It turns out that even before I knew it, I was a weeaboo. One of my favourite shows as a kid was Iron Chef, though I defy any kid who got the Food Network to disagree. It was likely Iron Chef that was my introduction to Japan and their crazy, crazy ways. Sure, I’ve come a long way in my relationship with Japan since, but even back then, I knew that these were the kind of people to kill a live eel to eat in less than forty minutes time. Basically, not people to screw around with. However, Iron Chef was also my introduction to the practices of dubbing and subbing. I know I knew enough to ask, when Chad told me to watch Eva,”dub or sub” but Iron Chef was likely my first foreign media.
On Iron Chef, they have four panelists, a floor reporter, two chefs competing in Kitchen Stadium and Chairman Kaga. And, things I didn’t notice until I looked back on it, years later, everyone but Chairman Kaga was dubbed. He was dubbed for his opening reminiscence every week about that week’s contender, but for the rest of the program, he was the only person in Kitchen Stadium with subtitles. I found out, again in retrospect, why this was years later: you cannot dub Chairman Kaga. Chairman Kaga is perhaps the largest ham in a room that included gigantic pigs. It would be impossible to ask a voice actor to match that level of intensity for even a minute and a half, so he was subbed.
Good thing too, because the dub actors for that series have become my brain’s default voices for Japanese writing that’s been translated to English. I think I first realized that when reading the translated Notes from the Author in either The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Neon Genesis Evangelion (the manga). I was reading along when I thought that the voice sounded familiar. It hit me that a voice that I’m not hearing shouldn’t sound familiar, but, as it turned out, there were all the guys from Iron Chef, in my head, waiting for me to read anything they needed to dub. Most hilarious instance of this was reading the director’s commentary for FLCL, when I heard the commentary in my head as a dub, despite the fact that it was a subtitle track. “I think, that, there has always been something unique about southpaws. Lefties are so often different from the rest of us.” “FUKUI-SAN!” Iron Chef fans just laughed.
All of this introductory stuff is to get to the question that every anime or simply foreign media fan has asked at one point or another: dub or sub? Which do you prefer? As this is my blog, I should likely start answering that question, or something. But the truth is, it’s many complicated issues that determine dub or sub. While most people I’ve heard answer this question say simply “subs all the way” or “dub every time”, my process… well, it’s never come up with a single answer that I use every time. I have a variety of questions to ask about what I’m watching before I watch it.
Let’s start with anime. Anime series are normally the easiest to determine. As almost all mouth animation in anime is mouthwags instead of liplocked words (like Western animation), any dub is instantly viable. Not viable as in good, but viable as in “won’t put me off”. After that, I read up about when the series was made (there are good eras for dubs like there are good eras for anything), how much liberty the dub team took with the text (from Haruhi to Samurai Pizza Cats), and overall how good it is. If it’s Ghost in the Shell or Black Lagoon, I watch the dub immediately. Also, if I’m not really into the series, I go dub immediately so I can do something else at the same time.
Live action movies are a harder kettle of fish to fry. Jackie Chan movies, for instance, are their own thing. Normally, the people dubbing those have convincing accents and are as capable actors as the people in them. Chan should be able to dub his own lines, after all. However, a movie like Let the Right One In, I can never see being dubbed properly. There were a lot of subtle audio touches with Eli’s voice in that movie that would likely go unreplicated by a dubbing team. For instance, Eli was dubbed in post by an older girl whose voice sounded darker and more androgynous. That likely wouldn’t have happened in the English dub as it certainly didn’t happen in the localization (which was likely better for it).
Overall, as I alluded to earlier, the thing that chafes me about dubs is when the words that are being spoken don’t match the lip movements. Whenever I see something like that, it makes my head tweak out and try to run the other way in my brain. This is why watching live-action movies dubbed is somewhat torturous for me–the lip movements will never match up, not in a million years, because they’re speaking two different languages. Anime movies, therefore, I almost always have to watch subbed. I watch Miyazaki’s material dubbed because I know he has final approval over all of the dubs of his movies and prefers that I see them dubbed. But when other anime movies get bigger budgets from their TV series counterparts, they often skip simple mouthwags and go straight to liplock. Like Akira.
Are there other factors? Yes. Like I said, my answer is almost never a simple “dub or sub” for an entire medium. FLCL has an astounding dub for localizing all of the many Japanese culture jokes in its runtime. Black Lagoon‘s dub makes sense because those characters are speaking English throughout that series anyway. Haruhi‘s dub suffers from 40-year-old-guy as a teenager, like Eva. Evangelion‘s voice actor for Shinji is a woman, which supports his bruised, afraid and shy personality much better than a grown man. It’s a case by case basis, like a lot of my opinions.
but yo subs all the way mang