UPDATED: 9/12/09 3:21 PM EST as marked by EDIT
I’m not stating anything in this post as fact. This is just my opinion – but there are NO good dubs. I repeat: THERE ARE NO GOOD DUBS. And by ‘dubs’, I of course mean the term anime fans use to describe the English voice-over of a show originally voiced in Japanese. I will admit, there are ‘acceptable’ dubs out there. There are ‘decent’ dubs. But there are no good dubs, and there is definitely no excuse to only watch a show dubbed.
There is a pretty simple reason for this – the people who American companies hire to do anime character voices cannot act. What they do instead is make a funny voice that represents a highly generalized vision of their character’s personality. For instance, a somewhat arrogant female character will have a voice that squarely represents arrogance. This is the folly of English voice-acting – they are merely acting to a cliche and not actually conveying the emotions in the dialog.
Asuka Langley Sohryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion is a complex character – the things she says often hide a different meaning from her actual words, and Shinji’s inability to pinpoint her real meaning drives a lot of his perception of her. You’d never understand any of this if you only watched the dub of Evangelion in which Asuka is a hardcore bitch the entire time. If you’re really attentive, maybe you’ll see it in the facial animation, but once you switch to the original Japanese dub, you will suddenly feel like you are watching an entirely different character (I am, of course, speaking from personal experience.)
Now, most English voice actors for anime are obviously bad (try watching Utena dubbed, oh my god). However, I want to tell you why the ‘better‘ ones are still terrible.
A good actor is someone who brings something to the role they are playing. They don’t just read the script or even just read it well – they put their own voice into it to make the performance that much more special. If you don’t understand, go watch Pulp Fiction – Watch it, and try as hard as you can to think of anyone other than Samuel L. Jackson to play Jules. You can’t think of anyone, right? That’s because he is a great actor, and he MAKES that role.
When it comes to anime voice actors, a lot of the well-known Japanese ones are known specifically because they are able to make the roles their own. They make it so that you aren’t merely interested in Haruhi Suzumiya, but Haruhi Suzumiya as voiced by Aya Hirano, and you couldn’t imagine anyone else’s voice playing that character. I would get into a Japanese voice actor like I would a regular actor – I can’t say the same for any English anime voice actor.
This is not something inherent in the English language. It is perfectly possible for an anime to have a good dub, there just isn’t the kind of market for anime that would allow a company to sink in the money to produce a good dub (did you know Nausicaa has Uma Thurman in it? Only the Miyazaki flicks!). It’s just not financially viable, and the only reason dubs do exist is because a large percentage of the American fanbase will ONLY watch anime dubbed (these are not the type who blog, so you don’t see them as much. Probably because they also aren’t the type who think about what they are watching.)
Suffice it to say, I would watch anime in Japanese no matter if the dubs were good – for me, a lot of the enjoyment of a work is looking as closely at the creator’s intent as possible, and if the creator intended the show to be in Japanese, that’s how I’m going to watch it. However, I would probably watch the dub as well, perhaps to show my friends and family the show. As it stands, I cannot do this, because the dub voices are embarrassing. The reason my parents won’t get into anime is because they can’t take the show’s seriously, which I can’t really hold against them when I can’t take the voices seriously myself.
I bring all of this up for a reason, and that reason is one of the most well-acted anime in recent years, Baccano! I want to show my parents Baccano because my dad is a huge fan of gangster films and I think he’d love it. I only have one big hang-up – my parents don’t have the kind of attention spans to sit through nearly six hours of subtitles. I had, however, heard that the dub was pretty good, so I wanted to test it myself. Luckily, Anime News Network is streaming the first two episodes dubbed, so I decided to check it out.
I can safely say that I will never, ever watch Baccano dubbed or allow anyone else to do so. The dub isn’t necessarily terrible – there are much, much worse out there – however, Baccano is meant to be stylized as an ensemble film. The point of an ensemble film is to bring in a whole lot of well-known actors and have them do what they do best among a slew of other giants. Baccano’s Japanese vocal cast is fucking gargantuan, and preventing a long list of Japanese names, the icing on the cake is a brilliant performance by Norio Wakamoto that lasts the whole first half of the first episode.
The English dub never had a chance against a cast who was picked to bring life to characters that were probably written with the actors already in mind. I already knew that I wouldn’t be able to like Gustave St. Germaine’s English voice actor because the entire magic of that role hinges on Wakamoto’s absurd pronunciation of the word ‘KYAAARORU’. How can any under-talented dub actor hope to match up to that? Even if the Baccano dub were half-decent (which it isn’t, they try to use New York accents, and it fails miserably) it just wouldn’t be the same anime.
If there is one glimmer of hope that dubs could ever be good, it’s Vic Mignogna. I’ve heard Vic’s performances as Edward Elric in FullMetal Alchemist and Yukito Kunisaki in Air, and both of them are genuinely good. However, in both cases, the rest of the dub actors are terrible and the Japanese cast is excellent, with Vic’s roles being originally being performed by Paku Romi and Daisuke Ono respectively, both of whom are better actors than Vig Mignogna.
EDIT: I take that back, Mignogna is not the only English voice actor I like. There is one female voice actor who does him one even better: Laura Bailey (whom I know as Sana in Kodocha, Reimi in Star Ocean the Last Hope, and the eponymous Shin-chan), her voice takes getting used to, but it is a lot of fun.
There are watchable dubs (Spirited Away, Kamichu!) but watchable just isn’t good enough when there’s an excellent Japanese version to be had. I can’t say I blame dubs for being bad, as much as I would love to be able to show anime to my parents – I understand that a good dub is impractical in the anime market. I’m just saying the shit sucks. So I guess this is a flame post.