Falling Out of Love with American Voice Acting

In the last post, I spent hundreds of words spewing my love of American voice actors and American voice acting. But I didn’t stop being an anime fan after 2012, no, my appetite for anime may be different than it was when I was a wee little demon but I am still a rabid otaku but my adoration and respect for American voice acting has changed just like my relationship with anime has changed.

So let’s talk about the fall and my newfound appreciation for subbed anime.

2011 brought with it a little show called Attack on Titan which may have the distinction of being the first anime that I just didn’t like. Normally even if I’m not crazy about a series, I can see good in it but AoT did nothing for me and its rabid fanbase of mostly younger fans who had never seen an anime before wore me thin. And out of all the things I don’t like about AoT it was in fact was the rather lackluster voice acting that to me just hallmarked on all the weaknesses of the dialogue and plot. AoT was just the start for me and as I continued on watching anime, a few things changed for me. One, was that I was in college and my tastes had started to change from shows that were being picked up by big studios to shows that weren’t just yet (thus I resorted to the evils of piracy) and the second was that as some series began to be dubbed, I had previously watched the subbed version and the dub finally did not meet my expectations. 

When the horrible 4Kids Sailor Moon is all you know, then sure you accept the horrible Americanized names, the removal of queer characters and the bad voice acting: it’s all you know. So for me, that was how I could rationalize, especially in hindsight, terrible dubs. But I remember watching Hetalia subbed and loving it only to be horrified by the choices Funimation made in the dub. I didn’t really have a frame of reference for that until college and it really started to turn my opinion on newer dubbed series. 

Another factor that I do think matters but doesn’t fit into a neat group is that in the late 2000s is when I was able to give more time and attention to subbed anime. Especially in college, I was willing to set aside time for subbed anime and not having cable fed into my rationale to continue to be a better pirate than Luffy ever was and I could just sit and watch subbed anime and read and gasp in Japanese. To this day, if I have work to do, I will watch a dubbed anime so I don’t have to focus on it or a sub that I can practically recite like Antique Bakery or Maiden Rose. I spent many a college night wrapped in blankets watching subbed anime while on an IM chat with a friend, reacting to episodes that just got leaked in real time and even now in adulthood if I set out to watch an anime, now I go for subbed first because I rarely attempt new anime nowadays so I set that time aside and don’t mind reading. 


While I still have an immense respect for the “old guard” of voice actors, the newer ones seem particularly lazy. And even though “sameness” is a common gripe against American voice actors, usually that sameness is for a reason. Spike Spencer has one voice and he plays similar characters in most shows he’s cast in and thus that one emasculated, tired male voice works. Johnny Yong Bosch has one shonen protag voice and guess what: he plays shonen yelly protags. A lot of Japanese voice actors have a similar sameness including my favorite, Kazuhiko Inoe, but he plays the same character a lot: aloof bad boys that I have unnatural feelings for and thus his similar sounding voice works. Japan does have some amazing chameleon voice actors like Daisuke Namikawa who has ranged from Northern Italy in Hetalia to being a villain in Bleach

The newer guard of American voice actors just seem lazy and it seems that the Japanese voice actors have only been getting better. All that expressiveness and fun and passion that I felt in most dubs I now feel in subs. A great example of that is in Devilman Crybaby (which does not dub well just due to the flow of music and trick of words often used) where due to Netflix deciding to fail for a moment, I was given a glimpse at the dub. For a series that is mostly two men screaming each other’s names, oh boy, do I not buy the two American voice actors caring about what they’re doing at all. It’s just plain lazy and tired and all of the vague threats in Ryo’s voice and subtle kindness in Akira’s voice is entirely lost by two Americans who sound like they simply do not want to be in the booth that day. 

That does not mean I have entirely abandoned dubs. One of my favorites is still somewhat recent but I think it speaks to the bigger issue and that’s Space Dandy. There’s something about Watanabe-sensei’s work that really lends to dubbing because so many of his series are so heavily influenced by Western culture. So it makes sense that a series where a man with excellent hair goes on a weekly Flash Gordon space adventure with a weird little auto-tune robot and a strange alien cat would have the voice if Ian Sinclair doing his best. The whole work just translated better into English and the staff was so stellar that it easily placed itself high on my list of favorite dubs of all time. 

I think bad voice acting reminds me that anime can be a tough sell. Suspension of disbelief is something we’ve talked about a lot over on the blog and a solid performance can help ground  a show back in reality. If you had told me that one of my favorite series of the summer would be about three boys who turn into kappas and the two murder cops trying to kill them I’d laugh at you and I’m a dedicated anime fan, I am not new to obsurdity. But one of the things that kept me in Sarazanmai was the fact that everyone sounded great, even when the singing wasn’t as key as others, you could still buy that these actors cared about the roles they were playing. Especially with the isekai boom, one of the things that really got me turned off on these shows (think of like Sword Art Online) was that the American voice acting sounded so bland for a premise that I already find incredibly boring. If the main character doesn’t sound like he wants to be in this fantastical world, why the hell do I want to watch him on this fantastical journey? 

Voice acting is an art form and I find that I don’t have the same reverence or enthusiasm for Bryce Papenbrook as I do for Eric Vale and that doesn’t mean that the new guard are all full of bad voice acting: I’ve changed, my tastes in anime has changed, a lot has changed and it means that I am now a far more harsh critic than ever. 

If you like these dubs, I’m not here to take that from you. Hell, I still stand by some of the early dubs. And it’s here that I want to talk about one aspect of the new era of dubbing that I’m all too aware of now and that’s how loose some companies play with translation. Especially Funimation is very bad about playing hot and loose with how Japanese is translated and they will throw in jokes and memes that just don’t age well anymore. My biggest gripe for that comes with how one word is translated and that word is aniki.

Aniki, to those in the yakuza, means “older brother” but it’s more than just older brother. There is so much respect, history and more in that word and Funimation, in all their wisdom, translates aniki, consistently, as “bro”. Does one refer to the Emperor as SOME DUDE? One would never refer to their aniki, imoto, ototo, aneki, ani-san or ane-san as something so casual lest they love a finger or their life from the sheer amount of disrespect. 


Dear reader, the first time I heard that in a series, I screamed profanities into my pillow. 

That’s a choice. That’s a translation choice. Funimation has translators. Funimation has been doing this for nearly as long as I have been alive. They know the context behind what that word means. WHY TRANSLATE IT AS SOMETHING SO CASUAL?

It’s a lazy choice. It’s not trusting the audience. It’s being afraid to risk that maybe, just maybe, that the audience won’t care enough to look it up. I remember reading the InuYasha manga as a kid and in the back there was a guide with all the suffixes because I did not, at 12, know what -sama meant. But I was also voraciously curious enough to study suffixes and want to learn more so of course I know what all the yakuza familial terms mean and I am bitterly disappointed every time they are translated as sis or as bro. 

My new issues with the sub vs. dub debate don’t just boil down to lazy voice acting or lazy translations it’s just that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the 90s and 2000s, there were actors that cared so much and you felt every bit of their passion as they learned new languages, new names and more. And I feel that now with subbed VAs, honestly starting with Hetalia. To see how much effort these actors went into learning their country’s languages is just damn inspirational. 

Japanese is a tricky language. I love it most when it’s clever and innuendo and puns don’t translate well, I respect that. But I think you lose something when you don’t bother to translate those moments. In Death Note, Mello refers to Matt as his dog. Not just because of Matt’s loyalty to him but also in Japanese “inu” is a slang term for top in the relationship, the inverse of that being “neko” for bottom. That little moment, that piece that is in some translations but not all speaks so much about their relationship and tells you more about their dynamic than all of the 17 words Matt ends up saying before he’s shot and Mello ruins everything and dies.

I will always respect voice acting: both Western and Japanese. I will always respect those who strive to bring anime and manga into Western audiences legally. Some of the proudest moments I have in all my conventions years have been meeting voice actors. Spike Spencer, Eric Vale, Ian Sinclair and more have made my childhood and my current adulthood. A good voice acting performance can make or break a series and I have been blessed to be exposed to so many wonderful voice acting performances regardless of language. Voice acting is an art and one I admit that I am not professional in, so feel free to take this as one fan pining for the Fjords but it felt appropriate to go over. 

As far as the state of the debate? Well, we’re nerds. We have to have something to argue over. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. There are some dubs I’m willing to die on the hill for and others that I won’t defend as much. As far as subs go, wow, they sure have been great recently. I do think that we can have this conversation about honestly, what boils down to taste and preference, more respectfully; but that’s sort of been my constant feeling about most things on the internet nowadays. I remember getting pretty heavily shamed for liking dubbed anime and being called lazy for enjoying and and thus I perpetuated that negativity calling those who liked subbed snobs. We can all do better as far as how we discuss what are true issues facing anime and manga fandom: translation, censorship, and more.

Thank you for sticking with me through such a post.

I invite thoughtful and kind discussion in the comments below.

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.