As much as I can rely on anime as an ice-breaker, one topic is doomed to freeze over any conversation with most of my anime-watching friends. One of two words will spark it off, and the rest will be a long catalogue of indirect abuse, worn out ideologies and worn out faces as a few of us try to get back to talking about what we love.
We’re talking about ‘subs’ and ‘dubs’.
It’s unlikely to be everyone’s experience, and I can only speak from my own, but most of the anime fans I’ve run into will have some kind of agenda towards advocating one over the other – I’ve encountered pure ‘subbers’ and pure ‘dubbers’ and the clashes aren’t pleasant. Subbers will stand for nothing but the closest reception of the original, while dubbers will fight for the belief that anime viewers in the West should be visually directed in the same way as the original audience are, as reading can distract from the action and drama. Subbers will argue that dubs aren’t the ‘real’ shows, and dubbers will argue that they couldn’t have enjoyed the ‘real’ show without voice acting in their own language. Subbers will denounce the quality of dubs, while dubbers will laud the best and retort with criticism of how subtitles can sometimes completely miss the mark. Again, not everyone’s experience of the anime community will be like this – there’s a middle ground, which I advocate, whereby the viewer aims to enjoy both – but it’s a pretty good representation of what I’ve found IRL.
Considering how both sides of the coin frequently emerge – Funimation’s quantity of Broadcast Dubs this season and London’s sub-only Ghibli screenings, for example – I thought I’d reflect on how I came into watching anime and how I’ve developed since then.
I’m going to go right back to where I started – watching the dubbed version of Bleach, back when I was patient enough to deal with such a diluted show (no problem with the story or content, it was just like trying to drink cola that’s been mixed with water to the ratio of 1:9000). I remember how exciting it was to experience such a new genre, and I was taken in by the art style and character design. I had a similar experience with Naruto; all these commercial shows were gradually introducing me to the shounen action genre (until watching Attack on Titan completely redefined my expectations for an action-orientated anime). The main thing, however, was that I never gave subs a single thought. I was still watching a lot of English and American films and TV shows. Anime was encroaching on that territory, but it was hardly the King of the Hill.
Fast forward a few months and I’m rarely watching anything that isn’t originally Japanese – but most of the shows I watch are still in dub. The world of anime romance had pulled me in the most, with one small moment in the Chuunibyo dub echoing in my brain for days after: the climax when Yuuta attacks Sanae’s fantasy world at its fraudulent core, with her tearful cry – ‘I know!’ – being (perhaps strangely) one of the most well-realised moments I’ve ever encountered in anime. My only attempt at subs had been Durarara!!, and the number of cross-conversations in that show made it a nightmare to read your way through (coupled with the fact that everything is purposefully confusing anyway). I had still yet to consider subs overall because of my preference for getting the drama and information in anime quicker, combined with my lack of experience with reading subtitles in general.
But then I wanted to watch Hayate no Gotoku.
Having been unable to find a dub through my computer, I eventually settled for the subbed version, and it surprised me how little difficulty I had getting to grips with it. The characters and narrator sounded true to the manga I had enjoyed, and I laughed a lot more than I expected to at subtitled jokes. I realised the experience wasn’t that dissimilar to reading manga – my attention shifted from the subtitles to the visuals without any jarring effect on my enjoyment of the show. Furthermore, when I did eventually find a dubbed version, the difference in proximity to the feeling of the manga was horrendous; I couldn’t bear more than a few minutes of it. And so I stuck with the subbed version, and started to think that maybe I had been missing out on something.
This grew into a subconscious conversion – an evolution, even. Soon I became impatient with shows that were currently airing and wanted to watch new episodes as soon as possible (you have to wait about a month for Funimation’s dubs), and I began to doubt that shows I had started with dubs – Durarara!!, Assassination Classroom, Death Parade – were giving me as much as I could get from them. Rewatching Angel Beats! in sub furthered my suspicions that my enjoyment of anime had been somewhat incomplete, even though I had been fully engrossed in every dub I’d enjoyed. Watching anime in its original language isn’t just about authenticity; it makes you more connected with Japanese culture as a whole, and you feel closer to the medium you were already hooked on.
I had, by this time, stopped watching most films and TV shows in my own language altogether. Now I always prioritise subs over dubs when starting a new series.
I needed dubs to get into anime, but I needed subs to get even deeper. Dubs were an exercise in familiarity, playing first on a field I knew. I still enjoy the ones I still watch, and I know there are some things in them that I’d miss with subs. Yet, getting the first-hand, original version increases the confidence I have in approaching and criticising a series, and so it’s something I’ve found essential for myself as a growing otaku. I can also see that I never would have gotten into subs because of negative cohesion – I needed something I enjoyed to force me into that experience. I can now return to dubs whenever I feel like it, even though my preference is for subs; both options are open to me, which feels, somehow, incredibly liberating.
So my theory is this – next time I hear someone telling me or someone else that subs are superior, I will try to steer that conversation into recommending to the person an anime they can only watch in subs, or to rewatch something they watched long ago in subs, or some third thing that positively encourages them to watch a show in its original language. I think the Western anime viewer will generally evolve into enjoying both subs and dubs if given the right stimulation, and it’ll lead to even more proximity with the culture (such as learning the language itself, which I’m now doing). If people don’t want to be that close, then it’s not an issue. But if someone tells me they love Attack on Titan, I will ask them if they’ve watched it in sub; and if they haven’t, I will admit that I haven’t yet either; and I will recommend that we both rewatch the series in its original language one day and compare notes.
I can think of a number of other reasons why people embrace subs, but for those that want to stick to dubs (as I initially did), the best way forward has to be a positive reason for them to try the alternative out and find something they can enjoy in it. Subs may still be a pain for some viewers regardless of what they watch, but being positive about it is always going to be better than simply hating on dubs or dubbers every time the subject arises. It’s not cool, it’s not interesting, and it’s not going to help promote the importance of enjoying anime in multiple versions, as I think every Western otaku should – translation is part of an art form itself.
But what about you? Has your stance on dubs changed over time? Don’t hesitate to comment below!