A lot of anime fans probably don’t grasp this, but they really don’t ‘hear’ Japanese. I was watching subbed anime for a good while before I started to realize that what I had been hearing was actually a voice in my head reading off the dialog. It takes having read a significant amount of subtitles to stop doing this.
I think I had been watching anime for around 9 months to a year before I started to ‘notice’ voices. But that still doesn’t mean I ‘heard’ them. It’s easy to get a sense of what a voice sounds like to the point where you can differentiate voice actors. For instance, a lot of people can easily distinguish Rie Kugimiya’s voice, because it is distinct, but that only really means that they are picking up on the existence of her voice, and not so much what she’s actually saying, or how she’s performing. I’ve seen a lot of people who think that Kugimiya isn’t a good actress, and the reason is that they are only reacting to the surface of her voice. They are thinking ‘high pitched’ or ‘bitchy sounding’, or in a voice they like (let’s take Wakamoto) they are just thinking ‘deep’ and ‘crazy’ or what have you.
This is exactly why a lot of people don’t really see a big difference between dubs and subs. They aren’t listening to the performance so much as the simple sound of the voice. Baka-Raptor has said before how he can only watch (most) comedy anime dubbed, because delivery is important to the humor of a joke – this is true, though if he could really ‘hear’ Japanese, he would be able to appreciate Japanese comedy.
The inability to ‘hear’ Japanese is actually a huge controlling factor on our fandom. It’s why a lot of characters can be mislabeled – for instance, Kagami from Lucky Star is mislabeled as a bitchy tsundere, whereas someone who understands the nuances of her performance might be more likely to notice that she is more meant to be a tsukkomi character. I also think it’s precisely why a voice like Wakamoto’s is one of the most well-known to the US fandom – it’s less because he’s a great voice actor (though he is), and more because his voice is easy to like without being able to understand a damn thing he says. Meanwhile, a great actor such as, say, Keiji Fujiwara, will be less noticed because his voice isn’t so easy to pinpoint to the untrained ear.
There is sort of this gradual process of learning to hear Japanese, and I think it’s incredibly important. My enjoyment of anime in general has increased greatly by my hearing voices. The biggest help is that it makes everything more memorable. I have noticed that I have a much harder time remembering scenes from shows that I watched before hearing Japanese than I do from ones I’ve watched and understood. This is also part of what has made rewatching a lot of old favorites so fun, as it totally broadens my perception of the shows. And I’ve come pretty far with it too.
See, I took 3 years of Japanese classes in high school (about equivalent to one year in college I’m sure, and probably less when you consider my grades in those classes) and while those didn’t help a whole lot, they at least gave me a start. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that you CANNOT learn a language without speaking it and hearing it on a significant basis. I often hear people say how their Japanese gets really rusty when they are outside Japan, simply because they aren’t being exposed to the language.
My best friend, No Name, learned Japanese from watching anime and reading manga (and if that sounds impossible, you should know that he’s seen 4 times as much as I have, and I’ve seen 4 times as mush as you have. The amount he’s consumed would effectively give him a WAY higher ratio of hearing and reading Japanese to hearing and reading English/Vietnamese.) I have been much more slowly and gradually doing something similar. I really haven’t done much in the way of reading, but I have been learning to comprehend the language more and more.
I’ve reached a point, at least, where I don’t really read subtitles. Mind you, if I didn’t have subtitles I still wouldn’t know what was going on, but it’s gotten to where the subtitles are more of a ‘clue’. It’s more like my brain is using the subtitles to confirm what it’s already figured out, sort of like using context clues to answer questions on a test (something I’m an expert at). At this point, I actually find myself usually thinking ‘this is what the character really means.’ Not that I don’t agree with the subtitles, because the tricky thing about translating Japanese is that it doesn’t really make sense directly most of the time, and therefor a lot of localization has to be done, but now I’m at the point where I see the localization. I say, ‘ah, she said this, that’s what it really means’ and if I want, I can change the interpretation of the phrase more to my liking.
I’m quite happy that I can do this, too, because as you know, I am ALL about creator’s intent, so I appreciate understanding a script as closely as possible. So my plan is to start training myself with RAWs. For a LOOOOONG time I’ve had the idea of watching a show so many times that I have it memorized (would probably only take 4 or 5 runs) and then watch it in Japanese and see if I can basically understand it. I really want to start training myself like that soon.