From Dubs to Subs: the Evolution of a Western Otaku

As much as I can rely on anime as an ice-breaker, one topic is doomed to freeze over any conversation with most of my anime-watching friends. One of two words will spark it off, and the rest will be a long catalogue of indirect abuse, worn out ideologies and worn out faces as a few of us try to get back to talking about what we love.

We’re talking about ‘subs’ and ‘dubs’.

It’s unlikely to be everyone’s experience, and I can only speak from my own, but most of the anime fans I’ve run into will have some kind of agenda towards advocating one over the other – I’ve encountered pure ‘subbers’ and pure ‘dubbers’ and the clashes aren’t pleasant. Subbers will stand for nothing but the closest reception of the original, while dubbers will fight for the belief that anime viewers in the West should be visually directed in the same way as the original audience are, as reading can distract from the action and drama. Subbers will argue that dubs aren’t the ‘real’ shows, and dubbers will argue that they couldn’t have enjoyed the ‘real’ show without voice acting in their own language. Subbers will denounce the quality of dubs, while dubbers will laud the best and retort with criticism of how subtitles can sometimes completely miss the mark. Again, not everyone’s experience of the anime community will be like this – there’s a middle ground, which I advocate, whereby the viewer aims to enjoy both – but it’s a pretty good representation of what I’ve found IRL.

Considering how both sides of the coin frequently emerge – Funimation’s quantity of Broadcast Dubs this season and London’s sub-only Ghibli screenings, for example – I thought I’d reflect on how I came into watching anime and how I’ve developed since then.

I’m going to go right back to where I started – watching the dubbed version of Bleach, back when I was patient enough to deal with such a diluted show (no problem with the story or content, it was just like trying to drink cola that’s been mixed with water to the ratio of 1:9000). I remember how exciting it was to experience such a new genre, and I was taken in by the art style and character design. I had a similar experience with Naruto; all these commercial shows were gradually introducing me to the shounen action genre (until watching Attack on Titan completely redefined my expectations for an action-orientated anime). The main thing, however, was that I never gave subs a single thought. I was still watching a lot of English and American films and TV shows. Anime was encroaching on that territory, but it was hardly the King of the Hill.

Fast forward a few months and I’m rarely watching anything that isn’t originally Japanese – but most of the shows I watch are still in dub. The world of anime romance had pulled me in the most, with one small moment in the Chuunibyo dub echoing in my brain for days after: the climax when Yuuta attacks Sanae’s fantasy world at its fraudulent core, with her tearful cry – ‘I know!’ – being (perhaps strangely) one of the most well-realised moments I’ve ever encountered in anime. My only attempt at subs had been Durarara!!, and the number of cross-conversations in that show made it a nightmare to read your way through (coupled with the fact that everything is purposefully confusing anyway). I had still yet to consider subs overall because of my preference for getting the drama and information in anime quicker, combined with my lack of experience with reading subtitles in general.

But then I wanted to watch Hayate no Gotoku.

Having been unable to find a dub through my computer, I eventually settled for the subbed version, and it surprised me how little difficulty I had getting to grips with it. The characters and narrator sounded true to the manga I had enjoyed, and I laughed a lot more than I expected to at subtitled jokes. I realised the experience wasn’t that dissimilar to reading manga – my attention shifted from the subtitles to the visuals without any jarring effect on my enjoyment of the show. Furthermore, when I did eventually find a dubbed version, the difference in proximity to the feeling of the manga was horrendous; I couldn’t bear more than a few minutes of it. And so I stuck with the subbed version, and started to think that maybe I had been missing out on something.

This grew into a subconscious conversion – an evolution, even. Soon I became impatient with shows that were currently airing and wanted to watch new episodes as soon as possible (you have to wait about a month for Funimation’s dubs), and I began to doubt that shows I had started with dubs – Durarara!!, Assassination Classroom, Death Parade – were giving me as much as I could get from them. Rewatching Angel Beats! in sub furthered my suspicions that my enjoyment of anime had been somewhat incomplete, even though I had been fully engrossed in every dub I’d enjoyed. Watching anime in its original language isn’t just about authenticity; it makes you more connected with Japanese culture as a whole, and you feel closer to the medium you were already hooked on.

I had, by this time, stopped watching most films and TV shows in my own language altogether. Now I always prioritise subs over dubs when starting a new series.

Whatever you say, Otonashi.

I needed dubs to get into anime, but I needed subs to get even deeper. Dubs were an exercise in familiarity, playing first on a field I knew. I still enjoy the ones I still watch, and I know there are some things in them that I’d miss with subs. Yet, getting the first-hand, original version increases the confidence I have in approaching and criticising a series, and so it’s something I’ve found essential for myself as a growing otaku. I can also see that I never would have gotten into subs because of negative cohesion – I needed something I enjoyed to force me into that experience. I can now return to dubs whenever I feel like it, even though my preference is for subs; both options are open to me, which feels, somehow, incredibly liberating.

So my theory is this – next time I hear someone telling me or someone else that subs are superior, I will try to steer that conversation into recommending to the person an anime they can only watch in subs, or to rewatch something they watched long ago in subs, or some third thing that positively encourages them to watch a show in its original language. I think the Western anime viewer will generally evolve into enjoying both subs and dubs if given the right stimulation, and it’ll lead to even more proximity with the culture (such as learning the language itself, which I’m now doing). If people don’t want to be that close, then it’s not an issue. But if someone tells me they love Attack on Titan, I will ask them if they’ve watched it in sub; and if they haven’t, I will admit that I haven’t yet either; and I will recommend that we both rewatch the series in its original language one day and compare notes.

I can think of a number of other reasons why people embrace subs, but for those that want to stick to dubs (as I initially did), the best way forward has to be a positive reason for them to try the alternative out and find something they can enjoy in it. Subs may still be a pain for some viewers regardless of what they watch, but being positive about it is always going to be better than simply hating on dubs or dubbers every time the subject arises. It’s not cool, it’s not interesting, and it’s not going to help promote the importance of enjoying anime in multiple versions, as I think every Western otaku should – translation is part of an art form itself.

But what about you? Has your stance on dubs changed over time? Don’t hesitate to comment below!

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9 thoughts on “From Dubs to Subs: the Evolution of a Western Otaku”

  1. It’s an interesting question and you’ve some really good points. For me, it usually comes down to the quality of the dub. It’s rare, but occasionally the American voice actors just don’t seem to hold a candle to the original and I think that there’s a lot to be said for the original audio of a series.
    To be honest, these days, it usually comes down to how tired I am and what type of show I’m watching. If it’s something that focuses on plot with a lot of attention to detail, then I prefer subs because if I’m too tired or distracted to be bothered with subs then there’s a chance I won’t appreciate the anime properly in either form. If it’s just something light, or primarily action based, then a strong dub means that I can follow and enjoy the episode while still having the option to text or check an e-mail without grinding everything to a halt.
    I’d definitely agree that there’s too much of a black-and-white approach to subs and dubs. The important thing should just be enjoying the anime in whatever suits you best.

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    1. You raise a great point I’ve seen elsewhere – how dubs allow you to ‘do other things’ while watching a less intensive show. I guess it comes down to artistic preference as to whether you want art to involve the opportunity to pay less attention to it (reminds me of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lUEDBuoT7c), and I think that will vary greatly from person to person and from show to show. A good show should immerse you regardless of how much you want to be immersed, and both dubs and subs have achieved that for me over time, even though I tend to get it more with subs nowadays.
      Thanks for the response!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Personally for me there are very few shows that I can only watch in dub. YuYu Hakusho is one that I feel is perfect for english dub , possibly because I started it off with the english dub.

    I just started rewatching angel beats last night because for some strange reason I came home after a friends birthday and wanted to watch an anime I knew was extremely good. I started the first 2 episodes in subs and decided for the third episode I’d just have it run as background noise since I wanted to be on tumblr at the same time. I let the opening theme play as usual (probably my favorite opening theme) and as I heard the very first few sentences to the start of the episode I immediately said to myself “yeah, this dub is horrible, lets ditch tumblr and just read the subs”

    So for me, I would have to say subs aren’t bad but dubs aren’t bad either. I guess it’s for what you’re more accustomed to that you feel is best suited for you watching experience. Although I do feel like they don’t give us enough time to read the subs some times but I don’t mind it too much.

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    1. Thanks for the reply!
      Funnily enough, I first watched Angel Beats! in dub and fell in love with the show that way; but that was before I’d touched a single show with subs. Rewatching it in subs has proved to be a similarly powerful experience, though the series has a lot of that only works at its best for the first time you watch it. I’m still undecided as to which version I like best, even though I think subs is the definitive experience.

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  3. I have to be honest here, while I view most things in English, I understand why the original versions of these shows are almost always better (yes, Bebop, & especially you, FMA…that includes you), & even when they’re extremely well-done, there are obviously limits to the budgets, yards a yadda. Yet, still, I believe dubbing is worthwhile. I think that it’s largely about $$$.

    While I understand what you mean about subtitles bringing one closer into the dialog, & foreign language bringing one into the culture…I’m not in it for the culture, I’m in it for the entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer *accurate*, & if possible *well-acted* dialogue – however, the reason 99% of anime, regardless of setting is recorded in Japanese, is because of *target audience*, not style.

    Something like the Yakuza games being left in Japanese is cool – it adds to the flair. Same goes for the Kill Bill movies – I’d rather they speak Japanese entirely as opposed to some accented ****.

    I may get flack for this, but Japanese culture involves a lot of repression, & this also shows in their entertainment. I mean, anime flourishes over there because it’s an exaggerated escape, right?

    Frankly, I don’t think they as human beings are too apart from us, which is why I can enjoy their entertainment..

    …Speaking of which, my preference for dubs may also help that I was motivated by good ones. Naruto, Bleach (not AS good, but just find) Gurren Lagann, Durarara, Steins Gate, Samurai Champloo…are all the anime I began viewing with. (I do think I will watch more subs the more that I end up viewing already-past-due anime, just due to the minimal budget & interest in dubs overall, especially nowadays)

    & frankly, many of the anime that don’t have dubs, are those that I’m not interested in.

    As I stated earler, they are simply products of a culture that often weirds me out, & often I find myself not enjoying the shows, just because of the very cheesy moments. I found myself groaning at the interruptions in Hellsing Ultimate, despite finding the action, plot, voice-over, animation, & music absolutely stellar.

    I prefer subs for plenty of video games, for reference sake (& they’re really good!), like MGS, which is highly westernized in the English-dubbed releases, & sounds very different.

    (A game like Kingdom Hearts would have been very odd-sounding without dubbing)

    I DO think that dubbing & the licensing industry should be taken more seriously by the fanbase of anime – dubs only help BROADEN the audience, & most people, dub fans included, DON’T KNOW the issues that plague dubbing today.

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    1. It’s that case of target audience that makes subs so vital for me now though. ‘Audience’ in not a fixed status symbol you have – it’s something of you that develops. I’m a different kind of audience than I was three or four years ago, and I think I’m in a better position to appreciate all the things that are worked into anime. You come, through subs, to understand that the culture isn’t that weird, but is certainly different. Shifting into it myself, slowly, has only been of benefit to what I watch.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. Reblogged this on grimmgirldotcom and commented:
    Flashback Friday Time Grimms!

    Today Jeko is taking us all the way back to June 6, 2015 with his post on Subs Vs. Dubs. If you haven’t been on Jeko’s blog Unnecessary Exclamation Mark before then you my dear are missing out. You should probably meander about his site right now.

    Jeko’s post From Dubs to Subs The Evolution of a Western Otaku is a perfect example of his ability to take a topic and see both sides of a story. In edition to that he his able to give his opinion in a well reasoned way. The debate on this subject in the anime world seems to be never ending and it is refreshing to read a post that can look at this subject and discuss it without being condescending and demeaning.

    I think we can all agree that there is nothing more annoying then telling someone you like the dubbed or subbed version of anime and hearing them respond with an 8 minute rant on why your “stupid” and “don’t get anime”.

    Cue EYE ROLL

    Jeko is able to bring up some valid points on why we all might be partial towards whatever version we like to watch. He also highlights some backstory and opinions on why he digs the versions he likes. Great post and well worth the read this Friday night!

    Personally for me it depends on the voice actors. There are some voice actors I enjoy and some I don’t on both sides. I generally like the Japanese voice acting style but there have been many English voice actors who have blown me away. For example I CANNOT watch the dub of Fairy Tale or Naruto. The majority of voice actors for that show annoy the snot out of me for the dub while the voices of the sub have been casted to perfection. On the other hand I love the English voice actors for Cowboy Bebop and Ouran High School Host Club. The voice actors totally nailed it in my opinion. I have to agree with Jeko a lot goes into this preference. So sit back and read a great post. Don’t forget to comment below with your opinion!

    Also if you would like to check out more of Jeko’s work just click on his name or the website above because I have included the links.

    Have a great Friday!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for letting me reblog this for GrimmGirl! This was a really good post. I tend to prefer the sub version because I tend to like the voice acting better. There have been a few dub versions where their acting was great and they were able to win me over.

    Liked by 1 person

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