Subs vs. dubs have been an argument in anime fandom, especially in the English speaking community (we can’t say we’re fully aware if these arguments exist in other languages), for as long as they could have the option of exclusively one over the other back in the days of VHS. Of course, there will always be fans who choose to watch anime in its original Japanese with English subs, and there are those that prefer dubs, and just about every argument you can think of has almost been made… (maybe) until now. For today’s list, we would like to evaluate 10 selected anime titles that should be viewed ONLY in Japanese, and why it works exclusively in that language. So, what are those top 10 anime that should be seen ONLY in Japanese? Read our list to find out!
10. Gakkou no Kaidan (Ghost Stories)
- Episodes: 19
- Aired: October 22, 2000 – March 25, 2001
We can’t fully blame ADV for making this more friendly to English speaking audiences by forcing in elements of juvenile comedy to compliment the rather childish friendly designs of this anime, and that the cast is largely full of children. But the thing is, the original Japanese had little to no comedy to begin with. If you don’t mind dubs with no compromise, then hey, give the dub of Gakkou no Kaidan a shot. But if you’re a purist, you’re going to hate the dub for every reason you can list (along with a bag of chips). The original Japanese version takes itself very seriously along with its supernatural elements. If you’re a pure horror or supernatural fan, the original Japanese gives you exactly that. While we can’t say the original Japanese is scary to the levels of cult classic J-Horror films like Juon, you can take it much more seriously.
9. Heppoko Jikken Animation Excel Saga (Excel Saga)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: October 8, 1999 – March 31, 2000
The humor of Excel Saga relies a lot on Japanese pop culture to the point it requires to be seen in its original Japanese in order to be appreciated. Without watching it in Japanese, audiences can’t be in on the joke. One perfect example is when Excel lands in America and tries to speak English and tells the Americans, “You are dog.” Her attempts at English are most enjoyable from the Japanese perspective because if you watch it in natural English, the punchline of the joke is non-existent. Without that language difference, you can’t really appreciate the culture differences, which is why Excel Saga is at its best in Japanese.
8. Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
- Episodes: 109
- Aired: October 4, 1984 – March 5, 1987
Through the eyes of Kenshiro and Raoh, you can feel that Japanese sense of old school samurai masculinity, as opposed to a Stallone or Schwarzenegger kind of masculinity in the English version. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just doesn’t fit the atmosphere of this anime. Kenshiro is a man who undeniably solves most of his problems with violence with extreme prejudice, but he is kind to the innocent and heals the sick, while Raoh believes in survival of the fittest. Through Akira Kamiya’s (and recently with Takaya Kuroda in the Lost Paradise PS4 game) performance, audiences can feel that Kenshiro is deep down inside a kind caring man. Not only is he a fighter, but he’s a lover and that voice can make you believe he is capable of man tears, while previous dubs have been unable to capture that quality.
With the legendary Kenji Utsumi as Raoh, you can feel his powerfulness and his hunger to become the strongest (like no one ever was). Thanks to his famous last words that he has no regrets, and that he acknowledges Ken as the superior fighter, you get the ultimate reason why this series is best seen in Japanese. Through Utsumi’s portrayal, you feel Raoh’s true intents that he isn’t evil, and he acts as his human nature guides him, and the dubs also fail to capture this quality to Raoh. This series has a very unique sense of drama that is uniquely Japanese in its own way, and other languages can’t exactly capture it. Last, the words of “Omae wa mou shindeiru” in its original Japanese just sends chills down your spine.
- Episodes: 201
- Aired: April 4, 2006 – March 25, 2010
Just like Rurouni Kenshin, Gintama uses Edo era Japanese in order to be more authentic to its setting. Considering this anime takes place in the latter-half of the 1880s, some characters will in fact use such speech patterns. For example, Bansai uses a lot of Kenshin’s familiar speech patterns. He tends to end his sentences in “(de)gozaru,” and uses a classic male pronoun, “sessha.” “(De)gozaru” is an ancient use of linking verbs, and often used by some samurai in Japanese pop culture (there is some scholarly dispute if it was universally used with all samurai). As for the “sessha” first person pronoun, it is often used with samurai. Considering there are no English equivalents to such speech patterns, if fans want to a true feel of how samurai (at least according to pop culture) spoke in that time period, the Japanese version of Gintama is it.
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: April 6, 2011 – September 14, 2011
Despite its dark qualities, Steins;Gate does have a lot to offer in context to humor, and a large percentage of it is best understood from a Japanese perspective. For starters, the way Rinatro likes to give people nicknames works most effectively in the Japanese version. With Kurisu Makise, one of the female co-leads, he likes to call her Christina. It just happens to be that the Kurisu is also a Japanese way of saying the name Chris based on Japan’s syllabary system, and just adds in the “tina” to give it a more feminine touch, and that he likes to give people nickname. Plus, he likes to call his landlord, who also sells CRT TV sets, Mr. Braun. So why does he call him Mr. Braun? It just happens that in Japan, CRT TVs are called Braun tube TVs in reference to one of its inventors, Ferdinand Braun. Last, the maid café code of “moe moe kyun kyun” just works best from a Japanese native and would sound butchered in English.
5. Cardcaptor Sakura
- Episodes: 70
- Aired: April 7, 1998 – March 21, 2000
As for this classic Shoujo title, a lot of this can be best portrayed through Kero-chan, Sakura’s companion. Since the character spent some time in Osaka, he tends to exclusively use Osaka dialect in his speech. Since his two seiyuus, Aya Hisakawa and Masaya Onodera are both natives to Osaka, audiences can get an authentic feel of the dialect. Considering that CLAMP, the original creators, are natives to Osaka, it felt natural to include their hometown’s dialect. Plus, they tend to always have an Osaka speaker in their titles, so hardcore CLAMP audiences can say it’s a prerequisite to include such characters.
So, how does Osaka dialect differ from standard Japanese? For example, instead of “da,” which you can say is the equivalent to English’s linking verbs (or a more casual way of saying “desu”), they use “ya.” Even though “arigatou” is a standard way of saying “thank you,;” in Osaka, they commonly say “ookini.” Or for personal pronouns for males, as opposed to “watashi,” “boku,” and/or “ore;” “wai” is commonly used. As opposed to using “san” as a suffix for people’s names, they use “han.” When you watch the Japanese version of Kero-chan, fans can get a true taste of Osaka dialect.
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: January 6, 2004 – March 30, 2004
Every country’s organized crime syndicate tends to have their own unique ways of speaking, and the yakuza are no different. So what happens when you piss off your teacher who happens to be the heiress to one of the country’s biggest gangs? She’ll scream using yakuza slang! After saying “minna-san, oshizuka ni shite kudasai,” a polite way of requesting her students to quiet down (and failing to do so), she’ll scream at the top of her lungs, “yarou domo! Shizuka ni shirou to itta n darou,” a very aggressive and delinquent way of demanding them to be quiet. In some ways, you can equate it to “shut the f**k up!,” but literally, it isn’t.
Since a lot of real life yakuza organizations are based out of the Kansai region, a lot of Kansai dialect is used in yakuza dialect. While Japanese doesn’t literally have the equivalent to George Carlin’s 7 dirty words, as Chris Rock would say, it’s not about believing in bad words, it’s more about believing in bad thoughts, meaning it’s more about how you use them.
As shared earlier, as opposed to using standard polite speech, the anime is full of delinquent speech from typical teenage punks to yakuza top dogs, but not severe enough to get you into detention or suspended, just scolded. For example, the word “sensei” is the standard word for “teacher” in Japanese. At times, the word “senkou,” a delinquent and disrespectful way to refer to teachers is commonly used in this series. Considering that there is no English equivalent to it, when you watch it in Japanese, you can get a better idea of how delinquents talk, but naturally, basic knowledge of Japanese is required in order to enjoy such qualities, and why such words aren’t appropriate.
3. Kyoukai no Rinne (Rin-ne)
- Episodes: 75
- Aired: April 4, 2015 – September 23, 2017
In this anime based on Rumiko Takahashi’s latest manga, we have a series that explores death and reincarnation from a cultural viewpoint. A large portion as to why we recommend this anime in Japanese is not just because of the cultural themes, but the humor in relation to it. Masato, one of Rinne’s rivals from the underworld, has trouble writing kanji. Normally, his name in kanji is written as 魔狭人、but accidentally writes the third kanji with 入, which is a kanji for “enter” as opposed to “person.”
In addition, there is one episode when the cast encounters a classmate possessed by the spirit of a teenage delinquent who died in the 1980s. When she tries to communicate with the cast, she uses phrases and slang in which a delinquent from that time period would use, and it’s funny how the present day cast have trouble understanding her use of Japanese, and don’t feel intimidated by her speech patterns (which are intended to intimidate). Of course, having Japanese comprehension is necessary, but this style of humor just doesn’t transition in an English speaking context.
2. Tennis no Ouji-sama (Prince of Tennis)
- Episodes: 178
- Aired: October 10, 2001 – Mach 23, 2005
Certain phrases in Japanese don’t exclusively have one meaning when translated to English, or (maybe) any other language. A perfect example of this is with Ryoma’s catchphrase, “mada mada dane.” Contextually, this phrase doesn’t exactly have one exclusive meaning, and it can mean a lot of things to the point that fan translations, VIZ, and even Konomi have all presented different meanings, but they’re both right in terms of context, and not literal meaning. Considering in English, you need one consistent line that can equate to the original Japanese, “mada mada dane” is one of those phrases that can be hard to pinpoint.
You really have to be immersed in Japanese to really understand and appreciate this iconic catch line. A good number of lingual scholars can say it means “not yet,” but there have been other translations within the series such as “You still have ha ways to go.” Depending on the context of the match, we’re not saying it can literally mean anything, it just works with whatever’s going on. It’s mostly Ryoma’s way of saying, “I’m just getting started.” Just sticking with “No, not yet” just feels too vague, and “You still have a ways to go” just doesn’t feel that powerful as a catch line, and doesn’t really capture the sarcasm it’s commonly used in. Plus, the rest of the casts’ catchphrases with their delivery works best in Japanese such as Kikumaru’s “hoi hoi,” or Atobe’s “Ore-sama no bigi ni, yoi na,” perfectly captures his charisma and personality, and no other dub can find a way to equate that.
1. JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure)
- Episodes: 120+
- Aired: October 6, 2012 - Ongoing
As for our number one pick, we have to pick JoJo. Yes, a lot of it has to do with the catchphrases such as Jotaro’s “yare yare daze,” only works best in Japanese, but there’s more. Ironically, we recommend the original Japanese version because of its use of foreign words. For example, certain names of Stands and/or characters such as Josuke’s Killer Queen, Dio’s henchmen Vanilla Ice or Oingo Boingo can’t be used in an English dub for copyright reasons. When you listen to the Japanese version, they still keep the original names for purists to enjoy. In addition, just like how foreign anime fans find the Japanese language exotic and mysterious, Japanese feel the same about English, and this anime does a great job of exploiting that.
For example, the late Unshou Ishizuka’s portrayal of Grandpa Joseph with how he uses “OH NO” and other English explicits (this time using a bit of George Carlin’s 7 dirty words) adds a very unique flavor of comedy. Hearing it in an English dub doesn’t capture the novelty of its humor. Longtime JoJo fans can agree the reasons why JoJo works best in Japanese can be an entire article on its own, but if there’s one important reason as to why, it is mostly thanks to one of the franchise’s most iconic villains, Dio, and it’s not solely because of the performance of Takehito Koyasu.
It’s mostly how Dio says the name of his Stand - The World - as ZA WAARUDO (based on Japan’s phonetic kana system, written as ザ・ワールド)! When you hear him scream that, the Japanese style pronunciation appropriately delivers the foreignness, mystique, and intimidation. When you hear it from a native English speaker (though Dio is British), it just lacks that same impact since it’s a common word in English. Last, fans just love it how he screams “KONO DIO DA,” or “IT WAS ME, DIO,” just because of how over dramatic it is.
Yes, a lot of people can admit to being purists, and it’s not just for the sake of watching an anime, or something of foreign origin in its original language. There are certain qualities that the original language tracks have that just can’t really work outside of it. Take for example, Shall We Dance, a hit 1996 Japanese movie that received a Hollywood adaptation co-starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. Granted that the base concept of the original Japanese movie of ballroom dancing seems transferable between countries, but when you watch the original Japanese version, there is a reason why it works the way it does, and why it is still considered one of Japan’s greatest movies.
The reason why Japanese and foreign audiences enjoy the original version is how it helps Japanese people re-evaluate their own culture, while it educates foreign audiences about how Japanese society and culture differs from their own. We all must admit it is important to acknowledge these culture differences when adapting something, but when you don’t present a product in a manner that it was initially intended to, a lot gets lost, and that largely contributes to why the American version to Shall We Dance isn’t as impactful or insightful as the original Japanese version. To make things more ironic, Richard Gere admitted on SMAP’s former talk show that him and the director initially didn’t want to do the remake out of respect for the original movie since they thought it was perfect the way it was.
As to how it applies to anime, in conjunction to what we listed here, when you watch them in their original Japanese, you get a first-hand idea on how the Japanese view foreign things as unique and exotic, and how they present and use terms and phrases not native to the Japanese language. Plus, you get to learn about humor and other tropes from a Japanese point of view. Though you have to be familiar with the Japanese language to enjoy such qualities, while some can be transferable to English (or whatever language you speak), certain catchphrases, battle cries, and puns can only be appreciated in Japanese. Plus, there are certain dialects you have to appreciate such as dialects from other regions such as Kansai, Shikoku, Kyuushuu, Okinawa, and so on. Yes, dubs tend to use American Southern English as a substitute at times, but it just feels weird seeing a character that is intended to be Japanese, speak like the cast from The Walking Dead. Are there some anime titles that work best in English or Spanish or whatever language that could be appropriate to it? We are positive there are and when the time comes, we’ll give you those lists.