Monday, April 20, 2015

The anime language test

Most true cinephiles would never watch a movie that had been dubbed. There just wouldn't be any question of it. If they somehow stumbled over a dubbed version, they'd shut off the TV the moment they realized the mistake. They'd walk out of the theater if there existed any reputable theater that would actually show a dubbed film.

Interestingly, though, this anti-dubbing absolutism does not apply to anime.

It may just be me that observes this distinction, but I don't think so. Dubbing in the animated form should be just as off-putting as live action dubbing, especially since most animated content takes great pains to match the mouths up to the words. Japanese animation, however, is a slight exception to the rule. Although the mouths are generally designed to fit the words, the movements are (probably deliberately) left more ambiguous in order to better accommodate foreign audiences.

I personally have always watched anime with English dialogue, in part because it can be harder to focus on the lush imagery if you are constantly reading subtitles. But lately I've started to wonder if watching the movies dubbed has been a factor in why I don't love anime the way some people do, or the way I love other forms of cinematic animation.

So when I started the anime classic Ghost in the Shell on Friday night, and heard the dialogue start in English, I impulsively changed the language option to Japanese with English subtitles.

And loved the movie.

Now, there's no way to tell exactly how I would have felt about it if I'd watched it in English first. You can't watch something for the first time twice.

But given that the movie is barely 75 minutes, I decided that I could watch it in English a second time, and record my observations. The movie isn't due back at the library until Tuesday.

That might not complete the impossible task of replicating what it was like to watch a movie for the first time, but I was pretty sure the results would seem useful. I also hoped that without having to concentrate so much on the plot and the dialogue, I could soak in the images a bit better. So I threw it on again Sunday night.

And definitely liked it less in English.

But did I like it less because of the spoken language, because I had perhaps overrated it to begin with, or simply because the first viewing of any movie has an advantage over all subsequent viewings in terms of offering surprises, unknowns and discoveries?

Who knows.

I did reach a conclusion of sorts. What I appreciated so much about Ghost in the Shell on first viewing was not its plot (it's complicated and could benefit from an additional 30 minutes of world building, which will surely come in the 2017 live action version starring Scarlett Johansson) nor the strength of its animation (it's neither the best-looking nor the worst-looking anime I've seen). Rather, it's the atmosphere this movie creates. Ghost in the Shell establishes a melancholy, dreamy world in which androids consider how human they are -- making it a bit of a spiritual cousin (or, ripoff) of Blade Runner.

But that world has only a fraction of the impact when the characters are speaking English. This is an essentially Japanese world, with Japanese cityscapes and a fundamentally Japanese aura. My favorite sequence of the film is a transitional interlude in which the terrific (very Japanese) score is playing over a bunch of what you would consider B-roll of this world. It made me realize that it is this world in particular, and the exotic quality it has for a viewer in my position, that entranced me so.

Add a bunch of people speaking English, and it just creates an abrupt disconnect. As is the problem with any instance of dubbing, these voices coming out of these mouths just sound funny. And it's not because the characters are very clearly Japanese and the speakers are very clearly not -- in fact, many of the characters sort of seem white. It's because the dialogue is not native to the movie, and something about that will always be off.

Who knows, maybe it is those subtle differences between the movement of the mouths and the words that are coming out.

I have to pause to acknowledge another relevant factor: the talent of the voiceover artists. If Ghost in the Shell were being released in 2015 instead of 1995, its English voice cast would certainly feature known Hollywood actors with mellifluous voices bringing tons of baggage about our previous associations with them. That could be good or bad, but at the very least it would most likely be skillful. The English voice cast here is comprised of working professionals, anonymous folks who are probably not being careful directed, but doing more or less their own interpretation of the vocal inflections required by the dialogue. They responded to a need, rather than really contributing to the film's artistic thrust.

The benefit of having a Japanese vocal cast, then, is that I am much more poorly equipped to determine whether they are delivering the lines successfully or not. Those Japanese voice actors might have been terrible, but I'd never know it because I don't speak Japanese. Their deliveries sound good to an untrained ear like mine, and they do the ever-important work of making the movie feel how it was originally designed to feel.

Armed with this knowledge, that I want an authentic experience more than an easy one, I look forward to seeking out more anime in the future. I can't watch the ones I've already seen and not loved again for the first time, but I can dig deeper into some underexplored back catalogues, such as Studio Ghibli. Rather unbelievably, I've seen only three movies produced by Studio Ghibli, which is pretty scandalous for someone who calls himself a cinephile. And that includes only one movie directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki (that would be Spirited Away).

It does make me wonder about my favorite anime film of all time, Grave of the Fireflies (one of the two other Ghibli movies I've seen). I feel quite certain that I saw that in English, yet it impacted me profoundly. Perhaps they got a better English voice cast than Ghost in the Shell got, or perhaps the movie is just so damn good that I could have watched it in Greek without subtitles and still been blown away.

If you ever figure out the perfect formula for determining why we love the films we love, let me know.

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