On the Sub vs. Dub Debate

I am passionate about voice acting. I have always admired the work of voice actors both Japanese and Western. And in all of anime fandom there is one battle that is the most contentious and that is the sub vs. dub debate. Now, for those unaware the sub and dub debate is rooted in a simple yet vitally important aspect of watching anime: these shows are a Japanese import and thus have to be translated. Which brings us to how you process that translation from Japanese to English: do you sub it (translate the work and show it with the original Japanese voice acting and subtitle it) or do you dub it (translate the work and dub it over with English voice actors). 

This sounds simple and back in my day, it was fairly easy. Either you had a friend in Japan who was sending you DVDs from Japan or you waited for a company to dub and/or translate the work (manga and/or anime). Companies like Viz, Funimation, Geneon, Sunrise and far too many others have made their entire business by bringing anime and manga to American fans legally (yes, legally). Now, a fun aspect of ye olden days was the glory of the fansub and the fandub. That’s when fans took the act of translation into their own hands and even the voice acting lending their own voices and skills and talents to “expedite” the sometimes long process of bringing a series over from Japan. These translations weren’t always the best and the voice acting wasn’t always the best but hey, we did our best with what we had.

Now, why is there a debate on what really should just be a matter of choice? Well, this is the internet and this is fandom. There must be battle. For purists, sub is the only way to go. There is a group of fans who rather like English dubbing and we are a mostly defensive group because of the honestly, elitism, that comes from a lot of the pro sub community. Now, as far as sub fans go, the series that are translated from Japanese more directly face less censorship which is true and not true. If the property comes in legally from a company like Viz or Funimation even if it is subbed, the series often still faces censorship. Funimation has hilariously edited out parts of Axis Powers Hetalia and far too many other series to list. For many, subbing is the purest essence of anime and honestly, yeah, that’s true in lots of cases. Japanese is a tricky language and so many puns and words and clever uses of language just don’t translate. Devilman Crybaby and Sarazanmai are recent examples that I can think of but my classic example is YuYu Hakusho which was just doing its best with all the Japanese humor and puns. And I get it, there are plenty of bad dubs out there. One of my favorite anime of all time, Gravitation, has one of the worst dubs in human history (it’s my trash pile and I will die here) because this was just not a cast that could handle the complexity of Japanese names or emoting at all. Censorship is a particularly big sticking point because many anime fans grew up during the great 4Kids nonsense of the 90s and early 2000s. For those that do not know, 4Kids was a company that strived to bring anime to the U.S. but make it…well, for kids. A lot of anime is not geared at children or at least not the stuff we wanted to see like Naruto and One Piece were not suitable for delicate American children so 4Kids censored stuff but not with any nuance or delicacy but with a blunt force that practically removed the point for the censorship at all. Remember in Ruroni Kenshin when after a blade slash the whole frame would cut to black? Remember all the bloodless attacks in InuYasha and oh Sanji’s lollipops in One Piece because smoking is the true evil, not his womanizing. Sailor Moon was also famously neutered by 4Kids ruining several lesbian romances and labeling them as cousins or just as friends (a continued issue for CLAMP series like CardCaptors and remaining Sailor Moon seasons). 4Kids, in my opinion, did have a noble mission. As I stated earlier, most of the anime that we wanted to see in the U.S. was not meant for young children and we do not/ did not have the same cultural background or even social contracts that allowed for kids to watch fast kicking blonde men smoke or gallons of blood leave a dead demon. But how it was done was so bad and left such a bad taste in fan’s mouths after we learned what the real show was meant to be (fun fact, I was SHOCKED by how violent InuYasha was when I picked up a DVD copy). But to be fair, without 4Kids, I likely would never have had anime in my bubble. I’m a suburban black kid, Sailor Moon was absolutely something that was important to be and DragonBall was what got me into anime to start. 

But back to sub and dub as really, the politics of bringing anime over from Japan could be a whole other blog post. I fell in love with anime due to the fact that several series at the time were being dubbed into English and I cannot credit that accessibility enough. And even though the 90s had some trash dubs (even though I do have a soft spot for Sanji’s horrible Jersey accent) when I was really coming into anime, we had some of the best and brightest American voice actors and some of the best and most dedicated translation staff imaginable. 

I want to keep this particular part of the post that focuses on the good set during the Golden Age of Anime (2002-2010). This Golden Age was when I came into anime, when I solidified my fandom and had the more reverence for voice acting and dub work. 

It was this Golden Age that made me realize that dubbing and American voice acting was amazing. Fullmetal Alchemist was one of the earliest ones that made me realize the true talent of American voice actors and when a cast is good, it’s damn good (I’m not here to talk about what happened with Dirty Uncle Vic and honestly, yes it does sour some of the show but not enough to make me hate this dub as the true art form that it is) but it really took seeing a sub to appreciate how good dubbing could be. The two examples I have for that are Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, now folks have gushed enough about Bebop and while Steve Blum is amazing and deserves all of the credit he gets for bringing Spike to life I want to focus on Trigun a little more since I don’t see this one talked about as much. Now, Masaya Onasaka does an amazing job as Vash and he goes on to voice one of my favorite anime characters of all time, France in Axis Powers Hetalia, so I’m not dinging his talent but Johnny Yong Bosch does something in this role that’s just amazing. Bosch brings a frantic energy to Vash that just fits this goofy, larger than life character and it made me appreciate his hard work so much more. 

During the height of the Golden Age of Anime, I could list voice actors like some could list athletes: Travis Willingham, Spike Spencer, Yuri Lowenthal, Tara Strong, Steve Blum, Kyle Hebert, Sonny Strait, Kirby Morrow, Monica Rial, Chris Sabat and of course the names I listed above and too many others were all names I could clock in an instant. I relished in knowing American voice actors by name and role and respected the choices companies made when it came to translation and distribution. The dark days were over, we could all see a bright future. 

But that started to change around 2012…

In the next post, we’ll talk about my changing relationship with dubs, my new appreciation of subs and how American voice acting changed.