A word, if I may, about dubbing. I would truly like to believe that we now live in an age where near-instant streaming, dual language physical media existing as the norm, and an increased sense of globalization intermingling cultures freely with one another, means that we can at last move past the torrential debate of whether subtitled or dubbed programming is more worth watching. But I also like to think we live in a basically ordered universe powered by some manner of beneficent entity, so my idealism blinders are rather strong.
While there’s many an argument on both sides that amounts to little more than shrillness disguised as a desperate bid for legitimacy, the best case I’ve heard against dubbed performances is that they’re disrespectful to the original intent of the director or the performer. And, while I think there’s some shades of grey to the statement, it’s something I’d like to parse a bit – because while there will always be paycheck-scumming performances, there are just as many where the actor put their heart and soul into their part of the final product. Is it then disrespectful to those actors to make the original language track a sort of ‘second choice’ when the show comes to foreign shores, an extra that the casual viewer might not even think to turn to?
Well, yes and no (a yes and no that stems from my experience with the American distribution system, though to my knowledge the basic principles for more modern releases are the same). It’s always sat badly with me that if a foreign film or series offers an English dub, nine times in ten that will be the default track on the disc. It strikes me as a leftover of the days when the 4kids mentality (that the intended audience is too stupid to understand and accept cultural differences in their media) was a rather stomach churning commonality. And if I wanted to be cynical, I’d say that that’s fallen by the wayside less because of faith in the public at large and more because the industry has withered into a few mega-giants (Funimation and Viz, with small-time outliers like Nozomi, Discotek, and bane-of-my-consuming-existence Aniplex USA) that know how to cater to a much smaller niche audience. But that’s neither here nor there. I come not to bury anime dubs, but to (after a fashion) praise them.
Let us first rule out over-dubbing of live-action features. While there are certainly cases where it would be beneficial (and here I am thinking largely of the visually impaired), this is the area where I think the ‘discredit to the actor’ theory holds the most weight. Live action film isn’t just to do with the performer’s voice, after all – their entire body is part of the performance as well, each moment of physicality playing in tandem with their vocal performance. Can you imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without that haunting voice attached? In such a case the actor is putting themselves wholly into the character, leaving a piece of themselves indelibly within the world of the film.
Animation, though, is a different story. Speaking of the Joker, how about Mark Hamill? For a lot of us he’s the most iconic performance of the character, the one we all hear in our heads. But he was actually brought in to replace Tim Curry in the role, overdubbing several episodes of finished animation before he could really begin shaping the role in earnest. That’s a case where one actor did effectively erase the other, with Tim Curry’s performance lost to history (and word from Hamill and Kevin Conroy praised it as rather a good performance, at that). But you’d never know if someone hadn’t told you, so well does Hamill insinuate himself into the world of those early episodes. And while that was an unusual case for him, since western animation is usually done alongside or after voice work being recorded, in anime it’s just the way things are. Rare is the case where the actor comes in without completed animation to work against. While they add layers of depth to the character without question, there is an inherent element that exists even before the original actor is put in place.
With that in mind, it’s more fitting to compare anime dubs to theatrical productions than it is any other field of dubbing. In theatre, a script sort of exists in a nebulous state. There’ll usually be an original production, sometimes unmemorable and sometimes iconic enough that it cements a mindset for how a story ‘should’ be told. In the case of the latter you wind up with situations like touring casts of Broadway hits, where replacement actors are often encouraged to mimic the performance of the initial performer. Other productions might do a fairly straightforward staging of the play – in other words, they put on stage what’s explicitly called for in the directions or what the script most obviously suggests. These’ll be your historical-dress Shakespeares so often plaguing high school, wizards at turning great poetry into an unparalleled sleep aid. And then you’ll have the riskier endeavors, one that attempt to bring a new or radically different interpretation that tries to coax new layers of meaning out of the work.
To use a perhaps overly convoluted example that I love deeply, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a revue-style story (narrator and all) about the various presidential assassins of American history. The original staging calls for the increasingly catty balladeer (not impressed with the historical quality of the killers – have you ever heard of Charles Guiteau, after all?) to be run off stage by the assassins. The story of Lee Harvey Oswald then proceeds without narration, and serves to be the national Moment the other characters wanted to create. He becomes a figure of purpose. This is well enough for the play’s very bleak exploration of American entitlement, that urge that calls us all to be Somebody. The revival didn’t just cast Neil Patrick Harris as the balladeer, it made him Oswald as well. With one simple change in casting, the story goes from rejecting the given historical narrative to transforming that narrator into the most famous of assassins in a way that makes a raw nerve of the play’s transition from witty-anecdotes-of-history to raw madness and grief spread out from one warped idea of the American dream (born of the figure representing America’s history). It’s a subtle change that doesn’t make any major alterations to the script, not so gung ho as doing noir Hamlet or staging Sweeney Todd in a mental institution. But it makes the show better, time and outside perspective giving greatness to something that was already good.
At its best, that’s what dub actors and directors try to do. They take a piece of animation, fully formed as a script might be, and try to avoid their own redundancy. Sometimes this means trying to faithfully recreate the scripts and sound of the Japanese version, at the risk of becoming a bit wooden from one language to the next (Gundam 00, X); some radically change the script in the belief that an older theme or comic style won’t suit the newfound audience, which ranges from the arguable success of Hetalia (which at least obviously came from a true enthusiasm for the material on the writers’ part and determination to communicate the intent of the material, if an entirely bluer tone of comedy) to the total atrocity that is Future Diary’s dub script; and the very best are able to loosen the dialogue enough to breathe, to add their own touch while retaining or even improving on the spark brought to the material by the original crew. We call that dub Baccano!, and may everything else strive to live up to its level of quality (which not only adds the brilliant color of actual 30s style dialogue but out and out tops the Japanese cast, nowhere more evidently than in Bryan Massey’s gleeful turn as Ladd Russo).
Magnificent, beginning to end
Most of the time what you end up with is a mixed bag: a Death Note where Alessandro Juliani’s L is matched only by Mamoru Miyano’s Light, a naturalistic sounding Paradise Kiss versus a more theatrical one (and here we get into the issue of how difficult it is to discuss acting talent in a language that is not your own, a subject for another day), or a mostly competent cast blotted by one spectacularly wrong voice a la Vic Mignogna in Ouran High School Host Club (every day I am thankful that we’ve moved into an era where that man only works parts that suit him rather than whichever one he decided he liked that week). And in the age where nine times in ten the Japanese actor will be a viewer’s first experience with the character, dubs exist as little more than fun comparative diversions or exciting rediscoveries of something you already loved. Put another way: Russell Crowe might’ve been the most gawdawful Javert I’ve ever heard, but that’s a moment’s agony compared to an eternity of Philip Quast on my iPod.