Note: After spending a week in the Kansai area (nothing work-related, just a brief sojourn), I thought it would be nice to bring out this old article. This is a repost of an article I originally wrote for Crunchyroll. As always, check my writer profile to see my latest articles.
In the second season of Blue Exorcist, the action shifts to Kyoto, the former capital of Japan for over a thousand years. In many ways, it’s an ideal setting for the Blue Exorcist story. The characters’ powers are often inspired by Buddhist motifs (Suguro, for instance, recites Buddhist chants in order to cast barriers). Given that Kyoto is famous for its historical Buddhist temples and imperial palaces, it makes complete sense for the setting to shift to Kyoto as the story delves into the characters’ backstories and the events of the past.
There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Kyoto and how the city is typically portrayed in anime, but today I want to introduce you to one particular technique used in Blue Exorcist to help set the scene in Kyoto—the characters from Kyoto all speak with a dialect. This might be difficult to fully appreciate in translation because the differences in the characters’ speaking styles are not marked in the subtitles. Dialects are notoriously difficult for translators to handle in general, so how are English speakers meant to understand the Kyoto dialect used in the Blue Exorcist anime?
As an art, adaptation is a lot like translation—you can’t expect an adaptation to be exactly the same as its source material. Novels can be great at showing introspection and getting into the characters’ heads, while animation has to rely on visual shortcuts in order to get the same point across. Just because an adaptation omits something from the novel doesn’t mean it’s worse off for it. I find it incredibly fascinating to examine the choices anime directors make in order to bring a story to life through a visual medium.
With that preamble out of the way, let’s kick off the first issue by looking at a popular light-novel-turned-anime from 2014: No Game No Life! (This article contains light spoilers for the first four episodes, so be warned.)
Like many anime fans of my generation, I grew up watching Dragon Ball Z. At the time, I didn’t think of it as anime, or even as Japanese. It might have had a lot of funny names, but a lot of cartoons had characters with funny names. While I could vaguely sense that something about Dragon Ball Z was different from the other shows I was watching, I had a very limited conception of foreign cultures back then.
To date, I still haven’t watched Dragon Ball Z since my childhood. But my perception of the series has changed enormously as I’ve gotten older. Not only did I realize that Dragon Ball Z originated from Japan, I also realized that the series drew from a wide range of cultural influences, and that not all the things that struck me as “different” or “unique” about the series as a child were due to it being Japanese. The fighting styles and moves are loosely based off Chinese martial arts, and many characters have Chinese-sounding names or are named after Chinese foods and drinks.
So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m now living in Japan and starting a new job. Specifically, I’m now a Tokyo Correspondent for Anime News Network, covering events in the area as well as the odd film review. You may have seen my writing on the site!
As you can imagine, life has been pretty hectic these past few weeks, so I haven’t found any time for blogging or even translating. This is why I’ve started republishing some of my old columns from Crunchyroll to ensure that this blog does not completely die. I’m quite attached to frogkun dot com, and I want a place where I can talk about personal things. And boy have these past few weeks given me a lot to talk about.
Take note: this article is not about “subs versus dubs.” It’s not a competition. I’m sure that everyone has their own preferences, but in the end it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Dubbing involves a different set of skills, resources, and priorities than subtitling does. Even the scriptwriting process for a dub is very different from writing a subtitle script. (I’ll write more about this in a future column, perhaps.)
It’s a pity that conversations around the subject tend to revolve around how the voices sound rather than the translation issues involved. From the perspective of a translator, what’s interesting about subs and dubs is that they strive in different ways to bring the viewer as close to the experience of watching a Japanese anime as possible. With a subtitled anime, the original audio is retained. On the surface, this seems like a preferable format for language purists. On the other hand, Japanese speakers don’t need to read subtitles to understand the audio, so a dub might actually come closer to capturing the experience of watching anime as a native Japanese speaker.
As we’ll see in today’s column, however, “the experience of watching anime as a native speaker” is an extremely difficult thing to quantify, let alone replicate. When you look at the matter in perspective, the “subs versus dubs” debate misses the point.
Otaku is a word that seems deceptively straightforward at first glance. Adopted into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007, it is defined as follows:
(In Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.
It is notable that the dictionary definition includes the negative perceptions surrounding the word. According to the OED, the otaku is “obsessed” and lacks “social skills.” This description is essentially no different from the columnist Akio Nakamori’s use of the word “bizarre” (異様) when he defined otaku as a label in 1983. While it has become more socially acceptable to identify as an otaku these days, it still retains an air of eccentricity.
One could argue that this is very much the point of adopting it as a loan word—otaku captures a nuance that “geek” or “fan” can’t quite muster. But adopting loan words from another culture is not a simple copy-and-paste process. Otaku has transformed significantly on its Journey to the West (ahem), a sure indication that the meaning of the word was contentious to begin with.
And that’s the theme of this week’s Found in Translation column. Translation is not a simple additive or subtractive process. By its very nature it is both transformative and elusive, a constant reminder that words may not always mean what we assume they mean at first glance.
In the span of a few short months, Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime film, your name., has become one of the top-grossing films in Japan of all time, surpassing even Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. The film is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon at this point, tapping deep into the anxieties of a post-Fukushima Japan while telling an emotional love story. Personally, I think it’s great, but I won’t be talking about the film itself in this article. The question I’m interested in here is one that interests many of us and yet involves no spoilers—how does your name. fare overseas?
I first read the My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU novels soon after the first season of the anime hit the airwaves, and it’s been one of my favorite light novel series since then. It’s hard to describe exactly what makes the series so appealing to me, but it essentially comes down to this: it’s the most true-to-life representation of the high school experience that I’ve encountered through fiction.
The Asterisk War was one of the most-watched shows on Crunchyroll in 2015. Now, before anyone goes on about the shit taste of the average Crunchyroll user, consider why viewers would have been drawn to the show beyond the magic high school premise.
What is it with Tsukasa Fushimi and making every pairing in his stories so shippable except for the main one? After Eromanga Sensei volume 3, I’m rooting for the MC to bang anyone except his sister, but alas, not all things in life go the way you want them to.