Anime expert Fred Patten talks with a host of voice actors about the pleasure and pain of dubbing Japanese animation into English.
When the first American licensed videos of Japanese animation began appearing in the early 1990s, many of the hardcore fans claimed that American voice dubbing was terrible that "the only way" to watch anime was with the original Japanese voices and English subtitles. Today that complaint is seldom heard. Were the early fans hypercritical? Or has the quality of voice dubbing genuinely improved over the past decade? We have asked five voice actors and directors with experience in recording for both American and Japanese-imported animation productions for their impressions. Are there really differences between the two? How do they see the dubbing of Japanese animation as having affected their profession?
Bob Bergen wanted to be a cartoon voice actor since he was five years old. In his teens he wrote fan letters to such voice stars as Mel Blanc and Casey Kasem, who gave him professional advice on how to get into the business. He has performed in hundreds of TV and theatrical animation titles, including WB stars Porky Pig, Tweety and Marvin the Martian; and such features as Finding Nemo and The Emperor's New Groove. His roles for Japanese productions started in the late 1980s with Akira and include Lily-C.A.T., Lupin III and Spirited Away.
Crispin Freeman got his B.A. in Theater in 1994. He has appeared in Broadway theater (A View From the Bridge), in off Broadway (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Princess Turandot, Dead Reckoning, others), in regional theater across America and on television (The Guiding Light). He has voiced anime characters in The Slayers, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Record of Lodoss War and Revolutionary Girl Utena among others.
Michael Lindsay has been a professional actor since age 14. He's appeared at public theater in New York, written three off Broadway shows with the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Rent, Jonathan Larson; written for television, appeared in TV shows and numerous commercials as well as independent films. He recently performed Oswald in the Theatricum Botanicum's King Lear and Cassius in Julius Caesar at the Thousand Oaks Civic Plaza. He began doing voice over about 11 years ago and started dubbing around six years ago. Some of his American animation credits include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Kids in Room 402 and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. Some of his anime credits include Yuu in Marmalade Boy, George Kodama in Kaze No Yojimbo, Joe and Greymon in Digimon and Kioji Mujo in Scryed.
Olivia Venegas has been writing, producing and directing live-action television and animation for more than 10 years. She has directed such notable anime titles as GTO (for "Great Teacher Onizuka"), Reign: The Conqueror and Marmalade Boy.
Jennifer Wagner is creative director at TOKYOPOP, a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in licensing and translating anime and manga into English for the fast-growing American pop-culture market. She is the producer and co-director of Marmalade Boy and has worked on GTO, Brigadoon, Initial D and Reign: The Conqueror.
How long have you been a voice actor? About how many different animation titles have you worked on?
Bob Bergen: I've been in the voice acting business more than 20 years. (and I'm only 25... go figure!!). Wow, I'm not sure how many animation titles I've worked on. It's in the hundreds if you include features and TV.
Crispin Freeman: I've been a voice actor for almost seven years now. I've worked primarily in Japanese Animation. My shows include Wolf's Rain, Witch Hunter Robin, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Digimon, .hack//, The Big O, Last Exile, Hellsing, the Read or Die OVA, and many more.
Do you do voice acting for live-action movies and TV as well? If so, about (roughly) how much of your work is live action, how much is American (U.S. and Canadian) animation and how much is Japanese animation?
Bob Bergen: Yes, I've done voice work for a slew of live-action projects. A partial list includes Gremlins, Independence Day, Look Who's Talking Now, Total Recall, The Mirror Has 2 Faces and Santa Clause 2. Since I'm not a Canadian citizen I don't work on Canadian animation projects. I've worked on far more American animation than anime.
Crispin Freeman: I've done an animated show for a German company that was not a dub job as well as a number of videogame projects, many of which are recorded before the animation is done. I've done a couple of live-action dubbing jobs, but not many, mostly Asian live-action films.
About how many American (U.S. and Canadian) animation series have you worked on? About how many Japanese series?
Bob Bergen: I've never counted all the series I've worked on. A partial list of U.S. animated series includes: Duck Dodgers, Dennis the Menace, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, Johnny Bravo, PowerPuff Girls and Tiny Toon Adventures. Anime TV and direct-to-video titles include Teknoman, Lily-C.A.T. and Nadia of the Mysterious Sea. Anime feature work includes Akira and Spirited Away.
Crispin Freeman: I have not worked on an American show yet, but I've worked on probably 40 or more Japanese TV shows and movies.
Olivia Venegas: As a director in Japanese anime, my credits include GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka), Reign: The Conqueror, Rave Master, Marmalade Boy, Here Comes Greenwood and Brigadoon. I've also directed short-form programming and commercials in American original animation for clients such as Disney, ABC and FOX Kids. My career has enabled me to have the privilege of working with some of the top voices in the animation industry such as those for Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man.
Did you have experience on many American series before you started working on Japanese series, or did you start both about the same time?
Bob Bergen: I started working in American series first, with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends in the early `80s. My first anime project was Akira back in (I think) 1987. [N.b.: Akira was released in Japan in July 1988 and in America in December 1989, so some time between those two dates.]
Crispin Freeman: I started in Japanese animation first. I started my career as an actor in the theater, working on Broadway and Regionally for many years before I started doing Japanese animation.
Olivia Venegas: I had 10 years of experience working in American television (both live action and animation) before I started working on Japanese anime.
If you have been a voice actor for several years, how has the growth in popularity of Japanese animation affected the voice acting industry? Is there appreciably more animation voice acting work as a result?
Bob Bergen: There is much more anime product out there today then ever! Much of it is nonunion and done outside of Hollywood (Texas and Colorado), which doesn't affect those of us who live here in California. Plus union actors (SAG) can't work on nonunion projects, so we don't even compete for those jobs. However, there is still much work done here in L.A., both union and nonunion.
Crispin Freeman: I think it has affected the American industry tremendously. From a financial point of view, anime is a lot cheaper to get on the air since the animation has already been finished in Japan and all that needs to be done is to dub it into English. The SAG contract for dubbing animation does not pay nearly as much as the SAG contract for original animation. Also, the dubs on many anime series are non-union so their budgets are even lower. This makes anime very attractive to a producer or network from a financial point of view.
I don't know for certain, but I would think this puts a squeeze on the budgets for original American shows to try to be more competitive with the anime budgets. If they can't then I would imagine that the networks would buy fewer of the American shows and more of the Japanese ones. That's just conjecture on my part, however, since I'm not a producer yet.
From an artistic point of view there's also a huge influence. I've seen a number of American shows try to do the "anime style" because of the rising popularity of anime. What they fail to realize is that anime is popular not because of its stylized character designs or super-deformed antics, but because the stories in anime are not limited to a juvenile audience. American culture decided in the `50s with the Comic Book Code that comics and animation should only be designed for children.
That relegated an entire medium to one genre of expression. That never happened in Japan; there are comics and animation for every demographic group. In addition, a much larger percentage of the Japanese population read comics and watch animation than in America. Therefore, the stories in anime can be much more mature and sophisticated. It is that level of sophisticated storytelling that attracts such a devoted following across every demographic group. American comics have begun to come out from under that adolescent mind-set, but they still have a long way to go in my opinion.
Animation, on the other hand, seems trapped in the nursery, telling stories only to children or concerning issues of childhood. When Princess Mononoke was brought over for distribution here in America, no one seemed to know what to do with it because it wasn't easily marketed towards American children.
Luckily, Spirited Away could be marketed toward American children, albeit slightly older children, 13 or so. Disney's demographic is seven-year-old girls. If they don't get a G-rating, they lose money. That limits your storytelling ability pretty dramatically, especially when more and more kids are playing videogames rather than watching animation.
Michael Lindsay: When I started out dubbing, there were really only a handful of anime companies. In the six or so years that I've been doing it, the industry has literally exploded. I'd say now my workload, including series and CD-ROMs, runs around 60-40 for Japanese titles. Although it's probably helped that some of the recent Japanese series I've had the good fortune to do were fairly high profile.
Olivia Venegas: In my experience as a director, I've noticed that the growth in anime's popularity has enabled us to get access to a much wider range of voice actors in recent years. The talent pool is expanding quickly, although there still seems to be a learning curve when it comes to looping speed which is a critical factor to consider when casting for this type of work.
What are the differences between the two? The major difference that most people are aware of is that American animation is usually prerecorded while Japanese imports are post-recorded. What other differences are there?
Bob Bergen: The big difference is the money!!! American animation for television pays approximately $700 for a four-hour session and residuals for reruns. Anime, if union, pays about $60 per hour (guaranteed two hours work) and little in the way of residuals. This is why you don't see as many mainstream American animation actors doing anime, with the exception of some features. I myself would do much more anime if the pay was better. It actually should be just the opposite. In American animation you don't have to match sync.
Anime dubbing is a much harder skill. Some of the best actors in the world do anime. Unlike on-camera work in film or TV there is really no time for the actor to prepare emotionally for scenes when dubbing. In a movie you might shoot one-to-two pages of script a day. And you have time to prepare for emotional scenes to "get you there," so your acting is real. In dubbing you go line, by line, by line. Your character might go from pure anger, to hysterical amusement, to a fight scene, etc. You don't get the time to prepare for each adjustment. You are just expected to do it... immediately! Therefore you have to be able to adjust your acting emotions much faster than on camera work.
Plus if you are the first actor to dub a project you have no other performances to work off of. Acting is reacting. So if there is no one to react to you are kinda going by the seat of your pants. But a good dubbing director will make sure your choices work.
Crispin Freeman: Acting to animation that has already been finished is probably one of the most technically demanding types of acting I've ever had to do besides musical theater and opera. If you're lucky, you have a great adaptation to work with and the script is already very close to matching the lip flap on screen. Then you as an actor have to try and match that flap which takes a lot of rhythm and acting coordination and still make the line believable, or in other words you have to act well! Then if it doesn't match or you need to pause here or there, you have to come up with a good acting reason for why that would happen, or else it will sound mechanical and "dubby."
Also, you're dubbing by yourself in a voice-over booth with no one else to play off of and you almost never know what the story of the show is unless you've researched it yourself. That makes you incredibly dependent on the director for guidance. It's very difficult to do well and there isn't a lot of money in it so there isn't a whole lot of incentive for some of the best actors to get involved.Also, on the whole, anime is not as cartoony as a lot of American animation, it's much more straightforward and dramatic. It's closer in style to something like Gargoyles or Batman than Ren & Stimpy or SpongeBob SquarePants. Also stories in anime are more serial in nature and less episodic. You have to watch them in order or else the story won't really make sense.
Michael Lindsay: The big difference in recording pre versus post is that in post you go it alone. You're in a booth with a director, an engineer and sometimes a producer and those darn beeps. With pre-recorded you're in a room with the other actors and you can riff off of their timing and impress them with your brilliance. If you screw up it's a public event. In anime, the engineer eats all the mistakes.
In Marmalade Boy almost 80% of Yuu's scenes are with Miki, yet I've only met [her voice] Michelle Ruff a couple of times. Truth be told, I'm sure Michelle's not remembering what I look like probably makes it a lot easier to say; "I love you, Yuu" and keep her lunch down. But sometimes it's odd to do heavy scenes and go it alone. One of you in a scene is always going to do it before the other person records.
Olivia Venegas: Since the animation is determined before the voices are recorded, there is a definite handicap when it comes to the acting, which is highly dependent on how the characters were drawn and how the show was edited. It takes an extremely talented actor to be able to pull off all of these factors and still make it sound natural and engaging.
Unfortunately, most of the anime dubs being produced now have low budgets, which adds another very important factor: Speed. We are expected to record 30 lines per hour usually, which is extremely fast.
Some Japanese animation fans prefer (or used to prefer) to watch DVD anime in Japanese with English subtitles because they claim the voices sound "better," "more dramatic," "more realistic," "less cartoony," or similar descriptions. (This criticism is made most often regarding dramas for teens and older audiences.) How do you feel about this? Are you directed any differently for post-dubbing of Japanese productions than for American productions? Are you directed any differently for animation productions than for live-action productions?
Bob Bergen: Every project, whether American animation or anime, is different. You basically make choices, then take the director's suggestions. The feel of the project depends on the producer or director's vision. So it isn't that the difference is between American animation or anime, it's whatever is needed for that particular project. The big difference between the two is that you don't have to match sync in American animation VO work, which allows much more freedom for the actor. The difference in live action? No one cares what I look like in animation!!! You don't have to hit your mark. No make-up!!!!! I don't have to shave!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! But acting is acting, whether it is for animation or stage, commercials or films. You still have to believe the actor!
Crispin Freeman: For the fans who say that the Japanese voices sound "better" or "more realistic," my question is, do you speak Japanese? How would you know if their acting is better or more realistic? Many times an anime fan will just like the sound of the Japanese better and that's fine. Sometimes I do too! But I think it's sorta silly to insist that all Japanese performances sound more realistic than American ones if you don't actually speak Japanese. A good friend of mine who is Japanese found out I was acting in anime and she asked me if I was performing "over the top" or being "melodramatic" like the Japanese voice actors do.
Now, to be fair, there are many bad English dubs out there and many times the Japanese sounds better because the English dub is so awful. But that's more a reflection on the lack of skill and talent on the part of the English dub than the seeming superiority of Japanese voice actors over all American voice actors. Yoko Kanno, the composer for many famous anime series including, Cowboy Bebop, once told the English language director of the series, "Our Spike, good. Your Spike... Sexy!" To me both versions of Spike are wonderful because they're played by wonderful actors on both sides of the Pacific.
What I try to do both as an actor and director is to understand the intention of the Japanese creators and performers. I believe it was Tchaikovsky who said that the artist's goal is to try to share one's emotions and feelings through a piece of art in such a way that the audience shares the same emotions as the creator. I want an English language audience to have the same emotional experience as the Japanese language audience. That, of course, is impossible to accomplish exactly because of all the different cultural nuances, but that is my goal. Sometimes I can do that be sticking very close to the original Japanese, but sometimes, things need to be adapted slightly so the same intention comes across. I always want to stay true to the creator's intention, however.
Michael Lindsay: As for the anime fans who prefer the Japanese? I think people prefer what they've grown accustomed to. I'm an actor and I can't control what people think of my work or even this field. I just try to do a good job. I've never phoned in a performance in my life and I'm not about to start now. I try and stay as faithful and real to the character as the story, the script and the animation allow.
Olivia Venegas: Different production companies do things differently. If I have a choice and working on a dramatic series, I concentrate on making the voices as natural sounding as possible. Casting and scripts are critical. Taking into consideration that we are definitely bound by what has already been animated, my ultimate goal is ending up with a show that's entertaining.
If you have been dubbing Japanese animation for several years, has there been any change in dubbing direction? Are you being asked to perform "more realistically" today than you were a few years ago?
Bob Bergen: Again, you take the cue from the director. I don't see a general trend. It's all per project.
Crispin Freeman: Absolutely. Believability is the name of the game now. Those old Speed Racer cartoons are wonderful and campy, but that's not where dubbing is nowadays. On average, a lot more care is taken to make sure that the end product is believable than in the past. There's a still a wide range of quality from the best dubs to the worst dubs, but on the whole, the licensing companies are much more concerned now with the acting quality of a dub because they realize their market is increasing by having anime in English. Japanese anime fans follow their favorite seiyuu (Japanese voice actors) and that has spilled over into the American anime fan. They are following their favorite American anime voice actors.
I myself have a fansite on Yahoo with more than 470 members. That would've been unthinkable four or five years ago. A lot of this comes from anime's presence on TV. In order to air an anime on Cartoon Network it needs to be in English and that is how the vast majority of fans are experiencing anime. That's how I experienced anime when I was a kid and it wasn't until I was much older that I ever watched anime sub-titled.
Another criticism is over changed pronunciations of Japanese names, such as the common girl's name pronounced "SA-kura" on Japanese voice tracks and "sa-KU-ra" in some American productions. Do you watch the Japanese versions first to listen to the original voices and try to match their intonations, or are you directed for your performances without having heard the Japanese track?
Bob Bergen: I've never watched an original project before dubbing. You pronounce the way you are told. I myself have never seen an American animated film dubbed in Japanese. Do they pronounce all of our characters with American dialects??? Is Snow White, Snow White?? Is Porky Pig, Porky Pig?????? Just curious!
Crispin Freeman: Depends on the show. But on the whole, we are asked to match the Japanese pronunciation as closely as possible while still making it sound natural. It can be hard for many American voice actors, however, who are not familiar with Japanese. I myself had to say the phrase "Amakakeru ryu no hiromeki" many, many times in Ruroni Kenshin, sometimes twice in the same sentence! I fancy myself being pretty skilled at pronouncing Japanese words and I had some trouble with it!
In L.A., we almost always get a preview of the Japanese performance before we lay down our track with very few exceptions. In N.Y., we almost never got a preview of the Japanese before we laid down our performance. Different strokes for different folks. I myself prefer to preview, not necessarily to match the intonation of the Japanese, but to understand their intention and most importantly, to see if the rhythm of the writing matches the lip flap on screen.
Michael Lindsay: As for pronunciation, I always go with the pronunciation the director says is correct. Japanese is a language whose syntax, vocabulary and syllabification are obviously completely different from English. The idea is to get across the sense of the situation or emotion in a way that is easy on the English-speaking ear.
Olivia Venegas: We usually have the pronunciation of the word written phonetically by someone fluent in Japanese (approved by the client) and we also preview the Japanese track before recording to make sure we've got it right. Pronunciations are very important.
Are there differences between recording anime for TV broadcast and for direct-to-video/DVD release? Some titles have been released on DVD in two versions, the "TV version" and the "uncut version." What do these differences mean to you in the studio? Do you record different versions of the same episodes, or just record one version, which is then slightly cut for TV?
Bob Bergen: The recording process is the same. Oftentimes the TV version is just edited down from the entire uncut version. However, often times you record a scene twice: once for the uncut version and once a bit cleaned up for TV. This is also done sometimes for on-camera. Then again, I've been asked to dub many well known on-camera actors to clean up a film for TV.
Crispin Freeman: It's been completely the same for me. I haven't really had any instances where we edited the anime for broadcast except for when I was adapting scripts on Pokémon. Obviously on that show there was a lot of input from producers and higher ups on what could air and what could not. And on Digimon, I know they changed many things, but we dubbed to the edited version, not the original uncut Japanese version. But other than that, most of the anime I act in and direct goes out the door as is with no differing versions for DVD or broadcast. If the network decides to cut something later, that's out of my hands.
Michael Lindsay: The only difference I can find are little things like a "Crap!" for "Shit!" substitution. Obviously for a DVD package there will be many more special features like a commentary track or a blooper track ("I'm not wearing pants!"). [A Marmalade Boy in-joke.]
Olivia Venegas: It could mean different things. One is that the TV version would be a version specifically tailored to the American audience where for example names, places and storylines are changed. And the DVD version would be for the anime fans that expect names and such to be kept intact. Uncut could also mean scenes that may have been cut to enable the series to be aired on TV are included. Generally all scenes (the uncut version) are recorded at one time and edited for TV afterward, if necessary.
Which do you prefer, acting for American animation or for Japanese animation? Does dubbing Japanese animation present any particular challenges over dubbing other foreign animation such as French or Spanish?
Bob Bergen: I myself prefer American. The actors have much more freedom due to the fact they don't have to match sync. Plus the pay is better. And I've only dubbed from Japanese.
Crispin Freeman: I like dubbing for Japanese animation because I'm so fascinated by the stories and the characters. But there are limitations because of the lip flap and cultural translation issues. I'm working on acting in some American shows because they tend to be much more spontaneous and improvisational than the Japanese shows. They're both different animals, however, and I'm sure I'll have different levels of satisfaction with each one. My goal is to produce my own animated series/movies that take the best from both sides of the Pacific. I really admire the work in The Animatrix, and I think some amazing stories and animation could come out of those types of collaborations.
Michael Lindsay: I love to work period. Some projects you obviously like more than others, but I'd be a fool to say I liked one to the exclusion of the other.
Some Japanese animation voice actors have become well known in the anime fan community and are guest speakers at anime fan conventions. How does this "stardom" compare to your voice acting for American animation?
Bob Bergen: The anime fans are far more loyal!!! I've been to a slew of anime cons and love em!!!!! The fans rock!!!!!!!!! There are far more anime cons than American animation cons. And I think there is more anime "stardom" than American animation "stardom."
Crispin Freeman: You know, I'm not sure. I think there's more of a culture of following voice actors in anime because Japanese voice actors are celebrities in Japan. That bleeds over into the American anime fan community so that they end up following their favorite American anime voice actors as well. I'm not sure how many people follow the careers of American animation voice actors. I don't think there's as big a culture of that in this country. Most people don't know the actors who play their favorite American animation characters.
Michael Lindsay: I've been recognized in public enough times to know that it's a double-edged sword. If I'm praised, I feel great. If I'm criticized, I have to say "Oh crap! How do I dispose of this body?" I really haven't attended that many conventions and things like that. The 2004 convention in Anaheim [Anime Expo] was my first. It was an eye opener. For starters, more than 100 people showed up. I then thought that at the signing everyone would swarm around Wendee Lee and Michelle Ruff (Michelle and Wendee are really great about getting themselves out there to meet the fans) and completely ostracize me. That didn't happen. I walked around the convention and got a chance to talk to some really great people. They were very, very kind.
There is obviously a passion about anime that is very real and very meaningful to so many. I think that's a great thing. Would I go to another event? I think I'll have to play that one by ear, but my first experience at a convention was pretty enjoyable. It's pleasant to be appreciated. The thing about voice over in general is that it's very anonymous. You don't expect to be recognized for a cartoon. When it happens you're kind of awed. When I've done TV or something, being recognized is understandable. When you're recognized for animation, it implies that the person who recognizes you is REALLY into animation.
Are there any personal comments that you would like to add?
Bob Bergen: Just to thank all the fans out there!! Without you all we'd have no work!! Feel free to print my Website address: Porkysvoice@aol.com. I answer every fan letter myself! And if you have any more questions yourself feel free to ask away!!
Crispin Freeman: My only personal comment is that I hope that the American culture can mature a bit and stop relegating animation to being a medium that's only appropriate for children. As an animation creator and performer I find it needlessly limiting and in my opinion it's killing the American animation industry. The rise of anime comes because it is fulfilling a need; a desire on the audience's side for dynamic and meaningful storytelling that is not aimed solely towards children and that is about something that matters.
There's plenty of bad anime out there just like there's plenty of bad American TV and Hollywood movies. However, HBO raised the bar in terms of the possibilities of storytelling on television with shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Angels in America. I feel that the American animation industry needs to grow up a bit and start tackling more sophisticated and nuanced material as well.
(For voice directors only). Does directing the post-dubbing of Japanese animation present any quirks or problems that make it harder or easier than directing voices for American animation? How do you feel about having the voice cast listen to the Japanese voices to match the original intonations?
Olivia Venegas: Directing the previously animated anime shows are a lot more challenging than original animation. You must direct the voice to match the animation and keep the delivery of the particular character's emotion sounding natural to an American audience while keeping the story engaging, even though it was animated and edited in a very particular way.When directing original animation you have a lot more flexibility and have virtually no boundaries when developing a character and a scene.Previewing the original Japanese dialogue tracks is completely dependent on what the client wants and who your audience will be.
With regards to referring to the original Japanese, especially with our series Marmalade Boy, we rely heavily on the Japanese to keep the original intonations intact for the English version. We often refer to it for pronunciations, which are always confirmed with Japanese speakers in our office. It's very rewarding when the fans can "hear" the effort we put into making sure the English voices match up well with the original voices.
Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainment's The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).