up with a list of whom they portrayed. Some might dismiss this skill, but when I realized how many different characters that voice actors like Frank Welker, Greg Berger and Peter Cullen portrayed over the last 20 years, it’s only natural that I train my ear to see who’s who. Scott McNeil, for instance, in Beast Wars alone plays four distinct characters (Rattrap, Dinobot, Silverbolt and Waspinator) in the same show and that’s nothing short of amazing!

For anime, things are different in the USA today. Extremely different. These days with the direct-to-dvd market being so freaking huge they don’t need to cut corners, edit or bastardize any longer. They still do though. In fact, they do so heavily as they edit things when shows take to the airwaves during certain time slots (see One Piece, Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho and others). But for the most part, it’s all good when you bring it home to keep where you can have all the dirty words, boobies and otherwise disagreeable content you can handle! Ah, the ecstasy of anime purity!

With more refined tastes stepping up to the bar and adults nationwide turning an eye to the domesticated anime beasts of Japan it only makes sense to groom, train and carefully nurture voice acting outside of Canada and makes products the people will WANT to spend their money on.

(Beast Wars, Megatron’s new form is revealed and Blackarachnia tries to save the Maximals and stop Tarantulas from killing the original Transformers in stasis aboard the Ark)

I mention Canada because they have awesome voice actors there who apparently work for pennies on the dollar. You’ll recognize voices all across animation during the 90’s and today like Gary Chalk, Scott McNeil, Ian Corlett, Venus Terzo and a whole mess of other people have voices that’ll ring familiar to anyone with ears that watched cartoons for the last twenty years. Transformer nerds (like myself) will instantly recognize many of the same voices that Ranma 1/2 fans will remember, they’ve been part of the Transformers game since Beast Wars and the same crew have been doing domestic animation like Double Dragon and Mega Man long before that in addition to anime dubs like Dragonball Z, Project A-ko, etc.

(The Viz English dub of Ranma 1/2 for Episode 11. Ryoga helps Akane train for the Martial Arts Rhythmic gymnastics tournament, Ranma disapproves.)

Speaking of the ol’ cross dresser, VIZ Communications figured out something really important when it dubbed Ranma 1/2 and it is that same importance that puts it in my top 10 favorites. The important thing in question is that a translation needs be good and it needs to be accurate, but its adaptation into another completely different culture had better be fucking awesome or so one will care enough to connect with the show as intended. Ranma pulled this off carefully rewording dialogue with a cultural context so that it ends up teaching you about Japanese culture rather than leaving you out in the cold.

That said, here’s the core message Viz caught during the years of Ranma dub production: Don’t assume your audience is fucking ignorant or that a script cannot be bent to better accommodate both a different language AND fill lip flaps on screen. We can tell that a rice ball is NOT a doughnut and the difference between a pistol and a pop-gun. We see what you’re doing and we’re not afraid to call you on it.

(Same chunk of episode 11, subtitled. The same spirit of the words is there, obviously, but you’ll see a LOT of differences.)

For instance, Ranma 1/2 ain’t that funny on it’s own (watching it subbed is pretty boring comparatively), but without changing anyone’s name or altering ANY situations they use the english language in a way that HELPS the audience be drawn in the way they’re supposed to be and they followed up a brilliant dub script with amazing voice acting making it the blueprint that SHOULD be used by anyone even considering dubbing a foreign language product properly.

(Intentional Bastardization, What’s Up Tiger Lily-style. Ghost Stories takes a Scooby-esque kids show about grade school Ghostbusting and turns it into something… completely different. It’s funny, but obviously the dub inaccurately represents the show’s content.)

I know, I gush a lot about good dubs. That’s because I heard nothing but bad and worse dubs forever until I occasionally stumbled across anime dubs that looked, felt and sounded natural and enjoyable as opposed to grating, harshly ill-produced dubs written by people who barely speak english after they used half-assed translations.

I grew up in the 80’s with the coolest Mom ever; she gave me a youth powered by constant anime video rentals from this cool mom & pop place down the street from our house. So my personal collection of these bad dub treasures is substantial and my experience with them in the time they were produced is fairly extensive. To follow this up because I am an ungrateful whelp, I spent my teenage years hunting down subtitled-only anime and learning Japanese. In retrospect, I probably should have just watched more dubs and talked to girls. Sigh.

Back before DVDs, Domestic Anime companies would have to split distribution efforts to sell both the subtitled Japanese versions (always costing more than the dub) and the English dubbed version. This is the only reason people (read: nerds) really bother to debate quality since in our modern and enlightened times we have both readily available on the same disc and now (most) anime distributors distribute their stuff accordingly. Mostly. There’s a few stragglers out there…

Let’s talk about bad dubs for a bit. Not necessarily bad voice acting per se, but bad dubs with terrible scripts and bad direction. In a good dub you’ll usually have a good flow of dialogue that makes sense and keeps you in touch with the characters and overall with the story developing before you. Conversely, in a BAD dub you will feel every awkward syllable gurgled forth in an awkward way with little reassurance that a director-like entity was ever involved!

(Record of Lodoss War, a beautiful and epic fantasy OAV series that spawned several awful spinoff and redux series. Amazing visuals with a sub-par dub)

After watching Record of Lodoss War (opening episode shown above in horrid dub form) subtitled and going out of my way to make it my own in the original subtitled japanese goodness that captured my heart, I came across the dub on cable one day and almost puked blood. Some of you may be thinking that’s an overreaction and that RoLW isn’t worth that kind of hatred. Well, you’re welcome to shut the fuck up any time. When you dub over the opening song, that’s probably your first clue that you should be afraid of what follows.

Without sounding as pretentious as I assume I must, there’s an ART to foreign language adaption for commercial application and to be fair most anime on the market at large today was part of the creation of the market itself there’s wiggle room for some horrible failure as long as there’s hope for repair/redubs domestically. With anime distributors filing for Bankruptcy left right and sideways, I don’t suspect that will be too hard to expect.

Then again, shitty dubs don’t cost anything since Iczer-One, Slayers, Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor all kept their respective original dubs after they changed hands over the last several years. Not to villainize those specific dubs, but I had assumed that someone might have considered doing the show justice or redubbing altogether since that’s what happened since the Patlabor movies went into Bandai’s domestic hands.

Getting back on the point of dubs as an art, there’s some bullet points to take into account when watching a dub go:

*Laaaaaaaaaaaaazy – Put on subtitles while watching the dub, notice something? If your audio is identical to the subtitles, that’s not groovy. To clarify so I don’t sound like as much of an asshole, translations of Japanese language into English language are usually pretty rough and clumsy. Making your shitty translation into a low-budget script is an asshole’s errand because that means the actor has to fill in lip flap with language and emphasis that often doesn’t fit the scene, expression or number of FUCKING LIP FLAPS AVAILABLE!!!
Dub scripts SHOULD be similar, but making them identical to the subtitles is a bad idea as it limits the effectiveness of the script, the show and everything involved. It’s a cheap fix, but a horrible idea used primarily by assholes.

*Who? What? WHERE?
– Make up your fucking mind! Think about your target audience you’re selling your product to! Are you LIVING in Japan? Do you know what’s on Japanese television tonight? Yes? Well, maybe you shouldn’t be the one trying to sell this to an audience in a different country where only a niche market will understand what the fuck you’re talking about.
If I start making jokes about the state of eateries in scenic Shibuya or those crazy accents in Osaka, I will probably be killed with golf clubs and bike chains and deservedly so! Not because I’m an asshole, but because those around me will become frustrated with my jokes that don’t make sense or that the only guy who gets my jokes is the smelly mouth-breather at the end of the table wearing the Naruto headband & cat ears. Weaboo aren’t usually too good with steady income, so you need to broaden your horizons for your audience and appeal to the filthy masses. Sadly, this is a basic concept of marketing that not everyone seems to grasp out of some weird notion that “normal” people won’t like it if they make it “good.”
I wish I was kidding. What should be a pop-culture 101 universal understanding is sadly a misunderstood idea at making a niche market stay niche, when decent writing (which is cheaper than any other aspect of the production) and a decent domestic language vocal cast with good voice direction makes all the difference in your final product and determine how well your stuff will sell to people that actually HAVE jobs and money as opposed to deadbeat anime snobs who only watch the subtitled Japanese track anyway.

*Competent Supervision – So sometimes a dub comes through that isn’t good, but comes close to decent save for 4-5 characters in the show who are as easy on the ears as ground glass! Where’s the director?!? I can understand trying to preserve a tone and a personality, but there’s no good reason for casting the guy who played Tenchi in the Pioneer dubs or Tsutomu in US Manga Corps’ Birdy the Mighty dub.
Making your audience suffer through stuff is unacceptable, these carnival folks who voice the characters need to be coached not to SOUND like 55 year old men when they’re voicing 15 year old boys. This also needs to be kept in mind when they’re stomping their own gonads to sound younger. Or sounding like a horrible voice actor. That really doesn’t help. Ever heard of casting in order to avoid problems like this?!
I’ve seen ADV’s directorial work, it was weird and my me uncomfortable. I don’t usually see that much audible abuse outside of Thanksgiving with my family, but the result is amazing and pushing actors to achieve an accurate, consistent tone that feels genuine and rolls off like it was made with our great domestic market in mind.

*On Accuracy – In a shitty dub, Nerds might argue that the dubbers are preserving the accuracy of the original, which is typically a fucking lie. The ONLY stuff that gets that kind of insane attention would be high profile anime comedies (Excel Saga, Urusei Yatsura or Ping Pong Club for example) because they NEED to be tweaked, polished and presented appropriately in order to convey humor that bypasses any cultural barriers. Humor is harder than drama because important things like timing, emphasis and localization are essential in order to get an audience watching and laughing. Anime action is usually dumber than American action films, so things like cultural context and localization are irresponsibly thrown to the wayside because it’s assumed that a better script doesn’t matter and anime fans are so stupid that flashy visuals are more important than story, dialogue and voice acting (See Baoh, MD Geist and other one-shot action titles).
Comedy is a different story. If the jokes don’t make sense, the show doesn’t make sense. So what’s the fucking point? I get that some shows have deep cultural ties to the japanese and working that into a dub is important, but not making the effort to bump some local humor or references your audience will recognize (Ranma mentioning Power Rangers, Excel talking about the X-files, etc.) making them connect with what they’re watching. For fuck’s sake, HELP THEM LAUGH!
It’s not like I need to see a cactus and hear references to cities in Arizona so I’ll keep watching something, but just like needing a protagonist to follow in order to learn more about his/her environment via a narrative, you’ll NEED points of reference to keep you connected. Most decent American film makers understand this save for maybe George Lucas.
Let’s bring up Ranma again simply because many of the plot points in the story involve a lot of food. Japanese food. The food is referenced and discussed constantly and since we don’t see a lot of Takyoyaki vendors, Okonomiakyi parlors or Soda noodle stands outside of Japan lately, it can be confusing without a domestic reference and description tying it to your point of view and understanding. Hearing the characters name and DESCRIBE the food in the same sentence it is initially mentioned using the already abundant lip flaps and screen time to convey what the “food of the week” is, remain humorous AND stay on task for story progression then you’re going to have to write a your own script if you want a user-friendly product. Most dubbers look at this as being too much trouble, so they just work the subtitles translation into the lip flap timing and crank out the English language track with more emphasis on keeping in time with the flaps than making it pleasant to hear or fun to watch. Sigh.

(Cyber City English dub, a highly praised enhancement of an already outstanding anime that makes the characters sleazier, cooler and badder badasses than the anime originally intended. You would actually believe these guys were in prison. THEY are why you don’t drop the soap.)

*Good examples – For examples of a good dub, seek out what you can find from ADV Films, Viz Video and Manga Video. Most of their stuff can be found for pretty good prices on the secondary market. Shows like Cyber City, Ghost in the Shell, Dominion Tank Police, the first two Patlabor films (the MANGA dubs, not the Bandai ones), Evangelion, Ranma 1/2, etc. I’ll be yammering about dubs for awhile so check back, but the three distributors I note are always worth looking into.

And with that my fellows nerds, I’m out of fire. I’ll amend this with some excellent bad dub videos and probably polish its appearance, but check back periodically.

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