Saturday, December 29, 2012

12/29/12 -- "An Unpopular Position: An Appeal to Rationality"

Or "The Post Where I Lose the Rest of What Few Readers I Have"

This post isn't what I had planned for this week. Originally, I was going to talk about the cool stuff I got for Christmas, as I'd gotten enough anime-related goods that it justified a full review post. They weren't strictly all anime, but they were certainly anime-flavored. As such, due to unforeseen circumstances, you've all been spared my biting and poignant analysis of The Rampage of Haruhi Suzumiya.

It was gonna have references to "Night Court" and everything!
You know? Anime!
What I now intend to talk about is something that I ran into over the course of enjoying one of my Christmas presents: An anime entitled Steins;Gate. I started watching the first Blu-Ray release, consisting of the first twelve episodes, and finished it in a couple of days. I immediately bought part two of the FUNimation release, not knowing the disastrous implication of what I was doing. I thought that if I enjoyed something that was bought for me out of love, I could reciprocate that emotion by purchasing the second half of said gift.

It was a little expensive, but that didn't bother me. I had the money to spend after the holidays, and I thought the translation was well-handled, producing a highly recommendable dub experience backed up by quality dubbing. It was a good dub.

But wait...

I thought that the Steins;Gate dub was good, and as we all know, enjoying something that you like is forbidden on the internet. I've only been back in the anime game for a few months now and I certainly have a lot to learn and re-learn, but even I remember vividly the anime community's penchant for viciously lashing out and making knee-jerk reactions, attacking itself like some kind of horrifying autoimmune disorder. In a way, the sub vs. dub debate is the lupus of productive discussion.

Don't worry, this article isn't going to be a sub vs dub treatise where I go about tut-tutting people who prefer subtitled anime while I claim that the dub is infinitely better. As I just said, I think it's really unproductive to argue like that. Instead, I'm going to take a position that possibly nobody will agree with and present this as my thesis:

Subs and Dubs cannot be fairly and objectively compared against one another.

Bear with me here.  Before I started thinking about that statement, my mind was operating from the position of the Steins;Gate anime as being something that should be heard in the native language of the viewer. It's a show about time travel with heavy emphasis on the science behind it. There's a lot of babble talk about "world lines" and "divergence factors" and lots of quick-talking to the extent that that, if left to the mercy of subtitles, there's a lot going on in the show that could easily be missed.

It's not something that can be ignored, either. With shows like Hayate or Working!! you can sort of keep one eye on the text and one eye on the show. Certainly, it'd be better if you spoke the language the show was presented in, but due to the short and sweet pacing of the dialogue, you don't miss out on much in the delay between glances at text and picture. In effect, it really is almost like you're keeping an eye on each aspect of the show. Experienced watchers can almost see the whole picture, reading and watching simultaneously losing naught but half-second increments.

It's also why a lot of anime fans make this face whenever they watch something on TV.
But when you get to something like Steins;Gate it's crucial that you be able to take in the whole thing. Things get very technical very quickly, and if you aren't paying rapt attention to the information being delivered, you are going to miss something important. Even in something like Haruhi Suzumiya, which we can all agree isn't a spectacularly complicated show, there were scenes that I had completely forgotten about or missed the significance of because I'd been dividing my attention between two fields of view as opposed to  focusing on one or the other. In fact, the entire scene where Itsuki explains the anthropic principle to Kyon had gone completely unremembered by yours truly until I saw the dub. There's a difference between reading while watching and watching while listening, an important distinction to make, particularly in the context of differing learning styles and multiple intelligence in individuals.

But again, this isn't what all of this is about. This was just my starting point. My inclination towards the Steins;Gate dub was based on this line of thinking. I began from this point and explored from there. The way I figured it, this was something that had to be taken into account when looking at a series that had as much working against the dub as Steins;Gate did.

But wait...

From where I stood it looked like the better part of the anime community had turned up its nose at the dub, and it had begun with the simple announcement of the dub. That's an important thing to notice, because it raises an interesting point. If a person is resigned to hate something right out of the gate objective critical analysis becomes impossible. This is something that a person has to learn to "turn off" when considering the merits of a work, as I learned when I looked at Sword Art Online. It was a show that had all the symptoms of being something I wouldn't like, but I wound up liking it anyway.

It's analogous to the arguments that opponents of gay marriage bring up, that somehow the ability of homosexuals to marry whomever they choose somehow ruins "traditional" marriage for everyone else. While obviously these two scenarios are not equal in terms of societal impact, I believe the one-sided nature of the associated debates can be compared.

Though dub fans are certainly guilty of this too. They're quick to use this argument inappropriately, assigning it to anybody who didn't like the dub, making it into a vicious cycle of name-calling and generalizations. Some people are "snobs" the rest are "apologists" and it all devolves into something unproductive and embarrassing to watch.

Sound Familiar?
At that point it boils down to whichever version the viewer saw first, another logical fallacy. One finds themselves predisposed to whatever they saw and enjoyed first, attributing positive emotion to the version they saw at the time. When that happens, it isn't critical evaluation. It's just nostalgia, an unwillingness to see anything beyond what your favorite thing is.  Louis C.K. did a bit in his recent "Live at Beacon" over this phenomena, observing that people are so set on wanting things their favorite way that they will make no compromises, and it seems appropriate to what I've seen during these arguments.


Those who get past this point fall into the next trap. Attempts made to compare English dubs to their original Japanese audio are usually done from the standpoint of total and equal accuracy. Namely, a person can complain if they say one thing in Japanese and something different is said in the same scene in English. This usually comes up when jokes are translated and delivered. Complicating matters further is the already subjective nature of humor. It's easy to forget that even in the original language, some people probably didn't find a joke all that funny to begin with.

But when you take a joke that can't be translated, you have to get creative. Not only do you need to make a joke that native speakers of a language will understand, but it has to fit the flaps and hit all the beats in order to be a successful scene. Let's take a look at this scene from Steins;Gate dub that many agree could only have ever worked in Japanese.

The finer points of the humor can be debated... strongly, in fact... but the show did what it set out to do. It delivered a joke that fit the flaps under a similar premise (namely that the Japanese don't know how black people work). Also, it's a reference to Airplane! and anyone who doesn't at least kind of like it has a stick up their butt. It's worth noting that's how I greet every black person that I meet. I get beat up a lot.

It was a joke that fell kind of flat, which is something that any good comedian can relate to. Suck it up and move on.

But wait...

You haven't read the comments on that video. Read them and the impression you'd get is that FUNimation had shot their dog in the face. Their valid point is that the scene was more functional in the Japanese version, which more effectively employed its premise to deliver a stronger punchline. However, rather than commenting on the joke, the fallacious charge that is frequently levied is that this instance in the dub "ruined" the joke as it was presented in Japanese.

This brings me to why specifically it isn't fair to compare Subs v. Dubs because of the fundamental differences between the spoken languages and how it translates in terms of pathos in a dramatic work. On a simple fundamental level, English and Japanese are EXTREMELY different. Obviously, right? That they are different languages is more than obvious. The key to my point is this: English and Japanese are more different from each other than, say, English and Spanish.

Languages can be broken down into their most basic unit, called phonemes. These phonemes can be combined to create morphemes or words in our language. In English, Spanish, and the majority of Romantic and Germanic language families, the base units, or phonemes, are letters. Combine "k" and "i" and two "l"s and you get "kill". By changing a phoneme, you can derive a morpheme or a word with radically different meanings. Change the "l"s to "s" and you get "kiss", which is a very different word from "kill".

In Japanese, their phonemes are not individual letters, but rather syllables and character symbols. This is probably why the Japanese are so adept at visual puns and sight gags within the stories they tell, because the way the characters can be manipulated can fundamentally change the nature of what is being presented to the viewer. Words that sound exactly the same can mean VERY different things. For example, a scene in the second season of Hayate has Hinagiku analyzing her feelings for Hayate which leads her to ask if it could be love. In Japanese "koi" a term for love or affection, is also the word for "carp". Play around with the lines enough and you relate one thing to another while still having the word sound the same. In English, you don't have the luxury of changing a few letters around to turn "love" into "fish".
Though that didn't stop some people from trying.

 The linguistic alchemy that's possible in Japanese gives them more room to work with than in English. That's a hell of a handicap when you're trying to make a joke, particularly when you're delivering your joke to people who, due to their own biases, probably can't take a joke.

This brings me back to my core thesis. English adaptations of anime are not meant to be compared side-by-side with their Japanese counterparts because they are exactly that: an adaptation, an entity of its own that must be judged independently as good or bad on its own merits. A dub is a dub is a dub. Likewise, a bad dub is bad because it is bad. Cardcaptors wasn't bad because the Japanese version was adorable and fantastic, it was bad because the acting was stilted and a lot of the decisions that were made in making the production didn't make a whole lot of sense. Even more recent examples (Venus Versus Virus comes to mind) are bad dubs based on their own poor merit, not whatever the original version built. It's possible to enjoy both Japanese and English versions (as I do with Haruhi) for different reasons, but to equate them and compare them is logically irresponsible.

Likewise, a person can prefer one version over the other, but one has to acknowledge that their preference is subjective and not on any quantifiable, objective level. You can assign numerical scores to each version, I suppose, and then compare the scores of each and find which is "better" that way, but even then those numerical scores would still have to be looking at each show by themselves. Rather than seeing "The original version of Durarara scored an 8.75, but the English version scored an 8.5 therefore Japanese is better" one could rationally see the scores as a mark of high-quality storytelling on both sides. This is just a hypothetical example, as I haven't actually seen the dub of Durarara.

Let me be clear that I'm not defending poor choices or poorly made dubs. Just as good books can have bad film adaptations, good anime can have bad English adaptations. Be that as it may, equating them is a logically unreasonable practice based on a faulty premise that the two languages are analogous when they, mechanically, are not. Just as feature films have limitations that books do not, the English language suffers similar limitations brought on by incompatibilities between the two mediums.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Steins;Gate is really really good, you guys. I enjoy it tremendously no matter the language. You should watch it. Holla atcha boy.

Side Note: I don't find subjective analysis to be a bad thing. For an excellent example of a subjective comparison between Japanese and English Steins;Gate check out the lead post on this Fandompost thread page.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could express my opinions more elegantly than a simple "I agree completely."