Working in a cinema where Miyazaki’s marvellous animated film ‘Ponyo’ is playing in both English-dub and Japanese language versions, I have talked to many people who have expressed a strong preference for seeing the subtitled version. Many have spoken of their joy that the cinema is playing the film in its native language, with some suggesting that the American dub is in some way an inferior or compromised version of the picture, intended for children and not cinephiles. Now, as I made clear in my review of 'Ponyo' last week, I am not only a fan of Miyazaki, but of animation in general, and I personally prefer to see the American dubbed versions of these films.
Naturally, I would never dream of seeing a live-action film like ‘The White Ribbon’ played with an English language soundtrack, as that would be fairly comical and would, in turn, spoil the film. I would also prefer to watch an animation like ‘Ponyo’ in its native language if I were a fluent speaker of that language, gaining from that many subtle details I'm sure are lost in translation. However, as I don’t speak Japanese, I find the Pixar-produced dubs of the Miyazaki films to be the best option. They are done with obvious love and respect, they usually get decent actors in to play each role (rather than simply hiring ‘stars’) and they make a real effort to match up the new voices with the original lip-syncing. It should come as no surprise that Pixar re-dub the Studio Ghibli movies with such proficiency as they meticulously redub their own movies for most foreign markets, using localised acting talent (this isn’t an example of one-way American cultural hegemony).
Ultimately, I view Miyazaki (pictured above with John Lasseter of Pixar) as a master of animation and want to spend my time looking at his films, and not at the text at the bottom. You couldn’t remove this barrier from a live-action film without completely compromising it, whereas this isn’t the case with dubbed animation, where it can enhance the experience. When I see a foreign language film, I may not understand that some characters are joking when they use a phrase which is lost in translation, or I may not be able to detect subtle changes in intonation which can make something read as humorous or threatening (a Spanish-speaking colleague experienced a different 'Sin Nombre' to me for just this reason), whereas a dubbed animation (when done properly) can provide you a truer experience than a subtitled version in the original language as the film can be transmitted without this barrier.
A common reason I have heard for why many people prefer the subtitled version is that it ensures the audience is devoid of children. I also feel this diminishes the experience for me in a dubbed version. I am always intrigued about audience reactions to any film, and love to feel like the film I am watching is exciting, amusing or scaring the people around me. I hated Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’, but I remember fondly the moments when everyone in the audience gasped in horror at some of the huge insects. Similarly my fondest memory of seeing ‘Wall-E’ at the cinema involved hearing a child exclaim “Oh no, not Wall-E!” when the loveable robot fell down a ventilation shaft. To a grown-up, cynical person like me, a film like ‘Wall-E’ can’t convincingly impart a feeling of peril: I know that ‘Wall-E’ will triumph and will survive the ventilation shaft ordeal, for example. But when I hear children reacting to a movie in an emotional and un-cynical way, it helps me to understand the impact the film is having on (what is ultimately) its intended audience and gives me more pleasure as a spectator.
I saw 'Ponyo' in both versions and enjoyed it on both occasions. For me, the American dub is a faithful and truthful account of the movie (at least as read in the subtitles) and I don’t see why, in the name of cultural snobbery, anyone would rob themselves of being able to sit back and really look at the movie in all its glory, with all its warmth, humour and charm intact.
Both versions of ‘Ponyo’ (rated 'U') are still packing in crowds at the Dukes and will continue to do so until it ends its run on Thursday the 25th of February. Come and see it whilst you still can!