In Defense of Dubbed Anime

I didn’t want to write this for the longest time. I really didn’t. It’s not because I had nothing to say, because I did, but I felt that everything I could’ve said has already been addressed on numerous occasions and by far more concise and articulate individuals. What’s worse, my few attempts at writing anything have been failures. However, since it won’t leave me alone until I purge it from my subconscious, I suppose I have no other choice:

Today, I defend dubbing in anime.

Yeah, you heard that right!

Now, the process of dubbing anime is long and tricky. It goes back many decades, has had its ups-and-downs and is a system I can’t begin to understand. Instead of boring you with that crap, I’ll deconstruct the issue in hopes of reintroducing this already introduced elephant in the room. Besides, I might end up covering some of what’s already been addressed in other rants, except from a slightly different angle.

Without further ado, the seven most-common complaints I hear about dubs, deconstructed for your reading pleasure:

1. Dubs suck.

The first complaint is, as you’d expect, general. No doubt you’re aware of that conversation where, be it online or in person, anime is brought up and someone has the gall to slander dubbing as a whole. “It’s a travesty!” he or she cries. “They should stick to the Japanese or get out!” The conversation then turns to why that is or isn’t the case, followed by everyone agreeing to disagree. As someone who’s been on the receiving end of this argument on numerous occasions, I can attest to how annoying it can be to listen to.

While there’s no doubt an element of subjectivity involved, namely that dubs are a personal preference, at the same time it brings up the issue of generalization. Notice the choice of words: dubs suck. Not “some dubs suck”. Not “many dubs suck”. Not even “most dubs suck”. No, the argument is that dubs “collectively” suck, with no leeway for a “but” or a “however”.

This poses two problems: firstly, it’s a gross-generalization. Dubbing as an art form has evolved since its inception. Back in the early days, i.e. the 70’s to mid-90’s, the argument held more weight; after all, not much was known, and dubs, even the ones with genuine effort, were often hammy, poorly-translated and paled in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. It wasn’t the dubbing studios’ fault…most of the time, they simply didn’t know what they were doing. So saying that those dubs suck might be acceptable, if a bit unfair.

But then something happened: the boom of anime in the West with shows like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. Suddenly, what once was considered a side-note was quickly becoming worth taking note of. Dubbing was a hot item, and, like any popular market, there was a need to expand and take it more seriously. Everything became more serious, and the quality of dubs started to increase. But okay, they were a little hammy, so maybe the argument still applied.

And here’s where the second point comes in: Cowboy Bebop. As cliché as it is to mention this these days, Cowboy Bebop did raise the standards of dubbing to a new level when its dub premiered on Adult Swim in 2001. Suddenly, the dubs sounded natural! And many other dubs followed suit. To put it into perspective, it was like hearing sound in film for the first time. We take that for granted these days, but “talkies”, like Cowboy Bebop’s dub, were a big deal, and people took notice.

Which leads to the inevitable issue with this argument: if dubs suck, then why is Cowboy Bebop’s dub so frequently praised even by those who normally hate them? I’m serious, the show has become the poster boy for how to do dubbing correctly. And while I don’t consider it the best dub ever, I actually think it’s dated, the fact that even dub-haters love it and consider it better than the Japanese means that the argument is, essentially, false.

These days, dubbing knowledge is wide enough that even the bad dubs, of which there exist, are still better than those from 20 years ago. Additionally, re-dubs are always an improvement. Actually, why not use two examples to illustrate my point?

First, Dragon Ball Z/Kai, a show that’s been dubbed several times:

Courtesy of sambafari.

And second, Sailor Moon, which is in the process of being re-dubbed this year:

Courtesy of Megadolf.

See what I mean?

2. Dubs will never be able to match the original.

Unlike the first complaint, which spits in the face of those involved in making dubs, this one spits in the face of reality. It’s also harder to rebut, namely because of one problem: I don’t speak Japanese.

*Insert dramatic gopher here*

It’s true! But, to be fair, I don’t speak other languages either. The closest I’ve gotten is Hebrew, and even then it’s only a basic grasp. I can read it fluently, but my conversational skills are embarrassing. But that’s for another article…

Anyway, not speaking Japanese makes this a difficult one to discuss solo. I was originally going to include an old article that discussed this argument in more depth to help, but it’s lost in cyberspace forever. I remember, however, it arguing that the “subs are always better than dubs” argument isn’t true once you learn the language, and to that I’d agree. Remember, anime is to Japan what Hollywood is to North America. It’s a machine that produces content constantly. And in a similar vein to how most movies have an overwhelmingly bad-to-good ratio of acting (because, let’s face it, Hollywood will green-light anything it thinks will make a quick buck,) so too does anime have an overwhelmingly bad-to-good ratio of acting in their anime.

Emote, damn you!

Is this to demean good acting in Japanese? Of course not! Japan has academies founded on teaching people how to voice-act, so there are plenty of talented actors and actresses in The Land of the Rising Sun. In that respect, they have an advantage over us Westerners, where most of our voice-actors and actresses are struggling stage and movie thespians who can’t get work elsewhere. So that’s a plus on their part.

But then again, those talents in the West are equally talented from their years of honing their voices. Plus, that they’re stuck with what they have means they’ve gotta be good to stay in the business. You look at individuals like Johnny Yong Bosch, Steve Blum, Mona Marshall, Tara Strong, Jim Cummings and the likes on sites like Behind the Voice Actors, and you know what you’ll find? Archives that encompass their immense range and skill as talents. To say that they can’t do a good job is heresy. To say that don’t even have the potential to rival their counterparts in Japan on occasion is blasphemy.

Not to mention, there’s the issue of “it depends on what we’re referring to”. In the case of anime hentai and ecchi titles, where the purpose is stimulate erections and horny males with no dating experience, I doubt it’d matter regardless…

3. Dubs will never reach the integrity of subs.

I remember having a Twitter debate over the authenticity of dubbing with a subtitle fan that began from another debate over whether or not the changes in FUNimation Entertainment’s Attack on Titan dub were any good. He argued that dubs could never match the subtlety of the Japanese because of the cultural differences. Anime, he argued, records like a machine-gun, while American voiceover work records like a cannonball. One was rapid-fire and quick, while the other was slow and more refined. The argument sounds fine on paper, but there’s one teeny-tiny problem:


Seriously, take a look at the mouth movements of your favourite anime character. Chances are that he or she (or it) will talk like a marionette, with his or her (or its) mouth moving up and down rapidly in order to give off the illusion of actual speech. But here’s the problem: it’s not. It’s a character’s mouth moving up and down like a marionette, except animated instead of controlled with strings. Occasionally it’ll stretch from side-to-side, but that’s done to: a. re-emphasize something. b. indicate that the person is singing.

In anime’s defence, I know why this is done. Anime is the reverse from most other forms of animation, in that the character is drawn first and then recorded over. In contrast, other forms of animation have the dialogue recorded first, and then the animation is sculpted over it. Both have their pros and cons, but the styles show in the end-result. Regardless, the whole “subtlety” aspect is bogus, because, if I wanted to, I could count the number of times an anime character’s mouth moves, write nonsense, fit the nonsense in time with the movement and still have it work. It might not be appropriate, but I could still do it in theory.

As for “intricacies”? Well, hate to break it to that guy, but these so-called intricacies are a sham too. Anime voice-acting is no more sophisticated than Western voice-acting; in fact, as TheJosephShow clearly demonstrated in his obnoxious series of “Why Anime Sucks” videos, it’s actually more simplistic because it lacks the subtleties of actual mouth movements. Even in Japanese, a “machine gun” language, speech patterns consist of subtleties of the teeth, palate and jaw. Anime doesn’t replicate them, hence this claim is stupid and nonsensical.

4. Dubs don’t accurately fit the context of the anime.

This is simply not true.

It’s important to remember that not every anime show/movie takes place in Japan. Baccano!, for example, is set in 1930’s Eastern-United States. Black Butler is set in England. Even Fullmetal Alchemist’s fictitious world of Amestria is based off of pre-WWI Germany. And there are plenty more examples.

The problem with this argument is that it forgets location. Yes, anime is Japanese, but not every anime takes place in Japan. It’s like saying every Western cartoon or movie takes place in the West, but that discounts the ones that don’t. Take Avatar: The Last Airbender: it’s an American production, but the characters are Asian-inspired. The main character was even modelled after a Tibetan monk! So saying that the show should only be in English because it makes sense contextually is farcical.

But going by this argument, if you really wanted to be accurate, then Fullmetal Alchemist would be best-suited in German, Baccano! would best-suited in American English and Black Butler would best-suited in British English. Why? Because that’s what their settings are. Also, the best languages for Beauty and the Best and Mulan, two well-known Disney movies of the 90’s, would be French and Mandarin/Cantonese respectively, as one takes place in France and the other China.

You know what this argument is really about? Asserting the dominance of one language over another. It’s not about quality, effort or overall preference, although those elements are definitely factored in. It’s all about “Japanese is a better language than English!” Which makes me wonder why the people who use it don’t speak Japanese themselves and leads me to my next point…

5. Dubs change too much and miss the original intent of the show in question.

Once again, this is a gross over-generalization.

Let’s pretend you’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend, relative or cohort from another country. He or she doesn’t speak English. You, conversely, don’t speak the person’s native tongue. You have no access to an interpreter. You try your hardest, but the words aren’t registering. When the conversation is over, you’re left wondering what the other person had said.

Quick, what's she saying? WHY WON'T SOMEONE ANSWER ME?!

Welcome to the world of the language barrier. In truth, this isn’t only the case for anime. Language is tricky, so any situation involving exchanging information is gonna be tough even if it’s in a tongue you understand. But to force yourself to persist through something you can’t understand? Well…that’s not fair, right?

This is why dubbing exists at all, as not everyone speaks Japanese. And to insist they suck it up? Well, now you’re being cruel. Personally, if I’ve had trouble with Hebrew for two decades, and I’ve been learning it since kindergarten, what makes you think that Japanese, of which my knowledge is virtually non-existent, would be any easier? The only sentence I know fluently is “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!” and that’s a line from a song!

As for changing dialogue? Well, it’s necessary. Language barriers are like playing broken telephone with people of various ethnicities. Like it or not, something’s gonna get lost in translation. But if it means keeping the meaning behind the original alive? Well, I’ll gladly take that over nothing!

So what about subtitles? Well, that helps…but it’s not perfect. For one, how do you know that the subtitles are accurate? Ignoring fan-translations, which are often too literal and poorly phrased, how do you know what that one word actually meant? Do you speak Japanese? If yes, congratulations. If no, then you really shouldn’t judge.

It’s the same for any language translation. For example, in Yiddish there’s a popular phrase people use when they want someone to stop talking: “hock mir nit k’n chinik”. The rough translation is “stop talking so much”. But Yiddish is a language of context, not syntax, so the actual translation is more like “don’t hit me like a tea kettle”. I don’t fully understand what that means, but that’s how language works: you can’t translate literally, you have to adapt, or localize, your translation to fit the culture you’re translating into.

And secondly, subtitles aren’t for everyone. It’s not only a matter of laziness either. I have an incredibly advanced vocabulary, but I also have scattered concentration. I can’t read and watch what’s on-screen simultaneously, especially when said screen is busy with imagery. Plus, what if I blink and miss a line? What if I miss out on the imagery? Sure, I might try focusing on both, but it’s still really hard!

And this is another reason dubs exist. Sure, they’re not the original. Sure, they might alter a word or two. Sure, the voices might not even be the same as the original! But as long as I can understand the overall context, which is what a good dub should attempt, then am I really missing out?

6. Dubs edit too much and ruin everything.

I see we’re still stuck in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Look, I’m won’t pretend that dubs haven’t gone and made bad editing decisions in the past. They have. A lot. But the reason is tricky and multi-faceted. It all boils down to standards and ratings in the West.

See, unlike Japan, animation is, for the most part, a children’s medium in North America. That’s neither good or bad, it’s how the art-form has evolved here. Even the animated films that come out on a yearly basis, good or bad, are usually meant for kids. There are always exceptions, but they’re often raunchy comedies that get aired late at night when the kiddies are in bed. But yeah, animation over here is more “family-friendly”.

So it’s no surprise that when anime first made its way to syndicated networks in North America, the target audience was kids. But here’s the problem: kids weren’t allowed to see anything too mature for their target age, lest concerned parents start riots to cover up how bad they were at parenting. So inferences of race, violence, sexuality and such were either changed, made more subtle, or cut out altogether. Prime examples include making Mr. Popo blue, changing the lesbian couple from Sailor Moon into cousins and, most-notably, obscuring references to death lest the little ones get scared and ask questions. The whole history is too complicated to really delve into, but it’s no shock that 90’s anime, particularly on TV, was an editing nightmare.

So where does it stand now? Well, it still happens on TV, but the changes aren’t as drastic as they used to be. Anime is more frequently relegated to adult blocks now, meaning that the cuts are no longer necessary, and companies like DiC and 4Kids, notorious for their blatant disrespect with their edits, are defunct due to financial and legal battles they kept losing. The few shows that still edit are big-names like Naruto and Pokémon, but they’re only shown on daytime television because of their immense popularity with kids. Besides, you can always see the unedited footage on the internet in Japanese if that bothers you that much.

Three points to make here. One, edits and changes aren’t always terrible. I’ve already stated that I didn’t think every edit that was made to Digimon was bad in my retrospective, and in the case of Studio Ghibli movies like Castle in the Sky, of which the additions were approved by the parent company, I can’t imagine watching them without their added lines of comedy (but that’s subjective.) Two, what may be perceived as a “change” may not actually be a change at all, but rather the content itself being presented how it should be. It may look like Shinji is being written as a wimp in Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, in the dub, but that was how Hideaki Anno wrote him in the Japanese. It’s really case-by-case, but I often think that sub-lovers pick fights simply because they can.

And third, the standards that anime has to meet in the West? Well, American animation has to meet them too. No blood in general. Sexual references must be ambiguous. Death can’t be openly shown. Sure, Western shows have gotten cleverer at skirting these issues, but the standards are fair game all-around. Oh, and movies have standards too, although those ones are a little more lax because the rating system is different.

For example, this was considered "kid-friendly".

As a side-note, it no longer matters anyway. One of the amazing benefits of the internet is that you can always watch and buy the original, unchanged material whenever you want. And you can do it legally or illegally. Also, complaining that 4Kids ruined One Piece forever, especially when they haven’t had the dubbing rights to that show in years, is absolutely ridiculous. Grow up.

7. They keep miscasting dub actors, stick to the Japanese.

This is the trickiest one to deconstruct, since it’s also the most-tailored and subjective. While it’s true that actors and actresses, even the best of the best, can be miscast from-time-to-time in dubs, whether or not that’s a detriment is debatable. Keep in mind that a performance is about more than casting, it’s about effort, emotional range and directing too. A miscast actor/actress can still give a good performance, even if it’s not the one required, and it’s unfair to really chastise a performance with effort behind it if it’s misguided or misdirected.

Now, do miscasts happen in dubs? Sure, they happen all the time. As much as Michael Reisz was trying his damnedest, for example, I thought he was too energetic to voice the cold and distant Matt/Yamato in the first season of Digimon. That’s not to say he didn’t grow on me, but he fit a Tai/Taichi more than a Matt/Yamato. For a more recent example, Sohei’s dub voice in The Wolf Children, while fitting the character’s personality, was too old for an 11 year-old. Jason Liebrecht gave it his all, and I commend him, but his performance should’ve gone to master child-imitator Maxey Whitehead.

That having been said, I’m certain miscasts happen in Japan constantly too. I can’t give an example off the back of my head, since I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m sure that a character like Haruhi Fujioka shouldn’t be voiced by a Tamaki Suoh voice actor. It’d sound weird. That, and it’d be impossible to take Haruhi seriously if a male voice came out of her mouth. Or, come to think of it, that might actually be funny…

Anyway, the problem is that Japanese voice-acting and English voice-acting are different for a reason: they stem from different philosophies. I’m no expert, but, if memory serves me correctly, Japanese voice-work is based on stereotypes and tropes, where as English voice-work is dependant on…well, whoever can fit the role. There’s a lot of flexibility in English acting, with some actors or actresses being capable of nailing two or more drastically different roles in the same show or movie because of their range. In Japanese acting, there are set archetypes, and different talents are chosen to fit them. It’s for that reason that typecasting is much more common over there too, but that’s for another article.

But the real reason this argument gets brought up is usually for the sake of trolling. People go on YouTube videos and comment on how someone sounds off, how dubs sucks and how you should watch subs instead, even though they have no reason to and wind up in pointless debates because of it. For example, all three of these were taken from the same video. And I didn’t edit any of them. Also, mild spoilers:

“Oh oh god the dub is so bad I think I'm gonna cry”
“they sound so funny in english”
“the dub of this show is fucking terrible just watch the sub like a true weeb you would know anie was the female by now”

Here’s the clip, by the way. You be the judge:

Courtesy of FUNimation.

End spoilers.

Really, though, this isn’t even about miscasting at all. It’s about ignorant individuals, ones with too much free time, making claims to compensate for their inability to actually understand Japanese. Because, as I’ve been arguing, it’s pointless and subjective. Miscasting is partly in the eye of the beholder, and criticizing a perfectly competent dub, no-less one from FUNimation Entertainment, the studio that goes beyond the call of duty with their dubbing, in this case, is shameless nitpicking. It’s as if they’re compensating for their lack of real lives-wait, they are. NEVER MIND!

Seriously though, why is this show exempt from criticism again?

But yeah, it’s pointless.

Overall, with all of these arguments thrown in, it’s clear that the issue of dubs being bad is exaggerated. It’s case-by-case, honestly! Besides, to use a clichéd line, it’s all preference! And the most important part isn’t really how to watch anime, but rather that it should even be watched. And if it means putting up with dubs every-now-and-then, then so be it!

There, subconscious! Are you happy now?

“I’m never happy!”

Okay then! (Seriously, what crawled up his tuchus?)


  1. There are also economical reasons to make a dub. Most American networks won't touch a subtitled show, regardless of genre. The same tends to be true for Netflix - while they'll make exceptions for really popular stuff like Attack on Titan, they prefer to have both sub & dub available. So if you want even a shot at getting an anime series on Toonami or Netflix or somewhere else like that, a dub is a necessity. It can even be a selling point for streaming services, since so many of them put dubs behind the subscription paywall. You want to see that dub in full online, sometimes well before the physical release? Well, you better pay up.

    Dubs also make anime more kid-friendly. I'm not talking about the content, but the fact that depending upon age and comprehension, a little kid may not be able to keep up with subtitles. Dubs for kids' shows help make the material available to your average American grade-schooler. That's why it makes sense for someone like NIS America to include the Animax dub with their Cardcaptor Sakura release - it's not a good dub by any means, but it's uncut and allows the show's target audience in English to follow it as well.

  2. I guess next time you should write this, huh?

    In all seriousness, I didn't know that. Consider Megan's comment ancillary material, folks!

  3. Very well done! I agree wholeheartedly with this. One other dub I'd like to add to the examples is ADV's dub of NADIA: THE SECRET OF BLUE WATER. I loved that particular dub because it was one of the few to cast children in the roles of the protagonists, and they fit quite well. Granted, there were a few moments when they showed inexperience, but it was still a very commendable effort for everyone involved. That said, there have been critics who have made the mistake of slandering the whole dub on account of the fact that the characters all speak with accents (one of the children does have a thick French accent, for instance), and declaring it is unwatchable because of it. I find this unfair, because I could tell that everyone involved with that dub was giving a sincere effort with their performances and I honestly can't watch that show any other way. It just doesn't FEEL right in Japanese to me. I don't even think the Japanese version of "Nadia" is that great; Marie's VA sounds too shrieky and high-pitched for a younger girl; I thought the ADV dub VA did a far better job, and I'm sorry, but however talented Yoshino Takamori and Noriko Hidaka are, I personally prefer the kids from the ADV dub for their characters because it just feels more natural to hear them sound like kids, and the chemistry between them is absolutely great. It helps that they were good friends in real life, hence why their interactions feel very organic in the dub. NADIA's dub isn't perfect by any means; the accents are variable in places and while the kids do a great job overall, there ARE a few missed lines, but it's hardly anything that ruins the show, and I thought the dub was fantastic. I think it's another great example of dubbing that is unfairly dismissed due to sampling for only 30 seconds.

    1. I see. I don't know enough about the show to really judge it, but I'll keep what you said in mind...


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