Sub vs. Dub: Ghost Stories

There’s an old logical fallacy called “special pleading,” that basically says if you look around long enough you can find one example of your case, whatever it is, and then you argue that the one case is the Way Things Work.

There are a lot of people who insist that the only way to watch anime is to avoid dubs Like The Plague. Subtitled versions are purer, more accurate, and allow you to appreciate the performances of the original actors.

Well, if we’re all being such purists, shouldn’t we all become fluent in Japanese? (For those of you who know no Japanese past sayounara and arigatou, the word for the Japanese language in the Japanese language is nihongo. Poof. Your vocabulary is expanded.)

Me, I like dubs. The original actors can put in some great performances, but so can the actors dubbing the parts: Steve Blum (Spike Spiegel) and Stephanie Sheh (Nui Harime) and Johnny Yong Bosch (Vash the Destroyer) and Luci Christian and Greg Ayres and Kari Wahlgren and J. Michael Tatum and the fabulous Wendee Lee…I like dubs and there are a number of outstanding artists in the field.

Plus I can do stuff like type blog posts while I listen to the dialog. But in a lot of cases it can go either way for a lot of people.

Every once in a while there’s a case where there’s no doubt. WARNING: Special pleading follows.

Ghost Stories.

Seen it? Am I right?

If you haven’t seen it, do. Do not mess around with the subtitled version. NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU HATE DUBS, WATCH THE DUB OF GHOST STORIES.

The basic story is that the ratings of the Japanese release of Ghost Stories sucked gigantic moose wang*, and so everyone associated with it turned their backs on it and held their noses.

Then some dumbass American house came around and said, “Can we have the US rights?”

Not being stupid, the producers said, “Sure, pay us.” They took the money and ran, leaving the US producers of the dubbed version with four rules that boiled down to one point: Don’t screw with the cultural elements. The format of the show is “Ghost of the Week,” and the ghosts are common Japanese ghost types.

Fair enough. Too damned much racism in the world, anyway.

Of course, there’s plenty of racism in the dub of Ghost Stories, not to mention dick jokes, insult humor, anti-semitism, anti-Christianity, sexual humor and masturbation jokes about school kids, and references to Western culture by the bucketful. Given free rein, the writers and actors let it rip. Any, boy howdy, did they let it RIP! F-bombs drop like a B-17 raid drops iron bombs, and no one gets out alive.

Ghost Stories

Momoko (left), dubbed by the fabulous Monica Riel, and Satsuki, dubbed by Hilary Haag, better known as Teletha Testarossa

Putting on my “trained animator” shirt, let me tell you that a decent quality dub is a pretty difficult thing to do.

Back in the olden days no one gave a crap about “lip flap;” that is, what movements the characters’ lips were making as the sound track was running. If you go back to the old Speed Racer days, there’s not a good match between sound and vision. Adam Savage used to mock dubs like that in his Mythbusters days.

But audiences are more sophisticated now and that doesn’t work any more.

And a literal, word-for-word translation won’t quite work either because the Japanese and English languages are structured differently. In English a sentence is constructed (subject) (verb) (object). I (subject) am (verb) fourteen years old (object).

In Japanese the subject is often assumed and the verb often appears at the end of the sentence (German does this, too): yonjyusaimasu (“fourteen years old am;” it’s assumed the speaker is talking about themself.) This makes a literal translation somewhat awkward if you’re trying to match words to lip movements. Yonjyusaimasu has fewer lip movements than “I am fourteen years old,” and since the animation is already done, the script has to match the lips. “I’m fourteen” might be offered instead; it means about the same and matches the lip flap better. But “about the same” is not the same as “exactly the same.”

But without the restriction of having to tell the same story, the writers of Ghost Stories were FREE! And they made the great choice of letting the actors ad lib lines, too. Legend has it they played an old ad lib game: whoever came in first set the tone for the session and the others had to play along (”Don’t Deny the Premise.”).

Can you see voice actors getting up earlier and earlier every day to get the chance to screw with the story? I can.

And so what we get is a terrible translation and a hysterically funny series. It reminded me of Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, which was full of cultural references, but in its case the references were Japanese. In Ghost Stories there is gag after gag after gag about Western culture: References include Scooby Doo, Kate Moss, Claudine Longet (if you didn’t get that one, it was a skiing joke – the actress Longet killed her lover/ski instructor), turtlenecks, WB (the Warners Brothers network), Christian evangelicalism, the Black Crowes, Tippi Hedren (star of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Melanie Griffith’s mum), Geico insurance, actor Chow Yun Fat, pilates, Charlton Heston, Netflix, Barbara Streisand (“Mrs. Brolin!”), Reed Richards (a.k.a. Mister Fantastic), Spirited Away, Oprah Winfrey, Hell’s Bells (from AC/DC), Jessica Alba …To give you some idea, the last SIXTEEN were from just the last episode alone. They passed by WHILE I WAS WRITING THIS POST! I had to keep going back to put them all in.

Yeah, it’s meta level one, but it’s meta and it’s hilfuckinglarious! And just as I wrote THAT, the goddamned cat said, “I might as well just read the script” and kicked it up to meta level four!

None of that exists in the subbed version, and you miss it all. You end up with a Japanese ghost story even Japanese audiences couldn’t swallow.

Oh, and the opening theme. I have no idea what it is or who plays it, but listen to the drum line. That drummer goes INSANE. Total maniac!

No matter how snobby you are about dubs, if you are a native speaker of English, watch Ghost Stories as the dubbed version. It’s possible you might even thank me.

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.


*”Gigantic Moose wang:” Ask me about the time Larry Dunn blew a moose in Walker Lab.

2 thoughts on “Sub vs. Dub: Ghost Stories

  1. The Ghost Stories dub has been my favorite anime comedy for so long! It’s darker; more comedically crude approach is a style I love and find hilarious! Plus, it’s thrilling knowing Ghost Stories’ style of comedy woud be culturally rebuked in this age. The thought always gets me riled up for next episode’s watch.

    Liked by 1 person

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