Japanese or English Dub?

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For some time, I often question myself when writing reviews on certain games that contain Japanese language tracks. My recent one was with Atelier Totori. When I get to the point of critiquing Japanese versus English, I start to question myself of “Do I really know if these Japanese voice actors are doing a good job?” To be quite honest, I can’t speak but a few coin phrases in Japanese. Although after my many years of being fascinated by Japanese culture, games, and anime; I have become good at distinguishing spoken phrases, patterns, and honorifics.

voice2With all those confessions out of the way, I decided to explore what makes Japanese voice acting so much more better when it comes to localizing games and anime to the western audiences. Why anything of these categories are better served to at least include the option to switch back on its original voice acting. Some may disagree with me, and that’s fine. Even at that, I would hope people would enjoy diving into the other side of things.

Culture Of Voice Acting
The voice. The audible recording that takes an object and gives it life and personality. In most cultures, voice actors are often unknown and most of the time not even given credit in cast reels. In the US, unless you’re John Travolta or Tom Hanks, people don’t really pay much mind to who is voicing a character. We see live action film actors as kings of our media. Those are the people we give awards to. Those are the people with the fan base.

For this reason, it’s hard to find good talent in America.  Mainly because either the talent search is not good enough, or the amount of poor quality actors flood out the good talent.  Then there’s the fact that voice actors are seen as second-rate and not ‘real actors’.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to a voice actor interview where they explained how they went into voice acting as a stepping stool or was seen as second-rate for being one.

Now before I go any further, I want to be clear that my statements are not overly broad.  There are a great deal of people who don’t fall into this category. People with great talent that love what they do.  That said, let us look at the other side to this coin.

voice1Enter Japan.  A country where the voice actors are the stars.  Essentially their version of Hollywood are voice actors.  Why is this?  The massive production of animated shows.  Time Asia released numbers that put Japan producing 60% of the world’s animated series.  That’s massive!  Their anime culture alone provides content for just about any age group.  It’s not just the Saturday morning kids shows or a family flick now and then.  They make regular animated television series for adults just as much as kids.

In Japan, their voice actors have devoted fan clubs, magazines, television interviews, special guest appearances on shows, audio dramas, and 130 voice acting schools.  It’s kind of a big deal.  They take voice acting a little more serious in Japan than in the US.  Which just drives in my point that quality is a bit easier to find.  That the emotion behind voice acting seems more sincere.

Emotion and Tone
If the voice doesn’t care about what they are recording, or manage to produce a believable tone, how is one supposed to care for the situation?  Be it a boy crying out in pain for a lost family member, the fear in a girl’s voice as she’s staring death in the face, the agony of one pieced by a blade, or a villain claiming his world; the voice tells the story.  However, once again this seems to often be lost.

One of my biggest annoyances will always remain in how badly the English dubbing butchers the young “cutesy” characters. These are the overly childish characters that often act way silly or just overly cute. The English dub either just fails every time to capture this character, or they refuse to recognize it because they feel it won’t sell to the US consumer. Either way, they do a poor job.

Sometimes you even have the more ‘frilly’ characters that just don’t translate well.  This is either because that type of personality doesn’t translate to another culture well, or it just gets taken another direction altogether when it’s moved.  A prime example recently was with the character Vanille in Final Fantasy XIII.  While I commend its English voice actor for taking on such a difficult character, it still wasn’t done well.  Oddly enough, I believe the translated Vanille was a lot more goofy than her original self.

Hope and Vanille in English (Final Fantasy XIII)

Hope and Vanille in Japanese (Final Fantasy XIII)

One of the more obvious reasons for the gap in tone and character is that the US often uses adults to voice children.  Take for example Lymle from Star Ocean Last Hope.  The voice actor for the North American release was easily in her 40s.  Granted Lymle didn’t seem like an easy character to portray in the first place, at least get someone younger to do it.

Lymle in English (Star Ocean The Last Hope)

Timing
No one can forget the famous dub work done on the old Godzilla films. Man points at the sky, flaps his mouth for 10 seconds and the only words that come out is “Look out, it’s Godzilla!” Timing has plagued the world of translation work for many decades.

In its original created form, animation is produced to match a specific length of a conversation.  There’s even anime and video games that are animated to fit pre-recorded voice tracks.  However this is different when dubbing a localized language.  They have to alter the translation and timing to fit the mouth movements of a different language.  Something that takes 5 words in one language could take 10 to express in another.  Often leading to mouths flapping with no dialog, awkward pauses in sentences, or just changing the meaning of the sentence in order to stretch it out.

Honorifics
Probably one of the main reasons I absolutely love the Japanese language. Honorifics are a sort of descriptive expression that seems to point out respect (or lack there of) in some cases. Sadly, this is a certain element that is usually lost in translations. Even lost in most subtitle work. However if you listen to the Japanese voicing, over time you learn to catch these honorifics and thus it tells a different story.

An example of this is when watching a show where a young girl calls to a middle-aged man with a specific honorific, she essentially calls him “grandpa.” The man is very distraught because he’s being called old, but the subtitle translates it as “pops.” Taking step further, the English dubbing would often use “mister.” Thus, the reason for the man becoming distraught is lost in the hands of the dubbing group. Probably because they are either fitting the voice with the lip movement, or trying to context it how they see it.

Other examples are when characters call each other by “chan” or “kun”, often breaking the serious tone to more friendly terms. Then there’s the times when they don’t use honorifics at all, which seriously change the mood. These are often lost in translation because other cultures use other means to express this change, or don’t express it whatsoever.

Moving On
In the end, it’s all in preference.  I just hope in writing this, you may see a bit of a Japanese language lover’s views on the subject.  Or perhaps learned a few things on how Japanese voice culture is and how it’s translated.  I don’t dislike all dubbing, but there’s no denying that I prefer original voicing.  As time goes by, some companies will ditch options, while others will die by it.  I just hope companies can continue to adopt the idea of choice.

What’s your preference?  Japanese, Subtitles, English, Both?  I would love to hear your thoughts!

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Co-Founder of OtakuSpirit.com and Co-Host of the OtakuSpirit Animecast. A huge fan of anime since the early 1990s, consuming over 800 shows. While he's late to the collecting scene, he's found a lot of joy in filling his DVD/Blu-ray collection as well as collecting figures. Once a week, he posts unboxing and feature videos on anime goods to YouTube.