The Great Sub/Dub Debate: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

This blog started on February 4, 2018, and since I post the main thoughts on Sunday nights, I might be a day early on celebrating the anniversary. If I’m smart, I’ll get it out there a minute after midnight and hit the anniversary by the skin of my teeth.

My first blog lasted one entry. Go, go Overage Otaku!

And you won’t be rid of me soon. There are about a dozen more posts already in the can; all I have to do is cut them and paste them. I’ll run out of ideas sometime, but it appears that today is not the day.

Now, I wanted to celebrate my anniversary with something special that would make everyone go “Oooohhhh!” but you know what? Nah.

Although I’m sure this will get people fighting. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, looking for the right moment. Here we go…

I’m not really the guy to weigh in here. I have no ear for languages and a minimal (although expanding) knowledge of Japanese. I can generally make out “arigato,” “baka,” and “hentai” when I hear them, and the last is usually clear from the context (usually a pair of white panties is in sight). I was delighted when I watched the Lucky Star OVA and the first few lines were “Ohayou! Ohayou! Konnichiwa!” because I actually knew what they were saying!

I know that there are people out there who insist people should only look at subtitled anime. I’m not sure what the point of that is. Some of them mention the intonation of the actors’ voices, but that is culturally determined as much as the literal language used. To me, everyone in every anime (and in the samurai movies I love as well) sounds angry about everything. And I’m also a trained animator; remember, If I’m looking at the subtitles I can’t see the pretty moving pictures.

I don’t know squat from spoken Japanese, but I did have four years of high school French; I’ve seen French films with sub-titles (Amalie, The Grand Illusion, and Breathless come to mind) and I can tell you for damned sure that the sub-titles are generally simplified from the original dialog. The problem is that the actors talk faster than many people can read (the rule of thumb for text on screen is that you leave it up for the time it takes to read it through TWICE), so lines get condensed, redundancies eliminated, long phrases shortened, etc. Colloquialisms tend to disappear as well.

Sub-titles are usually cleaned up a bit, too. Sometimes examples are just too easy. In Black Lagoon the opening theme, Red Fraction, has lyrics in English and is also, for whatever reason, also subtitled in English. At one point the singer (fairly clearly) chants, “For christssake, this friggin’ world.” The subtitles read, “…this goddamn world.” Did they think we weren’t going to notice?

If the subs on anime are the same, I really don’t see the point of being a snob about avoiding a dub. The sub-titles will tell you the story, but they aren’t complete and they aren’t completely accurate.

Of course, there’s always that one example that makes the debate worth talking about.

I don’t remember whether I saw Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid first as the sub-titled version or as the manga, but I know fer sher the last one I saw was the dubbed version. There were things to like about the dub. One was that they played down a little of the fan service: for instance, there’s a section in the intro where all the dragons wave their human butts at the camera, and in the dub that’s letterboxed to make it less in-your-face.

There were things not to like about the dub, too, and one was that Tohru, the eponymous dragon maid…that is, she is a dragon working in disguise as a human maid…was played as a complete idiot, as, if the Eagles will forgive me for stealing their line, a bubble-headed bleached blond.


There are people who think I’m stupid? Wah! (Tohru)

This was not a sense I had gotten before in the previous versions. Yes, Tohru is unfamiliar with maintaining a human form and living on Earth; yes, she has very little experience with humans and none with our society. She sees things from her own perspective…a classic example is when she sees a teeter-totter and guesses that it is a primitive catapult…but that’s not stupidity, it’s just a lack of cultural context.

No, I’m wrong. It’s not a lack of cultural context. It’s having the wrong cultural context. Tohru wasn’t raised here, so she doesn’t know what’s going on here. That’s still not stupidity.

At the same time, she’s a dragon. She’s hundreds of years old, and has a life span that is essentially infinite by the standards of humanity. One of the stresses in her life is that, no matter the strength of her love for Kobayashi, Kobayashi will be dead in what seems like the blink of an eye to Tohru. That kind of lifespan is also not a recipe for stupid.

So, there’s no reason to expect her to be an idiot, and the manga doesn’t have the feel that she is. Naive, yes. Inexperienced with our world, yes. Stupid, no.

The sub-titles gave the same impression. Again, not being familiar with spoken Japanese, I can’t say for certain that the original actor’s choice of intonation (in communication, my field of study, we call that “paralanguage”) didn’t imply she was air-headed, but the text did not.

But it’s clear in the dub that Tohru is supposed to be capital D-U-M-B dumb. As we say in the trade, it ain’t the words, it’s how they’s said.

So, that begs the question: How does something like that happen?

Well, let’s start with this: I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect a lot of dubs are done really cheaply. If you look into it, a lot of your favorite voice actors take on different production roles (such as ADR Director) as well, and that suggests that they need the paychecks from multiple jobs. Under the pressure of time and low budget, I can’t imagine there is a lot of time for deep character analysis or retakes. Although, I’ll add, retakes are pretty cheap.

How do I know? I’ve made animated films. I’ve done voice work for others. Oh, yeah…I have a half-dozen voice credits. “Rex the Dog.” “Soldier Number Three.” “Announcer.” Stuff like that.

So: To me it looks like you’ve got an actor who missed the point, or it’s not a big deal either way. All it takes is a slight misunderstanding and all of a sudden Tohru has dropped 20 IQ points.

Another possibility is performance. A little research and I find that Tohru was voiced by Sarah Wiedenheft, a woman whose resume is insufficiently large as to rate her her own Wikipedia page. That doesn’t mean she’s a bad actor, but it suggests she’s not getting a lot of parts. Maybe she missed the point. (I see she’s popped up again in Interviews with Monster Girls, as Yuki, the Snow Woman. I’m not sure I care for that performance, either…she’s playing the character too young. Yuki is fourteen, not six.)

I don’t blame her, though. I can imagine there are actors who, if they got the call to say, “Hey, you’re playing Tohru,” would run out and buy the manga and watch the subbed version twenty times. But that’s not a requirement. There’s a story that says during the making of Marathon Man Dustin Hoffman stayed out all night before shooting a particularly gruesome scene so he would be weary and disheveled-looking the next day. He was asked why he’d done that, and he said, “How else was I supposed to prepare?”

His co-star, fella named Sir Laurence Olivier, said, “Well, you might try acting, old boy.”

Hoffman is the guy who watches the show twenty times. Olivier is not. Neither way is a better way of acting; they are just different.

But I can’t see the pay for a Funimation dub being enough for an unknown actor to invest hours of research into a part. I have to imagine Sarah looked at Tohru, saw the blond hair and the D-cup (“For dragon!”) boobs, and the blond hair and said, “Ding. Ding. Ding. Bimbo. Bimbo,” and if no one stopped her, that’s how it came out.

Or maybe it was the ADR Director who blew the call, and told her to play it dumb. There’s blame here to be cast, but on whom is unclear.

All this is personal. I, me, Dave…I don’t see Tohru as dumb. Others can have other interpretations. That’s how art works.

But in this case, I see a difference between sub and dub. I usually prefer dub, but in this case give me sub.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

It’s 12:03 AM. Happy birthday to the Overage Otaku blog.

6 thoughts on “The Great Sub/Dub Debate: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

  1. I’ve never done any professional voice acting outside of commercial production, but shouldn’t it be that director who tells the actor how to portray the character? I would think it’s primarily the director’s fault, if a character is misinterpreted or done a poor service when dubbed, no?

    You’re probably right about the pay, though. I’m willing to bet they don’t make a whole lot, and that’s unfortunate because dubs would probably be a lot better if the actors had more time to understand their characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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