We all watch anime for one reason: entertainment. We carefully sift through this season’s lineup until we find the perfect mix of setting, characters, and story. Once we’ve gone through the hard part, we just sit back and let the show take us on an enjoyable ride.
Whether you view anime with subtitles or dubbed is ultimately a matter of preference. But, I’m here to convince you why you should be viewing it with subtitles (if you aren’t already). Some people will claim that “subtitles are distracting”, “they cause viewers to miss out on details occurring on screen”, and a few other arbitrary reasons. Whatever those excuses may be, the benefits of using subtitles far outweigh any cons that might arise.
Watching an anime with subtitles adds another layer of gratification to the viewing experience. I’ll get to those specific reasons down below. Most of the reasons for using subtitles are very closely related. In fact they basically have a cumulative effect. However, the differences are subtle and they mean a world of difference once you take them into consideration.
I mentioned that the five points I’m about to make are cumulative in structure. So, let’s start off with the base: the original voice actors.
Original Voice Actors
Very few anime have western voice overs that are equal to the original Japanese voice. In fact, the biggest pro to watching subbed anime is that you no longer need to listen to the Western voice overs. (The second biggest pro would be that you don’t have to wait that extended period of time for your favorite show to get dubbed in your language.) You can enjoy conversation and narration the way it was intended. The Japanese studio that created the project chose to use unique voice actors because of their specific skillset. They were the ones appointed to bring these two dimensional characters to life.
A good rule of thumb has been that the original Japanese voice actors do a much better job than their western counterparts. It’s tough to beat an actor who has a script (from the creator) written in their language, understands the cultural nuances scattered throughout the show, grew up with anime permeating throughout every aspect of their life, and can receive direction from the person the source material came from.
At times it’s difficult to understand their pronunciation of words derived from foreign languages, namely English. This is where subtitles enhance the viewing experience for the audience. Not only do they allow the viewer to experience the audio in its native capacity, but they also reveal subtle connections that might have otherwise been missed. Which brings me to my second reason for why you should watch subbed anime.
Connecting Through Borrowed Words
I’m sure that at some point we’ve all heard “garaigo” or “borrowed words” used in a series. This is when Japanese takes a word from another language and confirms it to Japanese phonology and phonotactics.
It feels cool to be able to hear a word or phrase and realize that it’s something pertaining to our western culture. Sometimes, they don’t have a word in their own language so they have to use one that was borrowed from another language. But other times, you recognize that Japanese people generally use some of our words in the same way that we use theirs. It’s cool for them to throw around some English words similar to how we like to flaunt some cool looking kanji. It makes us feel connected to another culture that is on the opposite side of the world.
You ever see people that have kanji for water, strength, or love tattooed on themselves? It’s strange for to a native person to see a single, everyday word etched on someone’s skin. But, if it’s written in another language it somehow carries a bit of extra meaning and intrigue.
Some examples of these borrowed words are apparent, such as: (ハンバーガー) “hamburger” or (エンドオブザワールド) “end of the world”. But, a lot of the time these words are missed because the pronunciation is drastically different from what we’re used to.
In anime where the setting is a futuristic world, or is heavily dependent on technology you’ll notice that a lot of terms are borrowed from English. I’ll give you one example: Ghost in the Shell. If you’re at all familiar with this franchise, then you’ll know that it focuses on the relationship between androids and humans, cybernetics, consciousness, and cyber-terrorist attacks. With so much dense material to absorb you’re bound to miss some of the vocabulary that’s thrown around.
If you pay attention to the subtitles then you’ll pick up on some words such as: virus (ビールス), ghost (ゴースト), terrorist group (テロのグループ), and others. Pronunciation can oftentimes be different, such as in the case of virus (pronounced: bee-ru-su). So, if you were watching the dubbed version you would hear all the digital and psychological talk and not bat an eye. But, with the help of subtitles you can enjoy the awesome original voices while noticing the usage of these borrowed words. Somehow, Japanese fictional characters using our words, for terrible things occurring in their world, draws us into the narrative a bit more.
Familiarity with Names and Terms
The best shows usually come from expansive stories that have a multitude of characters, interesting settings, and world rich in history. We can appreciate plenty just by listening to the characters and seeing them interact in various situations. But, we can appreciate those shows much more if we develop connections and an understanding of that world earlier on.
Listening to foreign names can be slightly disorienting if you’re not making a conscious effort to actively listen. Because we don’t hear them on a consistent or everyday basis, we don’t immediately remember a character’s name the first few times we hear it.
It’s even more difficult when different people call that character by their first name (Ichigo), last name (Kurosaki), or use nick names (Kurosaki-kun). But, reading the name (and its variations) plus listening to it makes it easier to remember. It allows you to build a connection with characters faster. Although when you have a character like Orohime who is either always whispering or screaming out “Kurosaki-kun!” you probably don’t need subtitles to help you remember his name. In fact, you probably don’t need any other character in the series to ever say his name again.
Besides names, there are usually anime specific terms that take some getting used to. One small example is from Gundam 00. If you’ve watched the series then you’ve heard the term “Innovator” (イノベイタ－) thrown around a lot. It’s not a particularly difficult word to understand or remember. But, it’s also not one we generally use in our day to day life. Gundam 00 uses this term to define basically a new race of humans that have evolved naturally or artificially. We hear about “Innovades” (イノベイド) which are artificially created. There is also group that calls themselves “Innovators” (イノベイタ－) who falsely proclaim to be “True Innovators”. So, hearing the term and seeing it written in the subtitles helps you remember who they are. Furthermore, in this example, seeing the written out differences of “Innovades” (イノベイド) vs “Innovators” (イノベイタ－), via subtitles, helps to clarify things more than if you were just listening to the pronunciation.
For some time now, we’ve lived in the age where people no longer turn on the “boob tube” and fall prey to whatever happens to be on the few channels they pay for. Also, people don’t usually turn on the television, as they go about their work or chores, just to have some background noise. After all we have iPhones/android devices/or tablets that can do the task much better.
Instead, people are switching on their televisions to escape reality and enter their favorite fictional world. Maybe, they’ve missed the past few episodes and have become anxious that their favorite character has been torn to shreds by a pack of zombies. Or maybe they are biting their nails in anticipation of another noble falling prey to an assassin in the land of Westeros. Whatever the case may be, fans are no longer passive viewers. They choose what they want to watch, when they watch it, how they watch it, and, most importantly, how many times they watch it.
People love to re-watch shows. People are now salivating over any bit of extra information they can glean from an episode or leaked information about future episodes. That is no different in anime. Just as with regular TV shows, anime fans can use subtitles to catch important bits of detail that they may have missed if they were just focused on the immediate action and drama.
I mentioned at the beginning of the article that some people claim subtitles pull you out of the viewing experience. But, with our ability to watch shows whenever we want (and as many times as we’d like) we can actually use subtitles to extract small bits of information that we may have otherwise missed.
Certain conversations can foreshadow an event that has not yet taken place. Perhaps we remember reading a unique name or description in the subtitles. So, we go back and watch that part or Google that word that stood out. Now, we have a little nugget of knowledge that perhaps a more passive viewer doesn’t possess. With that we can talk to our friends and family about the show and surprise them with something they missed on their initial viewing. This can happen in a reciprocal manner and further increase our enjoyment of our already favorite series.
Learning via Subtitles
We’ve already gone over how subtitles enhance the viewing experience by making it more delightful and immersive, so let’s go over how it’s educational as well. People have different opinions when it comes to studying Japanese by watching anime. But, I think no one would argue that anime makes an excellent supplement to an already established curriculum. More so, if the show you are watching is slightly above your current skill level. Listening to pronunciation and intonation along with hearing the differences in phrasing between males and females are invaluable tools.
But, subtitles bring the learning to a whole new level. As someone who has recently overhauled their Japanese study habits, I can tell you that having new sentence structures and vocabulary reinforced is extremely motivating. Nothing lights an educational spark more than seeing your efforts echoed by something you already enjoy.
Aside from the twenty-something minutes of on-screen performance, you can also learn a lot by listening to the opening and ending songs of your favorite anime. You’ll noticeably increase your ability in a new language if you can learn to sing a song in that language. A lot of times the song will be translated to English and the lyrics will be written in Romaji. If that’s not the case, you may have to do some searching on YouTube or Google to have the lyrics written in a way that allows you to follow along. Either way, that extra bit of effort you put in will pay off in your studies while you pick up the ability to sing along to your favorite anime tune.
Subtitles create a more immersive atmosphere for the active viewer, which is exactly who we all are now. We constantly look for ways to get more enjoyment from the things around us.
For instance, people are constantly looking for “lifehacks”. Basically it’s a way to get more efficiency or joy out of something we do on a regular basis. I would say that watching anime with subtitles is the easiest “lifehack” in terms of upgrading your anime viewing experience. If you’re waiting for those dubbed releases to eventually roll out then you’re late to the party and missing out on all the goodies I mentioned up above. Take my word and switch over to subbed anime now!