Anime: Dubs VS Subs

Here we are, gingerly approaching the final hunting ground—a battlefield where friendships are torn asunder and morality breaks like fingers. The proverbial land where angels fear to tread… Anime: Do you prefer to watch it in the original Japanese with subtitles, or in its dubbed, American counterpart?

Welcome, geeks, lolis, ladies, and grumps, to this month’s harrowing anime collaboration, where we, the resident otaku of GUG, brace ourselves against the tidal emotions and opinions which inevitably spurn to life from this conversation. The argument of dubs vs subs has raged since the early days, and it shows no clear signs of stopping in 2018. Still, we wanted to weigh in on the subject, because this is the internet and public opinions are currency here.

Please note, when this idea was pitched to the team, it was deliberately vague. As such, each opinion here is formed with independent agendas and perspectives on the subject. No one person represents the opinions of the anime department, least of all the entire Geeks Under Grace staff (or our special guest from Beneath the Tangles). As an institution, we do not have a formal stance on this and encourage everybody to pursue anime in the way which is best for them.

Michael Morejon

Michael is a teacher who is a life-long gamer. When not conquering distant worlds via console, he can be found reading, watching anime or Netflix, writing for Beneath the Tangles, or just enjoying life as a geek in the city. He aspires to travel to Japan and possibly… never leave.

I grew up watching anime with dubs. There were no subtitles when a show aired, so for a long time, I wasn’t even aware there was another format. When I finally saw anime in Japanese with English words being displayed below the characters, I was in shock. Seeing the same show but with a different voice, music, and having to read was different for me. One anime went so far as to change the names of most of the characters, so it was very hard to figure out who was who when their name was given (I’m looking at you, Yu-Gi-Oh!).

I know many fans of this medium don’t like dubs because they can be terribly done, especially the first ones ever produced. Going back to watch an episode of One Piece or Digimon is not easy for me because of how poorly the translation was handled from Japanese to English.

What is great about dubs though, is the fact that I don’t have to read anything! That may sound lazy, but the truth is I personally don’t always have the time to watch a lot of anime. Having to read what is going on means I must stay focused and cannot divert my attention elsewhere. While I am doing chores, eating or doing something else I could be listening to the dialogue and still follow along. There are many scenes in anime that you don’t really have to watch, since characters are just having a conversation or walking from one place to another.

Subtitles aside, when I do get some time to watch a few episodes of an anime, I much prefer it in Japanese. Nothing is changed from its original context, and I get to practice listening to a new language outside my culture, which is fun to try and memorize. The music in the openings and endings can be catchy, so I like looking those up to add to my playlists as well.

Depending on the situation, subs or dubs work for me. I am not a hater, and I am glad that anime is even getting money to pay voice actors to translate these works of art to English and other languages. I hope that either format isn’t seen as better than the other, just a different way of experiencing anime.

Eric Perez

From people I’ve talked to about this subject, I’ve found, generally, there are three main factors that determine whether or not they watch with subs or dubs:

1) Accurate translation to English

2) Voice acting ability

3) Distraction

The first two tilt the scale towards subs, because translation to English isn’t always perfect, and some anime fans can be pretty particular about how well the English voice actors perform and interpret the original voice actors’ performances (English voice acting seems more heavily critiqued than the original). So, typically, if the viewer wants a more accurate representation of the content, and/or they can’t get past an English voice actor’s performance, viewing with subtitles is the preferred choice.

The third factor above is how you watch anime and what you want to focus on, such as the artwork itself. If there’s constant text that you’re having to read at the bottom of the screen, your attention is divided and you could potentially miss the fullness of the artwork and little nuances that the creators put in.

Also, familiarity of English voice actors can help some people take in the content easier and connect with the story and characters more, being in the native tongue.

Finally, one of my friends said that she tends to watch anime while doing other tasks, so for instance, it would be harder to constantly be reading something while doing dishes vs being able to focus on dishes while at the same time listening to what the characters are saying.

So all that being said, my personal preference is to watch with dubs, if available. I tend to connect more with the story and characters due to the familiarity of them speaking in English, and I feel that it does help me take in the full picture and artwork if I don’t have to pay attention to text during dialogue. I do understand the desire for accuracy, and some of the voice acting would probably be better coming from the original voice actors, but for me that doesn’t weigh as heavily as watching it how I would watch a Pixar or Disney animated film.

Robert Miller

The subject of subs vs. dubs has been a long-debated topic among anime fans, ranging from fun, lighthearted barbs among friends, to full-blown arguments about which is better or even which makes you a “true” anime fan. Like many things in life, I’m a moderate when it comes to this topic—I enjoy both subs and dubs, and make my decision based on varying factors. One of the biggest factors tends to be if a dub is available. Generally speaking, I watch subs for currently airing shows, unless Funimation has picked them up on its simuldub service. I also prefer subs when a dub is just unbearable, such as with Cardcaptor Sakura, which I’m currently watching. If a dub is available for a show, I will usually opt for that avenue, simply because I enjoy multi-tasking, which usually amounts to either gaming while I watch anime or working on a model of some sort. Obviously this sort of multi-tasking isn’t possible if you have to read subtitles. There’s also the fact that I have a toddler, so it’s a lot easier to divide my attention between anime and parenting when I can process what’s being said without having to read subtitles. If I’m watching a subbed show, it’s usually while I’m eating, since that’s an activity where I can multi-task while reading.

Honestly, the only times I’m really opposed to dubs are: (1) When the acting is simply terrible and (2) when the dub changes the names of characters and/or removes cultural references to make the show seem more American. The infamous “jelly-filled donut” scene from Pokemon is applicable here. Rather than call it onigiri (rice ball), which is what Brock is actually eating, the dubbing company chose to call it a jelly filled-donut… despite the fact that it looks nothing like a donut. I believe the culture of the shows should be left alone, especially because it never hurts for kids to learn things about other cultures, and it irks me when dubbing companies try to “Americanize” these shows. Inappropriate pronunciations of names and honorifics also bother me, but not enough to turn me away from a dub that is otherwise well-done. (I will continuously make comments about the poor pronunciations, though.)

I think this is a topic where “to each their own” is the best approach. People on both sides of the argument are passionate about their stance, but at the end of the day we’re all anime fans and our passion for the medium should overshadow our passion for how we partake of the medium. True, anime isn’t as much of a niche was it was 10-15 years ago, when finding another anime fan was like finding a shiny Pokemon, but anime fandom is still something of a community, and I believe we should be able to get along on that basis, whether we watch our anime in Japanese or English (or the native language of our non-Japanese country).

Cooper D. Barham

I’m historically inclined to seek harmony when two opposing ideologies or philosophies collide. I have an aversion to “extreme” beliefs, and don’t fancy putting all of my eggs in one basket, so I will be approaching this argument in the same way. For full disclosure, I do prefer subs more often than not, but I was raised on dubs and believed myself capable of arguing both sides even before doing research in preparation for this article.

If I wanted to create a synopsis for the paragraphs to follow, it would be that this is probably more complicated than you expect, and there is not a right answer. But what I really hope to accomplish is to strengthen the reasons you may have for preferring dubs or subs, while dismantling some of the more hackneyed and incomplete arguments I’ve seen against both sides. I ultimately don’t care which one you prefer, but I cringe every time somebody labels one as superior and then defends that opinion with an argument which is, at best, a contrived, knee-jerk protective maneuver and, at worst, damaging to the community at large.

I’ll strike at the easiest targets first, because they don’t hold much water and will be the quickest resolution. On at least a dozen occasions, I’ve heard three memorable arguments against watching subs:

  1. Why bother watching anime if you need to read the dialogue? You might as well just read a book.
  2. Reading the dialogue distracts from one’s ability to appreciate the art.
  3. Watching dubs is better because it allows you to multitask.

Now, I could break off from just these three fragile arguments into long-winded exposition. Like, books are great, I love reading books. But books are fundamentally different creatures from anime (and manga), far beyond just the fact that you can consume each by reading. That, however, could be an entire series of articles breaking down the creative, industrial, and logistical decisions behind each medium, so I won’t approach that territory any further. Similarly, most anime (especially older ones) are comprised heavily of static images as a form of cost-cutting measures. Most of these static images are broken only by occasional bodily movement and shifting lips for dialogue, meaning you don’t miss most art by reading, because the art doesn’t often change in those scenes.

Naturally, there are exceptions to these, but again that is breaching a whirlwind of complicated sub-points and nuances which do not align with my broader purpose in writing this article. So let’s move on.

My largest issue with the above arguments is that they are usually accessories to one another. If somebody believes one, more often than not, they believe at least one other as well. For example, “you might as well read a book” and “dubs allow you multitask” will naturally cancel each other out if you rely on them too heavily. If you’re multitasking, then you wouldn’t be reading a book, either. You might as well be listening to audiobook or podcast, both of which are, in turn, completely different creative endeavors with different idiosyncrasies from every medium named thus far.

I won’t dig too deeply into each individual argument, because I can understand why somebody would use them as a personal anchor for supporting dubs. But please don’t swear by any of them as conclusive, end-all-be-all’s for why dubs trump subs. There are better arguments for that.

Time to play the balancing act and give dubs a little love. From this point forward, act under the pretense that when I say “dubs” I mean the collective modifications to a series intended for an American audience. This is an important distinction, because rarely does only the voice acting change when a licensed property moves overseas. More often, there are a slew of other direction and production elements which also undergo adaptation to the target audience.

Let’s begin with Cowboy Bebop. There’s no shortage of reasons this series is famous both in and outside the anime community, but for our purposes the most significant value is in arguing for the overall potential of a strong English adaptation. Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of Bebop, is credited for his notorious opinion that the dubbed version of his show is better than the subbed (whether this is true or not is a bit of a conspiracy, as there are many interviews which have not been translated, so it’s hard to prove or deny). This is shored up by legions of like-minded fans from both sides of the proverbial fence. I’ve seen both versions (not all of the subbed, however), and I am among this population, as well.

The reason this is important is because, even if you believe the subbed version is better, and that just because the director says one is superior over another doesn’t mean it’s true (which is fair), it’s still hard to argue against such a collective opinion without acknowledging there must be some merit to it. This alone breaks down the idea that either side of the argument is always, absolutely better than the other. While that may sound like a radical stance to take, it is not rare, so I must address it.

If you’ve been consuming anime for a greater length of time (if not, welcome to the fold, we’re glad to have you), you’ll notice it’s hard to ignore the fact that dubs have been improving since their introduction to our Western market. A lot of lingering ill-will towards dubs is rooted in the pre-2000’s era of anime, where dubs were a fledgling idea with minimal budget and commercial prospects, only striking upon gold in rare instances. As anime has grown in acceptance among global and American crowds, the crews which adapt the dubs are taken more seriously. Voice actors are generally more skilled, better writers and translators manage the dialogue, and production value improves to match the original version as much as possible. Even if you fall on the subs side of the fence as I do, it’s hard not to acknowledge this change taking place. For a good point of comparison, I’d like to refer you to the original dub of Ghost in the Shell, where the voice acting performances are so flat and uninspired, you’d swear they were intentionally speaking like robots reading a transcript.

Also, voice actors are just more fun to make character connections with in English. That’s a 100% objective, truer than true fact, and anybody who argues with me is so wrong that we don’t even have a word for how wrong you are. Chris Sabat is the VA for 80% of all characters, including—but not limited to—your mom.

While improved they might be, modern dubs are obviously not perfect. We are about to get to the section of my essay entry where the lines really begin to blur, so buckle in.

There are about a million different kick-off points to start this next part, but I can’t think of any better place to begin than One-Punch Man. OPM, for better or worse, has gotten Mt. Fuji-levels of attention in the last couple years, drawing in more Western fans to the throes of anime than ever before. This means a lot of people watched it in English, to which I have mixed feelings. Mixed, not because I’m a subbed enthusiast, but because the dubs themselves are a salad of brilliance and mediocrity. Take Saitama, for example. Saitama is voiced in the dubs by Max Mittelmen, whose astonishing indifference compliments the personality and intonations of Saitama’s language to a T. It’s perfect. Platinum award.

On the other hand, we have Lord Boros, the final opponent of One-Punch Man‘s first season. The voice-over for Boros is done by Chris Jai Alex, and you can feel the reservation in his performance. Boros is a loud, roaring presence on screen, and Alex doesn’t seem to own that character. In other words, the veil between his acting is thin. You can tell he’s struggling with the screams and bombastic monologues, probably because he fears they will be cringe-inducing. They are, though that’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Contrast this with the sub actor, Toshiyuki Morikawa, who struts into the role of Lord Boros and nails it. He sounds like he believes himself to be a monstrous demigod, which comes through in his delivery.

And please don’t believe I think Alex failed the rendition of Boros strictly because that type of character is hard to take seriously in dubbed anime. While I do largely hold that opinion, the existence of the Anti-Spiral from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is evidence that a similar character to Boros can be done astonishingly well if the English voice actor doesn’t hold back. In fact, the entire TTGL dub is pretty solid (Except Nia. She’ll make your ears bleed in both languages).

Let’s keep voice acting in our pocket for a second while we transition into the treacherous realm of translations (Did you see that alliteration just now? I live for that stuff). This, probably more than anything else, is where the real divorce in opinion dredges from. Many subbed die-hards are most vocal about this point of contention, because unlike performances—which can be hit-or-miss depending on the actor—a poor translation can scandalize the entire series. A narrative’s entire thematic purpose can be altered. Scenes can be rewritten with different focuses. It’s not hard to do this. The entire abridged community thrives on how easy it is to superimpose dialogue over the original animations.

(Before we proceed, I’d like to make a brief note that subbed series can technically do this too, if the written translation is wrong. But for some reason that is usually seen as charming? I mean, there’s an entire Facebook page dedicated to anime screenshots taken out of context, which showcases weirdly written translations. On this point, at least, there’s a double-standard.)

I listen to an anime podcast called “Shonen Chumps,” which calls out Attack on Titan as being representative of this problem. Having not watched the dub of Attack on Titan myself, I was not aware of how much more vulgar the dub was made to be. Not only were sentences replaced in meaning, but they were stacked with increased negative emotions and profanity. They gave many examples which I didn’t have the presence of mind to jot down at the time, but this video should get the point across. Not only does Eren swear more in English in this clip, but he accuses Armin of being a “parasite,” which is an entirely different noun than “wimp.” It might just be my bias showing, too, but with this specific example, the dialogue and performances seemed far cornier. There’s better dubbing jobs than this.

My Hero Academia might be even more guilty than Attack on Titan, though. I originally went through this series subbed, but I went back through the dubs for my GUG review of Season 1, and there were considerable differences between the two. To save on space, here’s a video which exemplifies a large part of my argument, in that, like with Dragon Ball’s Goku, Izuku Midoriya was reskinned into a completely different character (that video is pretty explicit, so if you don’t want to subject yourself, just take my word for it). But another thing I noted was the modified philosophy found in mega-hero extraordinaire, All-Might.

In the dubs, All-Might is called the Symbol of Peace and Justice. If you haven’t watched the dub, you already know what the problem is. By adding “and Justice,” as a recurring theme, the translation is fundamentally rewriting the metanarrative of the series. All-Might does not brand himself on the shoulders of justice, nor do the following story arcs lend to that narrative, either. Peace and Justice, while often used in tandem, are not the same thing. By introducing “justice” as an important motivational tenant of one of the most significant characters in the series, you are creating more work for the writers to retroactively alter the story so the theme can be maintained where it doesn’t normally belong. This can be done, but it will be very difficult and could threaten to make the logic and consistency of the dubbed series implode if not handled masterfully, or removed altogether.

Some final thoughts: I want to shout-out studio director Makoto Shinkai for a creative decision he made on the American production of his colossal hit film, Your Name. Here is an example of caution and consideration being exercised for an international market. Shinkai made the executive decision to work alongside the band RADWIMPS (who helped compose several of the musical pieces from the movie) so there would be different music for both the English and Japanese versions of the film, each to help the audience better grasp the movie in the way Shinkai believed would be best, even if that meant changing the languages and spending more money. This little nugget is both brilliant and heartwarming, and helped propel Your Name to the heights it has achieved.

Throughout this entire article, I’ve ignored one last argument often lobbied against dubs. I don’t want to crack it open too wide, because there’s many more layers left unfurled if I do, but I want to take a drive-by glance at it.

One of dubs’ greatest faults is the selective nature of the process. Because dubbing a show into a different language adds a whole new level to the production process, it’s not something which can be reasonably afforded to everything that shows up on the market. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, as all of the major series and films will get the proper attention to keep them relevant. However, I recently watched, loved, and reviewed Made in Abyss, a series which only has a sub. At the time of writing this article, there is no news of a dub adaptation in the works. If this were a random series I saw and enjoyed, that’d be one thing, but it’s not. This series was nominated by many sites and services in the anime industry as a contender for 2017 Anime of the Year, including Crunchyroll (which it won). The leading streaming service for Western audiences has nominated Made in Abyss for multiple categories, and there is no way to watch it in English, meaning if you are adamant about not watching anything without an English dub, you are automatically excluded from enjoying one of the best series of last year, with no certainty that will ever change.

I don’t say this to convince you, but just to provide a wider scope. There are many other series you could watch in MiA’s stead, but you have to make peace with the fact that you could be missing out on something special (or just go read the manga).

Either way, love what you love, just please don’t inject defensive pride into that love by swearing allegiance to one mode of operation over another. And even more than that, refrain from enforcing that venomous love on the opinions of others. This inevitably creates division and pushes us further away from what we all want: a community of people who understand each other.

As always, we hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading. Please look forward to our next collaboration, where we discuss our favorite comedy in anime! Until then, God bless, and take care.

Cooper D Barham

Aspiring author, marriage and family therapist, and active behavioral health technician, Cooper fills his world with God, music, videogames, anime/manga, drawing, reading, writing, and some physical stuff in between. If you ever want to talk about the big or little things of life, fire him a message. Helping others through tough times is both his passion and way of living. 'Got it memorized?'

2 Comments

  1. Michael Lujan on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I tend to switch between dub and sub all the time. I was in the same boat as Michael, in that I grew up with nothing but dub and didn’t even realize that these shows I was enjoying were ever in Japanese. Most of the time I prefer dub because it lets me watch (or rather listen) to it in the background. I do this with most shows I watch because it allows me to not just sit and focus on the show.

    I’ve also found that there are plenty of anime where I prefer the English voice actors because that’s what I knew first. I tried watching Dragon Ball Z in Japanese and just could not enjoy it because I grew up watching it in English. The opposite is true as well, though. I watched Attack on Titan in Japanese first and when I tried to watched the dubbed version I just couldn’t get into it.

    Great post, and fun discussion. Looking forward to the next one!

  2. Samuru on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Great post here Cooper, thank you for letting me be a part of it 🙂

    Oh ,and yes, Made in the Abyss is…a masterpiece. Just like you, I just watched it randomly on Amazon Prime. I had added it to my queue and never got around to it till one day while doing laundry I just chose it. I saw the first episode and I was in awe….I kept watching and finished it all in a few days. It was soooo good, I had to go to the manga and continue the story. I’m pretty caught up on the manga.

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