Subs vs Dubs: The Evolution of English Anime Adaptations

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Anime dubs, the process of adapting a title into the import country’s native language, aren’t new. In fact, they go back to the early ‘60s when anime made its way to the U.S. But in the states, dub producers went further than simply translating dialogue for an English-speaking audience. They also removed content they deemed unsuitable for an American audience, which ended up being anything considered “foreign” or out of the norm. On the rare occasion that content wasn’t cut, it was sanitized, or Americanized — in many cases, American audiences ended up with a vastly different product than what was released in Japan. Couple that with the fact that these “cartoons” had both time and financial restraints that resulted in some poor quality shows, and it’s no wonder fans grew frustrated. This manner of dubbing would continue for decades.

Fortunately, these adaptations would fizzle out in the early ‘00s when fans became aware of what they were missing out on and started holding distributors accountable for their subpar and inaccurate adaptations. The fanbase’s newfound interest — and demand — for accurate dubs forced distributors to start improving the localization process. Now, these companies invest a vast amount of resources into their anime adaptations and production team (including English voice actors), which has resulted in an increase in quality. But is it enough to compete with subs, or to knock them off their throne? Well, that requires a trip down memory lane to explore how dubs have evolved over the decades.

Where It All Started

the evolution of English dubbed anime Astro Boy 1963

The rise of Japanese animation started with Astro Boy — a series about a robot boy — which premiered in 1963 and became an instant hit in Japan and abroad. Its animation style and aesthetic later became synonymous with anime worldwide.

As the popularity of Astro Boy grew, NBC Enterprises acquired the North American distribution rights for the series. Fred Ladd, a specialist in “westernizing” foreign animated programs, took the anime and created its pilot episode. Of its 193 episodes, Fred Ladd adapted 104 of them into English.

However, dubbing animated shows for the American market back then wasn’t what it is today. The ‘60s were a different time and Japanese animation explored topics that weren’t suitable for Western audiences, such as WWII and animal experimentations. As such, Astro Boy and other anime to follow had their storylines and content altered or removed. This was the standard practice for anime series that wanted to enter the Western market. The effects of this act would go on to change fans’ perceptions of English anime adaptations, leading fans to choose original Japanese voice tracks over the dubs.

The 1960s: Quirky Dialogue

Anime in the ‘60s captivated the U.S. with its good vs. evil plots and heavy dose of Americanization. Characters’ Japanese names were dropped for more familiar and stylish ones, and violent or confusing scenes were either edited or removed. Not to mention, these shows only received dubs when they reached a certain number for syndication. And when they did, the episodes weren’t shown in chronological order. Viewers never even got a chance to experience the anime as originally intended.

Then, before the ’60s drew to a close, Speed Racer hit the scene. Here was a show with fast cars and a daring driver, with a family as absurd as his driving skills. Peter Fernandez, a producer at that time, was in charge of Americanizing the anime. He had to write and direct the English adaptation while also voicing many of its characters. Given only two days for each episode, Fernandez was forced to squeeze long, complicated lines of dialogue into preexisting lip movements. The breakneck pace of the dubbing process made Speed Racer famous (and also a trope) for its witty, fast-paced dialogue. Luckily, this style of dubbing was specific to Speed Racer, as other popular Americanized anime didn’t have this specific problem.

But those who enjoyed Speed Racer remember it as a silly and amateurish animated show — that was heavily edited to appeal to American sensibilities of that time. The localization created a style that not only defined the show but changed viewers’ perceptions of anime. In fact, many would go so far as to pin the poor reputation of dubs on Speed Racer.

The 1970s: Paving the Way

the evolution of English dubbed anime Kimba the White Lion

Although the flow of new anime making their way to the U.S was cooling down, producers were still heavily re-editing these shows — and viewers continued to eat them up. Shows like Kimba the White Lion and Marine Boy featured kid-friendly, entertaining content that the entire family could enjoy. But the disco era gave rise to several series that would change the path of English-dubbed anime.

Mazinger Z, known briefly as Tranzor Z in the U.S., changed the way producers localized anime. Initially dubbed in 1977, the English adaptation was a straight translation of the anime, keeping character names and even the plot intact. Typically, anime of that time would receive a heavy dose of Americana, especially when it came to the theme songs. Mazinger Z got around this by creating English versions of the original Japanese opening and ending themes, which then were also localized.

In 1979, Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato in Japan), a show about a space crew searching for a way to save Earth, would become one of the first English-dubbed anime with a complex plot and storyline, forcing the producers to tell the story in chronological order. Unfortunately, that win was short-lived as the series ended up being marketed to a young audience. As a result, Star Blazers’ adult themes had to be toned down to meet strict broadcasting standards. This included westernization of character names and the censorship of violence, offensive language, WWII references, and, of course, promiscuity (fan service). But even in its localized form, Star Blazers retained several of its original themes, like dealing with personal tragedy, funerals of fallen comrades, and humanity’s extinction — topics rarely discussed in animated TV programs at the time.

The dubbing of these shows transcended the limitations that were set during the ‘60s. As such, they helped to pave the way for more faithful anime adaptations in the future.

The 1980s: Robots, Miyazaki, and Cyberpunk

the evolution of English dubbed anime Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

During the ‘80s, anime would grow as an entertainment media in both Japan and overseas. In the U.S., audiences were getting titles with more substance and of a higher quality. Shows like Robotech, a combination of three separate shows — Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982), Genesis Climber MOSPEADA (1983), and Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross (1984) — dominated the airwaves. While the dialogue was heavily re-written to link all three series together, the series retained the originals’ adult themes, strong storylines, and diverse characters.

But things didn’t end there, anime films, like Hayao Miyazaki’s (Studio Ghibli) Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, were becoming increasingly popular and getting screened abroad. Nausicaä would first see distribution in the U.S. as the heavily edited Warriors of the Wind. The localized version, now an action-adventure, lacked the original’s environmental and ecological narratives. It also removed the titular female character from the VHS cover and replaced her with male characters who aren’t even in the film. The new film lost Miyazaki’s message, leading him to adopt a strict “no-edits” clause for future foreign releases of Studio Ghibli’s films. With one of the greatest Japanese animators taking a stand, a change in English localization soon followed. The un-edited Studio Ghibli films explored mature themes — animism, the struggle between good and evil, environmentalism — that foreign anime fans had never experienced.

While Miyazaki’s films cornered the kids market, Katsuhiro Otomo’s fully mature film Akira would have an enormous impact on viewers abroad. Unfortunately, like many anime from the ’80s, it didn’t receive the best adaptation. Streamline Pictures‘ limited U.S. release of the film in 1989 produced a barely comprehensible script and awful dub. Old school fans of the film would “praise” the characters’ bizarre New York accents and laughable name pronunciations.

The re-release by Pioneer Entertainment (now NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan) a decade later improved the dub and retained the film’s themes of abandonment, death, and substance abuse. Akira’s huge impact led to concerns about rebellious teens getting warped by the movie, and talk of how stunning it is as a piece of art. The crtitical acclaim that the film received helped pave the way for the violent and progressive anime of the ’90s.

The 1990s: Enter Progressive (and Censored) Content

the evolution of English dubbed anime Sailor Moon

After Akira made its mark on Western airwaves, an influx of shows and movies made their way stateside. By this time, the anime industry had become a financially wealthy market, with the only real production costs being writing and recording the English script as well as editing content.

This is the landscape Cartoon Network entered with it introduced Toonami, a programming block that aired many action-adventure and shōnen anime series. But since these shows aired during the daytime, they were still subject to heavy editing. Girl power anime Sailor Moon, for examples, originally featured several LGBTQ characters and included a romantic relationship between Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune . The localization of the show reduced these two lovers to cousins.

Dragon Ball Z suffered a similar fate at the hands of Saban Entertainment. The dub was heavily censored and its length reduced. They crammed 67 episodes into 53 and removed all mentions of death and depictions of violence. Goku finds himself trapped in hell in one episode, but the dub changes the name to HFIL, or the “Home For Infinite Losers.” Another instance occurs during a fight between Frieza and Vegeta. The former notices a crab crawling on the Saiyan’s back and decides to eat in one bite. This baffling scene was removed from the U.S. version of the show. Years after these shows finished airing, anime fans are still outraged by how distributors handled these titles.

Things weren’t all bad, however. The ’90s also saw improved English voice recording thanks to new recording technologies and an increase in talented actors. But broadcasting guidelines were still strict. Distributors believed that anything outside the norm wouldn’t succeed in the U.S. As long as anime producers continued to target the child demographic, anime would have to go through some significant editing. The only way to get distributors to change their localization practices was to point out how substandard they were to the originals. Thankfully, technology helped fans to achieve this.

The 2000s: Dubs Finally Begin to Hit Their Stride

the evolution of English dubbed anime Death Note

By the 2000s, two things became crystal clear: producers were heavily censoring anime and anime titles weren’t just for kids. This led Cartoon Network to introduce its Adult Swim block. No longer were shows heavily edited to protect children from mature content. In fact, they didn’t care about kids at all. Adult Swim’s target group was adults who could handle anime’s progressive content and appreciate its Japanese characteristics. But it still needed to be dubbed to attract viewers.

One standout from this period is Cowboy Bebop. The show, with its American symbols and Western themes, was basically made to cater to a western audience. And the English voice actors, now considered some of the best in the industry, did an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. It’s easy to see why viewers continue to rave about it to this day. But Cowboy Bebop wasn’t the only show making waves. The Death Note English adaptation managed to stay faithful to the source material and add a bit of flair for American viewers. The English script was sassier, especially when it came to the portrayal of the show’s protagonist, L — who was more straightforward, boring, and creepy in the subbed version. These shows broke the mold, as the quality of writing and voice recording carried the same impact as the original, but in a way that felt familiar to American fans.

These shows ushered in a new age, one where distributors saw the value of hiring experienced voice actors and scriptwriters. But as the internet and digital distribution began to grow, it became easier for fans to get a hold of the original Japanese copies of popular titles, and the differences between them and the dubs were clear. Finally, fans were able to hold distributors accountable for their subpar and inaccurate anime adaptations.

The 2010s-Now: The Future of Dubs

the evolution of English dubbed anime Emma: A Victorian Romance

While fans are glad that many popular, new titles are getting dubbed, shows with a niche audience are getting left behind. The anime market has become very difficult and financially risky when it comes to licensing and producing these titles. As such, companies would rather invest in shows with a built-in fanbase or that are more likely to appeal to a large demographic. This has led to fans to start up Kickstarter projects to get these less-popular shows and movies dubbed. Most recently, fans funded the entire English adaptation for series Emma: A Victorian Romance, which will release this May on Blu-ray.

The success of the Kickstarter has made it possible for licensee Nozomi Entertainment to use the same strategy to potentially dub future anime titles. But this also means that it’s possible for fans to finance dubbing projects.

The evolution of dubbed anime started off rocky, with heavy editing and censorship. But thanks to foreign companies and Kickstarter projects, dubs are making an impact on the anime market. No longer do anime fans have to wait on a company’s bigwigs to decide whether a title gets dubbed. Fans now hold the power to see their favorite shows in the language that they want. And companies have noticed their power and influence. Streaming giants Netflix and Crunchyroll — known for their live-action adaptations and subbed anime — have invested millions of dollars in original anime content, that will also get dubbed.

Why Subs Are Seen as Superior

If we’re going to discuss dubs, we also have to mention their counterpart, subs. Short for “subtitled,” subs are the translated text placed at the bottom of the screen of a show or film that retains its original Japanese audio. Choosing between a sub or dub, though a matter of preference, has sparked one of the most heated debates in the anime fandom.

With anime becoming a major hit in the ‘90s, it created a group of fans who used the internet to explore the unedited versions of anime, despite not knowing the language. This opened their eyes to the butchering and repackaging of anime outside of Japan. A movement towards subtitled anime quickly grew, with fans arguing that the original actors more accurately conveyed the characters’ emotions than the non-Japanese ones. Not to mention, the dubs often lose or change the meaning of an episode.

Sub fans also believe that subtitling the original performances eliminates problems prevalent in dubbed anime, such as the pacing of dialogue, a problem that’s plagued countless dubs since Speed Racer and Lupin III: The Secret of Mamo (1979). Unsurprisingly, sub fans eventually came t0 distrust the “exquisite” adaptations from companies like Animax and 4Kids. In fact, they continue to bash everything that these companies import and adapt.

But what sub fans love most about subtitled content is how quickly they get new content. Subs often release within hours the original broadcast, allowing them to watch their favorite shows at nearly the same time as viewers in Japan. Holding out for the dub means waiting much longer for a show to air.

But despite these arguments, the reality is neither side is inherently superior. In fact, they inform each other and help hold producers and distributors accountable. By comparing the two, fans force dubbing companies to maintain a high-quality product. At the end of the day, everyone just wants to enjoy anime in their own way without missing out on crucial content.

Why Fans Love Dubs

the evolution of English dubbed anime My Hero Academia

Despite the many arguments why fans believe subs are superior, there are some that still love dubbed anime. It’s true that some English dubs have had some embarrassing moments thanks to the localization process. But for many fans, dubs were their gateway to anime. They wouldn’t know of classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Samurai X if it wasn’t for the efforts of dubbing companies.

And for those who are more speech-orientated, hearing the dialogue in their native language makes it easier to immerse themselves into the show. Dubbing companies sometimes go to great lengths to ensure the jokes, idioms, and cultural references — which would be common knowledge in Japan but unknown abroad — have the same impact in other countries.

Similarly, series that take place outside of Japan — like Black Butler (England) or Baccano! (Chicago) — have its characters speak in Japanese and use Japanese references. Dubs allow these shows to use these locations’ native language, making the narrative feel more accurate and enjoyable to watch.

Let’s not forget that many anime fans outside of Japan don’t know Japanese and therefore must read the translation. Splitting your time between reading and watching can be quite challenging, especially when it comes to shows like Serial Experiments Lain, which is full of complicated dialogue and complex ideas. Reading the subtitles might cause you to miss out on subtle meanings and expressions that you wouldn’t have otherwise. As Miyazaki said in an interview, anime is intended to be watched, not read.

While many (foreign) sub fans praise Japanese voice acting, they are missing out on some great performances by American voice actors. In the last decade, companies like Funimation and Aniplex USA have been focused on improving the dubbing process. From translation to script writing to recording, the way dubs are handled has improved exponentially. This has led English voice actors –like Christopher Sabat, who plays All Might on My Hero Academia and Vegeta on Dragon Ball Z — to become internationally known for their acting chops. Sabat’s heroic, sometimes villainous laugh is easily recognizeable and has brought a myriad of characters to life.

Dubs Have Come a Long Way

Dubs have evolved quite a bit since their Astro Boy days. Now the process is much more complicated and requires a great amount of time, creativity, and experience. Technology — and the wrath of anime fans — has encouraged distributors to refine the dubbing process. Each phase has improved vastly, resulting in countless high-quality dubbed anime.

Despite its crass language and overabundance of curse words, Black Lagoon stands out as one of the best English-dubbed anime in recent memory. Not because it has a lot of swearing but due to the fantastic job of the writers and voice actors. Just watch any scene, and it’ll become obvious that the production team had a blast making the dub. This is partly due to the story taking place outside of Japan and following a group of foreigners. The writers had more flexibility in how they wanted to convey the characters’ story. And the voices behind these characters brought every single word to life with their distinct accent and deep emotional convictions.

Pop Team Epic is another example where the script and voice acting are on par with the original. The show’s main characters — Popuko and Pipimi — go on weird adventures for no reason, and everything, from their personalities to their voices, changes with each skit. The dialogue and the voice acting go from cute and quirky to psychotic and weird in without missing a beat.

Another series that shows how far dubs have come is My Hero Academia. The English adaptation features a group of talented actors who bring the series cast of memorable superheroes and villains to life. The show’s lead, the timid and polite Izuku Midoriya, frequently overreacts to situations. Justin Briner, who voices Midoriya, brings this soft-spoken young hero — and all his peculiarities — to life.

The care and consideration that writers and voice actors put into each project is becoming clear. The days of squishing into a small booth and hastily recording a few lines are gone. Anime should be treated the same as any other art form. And after many decades, anime is getting the attention to detail and creativity it deserves. Now, English-dubbed anime fans can proudly stand behind their favorite medium.

So, Are Dubs as Good (or Better Than) Subs?

Whether you like subs or dubs likely comes down to a matter of taste, but we can confidently say that dubs have not surpassed or reached the level of subs. Companies have only recently started producing high-quality dubs. And when they do, it’s usually for popular titles that have already made an impact on fans, like Boruto. Shows with a small fan base either receive poor quality dubs or none at all. Then there’s the problem with anime loses its nuances through the dubbing process. Sure, subtitled anime has its disadvantages, but it’s accurate and ready to watch within hours of the original broadcast.

Even so, dubbed anime titles have come a long way, giving us Death Note, Attack on Titan, and Cowboy Bebop, something we didn’t have when dubs first hit the scene in the ‘60s. And they will continue to get better.

Today, distributors have caught on to the mistakes of their predecessors and can focus on the fan experience. Not only when it comes to localization but also outside of television, with companies organizing conventions that teach fans about the dubbing process and allow them to meet the voices behind their favorite characters. If dubbing companies continue to improve the dubbing process and close the release window for dubs, the day might come when they’ll triump over subs.

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Zuleika is a fan contributor at Fandom and focuses on Anime with words on Vocal, Movie Pilot and Fanime BLOG. She's a big fan of horror, gore and mystery anime. Loves series, movies, and games that have to do with bloodthirsty but equally intelligent psychos.