Linguistics of dubs


As I had mentioned in my last post, I was away from Vancouver during New Years. I got back a week ago, and I’ve been trying to integrate myself back into the normal routine of things: school, work, volunteering, music, and anime. There were both pros and cons about the trip, but one con that turned out to be a pro was having my phone taken away. Looking at the mountains instead of screens all day was probably good for my eyes and my stress response. But still, the first few days of camp were embarrassingly rough. I was clearly upset, and I even had mild withdrawal-like symptoms as I found myself desperately trying to playback the Monogatari series’ OP in my head as I tried to fall asleep. Granted, this had been my sleeping habit for most of December. And along with music and anime, I also could not do my usual journals. This sucked the most because it’s these frustrations and anxiety that I would use Evernote for. Of course, I tried using pen and paper but that was not an alternative I enjoyed using. But whatever, like I said, I eventually realized that this detox from technology was much needed. I’m not someone who is constantly on their phone, but it was evident that I had become very dependant on it. Being away from my phone allowed me to develop other sober thoughts that I would not normally be able to have.

And so by the time I got my phone back, I didn’t even go straight into listening to anime music like I had thought I would. In fact, as I later listened to the Monogatari series’ OP on the bus ride back home, I felt a hint of foreignness to it. This might be because I was only exposed to music like Shut Up and Dance and Don’t Stop Believing all throughout the weekend, but it also seemed like I had lost some of the deep emotional attachment to the series I had before going on the trip. I don’t know whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, but it definitely gave me an opportunity to look at anime differently. I think being able see something that’s become so normal and natural to you in a more objective light can be an important experience as it allows for a new perceptions that I think ultimately leads to a better understanding of it. And when I’m trying to understand my own feelings, I’ll take as much objectivity I can get.

I’ll now get into the topic of today’s post. On the charter bus, there were these 14″ screens set up to play DVDs. No one had anything prepared on the way to RockRidge, but as for the trip back, someone had purchased a movie called Kubo and the Two Strings at a gas station. My friend Noah who sat beside me on the bus told me that he had seen this movie before and that he quite enjoyed it. To briefly introduce Noah, he is one of those well spoken individuals that I can’t help but feel jealous of when I hear him talk. He was reading a photography philosophy book on the way there and I think that this picture of him says a lot. From spending the weekend with Noah, I’ve come to value and respect his opinions, especially when it comes to (contemporary) art.

To talk about the movie, I’ll start by giving the movie a numerical rating of 5/10. I distinctly remember fighting the urge to go back to listening to my anime music multiple times throughout the movie, but I stuck with most of it because I wanted to know why Noah liked it. I was looking forward to discussing the differences in our tastes and preferences because it’s things like this that help further develop relationships and lead to better understandings of each other.

Well to be fair, the aspect of the movie that Noah appreciated the most was in its production. By production, Noah meant the movie’s blend of claymation and CG animations. And I have to agree, the animation certainly had a unique characteristic to it and the work that went into producing it was apparent. But I had to ask, was it worth the effort? Of course, watching the movie in the setting that I was in, there was no way that I would have been able to appreciate it. But although the aesthetic outcome of the film is interesting and admirable, I had 2 glaring issues: the characters and the dubbing.

From the start, I couldn’t get myself to care about the characters. So nothing in the rest of the movie resonated with me. Not being cute is one thing, but the characters were not shown to have any inherently attractive qualities about them — they felt flat. On top of this, the narrative flow of the story seemed like this movie was meant for 6 years olds. I feel that many kids movies and shows do this. The stories feel like a dumbed down version of reality that omits information that would otherwise help you relate and connect with the characters. And I’m not saying that the story-telling in anime is perfect either, but I would argue that for the most part, anime better acknowledges kids’ capability to understand emotions like joy and pain. Having said that, I fully enjoyed shows like Babar and Paddington and movies like Inside Out and Zootopia.

Okay, so the other problem I had with the movie I mentioned was in the dubbing. To be accurate, this movie is not a dub, since the movie is originally voice acted in English. But I got the same feeling I get when I watch dubs — it felt awkward and down right silly at times. And this made the characterizations worse.

I was told at the end that the movie is “inspired by Japanese culture”. I’m not saying that it was cultural appropriation or anything but this production is non-Japanese people making a story about Japanese culture. I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert of Japanese culture, but I was so frustrated when it was obvious that the movie failed to capture the heart of the culture completely.

For example, to me, the monkey character’s voice was reminiscent of something like a fairy being that appears in front of fountains in a video game. She sounded deep and rather distant to humans in general and she had this tone of knowing much more than a mere human is capable of knowing. Apply this to a mother figure and the movie loses its relational intimacy and warmth between the characters. More over — and maybe this is simply unavoidable — I think the feelings inside language was not translated well into English.

To highlight this issue, let’s say that I was talking to a man on the street who is a stranger. Later on, I would refer to this person as an 아저씨 [ajeossi] if I were speaking in Korean, whereas in English, I would probably just refer to him as a guy or a stranger. 아저씨 is a relational word that you would use to call your dad’s friend, your mailman, or just about any guy who is clearly older than you. So in Korean, there are these relational words built into the language, thus creating these unspoken but clearly existing relational bonds within the framework of the society. And I’d assume that it’s more or less the same in Japanese, like with おじさん [ojisan]. This is why the language of the movie was a problem for me. The monkey, in Korean, would have definitely been conceptualized as an 아줌마 [ajumma] (female equivalent of 아저씨) to the audience, as opposed to this weird monkey lady thing. So in this way, I felt that a lot of the intimacy in the characters’ relationships were lost. I realize that the movie is meant for an American audience, but if Japan is the setting, I don’t think that it’s an unfair expectation to have.

These aspects of story-telling, portraying the warmth and intimacy of human relationships, as well as verisimilitude, is essential to me when it comes to art or entertainment. I realized that this is one of the biggest reasons as to why I love anime, because it showcases both the cultural and adolescent nostalgia to me. It’s also why, when I seriously thought about it, porn is such a emotionless and dead experience. It’s actually not erotic at all.

I’m not sure if this post made sense but I wanted to explain this disjointed feeling I have towards anime, and my own culture as a whole. When I look at anime, it’s both familiar and foreign. And the way I see it, there are these feelings that I feel from anime that are simply not present in Western culture. This is one of the reasons why I used to feel so isolated while exploring anime, I felt that the deep and emotional connection I had with anime would never be able to truly be understood by the people in Canada. I’ve seriously wondered if it’s possible for cultures to really understand each other.

But as I think back to the subtle foreignness I experienced on the bus ride — which has long gone by — I believe that people will be able to adapt and even embrace the foreignness if they are shown the genuineness and the humanity behind it. For years, I used to ask myself this question: is anime weird? Is it good or bad? Well, I found peace in Philippians 4:8: “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I found anime to be able to narrate and bring to life some of the most heartwarming emotions and genuine human experiences to story-telling. And if it’s anything, it’s the love in stories or our actions that supersede language and culture.

If you want to explore more of the topic of translations, Beneath the Tangles has a whole column on it called Lost in Translation. And Digibro, whom I look up to, has a video called Video About My Stance On Dubs That I Apparently Somehow Haven’t Made Already where he talks about… well the title should be pretty self-explanatory.


Image is a screenshot from Carnival Phantasm E04