"Concerning the Standards of Dubs..."

Art is subjective.

I know that that’s the most clichéd way to start this piece, but it’s true. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and no two people will react the exact same way to it. The same can be said of acting; true, there are general expectations for a good performance, but even then they’re not empirical. They’re merely guidelines, albeit ones that are flexible.

I bring this up because of an interesting article written by a man named Charles Dunbar for Ani-Gamers. I’d never heard of him or this site until now, but it had a fascinating editorial about anime dubs and cultural exchange. At first, I was expecting another “dubs suck” or “only certain dubs are good” eye-roller, but thorough examination proved me wrong. The article was, honestly, really interesting, even adding perspective to the argument of “dub VS sub” that I’ve brought up before. That doesn’t mean I agree 100% with the author’s position, but y’know…

Anyway, Mr. Dunbar brings up two points that I thought were interesting. His first, which he mentions in the title, is that good dubs allow for cultural discourse. I’d never actually thought of that before, but it makes sense. Art’s primary objective is communication, and art that’s inspired by other art is meant to engage in a dialogue. It’s true as much about Akira Kurosawa’s influence on Star Wars as it is a voice track being translated from one language to another. Great art may have no equivalency, but it can still inspire responses from people intelligent enough to get what made it so special. A good dub is, when you distill it, simply another attempt at conversation.

The second point is where the disagreement begins: that there are objective standards for dubbing, and that dubs that are “done right” meet them. As nice as that sounds in theory, I have to call him out for the reason I mentioned earlier on.

See, I watch dubbed anime. It’s my means of watching anime, as I don’t speak Japanese and can’t stand subtitles. I’m quite familiar with how a performance in English should sound because it’s my native tongue. I can’t explain to what separates a great performance over a good performance, but I know the difference between a Heath Ledger Joker and an Anakin Skywalker. Voice acting is the same way.

I bring this up because I think arguing the fine details of a performance is a waste of time. Perhaps I’m over-simplifying it, but those “grunts” and “tics” Dunbar mentions? They’re cool and whatnot, but they’re not necessary. Not everything needs to be David Fincher-level acting, especially considering how time-consuming and draining his style has been purported to be. Sometimes, simplicity is preferable.

For example, Christopher Reeve’s Superman is more iconic than Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking. The latter required copious amounts of time and attention to detail to do properly; in fact, its most-admirable component was that the scenes in The Theory of Everything were, apparently, shot out-of-order, so Redmayne had to do a lot of on-the-spot improvisation for Hawking’s debilitative condition. The end-result shows: Redmayne meets the “grunts” and “tics” that Dunbar describes, and his Oscar for Best Actor proves it. But Reeves gave the more memorable performance with less effort. Not to discredit either of them, but Christopher Reeves as Superman is more iconic without the subtle nuances of replicating ALS.

The same can be said of voice acting. Dunbar mentions Only Yesterday as the prime example of voice work done right. The actors and actresses pause between sentences to catch their breaths, the “grunts” and “tics” of real speech patterns are present, it’s a great vocal track all-around. But that shouldn’t detract from voice work that doesn’t meet those qualifications. Not every director is a perfectionist like Isao Takahata, there simply isn’t enough time. So that the dub, which I’ve defended in the past, doesn’t match the sub track shouldn’t negate the effort put into it in the first place.

The one area that I blatantly disagree with Dunbar on is his claim that Disney’s dub of My Neighbor Totoro is “flat-out wrong”. I get it: he likes the Streamline-produced, 20th Century Fox dub from the 90’s. I’ve yet to hear that track in its entirety, though the few clips I’ve come across sounded fine for the time period, but demeaning the newer dub is insulting. It might be a celebrity dub, but it had effort put into it. The performances are solid, and while the Fanning sisters might underact, it’s still serviceable. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, in other words.

Besides, I’ve heard this argument used for many of Disney’s Studio Ghibli re-dubs. Castle in the Sky, in particular, is criticized for many “wrongdoings”: its leads are too old, it adds too many jokes, the music isn’t organic, the list goes on. In contrast, the original 1989 dub is praised for being “more organic”, when a simple listen would argue quite contrary: it’s flat and uninspired, with the actors sounding lost half the time. It might be “more faithful”, but it lacks the “grunts” and “tics” of the newer dub.

But even with newer dubs, there's still a disconnect here. I’m glad that Dunbar mentions FUNimation’s dub of Ouran High School Host Club, because for as much as that show was cartoony, and might’ve lost something in translation, I got a naturalistic, realistic vibe from it. I felt those “grunts” and “tics”, even if not everything successfully got localized. In fact, I find that even when FUNimation makes a joke dub, which is more common than I’d like these days, or when their casting is off, which sometimes happens, they still include those “grunts” and “tics”. And no amount of excessive Tatum-isms (aka superfluous writing) or Marchi-isms (aka obnoxious memes and pop-culture references) can change that.

Admittedly, this is all subjective, like I said earlier. But I remain firm in my assertion that it’s not as simple as a “dub done right”. For as much as there are standards for good dubbing, that’s exactly what they are: standards. They’re not “objective standards”, they’re standards. And while I’m aware that bad dubs exist even today, see most of Steven Foster’s work, these standards allow for far better dubs now than in the 80’s and 90’s simply because most of the mediocre ones still have those “grunts” and “tics” that Dunbar pointed out…even if they’re not necessarily necessary for a good dub overall.


  1. I don't consider Dunbar's opinions the end all, be all of dubbed animation, either; I only listen to my own judgment, and no one else's.

    I did enjoy the ONLY YESTERDAY dub, but I wouldn't say it's a "prime example", because frankly, I've heard a lot of great dubs in my life, and the Ghibli dubs are basically top-of-the-line. I'd rather watch any of them dubbed anyday.

    I also agree with you about TOTORO. As much as I grew up on the Fox dub, it by no means justifies slam-dunking Disney's dub. Different though it may be, it's by no means unlistenable. It's as competently done as any of the other Disney dubs. Dakota DOES underact at times, but her performance was still solid. I personally thought Elle had the juicier role, though, and she never underacted, IMO. I felt she really edged out Cheryl Chase.

    As for CASTLE IN THE SKY, there's really not much else I can say about it than you already have. However, I should mention that the dub isn't criticized these days. Nowadays there are reviews and comments from people who do stand up for it, and it's not just you and me. Perhaps it's time, but the controversy from "Castle in the Sky"'s dub seems to have died down for the most part, and today there are people who actually miss the Disney dub as it was without the extra music or dialogue. In other words, it's more appreciated today than it was years ago. Ironically, taking out the score might have caused people to realize that it WAS the heart and soul of the Disney dub.

    1. I guess I'm not up to-date with dub controversies. Still, I remain firm in my belief that it's all subjective...


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