I was at Sakuracon for a few hours this weekend, and a few overheard conversations reminded me of a longstanding debate within the anime community about subtitled or dubbed shows. Essentially, the debate boils down to whether it’s better to watch a show in the original Japanese, with subtitles, or with English voiceovers.
I came into anime at some weird times. The first was when I was young, too young to really appreciate terribly much nuance in my entertainment, so truly horrendous voice acting was lost on me. I then stayed out of anime for nearly a decade, coming back to either obviously dated shows or newer shows with higher budgets and quality English voice acting.
As a result, the debate is somewhat lost on me. Terrible voiceovers are going to grate on me whether they’re in Japanese or English, and subtitling is going to annoy me. I feel like, in a lot of higher-budget anime, the voice acting and translation have long since gotten good enough that subtle nuances of tone and wit are able to be expressed.
I’d much rather watch a show with good voice acting in a language I can understand (because I don’t speak Japanese) than try to imagine the spoken tone matching up with the text I’m reading. In a show I’ve been watching recently, a major plot point centered around a character’s continual use of a particular phrase, one that I didn’t pick up on at all over the entire preceding 15-20 episodes of the show because the linguistic nuance in Japanese was utterly lost on me.
In the meantime, I’ve also watched some of the Persona 4 anime, with English dubbing, and I’ve found the voice actors do a fantastic job both nailing the characters and hitting clever nuance and jokes where they’d otherwise fall flat. A few characters pull off some deadpan humor that I think works really well if you speak the language but would be really hard to pick up on otherwise.
The whole subbed vs dubbed debate seems like a relic of a largely bygone era to me. Perhaps I’m wrong, and that poor dubbing is still rampant, but most of the anime I’ve seen that’s from the last five years or so has really excellent English voiceovers. Maybe it’s because I only watch high-production-value anime, I don’t know.
I feel like there’s a healthy contingent of anime fans who got into it when dubbing was really bad, because it was most low-budget imports, and that as dubbing has improved there’s been a shift from subtitles being the only way to get a coherent story and overall experience to a general belief that subtitles are the only “authentic” way to view anime.
I do know a number of people, mostly those with some background in Japanese (whether they speak it or not), who prefer the subtitles for various reasons, which I think is fine. It does bother me somewhat to see anime fans at conventions criticizing one another for their choice in viewing options, though. I’m not sure when being a nerd became so divisive. Maybe it was always this way.
Either way, there’s some good anime out there, that’s probably worth your time. It’s an incredibly diverse medium, I keep finding, with both creative plays on existing concepts and new, really bizarre ideas. The nice part about animation as a medium is that it allows you to do really high-concept stuff without breaking the bank, budget-wise, for things like special effects and scenery. There’s a lot of really neat genre fiction and explorations of topics I would never have thought would make a good show. Apparently one of the big shows lately has something to do with soccer players? It’s fascinating.