Japanese Animation: A Brief History and Tips for Dubbing Anime

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Anime, also known as Japanese animation, is a major cultural export from Japan that has had and continues to have a strong international influence. From Astro Boy in the 1960s to the massively successful animated feature Your Name in 2017, Japanese animation is in great demand around the world, therefore so is anime subtitling and dubbing.

In this blog we will focus on anime dubbing by first giving some historical context and then sharing key tips and reminders for dubbing Japanese animation into English.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

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The Growth of Japanese Anime in the U.S.

“Anime” (アニメ) is the Japanese term for “animation”, but outside of Japan, it refers to animation from or associated to Japan. The earliest work of anime that became popular in the U.S. was Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu), created by the “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. Centered on a lovable android boy, the series was shown on NBC from 1963 to 1965, thanks to a deal made by American producer Fred Ladd. 104 episodes were dubbed into English and Astro Boy became a hit in the US which opened the gates for other shows like Kimba the White Lion (also created by Tezuka) and Speed Racer in the late 1960s. The second wave in the 1970s brought the spaceship epics Battle of the Planets and Star Blazers, then in the 1980s came the complex space drama Robotech and rising popularity for Japanese animated films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa (1984) and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988). Akira presented a gritty, violent vision of the future and showed how anime could be for adults, not just kids.

The 1990s saw anime break into the mainstream with popular children friendly shows Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokemon. The 90s also saw mature themed anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in a Shell, and Cowboy Bebop  all three considered masterpieces of the genre that dealt with depression, the nature of consciousness, and facing one’s past. Anime has since grown in popularity and the break-out hit Your Name (2017) became the highest grossing anime film of all time at $357.9 million dollars worldwide. This financial success is in part due to Your Name‘s English dubbing which is hailed by critics as being incredibly well done. What did they do right?

 

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Tips for English Dubbing of Anime

An important tip in doing voice-over for Japanese animation is having an understanding of the culture such as Japanese ideas of social responsibility and etiquette. For instance, a student speaking in a casual tone to a teacher is considered delinquent behavior in Japan whereas in the U.S. that may be considered kids just being kids. To keep with the intention of the source material, the American dubbing team would have to adapt the voice-over and/or the script with coarser language, rougher word choices, etc… in order to paint the character as a delinquent for US audiences.

It’s also important not to fall into the trap of playing the result. Dubbing, not just for anime but for foreign films as well, has received a bad rap in the past for being too melodramatic. As Your Name voice actor Michael Sinterniklaas shares, whether its acting in a film or voice acting for anime, playing the result of sad or angry or any other emotional result (i.e. results oriented acting) can lead to over-dramatic, cartoonish performances. It’s better to understand the intention and the motivation of the characters to create more nuanced voice performances.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the animation helps inform the character: the way a character is designed, their expressions, their movement, etc…can be a great resource for voice actors to build their performance. Stephanie Sheh, the other main dubbing star of Your Name, shares that whatever body position her character appears on screen, she takes on the same position. So if her character is hanging from a tree, she’ll reach out her arms as if hanging from a tree, if they have their hands on their hips, she would do the same when delivering the lines. This helps build a connection with the character. 

Even before getting into the recording booth, a successful English dub for anime relies on skilled translators to translate the original Japanese script. During this process, great care should be taken to retain the spirit of the original while also making creative choices to adapt the script; what may make perfect sense for Japanese audiences can cause confusion for American audiences. This may be due to the fact that Japanese is considered a high context culture where the meaning of the spoken words are dependent on the relationship between the speaker and listener, body language, the social setting, etc… In contrast, English speaking countries generally have a low context culture, where the meaning is more explicit and direct in the spoken language. As such, the translation team must work closely with the client to clarify any linguistic ambiguity or decide what to purposely leave as is.

 

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The Art of Dubbing

One argument that has been made against the English dubbing of anime is that it is not faithful to the Japanese source material. This was an issue brought up in the new English dubbing of Neon Genesis Evangelion where fans felt certain relationships were altered. However, others have found that the English dubbing of anime, when done well, can be an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience. Cowboy Bebop, centered around space bounty hunters Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein, is considered one of the best English dubs in anime history, with the series composer Yoko Kanno saying to the English language director, Our Spike, good. Your Spike… sexy!” This exchange shows that the dubbing process can add another level of artistic interpretation to the source material and can be an experience in itself.


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