Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Anime Rant!

There's too much anime I want that's coming out right now. Like every other olden days anime fan, this gives me both delight and a certain regret. It's wonderful that so much is available, both old and new. But it's also much harder to keep in touch with everything.

Unless you have broadband, of course. In Japan, there were always a wide variety of videotapes of anime series and OVAs (straight-to-video miniseries) available, and it was legal to copy tapes and pass them along. So there were a wide variety of tapes passed along by American fans, either in Japanese only or with fanmade subtitles (fansubs). When it became possible to buy anime in America, fans did not entirely forsake fansubs and tape chains; but it became etiquette to use them only until the American version became available. Nowadays, tapes have been forsaken in favor of VCDs or downloads off the various IRC and chat networks. Ideally, this is a way for shows to gather buzz among fans, particularly if their ratings were poor in Japan. You will get various arguments as to whether this is actually so, since there is obviously more fannish interest in distributing shows that already sound interesting to fans. In fact, you'll get many arguments as to whether younger fans even care about this "social contract" between fans and companies. Still others complain that with today's fans able to download an entire series at once, they don't develop the deep interest that an intriguing serial normally creates by making you wait weeks to learn answers and characters' fates. Fandoms for shows grow and fade within a matter of weeks or months, they say, sometimes even before the DVDs can arrive here. (Me, I don't have broadband. Never got on the old tape trails either. Ah, me.)

But the old fans forget how we used to see series on tape. (We couldn't watch them on TV. Anime on TV was restricted to a few chopped-up shows with all the names changed.) Either somebody mailed somebody else the whole series at once, or you saw 2-4 eps on a single tape and maybe never saw the rest of the show for years or ever. There usually wasn't fansubbing, so you had to follow the action as well as you could with the help of a paragraph-long summary or the exhibitor's spoken explanations. (If you were really lucky, there was a translated script.) It was fatally easy to misinterpret characters' actions when you couldn't understand their conversations or soliloquies. The very fact we _had_ fandoms for such series demonstrates that we were very very insane.

I love watching anime on TV. Cartoon Network has been a godsend. I'm not really fond of all the cutting and digital-erasing the various networks do on anime series to make them "suitable for television", though I can understand it. (But when a show is cut so you can't tell that someone was killed...that's a problem.) In many ways, however, this is ideal for the DVD makers. The TV showings raise enthusiasm for the series, and the cuts make it necessary for fans to buy the sucker instead of taping it off the TV. Also, it's nice for younger kids to be able to watch something with the plot interest of a show for older people without having to contend with all the particulars. (Unfortunately, Cartoon Network seems to have exiled most of their older-audience series to Adult Swim now, depriving kids of the chance to watch the new seasons of Big O and Inu-Yasha. The new season of Rurouni Kenshin is stuck on late Saturday afternoon, which is bad for kids who have weekend activities, chores, or church. The early afternoon has been gutted of new shows entirely, so as not to let CN compete with its sister network, Kids' WB. Bah, humbug.) Meanwhile, on Saturday morning they're showing Shaman King, the saga of a young man who not only sees dead people, but lets them possess him so he can win fights. Apparently the same folks who burn Harry Potter books are totally okay with honest-to-God pagan Japanese occultism like this. (Frankly, I'm surprised those Japanese folks who really do practice being possessed aren't insulted by the show.) But maybe it'll turn out to be better than the horrifically dubbed and English-scripted first ep.

Dubbing English voice tracks has gotten a lot better. Unfortunately, translation quality both for dubs and subtitles is still sadly uneven. There's a lot of translation of Japanese interjections as American swearwords, often in situations when the Japanese expression is not nearly strong enough to be translated so. "Baka" ("Fool" or "Idiot") has gotten translated as words I can't reproduce in a family blog. Jokes and banter are always a problem; should you translate the joke or substitute a similar one in English? What about Japanese forms of address, or the different kinds of speech which express how much respect or intimacy you feel for the person to whom you're speaking? Some of these are no-win situations, or at least have no single good solution. I can live with that. But the big bugaboo is that there are still translations which are simply incorrect or made up, for whatever artistic or accessibility reasons the writers think they have.

For example. Last night I watched an episode (on a sampler DVD included in Newtype USA magazine) of a show called Angelic Layer. (Okay, Battle Doll Angelic Layer. But that's too long; nobody calls it that....) Anyway, the main character is watching an Angelic Layer match on television. When she sees one battle doll attack in a highly artistic and lovely way, she cries, "Kirei!" ("Beautiful!" or "Pretty!") Later on, absorbed in the match, she murmurs, "Sugoi...." ("Cool" or "Interesting"). Meanwhile, the dubbed English version has her cry, "Cool!" and murmur, "Beautiful...."

Now, this may sound like a minor change. But it's not, is it? We've just met the character and we don't know much about her. The Japanese viewer learns that she responds strongly to the beauty of the doll and thinks the battle is neat. The American viewer learns that she thinks the doll is neat and the battle beautiful. Now, it may be that the damage done to characterization in the American version is repaired by the rest of the ep, in which the character goes to buy a battle doll from a department store and announces that she wants the one that's white and pretty. But it still loses something in the mistranslation.

One mercy is that most anime companies leave the songs and music in shows alone now. It's agonizing to hear a third-rate American singer and band doing a fourth-rate translation of a song that was a big hit in Japan (with a first-rate band and good lyrics).

Most anime distribution companies here in the States were founded by fans for fans, and still retain fannish sensibilities. However, some of the big movie companies who've entered the anime business persist in believing their own propaganda about what American audiences will "understand", even though anime is now so popular. The worst sin they commit? Disney's total re-recording of classic soundtracks (albeit with the composer's cooperation) to fit their ideas of how a movie soundtrack should be. Basically, the idea is to eliminate silences and scenes without dialogue. Japanese animation, like other Japanese dramatic forms, includes scenes of rest and thought as well as action and conversation. They're allowed to take a moment just to look at the sea, or watch a summer meadow while listening to the cicadas. Big-company translations routinely record dialogue over these scenes. As for moments when the soundtrack cuts out and the characters just listen to the wind? Well, that's what re-recording the soundtrack is for. Cover the wind up with music, or Americans' heads will explode! I find this stupid as well as sad. American children who have never seen anime respond very well to scenes of silence, after their first reaction of surprise. The pattern of action and rest hypnotizes them and gives them time to think and relax -- which isn't surprising, given that Sesame Street uses much the same formula. Anyone over the age of ten should be able to adapt to the formula without too much spontaneous cranial detonation.

One other trend that is much moaned about is "fanboy/fangirl Japanese". Young English-speaking anime fans love to sprinkle their speech and writing with words and phrases they may or may not understand. It drives some older fans up the wall. It makes me smile, since I remember older fans doing the same thing. They too called people "baka!" and signed their emails "Ja ne!" ("Later!"), called anime girls "kawaii" ("cute") or "kirei", and made fanatical statements about Pocky (chocolate candy sticks -- I prefer rice candy myself). The fannish generation before that was setting up Gamelon embassies in con hotels while pontificating in BBC English accents they picked up off Doctor Who, so they can hardly talk. New slang is one of the joys of shows from other cultures, and is sucked up by the English language like a Hoover with a warp drive. What's really useful will become English, just like "hari-kari" and "just a skosh" (from "sukoshi", small -- that 'u' is barely said, in a Tokyo accent) did. Besides, anything that gets Americans interested in foreign languages is a good thing.

The worst thing about anime today is the domination of the American market by tournament shows. I would be much more interested in Angelic Layer if it weren't clearly leading toward episodes in which one battle doll fights another. Booooooooring. At this point, we already have had the following shows on the air: Dragonball Z, Pokemon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Beyblade, Kinnikuman (or Muscle League, or whatever they call it), Fighting Foodons, and Yu Yu Hakusho. Shaman King is coming out this fall. Some of them were associated with card, electronic, or other games; others just used the tournament structure to justify a fight every ep (or sometimes a fight stretching over several episodes). I don't know how many more shows have been on video. Who cares? Enough already! Go back to justifying fights through being in a war, or on a quest, or having Earth seem ripe for the plucking by every interstellar race! Just spare us from any more tournaments!


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