An eternal debate
There has been an ongoing debate since the dawn of visual Japanese media regarding the best ways to watch the multitude of original Japanese shows and anime. The primary question being: which is better, subbed or dubbed?
It’s a question that refers to watching these Japanese shows; in Japanese with subtitles, or in your native language in a process known as dubbing.
While many argue over watching exclusively one way or another, there are in fact positives and negatives to each, and even switching between them for different moods and purposes is plausible to do.
But ultimately which way to watch is best for you?
Content and budget
Personal preferences and tastes are what many people consider when deciding for or against in the subbed vs dubbed debate. Yet, the type of content that you intend to watch along with its budget and production value will often play a significant part in deciding your viewing experience.
The chief example of this would be anime films vs tv shows and which one you intend to watch.
Let me explain.
The first thing you have to consider is the length of time that you’ll be watching. Films will be considerably longer than the average anime tv show which hovers around 30 minutes or less.
Watching subbed anime for shorter periods is perfectly fine, however if you decide to watch with subtitles for longer periods, you may come across — something I’m going to call — sub-fatigue. Reading subtitles whilst listening to another language and following the action on screen requires a little more effort for your brain to process, and by the end you may feel a little drained by the end.
In light of this, if you plan on watching anime films or simply settling in for longer sessions dubs may be better than subs in this instance.
The production size of each anime is another component to bear in mind. Things such as the quality of voice actors, and even translation quality, can be determined by such and might influence you one way or another.
By and large Japanese anime (of any kind) is mostly intended for native Japanese audiences with overseas success a secondary goal. Producing a dubbed version is an added expense to the company. With this in mind, you may find that a number of dubbed anime feature lacklustre performances or even sound indifferent; this is especially the case if we compare it to the original Japanese voice cast which often feature stellar performances by industry professionals. (More on that later).
In other cases some shows will not even produce a dubbed version altogether; perhaps due to cost, the unlikely return of investment from a lack of interest on other territories, or simply due to being a smaller company with limited resources.
This is also where anime films and tv differ once again. Films will generally have a larger budget and more resources at their disposal, meaning they are more likely to invest in professional dubbed versions and more focused on international success. However, due to the very nature of translating a script and properly understanding Japanese meanings and nuances can be incredibly tricky and still may fall short in comparison.
In this way, watching in subs rather than dubs certainly has the edge here.
Immersion and authenticity
Now, aside from technical characteristics and choice of content, there is clearly an aspect of simply ‘what do you find more enjoyable?.
And I’m going to try and define (importantly) ‘why’ you may find one more enjoyable than the other.
I’ve touched previously on voice acting on a production level but it is also a key factor here too. To put it simply, Japanese voice actors often perform their roles far better with much greater emotion and enthusiasm than their dubbed counterparts. In the same manner as watching any other live-action film or such, it can be the performance that makes one anime be more enjoyable than another.
Another point is how on-screen characters’ mouth movements or lip flaps correctly correspond to the Japanese voice lines. It may sound like a little thing, but not having that — such as in dubbed versions — can be a deal breaker for many.
An example is how you get those cheap adverts on TV where the words and the actors’ mouth movements are entirely out of sync. For me this is incredibly annoying, but works exactly the same way in anime. Many will much prefer a well synchronised authentic subbed performance over a bad dub.
On the other side of this argument is an element of simplicity and an effortless viewing experience.
For many, the joy of watching anime simply comes from watching the action unfold without having to deal with subtitles and the Japanese language altogether, much like you would watch any other program in your native language. This is not to say that watching subbed anime is hard work or isn’t enjoyable because of the subtitles, more that dubbed anime can feel much more natural when in a familiar format.
I would also argue that dubbed anime is much more accessible to anyone and even attracts people to the genre altogether. Personally I vividly remember watching Pokemon in the 90’s when I was young which became one of my favourite tv shows and drew me into the whole anime aesthetic — without even realising it was Japanese until many years later.
What I’m trying to get at here is that dubbed anime can allow you to simply consume it effortlessly, more so than subbed.
There is a final element that may influence your decision when choosing subbed or dubbed anime; that being your level of investment in the Japanese language as a separate entity.
You may have heard of those people that have learnt Japanese through watching anime. Whether intentional or not is unclear but it highlights a different angle on the subs and dubs debate.
For some, watching — or maybe more importantly listening — to anime in Japanese can serve as a tool for learning and studying Japanese. However, even those not currently pursuing Japanese as a language may enjoy listening to its unique sounds and begin to pick up words and phrases. To others, as mentioned previously, the issue of language may be entirely irrelevant.
Yet here is where a crossover can occur. For those invested in learning Japanese subbed anime could be considered more of a ‘work’ activity rather than for pure enjoyment and reverting to a dubbed version can be the opposite. This is how I currently see subs vs dubs.
When it comes to choosing subbed or dubbed there are certainly some personal decisions to make: what type of content do you want to watch? Why are you watching it? Do you favour authenticity or immersion? If you can find a solid answer for some of these kinds of questions then the choice for you might become clearer.
But let’s not forget that switching between them is perfectly fine and even recommended. It all depends on how you feel at the time and what you want to get out of it.