Ponyo: subtitles vs. dubbing

With foreign films I guess the assumption is always to watch the subtitled version, not the dubbed version. But with animation I’m only just now realising this is dead wrong. Late to the party, I know. My logic has always been: I want to hear the ‘original’ voices and follow the script on the subtitles, not listen to a bunch of jobbing Hollywood b-listers chew microphones through some kind of Disney-ised, morally compromised script?

But now I’m forced into a rethink, thanks to a conversation with a spectacularly well-informed barman in the upstairs coffee shop at the Duke Of York’s in Brighton. They have posters up for the new Studio Ghibli animation Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, which opens in two weeks. It’s profoundly exciting news for anyone into Ghibli animation, and will hopefully rebuild my faith in the studio after the disaster of Tales From Earthsea, where Miyazaki’s inexperienced son Goro was given the film of Ursula Le Guin’s classic pioneering fantasy novels, after Dad had chased them for years. Goro fucked it up big-time.

We’re in happier days now though: the Duke Of York’s will screen both the dubbed and subtitled versions at different times. Mainly, they’ll show the dubbed version earlier in the day, for the kids, then show the subtitled version for artier wonks. It’s part of the Picturehouse chain, so hopefully a bunch of decent arthouse cinemas around the UK will do the same. So anyway, I’d assumed I’d pootle along to the subtitled screening like a grown-up.

Until the fella behind the bar made a couple of powerful counter-intuitive points that have stuck with me: first, if we’re watching a magnificently animated masterpiece, why on earth do we decide to miss out on bits, because our eyes need to frantically read across the bottom of the screen? Secondly – and here’s where the real revelation is – he pointed out that Studio Ghibli aren’t exactly using quality actors for their original Japanese voiceovers. No, of course they hire whoever’s a big name in J-pop or whoever won a national reality show to be their name ‘voiceover’ artists.

Then, funnily enough, when it comes to the North American dub, because the movies are still treated as quality, foreign, perhaps even arthouse product, the talent that’s hired tends to be from the ‘proper’ end of the scale. Primarily this sweetly bourgeois misconception of art versus populism is a measure of just how we can mis-perceive any non-Hollywood films, compared to how they’re seen at home.

We think of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle as arty masterpieces. Yet that doesn’t mean we should be fooled into thinking they’re anything other than huge mainstream blockbusters in Japan. Until Titanic came along, Princess Mononoke was the biggest grossing film in Japanese history. It’s a bit like novelist Haruki Murakami being venerated in the west in highbrow, psychedelic magic-realism terms, when his hip romance Norwegian Wood was such as massive bestseller in Japan he had to leave the country to escape the celebrity. The sexier non-magical books of his are read like classy chick-lit over there. (OK, maybe that’s pushing it but you get my point.)

So for Miyazaki’s Ponyo, the English dub stars Cate Blanchett and Tina Fey, as well as, gulp, a Jonas brother and one of the Cyrus clan (Noah, not Miley). And even these two American teen pop stars are, if anything, appropriate, consistent choices for the younger roles.

The final argument is the experience. Despite Miyazaki being arguably my favourite living filmmaker, I’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli animation in the cinema. So sayeth the man behind the counter filling the coffee mug: first go see the dub, immerse yourself in the spectacular animation and enjoy the story. Then either go back to the cinema to see the subtitled version, or purchase that version on DVD.

Ponyo may not be Miyazaki’s greatest work, largely because it’s apparently aimed at a younger audience than the last few, making a return to the innocence of My Neighbor Totoro. However I hope it’ll still blow my mind. The film is an expression of the director’s obsession with the sea, which he’s apparently personally hand-animated himself, without any CGI. My God. I need to ignore the devil in the details and treat myself.

(a version of this entry was published in the Morning Star this week)

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6 responses to “Ponyo: subtitles vs. dubbing

  1. Beautifully put although it still brings up a couple of points I think worth a mention. Namely that the phenomenon of high brow voice overs for foreign films is fairly new and not going to be seen retroactively any time soon. Case in point, I recently introduced my friend to Akira for the first time and urged him to watch it on subtitles due to the atrocious quality of the English dub, lacking tone, urgency and impression; watching pre 2k anime is just a matter of subs non dubs… FACT. The beginning of 3×3 eyes is almost ruined by the new dub that changed the entire context and without so much as a wink, I hadn’t seen it for a long time and it confused me so badly I had to pause, abandon and find out why on google immediately. It seems that outside of their home market, there is simply no respect for any aspects of the story as long as they can sell the product quickly. In fact, the first believable dub I heard was on the 2001 metropolis which was just an amazing film and I don’t recognize any of the dub cast.

    The next point worth making is that I don’t have much faith in the voice acting capability of “a Jonas brother” let alone Noah (is he the gaunt tattooed one???) Cyrus. I can only see it as a shame that the Disney claws are sinking deeper into the last bastion of animation, apart from taking jobs away from some of the amazing voice talent that’s out there, there’s always the risk that it will tar all of these anime as child friendly pop fests ending in the inevitable stream of Japanese kiddy flicks á la Pokemon which will just saturate the markets and force unnecessary pressure on the valid studios. It’s surely just another sign of our decaying times and you have to ask how much they’re expecting to be making from this film to fund names like that? Is it going to be touted around the major cinemas, flogged like a fresh but dead donkey? Do you really want the intimate nature of arthouse cinema shoe horned into your local almost £8 a ticket showcase chain? Good for the blockbusters maybe, but you know it’ll be ruined by the screaming kids in its school holiday matinee time slots.

    Personally, I don’t think that you can beat the 1986 Transformers: The Movie track, I mean Leaonard Nemoy, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Orson “WOW” Welles? I thank you, now that was one hell of a cast and as such it made the film, but they were all actors and they’d all done their turns… I guess I’m just cynical about the pop culture newbies and uber commercialism mix. Either way, nice blog.

  2. jonny, you make a great point that early dubbings of japanese animations were so terrible that they had to redo them, along with the translation.

    but don’t both ghibli and manga lipsync their animations to the japanese voice-over? in which case, there’s as much of an argument for watching with subtitles as with traditionally-shot films (i’ll expand on my ‘all films are animation’ idea at some point).

    and just remember: people who work in places like the duke of york and often elitest schmucks, and since ‘watching with the subtitles’ is now what common people do, obviously they’ll have to turn it on its head to remain elitest.

    case in point: i was told in the duke of yorks by someone that worked there that to play zelda 3 properly, you had to do it with the snes controller. if i’d had one, they’d have probably made up something about a crt television rather that a flat screen or something. there will always be something they can be elitest about. as you say, the final word on the matter is what you enjoy more, ie. which is less distracting.

  3. Another good point on the sync track trouble, I guess some people just enjoy the experience and some don’t. I was watching flying daggers with a friend when it came out on DVD and because they now preserve the artistic quality by refusing to release dubs, it was a subtitle only affair. During the film, I was chatting to one of the other guys there, not thinking it would cause any trouble with his subtitles, when he turns around to me and said “can you shut up? I’m watching the film!”… I never knew the guy spoke Cantonese?!

    As far as elitism goes, there is still the option of forcing die hard fans to learn braille and then hand out embossed scripts so you can follow it, soundless, as you watch…. Patent pending (because I kind of like that idea).

    As far as Zelda goes, why didn’t you slap him for skipping over the original Nes controller? That guy sounds like a complete freakin nub.

  4. lol jonny.
    it reminds me of the berzerker going on about how he really wanted that “early carcass sound” and then going on about brands of guitar stringers and humbucker pickups. hey, the berzerker – the point’s way over there (and yes i did buy and watch the berzerker dvd to find that factoid out)

    sat down to watch totoro for the first time last night. being a sunday night, we thought we’d try it with the dubbing but the wierd american voices were so annoying. it just didn’t fit with the cartoon.

  5. I think we’re just going to have to face the fact that you can either have subtitles, bad dubs or polished dubs with annoying Disney kids. I guess it’s just another part of the unstoppable consumerism train running all the stops in its search for mucho deniro and it’ll soon be a case of keep a hold of your petty, antiquated pride in the face of a (relatively) new import industry or bend over and take a dose of Mickey… I for one don’t want to play Minnie so I guess I’ll just have to keep topping up that prescription or go for laser surgery so I can keep reading the subs well into the gradual shrinking which is bound to happen so that we all have to do the half term matinee run on another step to being a part of the forced sell out of the last genuine dissidents… or something like that.

  6. Nice article regarding this!

    By the way, would you be interested in reading and commenting your opinion on whether you believe subbed vs dubbed animes is better? http://nynyonlinex.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/dub-vs-sub/

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