Among nerds who love anime, there is one subject that is even more controversial than such classic arguments as whether or not the Star Wars Christmas Special is cannon. When it comes to anime, the big debate is whether or not it’s better to watch the sub or the dub. It’s a topic so contentious at conventions that entire screening rooms can burst out in vicious, brutal screaming matches as the unruly cosplay masses vie to see which contingent can shout down the other side. On one side, the sub contingent believes that most #anime is best heard in its original language. Voice acting is a much bigger deal in Japan, where some VO performers are treated like superstar idols.
There are even entire anime devoted toward the profession, as opposed to the American dubs, where there are usually the same half-dozen people who voice 70–80 percent of anime that are released just because they live near Texas, where the Funimation offices are located. That can lead to some insufferable dubs that are just terrible to listen to. This is the kind of thing that generally tends to stigmatize anime among mainstream audiences.
But every now and then you find an dub that either has the right amount of talent thrown at it or, because of the Western influence or setting, the English voice acting just clicks. After all, it’s hard to convey a New York accent in Japanese. Generally, we like to take a moderate approach. We understand why most people loath anime dubs, but feel there are certain exceptions to the rule that stand out above the rest. Here are a few of our personal favorite anime dubs.
14. 'Princess Mononoke'
This was the film that put #StudioGhibli on the map and made Hayao Miyazaki a household name in the West. The film definitely caught attention outside of Japan when it became the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan. The film was noticed by the infamous head of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, who picked up the film rights to distribute it in America. Famously, he wanted to make cuts to the film, but producer Toshio Suzuki sent him a katana with the message “No cuts.”
Weinstein spared no expense bringing #PrincessMononoke to the English-speaking world, having Neil Gaiman work on the localization script and getting Hollywood talent for the VOs like Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, Keith David, and Jada Pinkett Smith. While some still prefer the original Japanese vocals, Princess Mononoke began a tradition of Mizaki films getting first-class treatment, bringing big name talent that’s normally not seen in the realm of most anime releases. This helped Princess Mononoke serve as a great entry gateway piece for many people into the larger world of anime.
13. 'Cowboy Bebop'
The definitive anime that every dub defender brings up when they try to hold English dubs over sub-loving purists. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also the most famous gateway anime drug used to convert the non-otaku. #CowboyBebop remains an immortal classic for a reason. The entire series is infused with tons and tons of Americana — a space western infused with a heaping helping of neo-noir with a jazz soundtrack. Even Wantanabe himself says the series DNA is “one third Chinese, two thirds Western.”
After hearing the dulcet tones of Steve Blum’s Spike Spiegel, it’s hard to imagine anyone else trying to take on the roll, although it was once rumored that Keanu Reeves might have been courted for a live-action version. The series’ noir setting and jazz soundtrack goes along perfectly with the English VO. The fact that the cast is mostly composed of adults instead of hyperactive voices and screeching teenagers that are normally associated with anime goes a long way in selling this series to people who usually despise anime.
The dub for this series is fantastic, and the reason for it is pretty simple: regional accents. The Japanese version is OK because everyone is speaking Japanese, so I guess it’s kind of the equivalent of Les Miserables, where everyone is technically French but nobody is trying to fake a French accent. I’m not sure what American-accented Japanese sounds like. But since I’m American, I do know what a Hollywood-style, Prohibition-era mobster should sound like, and that little bit of extra effort from the dub team makes this series shine like the gonzo period piece that it is. Ladd Russo, Firo and Luck all sound just right. Oh, and let’s not forget Szilard, everyone’s favorite amoral alchemist who shows up with an Italian accent. Again, something that doesn’t quite work for English speakers in Japanese but shows up as a nice little detail in the dub to give the series that extra sprinkle of magic that the right casting choice can lend an anime.
11. 'Dragon Ball Z'
I can’t stand a lot of the One Piece voice acting, and I always preferred Naruto in Japanese too. #DragonBallZ is not on that list. I get that there’s something of a tradition to having women voice the (usually) young male protagonists of shounen series, but they really should have gotten someone else. Masako Nozawa was perfect for the Goku, the monkey-tailed boy from Dragon Ball, but somewhere along the line Goku went through puberty and ended up with muscles stacked on top of muscles, and keeping the same high-pitched voice with the new ripped bod was an odd choice to say the least.
How do all the beanpole thin characters from Luffy’s straw hat crew have deeper voices than Goku? Also, if you really want to see something weird, check out Krillin’s voice. Again, perfect for the original Dragon Ball, but just kinda weird on a character who is over 20, regardless of his size. Not to mention the fact that the english VO of Dragon Ball Z has kind become an iconic thing. The dopey, kind-hearted naïveté of Sean Schemmel’s Goku, the no-nonsense sternness of Christopher Sabat’s Piccolo, and the proud and boastful tone of Brian Drummond’s Vegeta are all voices that are now eternally associated with their respective characters.
10. 'Hellsing Ultimate'
Hellsing at its core isn’t a very Japanese story. It’s essentially a reworking of the Bram Stoker mythos into an over-the-top action spectacle where dual gun-wielding Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards) proceeds to be one of those antiheroes who’s so villainous and brutal that you'd almost feel sorry for the legion of Nazis and vampires he liberally rips and shoots apart if watching them die wasn’t so cool. But the #Hellsing cast has many ethnicities — none of them Japanese. There are British people, Italian people, German people, all with thick accents that just don’t quite work as well in the Japanese sub. If you don’t see why, then maybe this clip of Father Anderson’s wonderful broken English might give you a better clue.
There’s something missing. Something about hearing the Lord’s Prayer in butchered English, that doesn’t quite have the same impact. It’s not just Father Anderson who benefits from an English-speaking actor.
Integra Hellsing and Seras Victoria work much better with people who can actually handle their dialect and accents. So when the Millennium Nazis’ infamous Major gives his great war speech you want to hear it with something that at least vaguely resembles a German accent.
The overall production of the Hellsing Ultimate OVAs is great. It managed to fully adapt the entire run of the original manga to its conclusion instead of trying to invent an original ending like the first anime did. While the overall quality of the ending of Hellsing is a bit debatable (c’mon if you’ve seen it you know Walter making a heel turn makes no sense and the only reason Hirano did it was because he needed someone else for Alucard to fight), the overall production value and talent brought by the English VO cast manages to even alleviate some of the more nonsensical stuff from the end of the series.
9. 'Fullmetal Alchemist'
#FullmetalAlchemist served as a great gateway anime that crossed a huge divide and managed to create more than a few new fans to the medium. It was helped greatly by airing on Adult Swim’s late-night programming block. The series’ cheery and playful tone hid a dark underbelly with a dollop of good old fashion alternative history and transhumanist themes, turning it into an international sensation. Special care was taken with FMA’s English localization. Funimation even went as far as using the same bucket that was used by the Japanese voice actor to record Alphonse Elric’s lines just to make sure they got the same robotic sound effect. Funimation’s dub of Fullmetal Alchemist elevated the company in the eyes of fans from that distributor who ruined Dragon Ball Z to one of the most respected licensors of anime in the United States.
4Kids would quickly go on to take that dishonor, but FMA marked the turning point for Funimation. I have to say, a lot of the side characters in Fullmetal Alchemist really make it work. Shaou Tucker is the creepiest monster in the entire series, and he barely has any screen time. The homunculi aren’t exactly bad either — they all have VOs that fit their personalities and traits. While the chibi humor scenes might turn off people who hate anime, the dub nails the dramatic scenes, which is why both the original series and the eventual Brotherhood remake had such a lasting impact.
FLCL is just a case of good dubbing. Yes, there are Western influences in the form of South Park references, but there are also just as many nerdy Japanese references in the form of Lupin III and Evangelion (to name a few). Really, it’s just a fantastically nerdy romp, all wrapped up in an extended metaphor for puberty. It isn’t so much the accents but the total abandon with which the actors throw themselves into their roles. They match the frantic, kinetic animation style, and it’s pretty clear everyone who worked on the dub had a blast.
Barbara Goodson as Naota is the perfect angry 12 year old, and Kari Wahlgren as Haruko is just as over excitable and flirtatious as she should be. Also must-see viewing because the series served as the launching point for current anime director superstar Hiroyuki Imaishi, who handled a great deal of the animation direction, story board, and key animation in #FLCL.
7. 'Samurai Champloo'
Often considered the other Wantanabe masterpiece, #SamuraiChamploo features a distinct fusion of style and genre. While English voices might not seem to make sense for series set in Edo Japan, Watanabe’s desire to create an anachronistic fusion of classic samurai dramas with more contemporary elements like hip-hop leads to a combo like none other in the anime world. In fact, this fusion can be seen in the title itself. A champloo is an Okinawan word which means “mixed up” or “stirred together.” It can be used to refer to food, but more directly it tends to translate for anything that’s improvised or made up as you go along. In this case, champloo references the improvisational style of hip-hop. It’s designed to have the same rhythm as an improvised hip-hop rap battle or poetry slam. So, seeing a samurai like Mugen start break-dance fighting or getting wrapped up in a graffiti contest is all a part of the series' charm. It even makes the beat boxing that accompanies many of the series episodes make thematic sense. If the series is ultimately an improvised remix, mashing together different genres and elements of different time periods why shouldn’t the VO track reflect that as well?
6. 'Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt'
Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is foul, disgusting, shock jock-style humor at its finest. The #animation style is a direct homage to western cartoons, and the show aims to offend early and often and, of course, to be as loud as possible We’re talking marathon sex, giant poop monsters, weird incest overtones, vomit — name something horrifying and it probably shows up in the series.
Don’t get me wrong, the Japanese version is fantastic, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, but I’d say the dub is just as good because the script writers took the vulgar visuals and plot and matched it with dubbing that was just as over the top and crude. Check out the Japanese and English version of the same scene:
No, the English dub isn’t the most literal translation ever, but I’ll be damned if they don’t capture the spirit of the show perfectly.
Shin-Chan is a staple of the world of anime and manga in Japan, having existed for over 20 years, with 50 volumes of manga and an anime series that’s still running (with over 900 episodes). It’s safe to say that Shin-Chan is kind of like the Peanuts or Garfield of Japan — an everlasting iconic cartoon character that’s culturally ubiquitous and immortal. However, a lot of the jokes in Shin-Chan don’t really translate very well in other languages. In fact, in many cases it’s impossible to translate many of the jokes in the series. A gag might involve Shin using the wrong phrase such as replacing “I am home” with “welcome back” and confusing his parents. It just doesn’t work in English. While the series has been brought over to many different countries, with each one taking a different approach to translating and localizing it, Funimation probably had the most memorable approach to bringing it over to an English audience.
Basically, they hired a bunch of comedians and script doctors to punch things up, remixing episodes and even poking fun at how blatantly out of order things were. Characters were changed, had their personalities adjusted and entire swaths of the story were rearranged so things could be sprinkled with American cultural references. The entire thing is kind of hilarious. Imagine if a foreign country got their hands on Peanuts and turned Woodstock into a foul-mouthed drunk and Snoopy into a delusional lunatic, and you have an idea of what makes Shin-Chan go great. It even had the privilege of airing on Adult Swim. It’s on Netflix right now so if you're interesting you too can witness the hilarity.
4. 'Space Dandy'
There’s a recurring theme on this list, with most of Shinichiro Watanabe’s most notable works appearing on it — and for good reason. A lot of his work tends to feature some kind of Western theme, which sort of makes each of his respective series work really well in English. The same goes for Space Dandy, which involves a sort of retro-futuristic vision of a dandy guy in space seeking out aliens because he’s an alien bounty hunter.
Space Dandy is less interested in telling a cohesive story as it is in allowing Watanabe to invite all of his animator buddies to go wild telling short stories and doing whatever the hell they want with the Space Dandy cast. Space Dandy is supposed to be an alien bounty hunter who discovers new aliens, but instead of doing that, he transforms into a zombie, goes to a high school prom, and somehow he even manages to die and take a wonderfully experimental trip through the afterlife.
Space Dandy also had the special distinction of being one of the very few anime to get its English dub broadcast simultaneously with its Japanese air date, something that almost never happens given the extra production and licensing that usually goes into to acquiring the rights of anime to be aired in the USA. For any fan of Watanabe’s work, Space Dandy is a must see, especially with it’s amazing English voice cast.
3. 'Summer Wars'
Summer Wars has quickly become a modern anime film classic. Wunderkind director Mamoru Hosoda has become the director that has been hailed as the successor to Hayao Miyazaki. Summer Wars was the film that really let him take the center stage after the phenomenal success of his previous film The Girl Who Lept Through Time. The concept is pretty simple: An awkward nerdy boy is invited to stay over with a girl who he has a crush on. He has to deal with her huge, multi-generational extended family during her great grandmother's 90th birthday. Of course, this happens while he becomes embroiled in an online conflict that threatens to take down the digital social network that runs all of Japan’s infrastructure.
The digital and real world seem like they're ready to collide, but the true strength lies in the human connections that are forged in the real world that ultimately save the day. The film is a life-affirming piece of anime greatness that serves as a wonderful gateway piece to introduce people into the wonders of anime. Plus, its ultimate message about the strength of human connection in an increasingly digital world is one that hits home, especially as we collectively go deeper into our worlds of Facebook and Snapchat. The VO cast consists of anime veterans who do a great job of translating some of the more regional aspects of the film into something that feels universal and epic, but also intimate. It’s a must see, and the English VO is a great entry piece into the wider ocean that is anime.
2. 'Big O'
Yep, another western-themed anime makes the list. Now, we’re never told where Paradigm City is exactly, but considering pretty much everything is Art Deco, it has the feeling of a post-apocalyptic 1930s or 1940s New York City. Add to that the harbor and what looks to be the Brooklyn Bridge, and the connection grows clearer. It’s not that that Japanese cast is doing a bad job, but hearing voices in English paired with a New York style skyline just feels right. It also helps later on in the series when the concept of foreign government rears its head.
It was always assumed that Paradigm city was the only vestige of civilization left after whatever the hell happened 40 years ago. But then all of a sudden, French films, French writing, and French accents show up. Holy crap — France survived! Or, I guess maybe Quebec? Point being, those aural cues add a lot to a show, especially when post-apocalyptic dystopian xenophobia comes into play. Either way, the fact that the series basically feels like if Bruce Wayne used a giant robot to protect Gotham City gives the English VO that much more credibility.
1. 'Ghost Stories'
OK, there are better dubs around — I won’t lie about that. So why is this taking the No. 1 slot? Because the dub managed to salvage an otherwise unwatchable anime. You see, in it’s original form, #GhostStories was so bland and painfully mediocre that when it came time to license the series for US distribution, ADV was pretty much told to do whatever they wanted with the series as long as they could get it to sell. That’s exactly what they did. The serious original script was ripped up for the dub and it was replaced with a mix of comedy and ad libbing. The voice actors were allowed to go nuts, and the end result feels like a professional version of an abridged series.
There’s a crazy fundamentalist christian, an incoherent child, off-color jokes, and snide references to Republicans. Sure, maybe Ghost Stories doesn’t have the acting chops of Minnie Driver or Billy Crudup in Princess Mononoke, but consider the end result: Princess Mononoke was already a gem that just needed a bit of localization. Ghost Stories was a pile of crap that ADV somehow managed to alchemize into gold with the magic of dubbing.
Which is your favorite anime dub? Is there one that you loved that wasn’t in our list? Let us know in the comments below.