Sunday, August 30, 2009

White (American) Heroes In Exotic Worlds

When watching anime today, I accidentally hit upon English dub a couple times. The American accents jarred me, incredibly so. So much so in fact that I found myself with this thought:

"I wonder if part of what convinces some people (what seems to me to be mostly Americans) to think that Anime and Manga are filled with white people, is because they're reading/hearing them in English."

Yes of course there's years of propagandas on how Asian peoples 'should look' in sequential art, but hearing the jarring American accents made me immediately wonder if dubbing doesn't also contribute to people's perceptions.

On the one hand being able to watch a show in your own language is pretty darn sweet. But dubbing also has some serious cultural washing (in this case whitewashing) too, doesn't it? One of the instant jars for me, was my expecting, due to the anime symbology for a character, a deep heroic voice and instead there was this median older boy-band voice. It's very jarring to hear Kon-el when you're expecting serious Bruce Wayne merging into Batman.

And then in a different case and separate occasion there happened to be cursing. I don't remember what the Japanese version was - the American stuck with me (and it's probably not right cause it was the last word that stuck with me the most). 'Shut the fuck up, you ugly cow'. Now, someone Japanese could tell me that statement gets said in anime all the time and fan translators get it wrong wrong wrong and more wrong. But for the moment it's standing out for me as American culturally themed cursing.

On a third occasion the voice actor didn't sound at all like a teenager and while the character was supposed to whine and I suppose come across as unpleasant - the few sentences I heard struck me as the whining of an American man-child in a sitcom.

The moment that made me decide to write about this; which undoubtedly is something anime fans have been discussing since time immemorial; was the difference in comprehension and mood and character understanding in the same scene with two different languages.

A character tells a potential kidnapper (said kidnapper being the first step in future potential brainwashing) "I won't be influenced by you."

In the American version. "I'm not getting involved."

One version hints at a character who refuses to be manipulated, by an individual or the group they work for; the other hints at a character who just doesn't engage. Maybe such differences only change the story for me. Maybe this is a subtle or small difference in interpreting the characters and it is not a big deal in terms of iconic Japanese heroes, tropes and plotlines. Maybe it doesn't change the story at all.

But it feels like a big deal to me. It feels like English language audiences could be missing out - the other side of institutional and aversive and unconscious racism with whitewashing. And this lack and twist is not just happening with Japanese animation.

I found Galactik Football, Season 1 and enjoyed it muchly last year. Except, for the character of Sinedd. Oh Sinedd, whiny little emo boy, bully with self esteem issues. I couldn't understand my friend's obsession with him or the fact he apparently had a huge fan following. He was not a notable bad boy.

And then I found out that in the original French, Sinedd's voice actor makes the character much more sympathetic. And in the German translation, Sinedd's voice makes the character a touch of sin, a personal indulgence.

Why wasn't the English voice actor doing similarly? Well, assuming the English voice actor was not an actual 15 year old boy (and net scuttlebut says the irish actor is not), then it was some kind of allowed decision that Sinedd's voice be played as always on the verge of breaking. In fact on some occasions it did seem to break. The snarker in me wants to insist it was during his 'passionate' I don't need anyone speeches - thus adding eye rolling, groan filled, painful humor to what could possibly have been a bad boy rant about independence. But I honestly can't remember because everything about the character irritated me because of that voice.

Animation is a sum to me, a complex sum. It needs parts A and B and C in order to come together. It needs the art, the voice acting and the music. With Youtube around it's relatively easy these days to get a quick idea of how mood can be changed if someone switches around the soundtrack.

With English dub, B and C can be switched out. All that needs to happen is that the plotline spoken mostly fits the depicted action. The emotion, original mood and original intent can all vanish beneath the need to make things more relevant for an American broader based audience.

A loner, lonely bad boy, becomes an insecure 15 year old whiner.

The expertly disguised villain is revealed almost immediately due to having a villain's slimy undertones.

A hero's emotional last stand speech, becomes a monosyllabic Western style 'You're going down'.

No wonder when people start pointing out traditional hero values or samurai overtones in something anime, another group bounds up with 'What the ___ are you talking about?' It's not just their lack of exposure to knowing certain things relate to real cultures. It's also their indoctrination to seeing all other cultures as dressing.

ETA: And this explains TokyoPop's translations of Juuni Kokki which manage to add boggarts (no doubt for 'familiarity') while exoticizing certain, titles, other nouns and phrases. I still don't know how why they used 'Prophet' for the Late Empress Yo; (eta) I mean translate for sense.

[Comments Open]


  1. That makes a lot of sense. I remember someone saying that it was okay for Katara to be played by a white girl because she acted like a "typical American teenager." I had no idea what they meant, but now I wonder if the voice actress's white-American-accented English was really enough to overrule the character's brown skin and Inuit culture, for them.

  2. Softestbullet:

    The only typical American teenagers I can think of who'd be wearing those clothes and hairstyle and using those tools are Inuit Americans.

    What about Katara is supposed to be so American anyway? Getting crushes on the opposite sex? Having a sense of her own worth as an individual and as a girl? Being strong headed? Being loving? Having a brother that sometimes annoyed her? Going through the transformative process of gaining knowledge and experience and becoming wiser?

    Also how can she be American when there's no America in that universe? How does there get to be a typical American teenager in a 'fantasy land'.

    Once again we hit default = white, and in the US it seems white = American.

    And isn't it interesting that there are, apparently, no African Descended, Asian Descended, Latino or American Fist Nations 'typical American teenagers'.

    Yes, it seems more than possible that American accents with hints of American areas/cities in the pronunciation is all that's needed to make any animated or dubbed character into a typical American.

  3. As much as I enjoy manga, I find it hard to get into anime for this very reason! My Japanese is no longer good enough to watch the originals, and I'm not American, so the characters suddenly sounding American is very jarring. Subs work better for me, but even then, your point about the random mix of exoticising and familiarising still holds. I'm reading the manga "Mushishi" at the moment, which has a very sensitive and appropriate translation, and on that basis, I've ordered a copy of the anime. I really hope the translation carries over!

  4. You've got a really good point here and one of the things I kept thinking of when I was reading this was the Sailor Moon "cousins".

    In the original Japanese cartoon, Sailors Uranus and Neptune were lesbian lovers, which was considered fine to show to their children. However, since it was deemed too riskee for delicate American children's minds, when the season was dubbed, they suddenly became cousins.

    Or take Dragonball Z, which is a Japanese take on a Chinese tale about a monkey god. There were a lot of fans who were fine with the whitewashing of the movie because to them, it's so out of context. It's just a fantasy that has American voices, add to that the animation style of huge eyes and people assume white. And yet, in Japan, I know there's one live action show, plus another manga/anime based off this legend. And those are just the ones I know of, without any serious digging.

  5. it's tricky. the way films and tv, including anime and cartoons, are handled in foreign markets demand for dubs as well as subs. this goes both ways, the m & e.

    the voice talent and the known voiced stereotypes of that countries homegrown material play a part even if that emotion doesn't cross over properly.

    each country has it's voice archetypes, (and all have certain ones that are hella annoying)how that effects the quality and how it's received by the audience of the import dub is a crapshoot, especially if your homegrown market is near death or neglected.

    also, the same voice talent is used consistently therefore blocking any new talent especially non-white talent which have yet been able to truly break in. your left with the same old tired talent from years ago. just like films they make sure it's the generic accent of no fixed region unless it's specifically called for. and that's a generic white accent. and with the budget, quality isn't a priority.

    it's tricky. sometimes it's blurred by those obvious 'philes when discussing it, but i don't want to derail things by talking about them.

    i have to admit though, i've always preferred manga and thus anime that didn't fall into the big eyes design, at least the ones where the mangaka stated why they used more realistic features. maybe that's why i have a soft spot for manwha. but i always knew that they weren't white except for animes involving situations that specifically involved them.

  6. As someone who has been one of those fans who won't watch anime on television because it doesn't have subtitles, I agree with a lot of the points made in this entry, esp. concerning original actor intent and the subtle differences in word choices. While I've heard some people cite decent reasons for the dub preference (want to see more of the screen, the translators can go for a translation that fits the general idea/intent of the words rather than a more literal translation) and heard of some dubs that were exceptional (Cowboy Bebop), I still hold to my love of subtitles for many of the reasons you cited. Not that subtitles don't have their own problems, especially when trying to make equivalents for honorifics, but I still prefer them.

    There has always been a split within the anime fandom regarding this issue. Being from the subtitle side, where much of the racefail seems to come from a fetishization of Japan/Japanese culture and objectification of Japanese people, it comes as a shock yet it is uncomfortably plausible that dub fans could instead view anime through their own ethnocentrism. When I consider how many "people in anime aren't white" essays have had to be written over the years, the idea becomes even more plausible. You would think that considering a good amount of anime has American characters MARKED and EXPLICITLY REFERENCED IN THE STORY as American (often in ridiculous ways, but nevertheless ...) that anime fans would know better. I'd like to think most of the hardcore fans do, but I neglect the casual fans who many see everything quite differently.

    Thank you for this post. It's been very interesting. Also, "Samurai in Outer Space," while its references are about 20 years old by now, is a great book for helping fans see anime in its own cultural context.

  7. Stacey:

    I'm not quite sure what you're trying to say. I hesitate to put words in your mouth.

    But are you saying you believe the variance in voice talent between the original Japanese and the dubbed American voices needs to have the way voice acting in the US is handled included as a factor into the whitewashing?

    Because I'm not sure how much the behind the scenes of American voice dubbing for anime can compare to the behind the scenes script/dialogue translation and writing.

  8. Angel-Negra:

    Re: DBZ

    I've seen some youtube footage of the protest against the American live action movie. It was mainly focused on the American voice actors' disgust with the lack of plotting.

    It's only just hit me that within that group the people who're against it because Goku isn't white, might be a small minority within a larger group who're upset at how crap the movie itself was.

    Now I'm wondering how many DBZ fans realize or recognize that part of the reason the movie might have been such crap, is because Goku was cast as white. That is, the American writing group and meddling executive movie producers had no idea or couldn't care less about the concept of 'Journey To The West'. So to them it was just some kung fu flick with special powers where 'humans' (including a white "Chosen One") battle aliens.

    I can't theorize stronger than that, however, because I don't watch DBZ and I didn't go near the live action movie.

    And speaking of Yuri - I just finished season/series 1 of Sisters of Wellber and am still in quiet-squee-awed shock at something that focused on the bond formed between two women - enough that there could even be implied ho-yay. No doubt a dub would have things end up differently.

    I'd heard about the Sailor Moon 'Cousins! Damnit!' - which makes me immediately think of the movie Troy, by the way and has me wondering if 'Cousins' is Hollywood code now (or has been for a while).

  9. Quietprofanity:

    I will need to check out 'Samurai In Outer Space' - the name sounds very vaguely familiar. But more than that I think I'd just really enjoy some geeky meta on anime :)

    Re: Sub vs Dub

    I've mostly thought of it for a very long time as personal preference. And part of my enjoyment has come from beginning to recognize words and feeling like I'm getting glimpses into a different culture. I love seeing all the different situations where 'So Ka' (I'm being totally phonetic here) which is often translated as 'I see' can be used. I've also begun to appreciate the various levels of implied intimacy, especially with sibling terms.

    Though I have an offline life boost there, since my own siblings prefer to call me Sis. And I know it's meant as a term of extreme endearment and joy and respect. And that's on top of coming from a culture that's used to 'house' or 'family names'.

    But as things have hit me now, I've realized that with dubbing many aspects of the original culture get wiped away. Even something as simple as replacing a sibling term with the sibling's name. It changes the concept of family and blood ties and sibling closeness and possible obligation immensely. And while there might be individuals who've had other influences to begin to understand such strong family ties - I wonder now if there aren't subset groups who think the characters in anime are melodramatic because they have no context for how another society views family.

    Not to mention that as times change, the chance for insight into some societal aspects also change. In my mother's time being an orphan in the Western World was pitiable in the extreme. These days, having had both your parents die is a tragedy, but it is not implied that such tragedy would haunt and flavour a child's entire life and future leaving them rootless and rudderless and unsuccessful. Yet, having had my mother and her siblings go through that, gives me some insight into the concept of family as constantly building bedrock that's often referenced in anime. And it leaves me with somewhere to extrapolate from when orphaned characters are treated with suspicion and superstition.

    Which is a very long way of saying that just like how non-white people aren't all white deep down under their brown, non Americans aren't all American deep down either. The 'human just like me' aspect is much broader and deeper than that.

  10. avalon willow: companies tend to spend less time and money on the whole dubbing process unless it's a relatively major release. from script localization to talent to the actual recording. factor in time and money along with the dearth of talent and the lack of diverse talent, you get your typical dubs. whitewashing is a given as those generic white accents are the default.

    fansubs have shown that you don't need a lot of money or time but you need to sacrifice in translating for certain words and phrasing, which is true for most languages i believe.

    why i say it's tricky is because the international film industry demands that there always be a m&e (music & effects)version to allow for dubbing in their own language. privilege and culture washing does happen.

    as far as casting, it's not just that some think they were white, i found them to be in the minority, it's that they don't care and don't see the race change as a problem. privilege unchallenged and expected. and some will run the whole bingo gamut of excuses just to justify them not caring.

    offtopic: have you ever come across a movie or anime/cartoon that had both hardsubs and dubs and that didn't match up word for word? it's bloody distracting.

  11. Stacey:

    Ahh. You mean generic white American accent being used when the original went to the trouble of giving certain characters certain backgrounds via their accents? To do with class or childhood city or farming/country background etc? The way some type of anime characters are strongly associated with 'Aint' and obvious colloquial language?

    If so I wasn't even thinking that far ahead in terms of how complex the dubs don't get. I was just thinking that the first step in white washing is the dialogue aka not caring too much in translating the story.

    Or rather, I now believe the dubs translate the plot, but they don't translate the story.

    EXAMPLE: A young boy is informed that only he may have the power to face a dark warrior and save life as all know it from being crushed under the cold heel of darkness.

    Depending on how you tell the story, that plot can end up as Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Aang's tale in The Last Airbender.

    And what I've come to believe is that dubbing may not (doesn't?) represent which story it is or seemingly give a damn about what cultural notes may help distinguish the story. I think you're telling me that trying to make a quick and easy buck off someone else's storytelling equals dubbing in the US not giving a f*ck, because one Chosen One is as good as another. And since their mental default for Chosen is white male, that's what will come across in everything from BLEACH (which also fits the above plot) to Tales of the Abyss.

    Are you talking about a lack of talent in the translating of the story (including dialogue) as well as a lack of talent (of even thinking about having distinct cultural voices) in the voice talent?

    As well as a general lack of caring that characters and stories themselves may not be white?

    Because that's something to consider, that various individuals involved in the industry who're part of dubbing anime may not even be thinking about the fact the stories they're voicing and writing for aren't white stories that 'just happen to be drawn in Japan'.

    Re: The dub not matching the sub is the reason I only watch Kung Fu Hustle with subtitles.

  12. I beg your pardon for commenting so late, but this post strikes me as a really interesting one. I just wanted to thank you for the extra thinking points!