The Beauty of the Haikyuu!! Dub – or, Why Dubs Matter Just as Much as Subs

This might be controversial to say, but whatever, here goes.

I love the Haikyuu!! dub. 

Until about two months ago, I hadn’t even touched Haikyuu!! as a series. As fate would have it, though, my partner stumbled upon a video of some highlights from the dub, and we collectively about pissed ourselves laughing – the script was just so good, and the voice actors really delivered. We basically took this as a good excuse to start watching the show – I had intended to watch it for a while now anyway, and she had wanted to catch up on it to be ready for the next cour coming in a few seasons, so after watching that video, we decided, hell, why not watch the first episode dubbed? The first episode went by, and then the next, and then the next, and suddenly, we’re at the end of season 2 and are scrambling to see who has the dub for season 3, because if it’s out there, it just wouldn’t feel right to not watch it dubbed, you know? What started as a “haha funny goof” turned pretty quickly into an unabashed admiration for this show’s dub. Somewhat unsurprisingly, given that the anime fandom is so often prone to “discussions” about subs versus dubs, a fair amount of people are of the opinion that the Haikyuu!! dub is some hot, steaming shit. And to that, I say “yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

This is not about to get into a subs versus dubs argument, because that shit is just tired, uninteresting, and, since it all stems from subjective viewpoints, pointless. What I do want to talk about, though, is the importance of great dubs, how subs and dubs are essentially serving the same purpose, but in different ways, and the need to axe the elitism inherent in subs vs dubs “debates”.

Before we get into our larger discussion here, let’s move back to Haikyuu!! for a second to get some context. As a core caveat of this piece, before I started watching the dub, I had never sat down and watched any of the show, and I had no experience with the subbed version and its original voice cast. One of the most prominent complaints about the dub (which you can find by scrolling into the comments on the second linked video above) is that the dub voice cast “doesn’t fit the characters.” Folks are, of course, free to hold that opinion, because the knowledge of who is the best voice actor for a character is, in fact, just an opinion. (For instance, some people think that Patrick Seitz is the superior voice for DIO via the JoJo dub, and while he does do a killer job with DIO’s voice, I think that anyone who prefers him over Takehito Koyasu should be nailed to a cross. It doesn’t mean that I’m objectively right, but I can think that.) 

If you can’t hear this image, what are you even doing?

As someone who had never watched the Japanese subbed version of Haikyuu!! and thus had zero context to base my impressions off of, I thought that the characters’ voices fit perfectly. Daichi, the responsible team captain, sounds like a total dad in both the way that he talks to the team, and in the actual sound of his voice. When Tanaka, the hotheaded dummy with a heart of gold, quips “suck it, nerd!” after scoring in a practice game, it doesn’t feel at all odd or cringey – it feels like something a specific kind of dumb, hotheaded teenage athlete would say. Hinata, our sweetheart pipsqueak protagonist, feels exactly like the cute little dumbass that would call some dudes who are bullying him a couple of pukes and major-league buttwads

Are these specific ad-libs and phrases the dub puts in direct translations from the original script? No, they aren’t. Do I care? No, I don’t. Because in a hilarious way, these creative tweaks in the dub script make me feel like I’m watching real teenagers, and that’s an incredible feat. Do they say some really dumb, cringey stuff? You bet your ass they do. And that’s exactly what many teenagers do – they go through some weird points and say some dumb shit, because for many people, that’s an expected part of the teenage experience. I love that this dub is able to convey that, and how real it’s able to make the cast feel to me as a viewer.

This GIF sums up most of high school, period.

The ability to convey a sense of realness, of believability of a cast, is, in large part, the point of a dub. Generally speaking, while a dub is obviously here to convey the story of the original source material (unless you’re working with, say, the dub of Ghost Stories), the goal is not to get a 1-to-1 recreation of the original in terms of speech. Its purpose is to interpret and translate the source material in such a way that a different-language audience would consume and enjoy it. Why bother dubbing a show if there is not an intent to make the characters feel relatable and real on some level?

So, let’s take inventory for a second. Why is all of that important? Why did I need to talk that much about Haikyuu!! when this is ostensibly about just dubs as a whole? I’m of the firm opinion that you should be able to provide a solid example of something if you’re looking to make a larger case about it, and the Haikyuu!! dub stands out as a prime example of what I consider to be an excellent dub, and I’ll get into that more in a little bit. But beyond that, I’m also genuinely fascinated by why people are so absurdly insistent that dubs are garbage, and why a dub that I think is just excellent is so grossly maligned by a large subset of its fandom. The fact that it’s 2020 and there are strong pockets of the anime community that are still tossing around “sub vs. dub” shit as if there’s some concrete, objective answer is ridiculous (just look at the response post Owningmatt did a few months back that touches on elements of this absurdity). It’s arguments such as these that have led me to this piece, and it felt appropriate to have a polarizing dub act as the opener. 

I said earlier that this would not be a subs versus dubs piece, and I intend to keep my word on that. That being said, I still need to look briefly at an “argument” that is central to the “dubs are bad” portion of these spats in order to get where I’m going. In particular, the point that I’m looking to get out of the way comes from an absurd idea spawned by sub purists – the idea that the subbed version of an anime is the intended, best way to watch a show, and that it is the closest version of a show to the original, raw Japanese.

I obviously worked very hard on this one – I am a true artisan.

One particularly funny part about this whole “subs are objectively the best” claim is that it feels like the subtitled anime and the raw anime are being conflated through this argument – as if the subbed version of an anime is one and the same in meaning, interpretation, and intent as what was aired in Japan. They are obviously the same show, and of course a subbed version of a show is going to stick to telling the same story, etc., because that’s the whole point of a subtitled translation. But to say that you’re getting the pure, original experience of the show with the subtitled version, while the translation of the dub is going to give you an inferior version, is laughable. 

The fact of the matter is that, shockingly, subtitled anime is also translated anime! You don’t have to go too far back in the fandom to remember a time where fansubbing was a huge, burgeoning scene, where one of the biggest questions of the day was deciding which group’s translation you were going to pick up. Picking out which sub to watch was an exercise in looking at different people’s interpretations of how a show would be translated – some groups may have gone for as literal a translation as possible; some would try to adapt it in a way that is faithful to the story and still works to be as accessible as possible for viewers; some were even translated with joke scripts that were absolutely not accurate. At their core, fansubs were a way to try to make anime accessible and enjoyable in one way or another for those that didn’t speak Japanese. While fansubbing has fallen by the wayside and more commercial, legal avenues of watching anime are the more widely used options now, it still does not change the fact that the subtitled version of an anime is still not the original version, and it never will be. There are so many differences in languages and cultural nuances that nothing can truly be the original anime except for the original itself. Changes have to be made to a script for an audience to properly understand what’s going on, and some of that requires certain localization choices that might deviate somewhat from the original phrasing, etc.

Ultimately, a subbed anime is just as much a re-interpretation and attempt to make anime accessible for a different audience as a dubbed version of an anime is, and this is an important point that seems to get lost in all of the elitism of sub purism. (The Cartoon Cipher has an excellent video on this, so I would highly recommend that you check it out if you want a more detailed look at the process of dubbing, the changes that go into it, and why.)

An accurate representation of sub purists.

If subs and dubs are both serving the same essential function – that they adapt a work for consumption by a new audience – then it leads me to the crux of this piece, which are two simple questions:

Why does it matter to you if someone watches the dub or the sub of something?

Does being a subs only purist somehow make your consumption of anime “better” than that of others?

Honestly, as simple as it may be, my core point is this: mind your own business. I genuinely do not understand why it matters if people are watching the subbed or dubbed version of a particular anime. If I am enjoying watching the Haikyuu!! gang in the dubbed version of the show, there is no feasible way that that is going to, in some way, cosmically affect someone else’s enjoyment of the subbed version. The existence of the dub does not change the content of the sub or the source material. It’s simply another way to experience that work. Folks are free to say that they don’t like the dubbed version, because we’re all going to have opinions (see: DIO’s voice actor and crucifixions), but there’s also no reason or need for people to be angry that someone else is enjoying the same story and show in a different language and interpretation. There is already enough gatekeeping in the anime community, and we don’t need anyone perpetuating more of it for a silly, subjective reason.

For the sake of argument, though, even if some people might accept that subs and dubs are doing the same core work, there are still those who would make the argument that the choice of words and translation can make a dub an inferior version of a work. Let’s go back to Haikyuu!! again – I mentioned that a lot of the script for the dub is definitely not a 1-to-1 recreation of the original (or subbed) script. However, the differences in the language choices (or even the dub voices of the characters) do not at all have any meaningful effect on the impact, interpretation, or story of Haikyuu!!. When Hinata says in the second episode that he wants to be the ace of Karasuno’s volleyball team, whether Tanaka responds with “You’ve got some nerve” or “Somebody’s got some cojones,” the story is not affected. We are not missing anything crucial by getting “oh yeah yeah yeah?” as opposed to “oya oya?” Nishinoya having a higher-pitched voice in the dub does not change his central characterization.

These differences obviously exist, and by nature of that, people watching the sub and dub will have slightly different experiences. It’s not as though the dub makes the whole show a goof-fest, either – it handles its serious moments with the amount of nuance and gravity that they really need in order to hit home. These differences in no way make it impossible for those different people to be on the same page when talking about the show, its characters, and its overall story beats. If we’re all watching the same show, why should it matter what version we’re watching?

Pictured: people enjoying subs AND dubs.

With that in mind, it’s also a bit silly to think that watching the subbed version of an anime is inherently superior to the dubbed version. Are there dubs that I think are better than subs? Of course – I will go to war with anyone that thinks the sub of Yu Yu Hakusho is better than the dub. But I also can’t imagine watching anything other than the sub of Konosuba. Do I care that an episode of Kaguya-sama from this past season included the phrase “social distancing” in it? Not really. Do I think that the “Gamergate” comment in the Prison School dub was a dumb choice? For sure. I can go all day looking at examples from subs and dubs that I find questionable or not, or that I think are the definitive ways to watch a show. It’s almost like…it’s all subjective and just a preference and pledging allegiance to one language or another is just silly when the actual product can vary wildly whether it’s subbed or dubbed? What a wild thought! 

(But seriously, yeah, some factors, like who wrote the script, who the voice talent is, etc. can all dramatically affect the overall quality of both a sub or dub, so just saying that one or the other is universally better is ridiculous and is a hilariously low IQ take. There is nothing inherently superior about the subbed version of a series over a dubbed version – it’s just a preference, and to apply such a blanket way of thinking is genuinely reductive in a fandom that already suffers from a number of issues keeping people away from it in its entirety.)

I guess what really gets me is that the subs vs dubs debate is, as I mentioned previously, a huge exercise in gatekeeping, and as someone who’s been in the fandom for a while now, I can say with confidence that there’s way more than enough gatekeeping already present in the fandom of anime. We do not need any more, and should discourage the presence of it outright. If people enjoy anime, why should we care? Let people like what they like. There is no reason to crusade for one side or the other, as each is subject to entirely different factors of their own production.

The thing that it really boils down to is this – I’m not watching the dub of Haikyuu!! (or, really, any dub) in order to evaluate how it compares to the subbed version. I’m not watching one show because I think that a sub or a dub is objectively superior to one another. In this case, I’m watching the dub because I want to watch Haikyuu!!, and I’ve had fun with the dub. When it came time to watch the first part of season four and only the sub was available, I of course watched it, and I had fun with it, as well. If I went back to re-watch it, though, I’d probably still pick the dub. I love how it handles the characters, and how the script makes the cast all feel so real. They remind me of my friends from middle school and high school, and watching and listening to them be dumb teenagers and sounding like the dumb teenagers I grew up with (and the dumb teenager I was) made my enjoyment of the show that much greater. 

I’m not even captioning this one. Wait shit –

The fact that I enjoy the dub and like how it makes me view the characters should be plenty enough reason for me to watch it. I shouldn’t have to have a full slate of reasons to explain why I decided to watch one version of the show over the other, and neither should anyone else. It all boils down to what people like, how a version of a show makes people feel, and whether or not they actually enjoy a show in the way that it’s presented. There is no need for such blind devotion to a particular version of a show, and there is no need for any kind of gatekeeping like this when we’re all just trying to enjoy the same show. If you want to watch subs only or dubs only, fine, but there’s no need to push that view on other people.

In the case of Haikyuu!!, had the dub not caught my attention with that compilation of clips, I have no idea when I would have actually watched the show. The reality is that the dub hit me in just the right way, felt genuinely fun to watch, and as a result of that, it made the series feel more immediately accessible to me at that point in time. That was all that I really needed to toss myself headfirst into it. The way that the dub allowed me to connect with and identify with the characters so easily made it a no-brainer for me to watch it, and I’ll always be grateful to it. In much the same way, I will always be grateful for dubs that manage to scratch that particular itch, or that are able to get me engaged on such a deep level. Dubs that allow me to identify so much with its characters will always be a necessity in my book, and I will always be on the lookout for them.

Really, that’s part of the beauty of a great dub – they can transport you into the world of a show in ways you might not have imagined. For many people, myself included, dubbed anime was my gateway into anime itself. Had I not seen the incredible dubs of Yu Yu Hakusho, Cowboy Bebop, Shaman King (yeah, it was a 4Kids dub, but it was still a good dub, fight me), and others through Toonami and similar venues, I would not have even thought to dive in and give subbed anime a try. And while going for a dub nowadays isn’t always my first choice, sometimes a character’s dub casting, or the way an entire cast just sounds can hit me in just the right way and make me want to switch over. It’s all just down to how a version, subbed or dubbed, makes me feel, and that freedom of choice is beautiful.

I re-watched Yu Yu Hakusho for like the fourth time over quarantine. This is my secret plug for the show. Watch it.

If we can throw away the silly notion that dubs and subs are meant to do nothing more than try to replicate bit for bit the original source material, then we can truly see and appreciate these different versions of anime for what they can accomplish. And I know for a fact that I would enjoy a more unified, more open-minded front of the anime community. Let’s drop the elitism and approach anime the way it’s actually intended to be enjoyed: with an open mind.

And, if nothing else, if you’ve had any intention of watching Haikyuu!!, or even if you’ve maybe already watched the sub, give the dub a shot, and see if it sparks any magic for you. You just might find yourself cheering your heart out for these dorks.

9 thoughts on “The Beauty of the Haikyuu!! Dub – or, Why Dubs Matter Just as Much as Subs

  1. Great Discussion and I agree with you in the sense that the haikyuu dub pulled me in and actually was my first sports anime I ever watched. I also appreciate the argument that both sub and dub are still interpretation of the show you’re watching regardless of whether you’re reading it or not. To me, I choose which one I use based on how intense the anime is (for instance intense fantasy/sports anime im unfamiliar with i need the dub as opposed to high school romances or shows I have watched a 1000 times I can watch subbed that kind of thing). Have a good day

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, awesome! Honestly, it’s a great show to get started on if you want to get into sports anime. It’s a lot of fun, has great characters, and really carries that energy that you want to feel in a show like that.

      You know, I haven’t thought about choosing a show’s version based on the intensity before, but that makes a lot of sense, actually! I’m sure the dub would really help to pull you in and keep you on top of what’s going on in the show.

      Thanks so much for your comment and kind words, and you also have a great day!

      Like

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