Make Voice Actors Sing Again

There was one point in my extended complaining about the sub vs. dub debate that didn’t fit neatly into any one category but there’s one place where the sub has always meant a great deal to me and that’s when voice actors really get to have fun either by singing insert, opening or closing themes or the more rare and beautiful art of the drama CD. 

Now, where do I get off “demanding” voice actors become singers? Well, I don’t. I do absolutely think that they’re two different skill sets. I can’t expect a voice actor to sing and I can’t expect a singer to voice act: look at American movies hiring singers and comedians as VO artists assuming that they can do it with oftentimes mixed results. Sometimes we get a Seki Tomokazu who can do both or a Masaya Onasaka who likes taking any chance he can to sing but you can’t always expect for a trained voice over artist to want to be a singer as well. But there is a beautiful power in the moments when that expectation is met. I want to talk about the moments when voice actors using their talents can only add to a piece because I am old and back in my day, such things weren’t as rare. 

If you look at the Bleach drama CDs and character CDs, it was all the voice actors singing their character’s songs (at least, that can be said for the Japanese voice cast) and doing the little skits that made the CDs such a worthwhile buy! Did I need Szayel and Captain Kurotsuchi doing The Science Show? No, but my life is richer for it. Did I need Hanataro Desu? Nope, but I’m so glad to know about my least favorite favorite soul reaper. 

I also really love when voice actors sing opening/closing themes. Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE features a closing theme sung by the Conquest Club and it adds so much more to the narrative when it’s the main villain singing about a long lost relationship because that long lost relationship is (spoiler alert) the crux of the entire plot of the damn show. The same goes for the little insert song in Sarazanmai for getting rid of desire through weird butt stuff: it makes so much more sense that the voice actors sing that song because when the perspective changes (like when it’s Reo trying to save Mabu) it’s so much more valid; it’s his song, his moment. Last example I’ll use is one that’s very fluffy which is Free! because yes, I can tell the difference between all the voice actors and I love the outfits in Splash Free!. It’s just fun. 

Insert and character songs can provide a lot of important information, though, as well as some of the sketches in drama CDs. Its in the drama CDs for Axis Powers: Hetalia that we learn all the countries’ human names and that Prussia lives in Poland’s basement, that England has a tattoo, that Austria is afraid of sea life and so many other facts because I have given up too much of my life to Hetalia knowledge and if I must suffer, you all must suffer, too. Also, stop ignoring France’s birthday, he’s still really sad about it. 

Those CDs are so fun because all the voice actors came back for it and get to tell us this information and seeing it as a DVD extra where it’s just voice actors having fun is inspiring. Hetalia also features something that a lot of newer series have lacked in places where if the country does not match the actor’s country of origin (I’m trying to be polite) that the actor knows enough of that language to make words make sense be it Chinese, French, English or German. Funimation tried their best when they dubbed the series and it was bad. 

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think American voice actors have fun. Here’s where we’re gonna pause because we have to talk about some news.

Initially, when I was writing this post an entire kerfuffle happened over at Funimation where it was found out that some voice actors dubbed over some questionable stuff in character and…well, I’m going to be honest: I’m of two minds about this. The whole reason I wanted to write this post was actually because of a panel I went to with Spike Spencer years ago where he showed a clip of an outtake video he did for Neon Genesis Evangelion where he riffs for a while as Shinji and it’s one of the funniest things to me on the internet. I’ve always admired voice actors having fun. 

So when I first started listening to the Funimation VA nonsense, it didn’t read as that bad. Voice actors do weird stuff like that all the time whether it’s read fanfic or just riff and oftentimes, those clips go into outtakes and are celebrated and praised. 

Here’s where I can agree with the people who were angry post the Funimation VA brouhaha: the content of much of what was dubbed was explicit, crass, politically incorrect and allowed voice actors to use language that is just not acceptable and to discuss themes that are, to be polite, not for everyone. If the content of what was acted offends, I can’t help but understand. Personally, I’ve been on the internet so long that very little shocks me anymore and I mostly just thought it was voice actors having fun: rude and crass fun, but fun. The way it was handled left a lot to be desired and I won’t shame anyone who had a problem with this whole darn affair. Hell, the entire affair put this post on hold.

But I don’t think having fun means being offensive. We could have a whole other post on the fact that people think comedy is dead because of PC culture and this Funimation VA scandal did make me wonder if it was generational. Most of the older fans I knew didn’t have an issue with it; many of us found it funny. It did seem to be younger fans who had a problem with it and maybe its because the newer fans just don’t understood VAs spend too much time in the booth and sometimes that means weird stuff is going to happen. Again, I’m not here to say you aren’t entitled to being offended, but out of all the scandals going on at Funimation, this seemed like one that we didn’t need to focus on.

Some of my favorite convention memories are of me being in costume and reading fanfic in character. Some of my favorite panel moments are watching those outtakes. Some of the information I’ve retained for years has been because voice actors (both Japanese and American) got to have fun for a little while.

I don’t know why American voice actors never really picked up singing. I don’t know why it never really took off: to be honest, I don’t think many of the American voice actors are on the level to handle some of the song chops that the Japanese voice actors do…but there is one example that pains me to discuss because it means talking about Dirty Uncle Vic.

I don’t want to talk about Vic. I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to keep giving him attention and we’ll leave it at I believe all the women who have claimed he’s a monster because it’s what my brothers and sisters in craft have been saying for years. But goddammit, we have to talk about Brothers. Brothers is an insert song in the original Fullmetal Alchemist and when its first sung, it’s in some weird fairy language and you know it’s haunting but unless you find a translation, you don’t know why. So when Vic as Ed translates and sings the song and gives you the powerful lyrics as if they were a ballad or lullaby Ed sings to his brother just…it’s almost too damn good. And you get this song as their childhood home burns and I can absolutely feel all of Ed’s pain. I hate praising Vic but this is good and I have to remove him as a garbage person from the fact that he was pretty much made for this role and literally has done nothing good since then as a voice actor or human person. 

When voice actors sing, it can take a mediocre scene and increase the impact nearly to the max and even if its a little clumsy; it just adds so much more bang for the buck. It’s a worthwhile effort, and one I would love to see return. 

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.