The Dilemma of Anime Dubbing Within America

by Esosa Osamwonyi

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The dubbing of foreign media has always been something that has interested me. It’s really something I have not thought about for a while. I remember those old kung-fu films and how they were dubbed over in English as well as other foreign films too. It was a good way to introduce the product to a new audience. Nowadays though, you don’t see too many films being dubbed. Many are now subtitled to hold the original authenticity, themes and message. Another thing to consider is that it may be that the culture is more accepting than it was in 1980’s towards showcasing the original content.

Dubbing is used in a variety of ways in the media. Two of the biggest things to consider are anime and video games. For this article I will focus on the process of anime dubbing simply because video games is an entirely different matter to consider. Anime is defined as animation originating from Japan, and just as certain countries have cartoons, Japan has anime. Its origins go back as early as 1900’s, and for quite some time, it remained an isolated form of animation. It wasn’t till the 1960’s that it began to spread overseas and wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s that it grew as a major cultural export. The way it would work is that would anime distribution companies would handle licensing and distribution outside of Japan. Licensed anime is modified by distributors through dubbing into the language of the country and adding language subtitles to the Japanese language track. For many of us, this is how we were introduced to such works as Akira, Gatachman, and many other titles. People were now aware of this thing called “Anime” outside of Japan, but I personally believe it wasn’t until anime started appearing on mainstream television channels such as Cartoon Network, Colours, Sci-Fi Network, Adult Swim, etc. that it really took off. It was also an excellent way to advertise their product(s) and sell more merchandise to a worldwide market outside Japan.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present day. Technology is advancing at a rapid rate—the Internet and computers play a major role in most of our lives today, and one has to consider there is so much anime available because of this expansion. Anime is not shown as much on television as before though but it’s definitely more popular due in part to the growth of people using the Internet for means of entertainment.  It seems to me that the really popular titles are the ones that receive dubbing. Which brings me to what to what I want to discuss further—the question of it being possible to dub every anime.

Of course, the immediate answer would be no, but should it be necessary to do so? Again, probably not, but that certainly doesn’t stop licensing companies from trying. A licensing company getting the rights to an anime title is similar to a sports draft of sorts. Imagine if you will a convention in which representatives of the company come out to announce their picks and then provide small details on when to expect said product to hit the stores. This is the first step of the dubbing process. From there they go on to finding voice actors to fit the available roles. Depending on the company, the product may see the hands of the consumer in several months up to a year (if all goes as plan). Which brings up another concern for me—I certainly begin wonder how patient can an anime fan be in a situation like this? I mean, in that time of waiting, one could seek out “other means” of viewing media if possible—and they certainly do.

Not to say that the idea of dubbing anime is a bad thing—in fact I think it’s a very noble cause—however, my point is that many licensing companies need to be able to adjust and alternate. Some companies are now streaming anime on the web through various measures (Hulu and Crunchyroll for example) and showing anime episodes around the same time as its initial release in Japan. DVD’s are also only being released in Japanese with subtitles–with the absence of an English dub entirely (amongst other languages as well). The problem is that it’s simply not done enough. In order to attract attention you have to give attention. No longer do we have to rely on conventions and magazines to get information on topics that serve our interests. In this day and age, information gets around much quicker and easier. Anime voice acting in the West is something that is still growing and will continue to grow, but it’s simply not at that size to have that “voice over everything-mentality”. A lot of major companies pick up too many anime titles and think they can voice over every one of them. The results are that some are never finished and go to the wayside, where fan-subs are the only way to finish a series or title. A “certain” anime company is known for this. But in the end, when does one know when too much is simply too much? This is one of the dilemmas facing dubbing industry today and only time will tell what the future will hold concerning its outcome.

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Author: Esosa Osamwonyi

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  • Grumpy Jii

    Some historical perspective:
    Anime reached overseas in waves. The first was adaptation by television networks, and it was dubbed to local language: E.g. in the US, “Astro Boy,” “G-Force”/”Battle of the Planets,” and “Robotech”; in France, “Albator” (Harlock) and “Les Mystérieuses Cités d’Or”.
    The second wave was enabled by the spread of home video technology through the 1980s. (Hard as it may be for those under 30 to imagine, before then, TV meant watching what was being broadcast when it was being broadcast on one of four networks in the US.) Initially home video enabled fan “tape trading,” originally in Japanese, and as home computers became fast enough, “fansubs” appeared. Companies such as Streamline pictures tried showing a few anime movies in US art-house theaters, dubbed (“Akira”) or subtitled (“Twilight of the Cockroaches”). The 1990 gave rise to companies dedicated to importing anime directly for the home video market. The home video technology of the day, VHS and laserdisc, didn’t allow for optional subtitles, so a release was either in Japanese with subtitles, or an English dub. A few companies did try both subtitled and dubbed releases of a few titles. A decade later, DVD technology enabled a choice of languages for soundtrack and/or subtitles.
    And now the internet has enabled rapid, low-cost video distribution (legitimate or otherwise) and things are changing yet again.

    There remain excellent reasons for providing dubs in the US market. First, titles with appeal to a younger audience need a dub, because their reading skills and patience aren’t sufficiently developed to let them follow the written dialog. Don’t expect “Ponyo” or “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” to do big box office without an English dub. Also, Hollywood remains the entertainment capital of the world, so Americans are accustomed to seeing their entertainment in their native language. Subtitled non-English films find their way into US art-house cinemas, but the art-house crowd is looking for a Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, or Kurosawa; not a Katsuhiro Otomo, Shinji Aramaki, Mamoru Hosoda, or even, apparently, a Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Oshii. US mainstream TV requires a dub, too. The US Cartoon Network, SyFy & G4, don’t run non-English programs; they are intensely ratings-driven. (A few premium US cable networks, such as IFC, Starz and TCM do run subtitled programs, even some subtitled anime.) Lastly, a dub frees the eyes to appreciate the beauty of the artwork. It’s really a shame to watch “Paprika” or “Innocence” with your eyes glued to the bottom of the screen.

    As you said, US TV distribution was a big reason anime’s US popularity grew in the past decade. For the time being, DUBS REMAIN ESSENTIAL if anime is to keep US mainstream awareness. Maybe the day will come when a US audience will embrace a subtitled show, but it isn’t yet.

    Back in 1981, Wolfgang Petersen’s excellent German film “Das Boot,” about a Nazi U-Boat crew, provided an interesting experiment. All the main German actors, including star Jurgen Prochnow, spoke English. So they provided their own English dub performances. The film was then released in the US in both subtitled and dubbed format. The dub was the one everyone saw.

    Funimation has done the most experimenting in the US anime market. They tried a quicker sub-only Gurren Lagann DVD release followed by a dub. Since Funimation keeps those sales figures private, we don’t really know how they compared. Bandai has gone a completely different direction, lowering quality, raising prices, and keeping their video away from streaming, rentals or mainstream retailers. (IMO, anyone who plunks down $50 for “Gundam Unicorn,” sight unseen, either has too much money or should have their head examined. I, for one, am hoping Bandai fails miserably at this.)

    The only “dilemma” with dubbing is that it’s much more expensive to produce than simple subtitles. For a title to be worth a dub, there needs to be expectations that the dub will generate more sales. That’s hard to predict for some titles, but for others, it’s pretty clear. (I am amazed that “Monster” found a place on the US SyFy network’s schedule. I would not have expected a large audience for that. I wonder what it’s ratings are like compared to SyFy’s other anime?) Some import companies have tried subtitled-only DVD releases of niche anime titles. Internet storefronts really help here, since local retailers don’t carry DVDs with such small sales potential. That’s good for fans of those shows, but it’s not going to expand anime fandom.

    Internet video streaming has opened up a whole new path for entertainment, one that’s not captive to mainstream ratings and can cater to a very narrow fanbase. Old shows such as “Space Pirate Capt. Harlock” and “Galaxy Express 999,” which I never expected to find a legitimate English distribution channel, are now available. And next-day release of new shows are available as well. This distribution method is expanding rapidly, from next to nothing (legitimate) two years ago to a wide array of choices. It will no doubt continue to expand. And the more fans use those legitimate distribution sources, the more quickly their offerings will expand.

    It seems to me that there already is a huge shift from dubs to subtitles. Section 23 and Media Blasters both do almost all their releases without dubs. Most streaming is subtitled as well. But dubs remain important in growing anime’s fanbase. The market will educate those companies that make too many ill-advised dubs.

    I have no sympathy for your comments on fan patience and expression of entitlement. It hardly matters a wit to the universe if you see a cartoon today or next year. This is the problem with marketing to children; they are impatient by nature. But youth must be served. Some companies are adapting to US fandom’s eagerness by making newer anime available for streaming with subtitles within mere days of its Japanese air dates. This trend, too, is expanding. In a few years, you’ll very probably get even more of it, as you demand. Compared to three decades ago, I’m drowning in anime choices.

    BTW, why be coy with “a ‘certain’ anime company”. Screw your courage to the sticking place and name names. Did someone discontinue your favorite show?

  • Kenbei

    Well my article wasn’t really per say about anime dubs disappearing but it can continue to adapt and evolve. Dubs and Tv are still an excellent way to advertise and whether having to reading subtitles takes away from the artwork is very debatable.
    Though i agree on what you said on fan patience and entitlement we have to remember at the day the anime industry is a business. Every business looks at who is buying their products the most (ie majority) which is this case would be the young folk. No matter what it is the majority will always rule. The longer it takes to release something that is already released chances are the audience will find another way to watch (fansubs, etc.) or lose interest and move on to some other show. As they say time is money and this case it is meant literally. The only exception to this rule would be the really young people (as you said “reading skills and patience aren’t sufficiently developed to let them follow the written dialog”).
    Though i think the internet is one of the biggest pluses the industry has gotten in a while it is also one of the minuses. In today we live in a world where anything we want is within our grasps. It is true some companies are adapting to US fandom eagerness but not enough are doing it. And lets be honest when you say some, you mean Funimation Bandai Visual and Viz Media. And many of this streamed anime seem to be coming mostly from Funimation (correct me if i am wrong).
    I really enjoyed your insightful post and its not everyday you get to hear an older perspective on an issue like this. There are certain things that remain to be seen. As for the “certain anime company” I think I sort of revealed it in either this post or the article.

  • otaku

    i say anime should be like the non english movie and be sub only

    but as long as it was they just relese it subbed not like what happened with the movie red cliff ie with alot of content cut

  • Yami-kun

    I personally prefer dubs, because I don’t want to pause the video to read subtitles. Unless it’s a company like 4kids who would Americanize it (Example: editing riceballs to sandwiches and editing signs and character names, i.e. Horohoro to Trey Racer) because part of the appeal of anime is that it’s foreign and exotic. Plus, I think that it butchers the creator’s original intentions. However, 4kids is getting a bit better because Toonzaki is going to stream uncut episodes in subtitles.

  • A. Lucas

    I’m probably old school. I rember seeing battle of the planets back when I was a kid when it came out in the late 70s. It was on one of the fist local networks other than the big 4. It came on as alternative tv show in the Sandy Frank format. This dubbed format was very cheesy and left out 80% of the violence. Though with the dubbed version I still watched. I felt something missing. I notice that Galactors men were too real to be androids, and the robot 7 zark 7 never was with G Force like never directly interacting with the members or missions. I hated 7 zark 7 and never knew why. Later in the 80s battle of the planets renamed G Force. I was still a kid then and I thought it was natural to rename it that because the main theme was the teenage heroes. The show was better than the other title and no 7 zark 7. How can this be? 7 zark 7 was never in G Force.Sandy Frank made up a character that sucked soo bad I didn’t think I could watch it the second time. To sum it up dubbed versions are ok but it KILLSTHESTORY

  • A. Lucas

    The author of this article didn’t want to name names but. This dubbed format some companies not only leave out storylines and put stupid characters like 7 zark 7 in Battle of the planets, they screw up the names of main characters like in 4kids YuGiOh. This was hot mess especially if you read the magna first before it came to the us. They changed the names completely like Joey Wheeler, Tristan, or Tayia are fake names not even close to their ethnic background. The monster card summoning is re worded and has no meaning the game they play is based on magic.

  • A. Lucas

    This is my final post. Companies like 4kids,Sandy Frank or the guy who made 3 anime series into Robotech. Adapt it into english and make another series suffer. I’ll go to subtitle because the original story is always better than most english dubbed versions. Come to think of it 4kids YuGiOh 5ds pissed me off when they didn’t show the last season like the story was supposed to end with defeat of team new world. Just because the story began to describe God.4kids went straight to YuGiOh Zexial. In 5ds the game evolved into turbo duels now it’s back to standard duels this sucks more than anything that has sucked before.The series went backwards Ps. the story sucks. The main character is no King of games.