Anyone else feel like beating their own head in with a cinder block?
I've long pondered the mystery of the Dub Wars, and I've come to some realizations about what started them and how it all works. Why do people think English voice acting is so often inferior? Really, this goes for all English voice acting, not just dubs, but dubs are what I'll focus on.
First, some disclaimers. As of yet, I have not provided voice work for an anime. I would love to add such to my resume, but all I have to go on now are my experiences in other forms of voice acting and my knowledge and hearsay of how the dubbing process works. Maybe years down the road when I have dubbing under my belt, I will write a follow-up piece. Additionally, I am no certified philosopher or historian; much of this is my own observation. For now, take this as my personal perspective, some food for thought if you will, and use it to further your own understanding of the Dub Wars.
So. Why do people think English voice acting is automatically inferior to Japanese voice acting?
#1: EARLY ANIME-VIEWERS WERE BURNED BY AWKWARD LOCALIZATION, AND THEY'RE NOT EAGER TO GIVE IT A SECOND CHANCE
Years ago, anime was a niche. It's still considered sort of a subculture today, but prior to the turn of the millennium, it was somewhere between D&D and pocket protectors in terms of nerdiness. It was an unknown frontier, and as a result, western dubbing studios were often horribly under-funded and under-staffed, bearing little experience as to what a western audience wanted and how to translate the wackiness of anime into a format that audience would understand and enjoy.
I'll expound on that point in a bit - the transition between Japanese and English acting styles - but let's focus on the lack of experience right now. What do you do when you're dubbing Speed Racer and the character is waving his arms around like a lunatic, screaming until he's practically frothing at the mouth and bleeding from the nose, colorful lines streaming around his wide-eyed face...and you're expected to present an English audience with this and say, "Here is something relatable and perfectly understandable, please enjoy"? As you're pondering this, sitting in your run-down studio office, you look at your budget for that month and realize you don't have the money, time, or resources to hire Morgan Freeman fresh off The Shawshank Redemption, or another consultant to help you localize this scene accurately. You also realize that, because this sort of thing is so new and therefore there's no precedent, your only option is to throw casting and directing choices at the wall and see what sticks. You ALSO also realize that the internet doesn't exist yet, so you can't just ask about it online.
So what do you do?
You try your darnedest to write zany dialogue and encourage your actors to ham it up just like the original Japanese actor, and my goodness, is it wooden and awkward.
Anime localization has gotten a lot better in this regard, but the early days of shows like Dragon Ball Z were often plagued with that problem of translating the wackiness of anime into something an English audience would appreciate. Now that people have been there and done that, localization's improved, and we know what techniques work better. At the time, I think a lot of people saw that corny zaniness and laughed it off as awful acting. That image is still fresh in their minds, and therefore, they're biased against dubbing in general, even when, in reality, it's not that bad.
#2: JAPANESE SOUNDS FOREIGN AND EXOTIC TO UNTRAINED EARS, ENGLISH IS JUST ORDINARY TO US
If you speak English as your first language, then English is inherently ordinary and normal. Other cultures and languages are just so weird and exotic in comparison. If you adore Japan (perhaps more than you should...) then it's not a stretch to say you probably hold a bias toward its language and enjoy listening to it more than other languages. So when you put Japanese acting and English acting side-by-side, the winner is easy, right? Japanese is just so much cooler, whereas English is...ordinary. I think this is partly why a lot of people get lost when listening to English dubs. Japanese sounds cool and exotic, and English is pancakes without syrup, or ice cream without topping. On a related note...
#3: WE UNDERSTAND ENGLISH BUT NOT JAPANESE, SO WE IDENTIFY FLAWS IN ENGLISH ACTING BUT MISS THEM IN JAPANESE
If you don't speak a language fluently, it's hard to know where inflections should go or what, in general, it should sound like. If a Japanese voice actor speaks in a flat monotone, we eat it up anyway because we have no frame of reference - we don't know what it's actually supposed to sound like. If an English voice actor tries it, we throw virtual tomatoes at them for sounding boring and lifeless, even if, in fact, it's simply realistic. (Metroid: Other M, anyone?). If Japanese acting does feature any flaws, it's easy to gloss over because we don't know what to compare it to. In English, it's harder to forgive.
I've heard the argument saying "You can sense emotion in any language!" And that is true. You can sense emotion in a language you don't understand. It is far harder to understand intent. Someone who doesn't speak English may listen to me make awkward pauses and inflections while sounding very passionate and come to the conclusion that I'm a brilliant actor, even though any English-speaker would know everything I did was forced. There's a similar dilemma with people who don't speak Japanese (or any foreign language). We don't know what it's supposed to sound like naturally, so we assume because it's so "passionate" that it's superior to all other forms of acting.
#4: JAPANESE VOICE ACTING OFTEN LIKES BEING OVER-THE-TOP; ENGLISH VOICE ACTING USUALLY PREFERS SUBTLETY
Meet Nobuyuki Hiyama. I will pick on this man for the sake of this segment.
Hiyama is a very successful Japanese voice actor (or seiyuu) who's been in a wide variety of anime and games over the years; you might best know him as the voice of Link in Ocarina of Time. How can you tell you're listening to Nobuyuki? Well, you see, it's quite simple: wait for your ears to start bleeding and the glass on your TV or computer to crack.
Hiyama has some of the most incredible vocal range and power I have ever heard from a human being. His screams are legendary, and he hits pitches that would leave my voice in tatters for a week. He's experienced, he's talented, and he's one of a kind.
The one caveat: I don't believe his performances. Not when he's screaming loud enough to wake the dead, anyway.
Now now, lower your pitchforks and I'll explain. Hiyama is an amazingly talented actor, but to me, he's the radical embodiment of Japan's approach to voice acting, which is to say, "Give 1,010% or go home." There's no denying Japanese voice actors routinely give it their all while performing, but considering most of us don't understand Japanese and therefore can't tell how it "should" sound, we're often led to believe they're almost superhuman in their talents because come on, did you hear how loud he screamed?! But when I listen to this sort of thing, as much as I respect the talent, I don't buy the performance. It sounds like an irrationally-excited person with a carefully honed and trained voice having the presence of mind to be loud and epic, where you'd think he'd react like, you know, a normal human being.
So we compare this over-the-top Japanese, which we think is exotic because we don't understand it, to the substantially more laidback English, which we think is ordinary because we speak it fluently. Within that contrast, it looks like English actors just don't get as into their performances. More than one person has criticized the famous scene of Zelda crying in the latest English Breath of the Wild trailer, calling it fake and not as passionate as the original Japanese, and while it may not pack that immediate emotional punch the original version did, what it is, is realistic. Based solely on that brief clip (and bear in mind, it IS only a brief clip, devoid of context at this moment), I prefer the Japanese version myself. (Actually, the Italian version is my personal favorite, but again, it's a 3-second clip out of context.) Is the English version bad? No. Far from it. It's quite good. It just doesn't involve screaming.
So often, I feel like Japanese voice acting is a contest to see who can sound the loudest, or the toughest, or the cutest, and not an effort to just portray characters in a believable light. Again, Japanese voice actors are an amazingly talented bunch who get the characters spot-on most of the time, but it's a feature of their acting style that shouldn't go unnoticed. Most dubbed anime with a budget these days also feature excellent acting; it just sounds more toned-down in comparison because, well, it is. Western audiences are more used to that sort of acting. That doesn't make one better than the other. It just makes them different.
Wait a minute..."budget"? That's still a factor? Why yes.
#5: DUBBING IS HARD WORK FOR LITTLE PAY, SO SMALLER STUDIOS AND PROJECTS MAY HAVE TO TAKE WHAT THEY CAN GET
It shouldn't be a surprise that dubbing is hard - you have to match lip flaps, remember the director's guidance, use good microphone technique, look between the script and screen, memorize words, and still give off a believable performance with a character that may or may not be acting realistically to begin with. All this for some of the least pay in the industry.
When you can't afford the dubbing giants who could do this sort of thing in their sleep (i.e. Crispin Freeman, Monica Rial), you turn to the next best option: talented, enthusiastic actors who have no idea what dubbing is like. (If no real budget exists, the localization team usually does it. That's why so many dubs in foreign countries are so poorly received; literally, the localization team had to do it themselves, not paid actors.) If I may be so narcissistic, I'd like to think I'm at least a half-decent actor, but if I had to go into a studio tomorrow and dub over an anime, I would totally bomb it. It's hard to make everything perfect when new blood is doing something so difficult.
That's why through my experience, "most dubbed anime with a budget," as I put it not long ago, is brilliantly acted. We'd be here awhile if I listed all the examples I could think of: Fullmetal Alchemist/Brotherhood, Cowboy Bebop, Fooly Cooly, Hellsing/Ultimate, Gurren Lagann, Death Note, the list goes on. When an anime has to hire people not used to juggling so many balls, the quality can suffer somewhat. Honestly, the only anime whose acting I've taken any issue with is Hakuoki, which just seems a little...wooden at times. I don't know what the circumstances surrounding that are, but my point is, bigger anime feature more experienced actors, and cheaper anime might have to settle. If you've been watching nothing but low-budget anime, it's no wonder you'd think English voice acting is surely subpar.
#6: PEOPLE STILL HOLD ENGLISH VOICE ACTORS TO A DOUBLE-STANDARD
While anime localization has progressed mightily, it's still haunted by a persistent double-standard. If the voice actors emulate the wacky shenanigans of their Japanese counterparts, they're written off as awkward try-hards (because let's face it, much of this Japanese exaggerated acting and writing just doesn't work in English). If they try a more subtle approach, they're denounced as dry, wooden, and boring because they don't sound as "into" their performances as the Japanese. Either way, they're considered inferior. It's kind of hard to win. People mock the English dub of Attack on Titan, but there wasn't much they could do - it features a lot of exaggerated scenes, and Funimation's actors were caught in that double-standard.
It's the reason you mock some English dubs for sounding overwrought or fake. They're just trying to emulate the style of the Japanese. It may not be their fault, though...
#7: PEOPLE HAVE BEEN TRAINED TO THINK ALL ENGLISH VOICE ACTORS ARE INFERIOR, AND IT'S HARD TO CHANGE THEIR MINDS
Like a child who's convinced himself he hates vegetables despite never eating them, I think a lot of people don't bother trying to read into performances by English voice actors because they've been culturally trained to expect bad things. Part of this may stem from my first point: they've been burned by awkward localization before, and the sour taste lingers. However, members of the otaku community like to feel important and accepted, just like anyone else, so much like the hate that usually gets lumped onto a new trend, people go with the flow and choose to hate English acting because it makes them feel accepted or enlightened in their communities. In fact, the reverse is also true to an extent: people claiming that Japanese acting is awful, even though it's usually excellent as well. They want to be accepted by a different group, or at least look enlightened, and so they cling to that opinion without thinking too hard on it.
If all your anime-watching friends are mocking English voice acting, then it's easy to just shrug your shoulders and agree, and far harder to actually analyze the performances you're hearing and ask yourself if they're reasonable and realistic. Dubbing does have its issues, as I've said, but by and large, it's skillfully done. Many an anime fan has simply closed their heart to believing otherwise, because changing a long-held stance is tough.
IN CONCLUSION: IS JAPANESE ACTING OR ENGLISH ACTING BETTER?
The anticlimactic, but probably expected answer is neither. Both are doing the best they can given their culture's expectations and industry standards, and both have nuances that appeal more to some people than others. If you like the overall "bigness" of Japanese voice acting, watch your subs. If you want something more down-to-earth that you can understand without translation, don't feel ashamed of watching dubbed. And furthermore, don't mock the other side for their decision, and don't mock the hard work and effort that goes into voice acting on either side of the pacific ocean. Japanese actors and directors probably have enough talent and experience to know what they're doing, and the same goes for westerners. Industry shortcomings may create some stumbling blocks, but we're still dealing with hard work and skill.
In the meantime, the next time you hear an English voice actor at work, ask yourself this: does the delivery make sense, given the context? Doesn't matter if you expected something "bigger." Does. It. Fit? Ask yourself honestly, and answer honestly. You may be surprised how often the answer is yes.