Let us not fool ourselves. Anime is a niche market. Even at the heights of Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon’s popularity it was still a niche market but a stronger one back then, than it is now. There were several years when Japanese animation was considered “new and hip” with the youth and adults a-like but those days have long since passed and Japanese animation has become entirely common place and more than a little stagnant. With that, sales of Japanese animation DVDs from such distributors as Geneon, ADV, Bandai, FUNimation, Viz Media, Media Blasters and a number of other distributors have seen notable drops outside of a few select titles. Along with that, the market flooding of niche titles from Geneon and ADV brought about the demise of Geneon and a drastic restructure for ADV which now operates as three separate companies.
When sales are down what do you expect is the first luxury to go? Special features have never been that notable on Japanese animation releases beyond special releases of full-length animated features backed by companies such as Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony. Your typical Japanese animation series DVD release had sparse extras as it was. So the first thing to cut the cost of production beyond what little special features were even present before is of course the costly English dub produced so that Japanese animation would be able to be presented in the native language of the people buying the products. Some people do not mind this at all and consider a dub to be unnecessary or would even prefer for shows not to get dubs because there have been plenty of dubs that do not well represent the original product. I on the other hand see a notable value in dubs and I am here today to tell you the reader exactly why I see that value.
The Old Sub vs Dub Debate
Just about everywhere I go where Japanese animation is discussed there are those who prefer to watch shows dubbed in English and those who prefer to read English subtitles over the animation presented with the original Japanese audio. The debates are seemingly endless but truly it all comes down to preference. I will go ahead and make my bias clear upfront. I prefer to watch media in my native language more times than not. I will watch subtitled media often but when I am presented with the alternative of the same material presented with an English dub I will more than likely choose that option. The only reasons I would not is if the dub modifies the product to the point of no longer being the same thing. Thankfully outside of a few companies that generally produce dubs only for children very few companies produce dubs that alter the product to be something else. I also have certain expectations for dubs I will admit and when dubs do not meet my expectations I may end up choosing to return to the Japanese audio with English subtitles on a DVD I have purchased.
What is “good enough” always comes down to preference. For instance I have generally enjoyed FUNimation’s dub of Dragon Ball Z despite its many flaws and the recent dub of Dragon Ball Z Kai is even better. However, many people would still consider it unfaithful for various inaccurate terms that were retained from the previous dub along with a few less than stellar casting choices. The sub vs. dub Dragon Ball Z debates are some of the most prevalent that I have come across.
Having an English dub has always been the most significant gateway for any Japanese show to find a broader audience in America. There are several reasons for that. Casual audiences like to watch shows and movies in their native language. For many it is a more enjoyable experience because they are not given the task to listen to the Japanese audio, watch the animation and read the subtitles all at the same time. For people who are used to watching Japanese animation in this manner it is not really a big deal. You could say you get used to it. However there is no question that being able to watch media in a language you understand requires a great deal less effort on the viewer’s part. Those who claim that any audience can enjoy a Japanese production just as the Japanese audiences would are only fooling themselves. The Japanese audiences understand the Japanese language and do not have to read subtitles. On the flip side American animation is often dubbed in Japanese for Japanese broadcast rather than be presented in English with Japanese subtitles.
Few channels in the US will air Japanese animation in Japanese with English subtitles. The reason for this goes back to the fact that casual audiences prefer to watch anything in their native language. Because of this, if a show does not get an English dub and is only available in Japanese with English subtitles it has little to no chance of ever being shown on US television. Considering how few Japanese animated series air on US television outside of the FUNimation Channel (which by the way only airs dubs) the number of anime that air without an English dub are miniscule compared to that but it has happened on occasion. However you will never see Cartoon Network, Syfy, Disney XD, Nicktoons Network or various other channels that play Japanese animated series air them in Japanese with English subtitles. That is not to say the demand is not there at all. There are many viewers who would love to see that happen but they are a minority that will continue to be overlooked when it comes the television broadcast of Japanese animation in America.
The Streaming Age
However in the current age of legal streaming the majority of Japanese animation getting streamed is being presented in Japanese with English subtitles not only on niche streaming sites such as Crunchyroll.com and VizAnime.com but even on the mainstream service Hulu.com where you can watch the latest episodes of network and cable television hits along with a surprising amount of Japanese animation. While some of those Japanese cartoons are available to be viewed with an English dub the majority are only available in Japanese with English subtitles. The most significant reason for that is the several of those series are being uploaded very shortly after they broadcast in Japan and there is not enough time to produce a dub for them. Companies are wising up and drastically cutting down the time between a Japanese release and an English release in order to prevent piracy and more power to them.
However there are many backlog titles which already have dubs that are streaming on Hulu without dubs and my question remains, why? I would think having an English dub streaming on Hulu would do wonders for getting at least some of these shows more exposure. FUNimation has been wise enough to provide dubs for most of what they have streaming on Hulu along with a sizable amount of titles they stream on their own video service. Viz on the other hand has their own website dedicated to streaming anime using Hulu’s player and likewise what they offer on Hulu is only available in Japanese with English subtitles. In the case of Naruto, it could be that Disney XD’s streaming rights to the Naruto Shippuden prevent Viz from streaming it on Hulu and their own site but Bleach for instance has never streamed on Adult Swim Video so its’ streaming rights should not be an issue. It is wonderful that such a vast variety of titles are streaming legally online but I cannot help but feel like we are more so just helping “our own” rather than reaching out to the broader audience that these streams could if an English dub was also available.
The Trend of Sub-Only DVD Releases
Likewise several series are getting Japanese audio only DVD releases from companies that at least at one point dubbed most of what they licensed. Bandai and Sentai Filmworks (previously ADV) are two of the most notorious companies for recently releasing buzz worthy titles without English dubs. Again this is a cost cutting measure and it is true that not every series will be able to make back in sales what the company paid to produce an English dub for the release. Sentai has recently taken up the strategy of releasing shows sub-only at first then judging how well they sell before reselling them with an English dub. While I think it is great that some shows eventually do get dubs after the waters are tested, this kind of strategy drives me bonkers. For me to buy a sub-only release in full because I enjoyed the show enough to overlook the lack of a dub only to see it not long after get an English dub for another release is frustrating to say the least and such was the case with Clannad.
I for one cannot imagine that a Japanese audio only DVD release would do better than a bilingual release. By sacrificing that the licensers may be losing out on a much greater opportunity than they realize but I do not believe that the companies who publish sub-only DVDs do not understand this. They are again merely weighing the value of that broader audience possibility over what it would cost to produce an English dub. Some shows warrant one and others do not but it is still a shame when great shows lose out on a chance to find a larger audience because they did not receive a dub. That lowers DVD sales and takes them out of the running to make it onto US television which remains to be the best exposure any Japanese animated series can get in the United States.
Without Dubs You Lose Broader Exposure
English dubs are tremendously helpful in introducing new people to shows you enjoy. Rarely do I ever show someone a subtitled Japanese production unless it is the only option available. It is unfortunate that sometimes elements of animated series are “lost in translation” but a great deal more is lost on a new viewer when they have difficulty enjoying the series because they would rather watch something in their native language.
Exposure and marketability are the keys to success for Japanese animation in America. Without an English dub shows will not air on television, will not find a much broader audience on streaming sites such as Hulu and will not be as easy to introduce to new audiences so you have already lost a great deal of exposure opportunities. Without exposure marketing falls flat so even highly marketable titles could be left by the wayside.
While I do not want to give of the impression that I feel that I as a buyer am “entitled” to an English dub I do fully believe in the value of a good English dub and I am far more likely to buy a DVD release of a show with a good English dub than one without a dub. So I for one hope that this phase of sub-only releases will pass but I do not anticipate it will any time soon. So I implore you the viewers to support English dub releases by watching English dub streams and buying bilingual DVDs of the shows you enjoy. After all if we the existing fan base wont do that then who will?