I am not a big anime consumer. But I do enjoy Miyazaki films.
I just watched Princess Mononoke for maybe the third time in my life: this time, in Japanese. The copy came with both audios, but only one set of English subs: so I was watching the Japanese version, subtitled with the text of the English version. But that shouldn’t be a big deal, right? They’re roughly equivalent, right?
What I saw was a portal opened to the greasy, cavernous depths of human evil.
You really don’t understand, until you have happened to watch a movie this way, just how disgusting the dubbing process really is. There is an opening shot of a forest, music plays. I am looking at subtitles telling me in an omniscient, authoritative tone (I can imagine a Disney trailer voiceover just reading them) about an age of gods and demons. This narration is not present in the movie I am watching. But it had to be there for the English dub, or we might not have known what the movie was about.
It soon becomes clear that in every scene with humans, dialogue subtitles are appearing even when no one is speaking. This is not an exaggeration: every single time a human is present in a scene, and you don’t have a clear look at their mouth, they do not speak in the animation. And every single time this happens, the English version makes them speak. There can be no silence; these gaps must be filled by mediocre English voice acting, without fail. Otherwise the audience would wonder what was going on. Huh? Why are we looking at those people being killed? Oh, the character just told me it’s a massacre! Good thing, I might have missed that! I know when I watch animation, I close my eyes and just listen to the characters tell me what’s happening.
As you can imagine, an entire movie’s tone can be changed this way. Friendly interjections are thrown in where there once was formality. A simple call to a steed becomes “Yakul! Come here boy! Good boy! I have to praise you verbally or the audience won’t know I’m a kind person!” Ashitaka gives instructions to people, and they run off. The subtitles respond for them, “All right! Don’t get hurt!” Ashitaka later must leave his village; his tribesmen cannot go with him, cannot say goodbye, cannot even watch him go. He departs in silence; the subtitles say, “Farewell.” This is all in the first five minutes.
It only gets worse as the pacing increases. A convoluted battle scene: a caravan is attacked. It is very obviously a supply caravan. But there is bustle, confusion. Through the battle, the subtitles give, over the crowd’s grey noise, calming instructions. “Come on! Keep moving!” The attackers disappear; there is suspense. “Where are they?” the subtitles ask helpfully. Men have fallen off a cliff. “What about them?” The caravan leader’s response is given curtly, to leave them for dead. The scene cuts there, but not before the subtitles can add, “Let’s get the living ones home!” Because they might have been moving on for some other purpose.
Why? What is the philosophy that justifies making your own movie out of someone else’s work? Princess Mononoke was taken, with its spare dialogue, and visually driving style, and raped. It was bound to a table, legs spread, and violated with stuffing and folderol, crammed into its cavities by the sweaty fistful. Were the translators being paid according to how many words they produced? Would Billy Crudup and Billy Bob Thornton only sign onto the project if they got a certain number of lines?
Translators — perhaps this is the problem. The movie is not dubbed by translators, it is dubbed by dubbers. All this time I thought I was getting translations of Miyazaki movies, when I was actually getting adaptations. Adaptations with American writers, American producers, American actors. The American audience expects nothing less.
What’s sad is, the adaptation isn’t actually that bad. It’s still a good movie, good enough to be one of the best I saw as a child. About fifty times better than Lion King, and I liked Lion King. Maybe that’s why they get away with it. But I have a problem with the ethics of rewriting a text (and a movie’s script is a text) with the imposition of one’s own ideas, and representing it as equivalent to the original. Please have this in mind, the next time you are watching a dub, if you watch dubs (most people do). There is no regard for the original tone in the dubbing process.
Miyazaki himself has said he wants audiences to watch his movies in their native language, whatever it is, so as not to distract from the animation. There’s something to be said for this; subtitles do distract. But they do not corrupt and defile, hopefully. They do not add and inflate. This cannot be said for Miyazaki dubs. Watching Miyazaki dubbed is not even watching his movie, but something else, with a cloudy, veinous coating on it. I thought I had seen Princess Mononoke before, but I feel like I haven’t really seen it until today. And since I was still reading the story from the English dub, perhaps I still haven’t seen it.