Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Anime Is (or Why I Still Prefer Not to Watch English Anime Dubs)

Disclaimer: Before I begin I'd just like to say that this article is not about berating those who watch dubbed anime, or how watching dubbed anime is somehow wrong. It's more a commentary on what I think Anime actually is and cultural production in general. If you like watching anime in English (or whatever your native language happens to be) because it helps you connect with the characters and enjoy the story to a greater degree or you just can't stand subtitles or whatever, than that is a-ok, you do you. I'm merely approaching it from this angle because that's how I came up with the idea for the this post in the first place, by asking "why don't I like watching dubbed anime?" in the shower one time. Anyway. . .

Sailor Moon is a staple of 90's anime if I've ever seen one.
Anyone who did most of their growing up in the 1990's probably remembers when Anime (Japanese animation, Japanese cartoons etc.) started becoming more prevalent in video stores and on North American broadcast television networks. If your are a 90's kid you probably even remember just how bad some of the voice acting was in early translated and English dubbed anime. It might be the trauma of having to at one time suffer through these, at times, hilariously bad, renditions of audible human emotion, but even presently, if I have a choice, I will still choose the original Japanese audio over English dubbed anime any-day.

To be sure English voice acting in anime has come a long way since those early days and has given way to a rather tight-knit community of actors who all specialize in different roles. I'm not attempting to discredit these professionals and my not being able to enjoy English dubs has little to do with the current ability of the voice actors in general. Frankly speaking my command of the Japanese language is very rudimentary, my spoken Japanese is limited to asking for simple directions and my my ability to read and write in Japanese is non-existent, and so if I choose to watch an Anime in Japanese, if the option is there, I must read subtitles. Ergo it is not my understanding of this complex language that leads to choosing the original audio over the English equivalent nor is it some "weeabooesque" loyalty to a language I don't fully understand. It isn't even about some sense of purity. . . well not fully anyway.

Quite a few English voice-actors even have dedicated fan-bases, such as Johnny Yong Bosch, who did pretty a darnned good Akira if I remember correctly. Hey, just cause I'd rather not watch dubs doesn't mean that I can't give credit where credit is due.  
No, the reason I choose to watch anime in Japanese is more about what I believe anime is and what it isn't. I am aware that even as I type this, on message boards the world over there is a raging debate over what makes anime anime, and perhaps I'm treading on thin ice here. A popular idea that I've seen expressed all over the net is that anime is an art or animation style or a blending of the two. Big eyes, small to virtually non-existent noses, pulsating forehead veins, scratching the back of one's head when embarrassed, growing gigantic when getting angry, falling over in surprised frustration, these are all staples of anime aesthetic, that's undeniable, but is it really what makes anime anime?

There are those who would argue yes, but I don't buy it. If I produce a monochromatic, shot-for-shot reproduction of the 7 Samurai in Japan featuring an all Japanese cast, can I call it an Akira Kurosawa movie? Probably not. Aesthetics alone do not make a cultural medium, and that's what anime is, or rather has come to be known as. I'm aware that the word "anime" is simply a Japanification of a the English "animation", but lets be real here, in the popular North American psyche the term "anime" has come to embody so much more than mere "animation that happens to be made in Japan" and that's really what I'm getting at here.

All the anime! (got it form here).
The reason I choose Japanese audio over English for my anime viewing is the same reason I wouldn't watch a Disney Pixar film dubbed into Japanese. Here's an experiment you can try -- watch a excerpt of an English language North American television show with the sound off and then watch another excerpt from a show in some other language from some other country (it really doesn't matter which). One of the things you will likely notice is that when the characters speak, they look and move differently from one cultural space to another. Certainly everyone is different but you will likely notice common traits, certain hand gestures, certain head movements, certain expressions which tend to accompany a certain phrase or mode of speech, and an overall rhythm to this movement, it just looks and feels different.

Animation attempts to be an emulation of real life to a certain degree. Certainly some artists and animators take liberties but at the end of the day, the characters have to be identifiable and if there is dialogue, at one point the artists and animators would've had to think about which language these characters would be using as their native tongue. In the case of Japan that language is most likely Japanese, thus when the characters speak, rhythmically they speak and move as if they were speaking Japanese, like caricatures of Japanese people, because ostensibly that's what they are. Even in works of animation wherein the characters speak gibberish, the animators and artists will likely, perhaps even subconsciously include nuances that come from their native language as an automatic point of reference (take the Swiss show "pingu" for example - a English dubbed pingu would just be awful, though most of the charm does come from the fact that they are indeed speaking gibberish).

Cromartie High School is one example of a dub kind of taking on a life of it's own. The English cast actually delivers their lines much differently than the Japanese cast, greatly altering the characterization of the show. Watching it in either language presents a very different experience, both of which are entertaining. 
Therefore what happens when these characters get dubbed, at least for me, is a disconnect between how the characters are moving and expressing themselves physically, and what they are actually saying. It's cognitive dissonance plain and simple. Naturally animation leaves some leeway especially since "anime" specifically tends to have a lower frame count especially for speech, but still, the motions and rhythm of the character's speech does not facilitate a seamless transition into other-languages even if the animation is altered to some degree - which I'm aware is a trick that is often used. What you get then, despite having well-trained voice talent is stilted and unnatural dialogue at the best of times, and down right bizarre speech patterns at the worst. Again, the actors are not at fault, instead they are constrained by having to forcibly bend and skew their English lines into the movements and mannerisms of a language and culture that is far-removed from their own - simply put, to me even the finest dubs which I admit are watchable, just look "off" somehow.

In most cases this dissonance is jarring and takes me out of the experience, it becomes hard to take the whole thing seriously, especially if the story-line is meant to be taken as such.  This doesn't work nearly as bad with comic anime and in fact adds to the fun in many cases given the off-kilter nature of Japanese comedy (for example one of my favourite anime, Cromartie High School is hilarious in both English and Japanese for very different yet equally funny reasons). But, hey, if you don't have this problem, then good for you, keep on trucking.

I remember the original series of Hellsing having pretty cool English dubs in which the characters were given country specific accents which was a nice touch. 
The crux of my argument however is not that English dubbed Anime sucks or whatever but that cultural production cannot simply be reduced to an aesthetic style. Language and culture are deeply interwoven -- culture produces language and language in-turn produces more culture and visual culture is no exception. To undermine the significance of the Japanese language in the production of anime when discussing what makes anime, anime is to leave out a huge part of that production process. Anime produced in Japan is most likely produced by a team of Japanese people speaking Japanese to one another, writing dialogue in Japanese and animating, and perhaps in some cases even designing characters around this dialogue for ostensibly Japanese audiences. It's what makes anime "Japanese". Ergo "anime" produced outside of the Japanese cultural space, cannot really be considered anime in the traditional sense, which is why I would argue, (get ready for this) that a show like Avatar: the Last Airbender while an excellent show, is NOT anime.

For the record the Avatar argument was not why I wrote this to begin with it just serves as a good example for my argument. I haven't watched all of Avatar but believe me, it's on my bucket list. Avatar borrows its visual style from a number of Japanese anime tropes -- the world and character design, and animation are without a doubt wholly reminiscent of the aesthetic of anime, but you know what? I would not watch Avatar: The Last Airbender in Japanese. Of course I wouldn't! And that's because the show was produced by a team of English North Americans, speaking English, writing English dialogue, with character animation, while reminiscent of anime, designed and timed around the English language for ostensibly English speaking audiences. Avatar doesn't feel "off" the way imported and dubbed anime does because it was designed around the English language -- English is the native language of Avatar.

Avatar the Last Airbender certainly looks like anime but even if I had no idea what anime was and you showed me an episode of Avatar and then. . . I dunno, Digimon or something, I feel like I'd still be able to detect a difference in their style and pacing.  
So then what is Avatar? A mere "cartoon"? Mere child's play!? No, at least not as we North Americans have come to understand the use of the word (i.e. cartoons = shows for kids). But if you ask me, that has more to do with limitations of the "anime as adult cartoons vs. cartoons as shows for children" dichotomy which incidentally is also linguistic. Maybe, Avatar is something more than a mere "cartoon" but it certainly isn't Anime. Here's an idea, maybe we should stop thinking in binary altogether and instead of writing entire blog posts about what is or isn't anime, give shows like avatar an entirely new distinction within the realm of North American animation - why don't we just call it "animation" like the Japanese do? Whatever, that's not my main argument.

To reiterate, English dubbed anime just sounds kind of weird to me. It's in the lines; it's in the way the lines are delivered in relation to the movement of the characters; it's in the off-kilter tone and intonation, the extension of certain syllables that are not usually extended to match mouth or bodily movements that seem more natural in Japanese. It's in the decent yet still somehow awkward translation of Japanese phrases that are so melodramatic they sound inane in English that are somehow more palpable when read. It's the feeling I get when I realize that I've never heard a native speaker of English ever talk like that in real-life -- not even close. And that my friends, is why I, assuming I have a choice in the matter, will almost always choose Japanese audio over English for my Anime viewing pleasure. Thanks and goodnight (assuming you're reading this at night).             

Well that went on much longer than I originally expected and I'm sure I introduced more problems then I solved, but hey, these things really write themselves ya know? In any case, see ya again when I feel like writing something again. Hope that was at least interesting for you, even if you don't agree.  

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