When I was just beginning to learn Japanese, one of my classmates proudly claimed to me that she could understand anime without subtitles. That really took me aback at the time, since I assumed you needed to be fluent in order to understand what people were saying in another language. So I tested her. I played the audio of an anime episode without the visuals and asked her to translate the lines for me. It turned out she only understood a few words here and there. That was it.
So was her claim to being able to understand anime without subtitles just an empty boast? At first, I thought so, but when I started to watch anime raw I understood. The context and visuals convey so much nuance that the actual spoken dialogue become periphery to one’s understanding of the story. In other words, it’s very easy to understand the gist of anime without subtitles even if you possess very limited Japanese.
Where am I going with this? If you watch anime with subtitles, it’s very easy to get caught up in the words and not to see the bigger picture. That’s where I think the tendency among non-Japanese fans to read anime as text rather than as moving images comes from. Separating the “story” from the “animation” is pointless and misleading, because in anime the two become indistinguishable. But it’s easy to fall into this mindset when watching anime becomes a habit of passive reading.
When I suggested that this was a problem in an earlier post, a couple of readers commented that they were so used to analysing the story and dialogue in an anime that they didn’t know how to write about animation and art. One reason for this is that school emphasises literary analysis more than visual media analysis, but another equally compelling reason is that not enough people watch anime without subtitles on a regular basis.
Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t watch anime with subtitles. Comprehending the dialogue can only be a good thing and I sincerely appreciate the effort both fansubbers and official translators put into making anime accessible to us all. At the same time, you would be surprised at how your appreciation deepens when you rewatch an anime without the subtitles. (Some of you reading this may be able to attest to this.) Once you’ve satisfied your need to understand what every single line means, it becomes easier to put the audio and visuals into perspective.
But What About Dubs?
Probably the most common reaction to an English dub (or one of any language, for that matter) is for the viewer to be distracted by the sound of the voices. Instead of contributing to the viewer’s understanding and immersion into a particular scene, the dub clashes with the anime’s atmosphere and takes the viewer out of the show.
The problem here is not that English-speaking actors don’t have any skill or that Japanese is an inherently better-sounding language. Rather, it points to the same feature of anime in general: the words themselves do not convey the most meaning – the sound does. This is true in all spoken media, where the audio needs to match the visuals. In anime’s case, the exaggerated movements in the animation are matched by equally exaggerated voice acting. The problem with a lot of dubs is that they attempt to match the pitch of the Japanese performances but they rarely match the tone. With the exception of a few voice actors who really take their roles into their own, many English voices come off as flat and do not convey much individual character.
In other words: if you could not speak English or Japanese, you would be able to understand the Japanese audio better than the English one.
(This all isn’t to say that I personally don’t enjoy dubs, because I do, but that’s neither here nor there in this discussion.)
Does Watching Anime Without Subtitles Affect Your Taste In Anime?
This is an interesting question and one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’ve certainly noticed a change within myself after spending half a year or so watching anime raw. I pay more attention to character movements and facial expressions in particular. Anime with flimsy narratives have started to appeal to me more, though whether that’s really a result of me paying more attention to the aesthetics or because I’ve been making an effort to become more open-minded in general is hard to say.
In any case, it hasn’t escaped me that the tendency among those to read anime as text is accompanied by an over-reliance on subtitles to comprehend the story. And when you do read anime as mainly text, it becomes easier to appreciate a cult classic like Legend of the Galactic Heroes. While I think that, as an anime, LoGH is distinctly slow and unappealing, it holds up a lot better when viewed as a novel in television format. It’s not a bad way of seeing anime, but I think it does potentially close off your mind to other possibilities within animation and it’s where some unhealthy brands of elitism can spring from.
Above all, I’ve tried not to stress here that Japanese knowledge is that essential to appreciating anime, because it’s not. It’s precisely because raws can be understood with minimal understanding of Japanese that’s the point here. That really says a lot about the nature of anime and what a remarkable medium it is for storytelling.
So, anyone have any opinions on this? Do you ever watch anime raw? If so, how has it affected your experience with anime?