We’ve ALL Heard the Sub VS Dub Debate…
When it comes to anime, the conversation surrounding accessibility in the community is a weirdly contentious one. I don’t just mean the usual sub VS dub debate either, as the conversation goes well outside that but for several reasons, supposed “fans” of the medium are quick to dismiss these ideas all too often. The weird thing though, it’s not really an issue in live-action media. That’s why I’d like to take a moment to talk about two recent things I watched: Amazon Prime’s Cinderella and Netflix’s Squid Game. What do these two experiences have in common when it comes to accessibility, and why anime licensors and distributors should be taking a page from their books? Well, you’ll have to read on to find that one out.
The Cinderella Experience
For the ease of conversation, I’ll be breaking each of the two examples out into their own categories. I want to first start with the new Cinderella film because this one actually took me by surprise as opposed to Squid Game in terms of what it had to offer when it comes to accessibility in media. Kind of wild to think since the film is a bit of a mess, but Amazon really went all out on this one, at least when it comes to getting as many eyeballs as possible to view it.
Naturally, Amazon did do the obvious thing and upload the film with several language tracks available for its viewing audience. I don’t think any of you would be surprised by that. When it comes to today’s streaming experience, this is more-or-less the norm. The barest minimum that companies tend to strive for, at least when it comes to live-action film and TV created in the past few years as, understandably, it isn’t always possible or realistic to do so for older titles (not to mention financially viable).
This kind of action is what many of us would consider to be a “common sense” move. It doesn’t take a business degree to figure out that more people watching your stuff equates to more money lining your pockets. Therefore, it’s in a company’s best interest to provide these different language tracks, especially when said company is launching a piece of media globally. So getting back to Cinderella, what exactly did it do beyond that? To understand this, and the larger point I’m trying to make, let me tell you a story.
When I first sat down to watch this film my expectations were low. My good friend K at the Movies along with other reviewers had promised me a terrible film, which is kind of my jam, so of course I wanted to check it out. Booted it up with a buddy and the film defaulted in Japanese of all things, which was confusing. Naturally, I went and changed it to the English settings but here’s where things get interesting, the most “obvious” English option isn’t what you’d expect. Any guesses? Well turns out, I had turned on the English version with audio descriptions for the blind by accident. The movie started, and I went, “huh, that’s a weird choice for the film” before having my friend point out what I had done. Here’s the thing though, it didn’t bother me at all and felt just fine for the film.
When it comes to this kind of audio description option, it’s a rare thing I almost never see. Do I personally need it? No. However, more people than you may think benefit from this accessibility option. In the US alone, around 12 million people, just counting those over the age of 40, experience some kind of visual impairment with only 3 million of those having some kind of corrective measures taken. While it is true that not all of these cases are severe, that is a decent chunk of the population that can see potential upside to this kind of accessibility option.
What’s more is how easy Amazon actually made choosing this option. It was buried in the menu like the standard English language track where the audio description version was right at the top. This is great user design from an accessibility standpoint, even if it is somewhat confusing or inconvenient to the standard user. That means there’s still room for improvement, but it’s a step in the right direction that in no way detracts from the original version.
As a result, I’d really like to see anime tackle this kind of thing. Now I’m aware that it wouldn’t necessarily be practical on every show or film, but for some it would absolutely work. Imagine Violet Evergarden, or one of the bigger Netflix properties doing this. They have the resources to pull that off, and if people knew about it, I’m sure that enough precedent would be set for other companies to take a chance on occasionally offering this sort of thing.
Please take a moment to enjoy this short clip from… several years ago (goes to show how little effort/progress has gone into making this sort of thing more available)
In my research, it took a lot of effort to find any anime that even had audio descriptions, and to no surprise, Netflix is really the only one attempting this having some success on the Japanese side of things (meaning English, let alone other languages don’t really have this), but even then it’s not a lot (source there are more threads like this). For live-action, this practice is actually extremely common and a place where I believe the anime industry absolutely falls short. Even if it’s not the most profitable option, it’s a shame that it hasn’t even really been tried.
Squid Game’s Explosive Success
I’m sure you’ve been waiting for me to talk about this one! Squid Game has seemingly taken the world by storm and I think there’s good reason behind it. For a Korean drama it does a great job avoiding (up until the end) most of the trappings of that kind of programing while delivering a fun death game scenario with some minor shake ups that leave it feeling rather refreshing overall. I do think it falls short at the end, as it leaves a few things unexplored for the inevitable sequel, but the casting, sets, and everything else really is quite engaging, largely making up for that.
Some people may be surprised to learn that this is actually an original story that isn’t based on a manga like this sort of thing so often is. In fact, the entire history behind this series is quite interesting and something I encourage you to look into more on your own. It’s been waiting since 2018 to get its shot, and now that it has, well, you’ve seen the results! It’s hard not to see the influences from anime like Kaiji or series such as Liar Game, which are things you may wish to check out if you liked this.
The reason I’d like to talk about this show though is the fact that it has been dubbed over, rather well might I add, in multiple languages. This kind of ADR work is actually fairly common in live-action media, something we discussed above with the Cinderella film, almost becoming the bare minimum for most modern products, but something I don’t think a lot of English speaking individuals might realize. It’s not as if Squid Game was the first show to do this on Netflix, and it won’t be the last, however, it may be the first time someone like you have been exposed to it.
I’ve actually watched several, mostly Korean, dramas on Netflix using this method. Often prominent voice talent is used, the acting is somewhat campy at times, but otherwise there, and best of all, I’m able to fully enjoy the programming in a way that’s much easier for me. While it may not be as good as anime often is nowadays, this too is a form of accessibility that you may not have even realized you wanted, especially if you don’t watch much foreign media.
I said earlier the sub vs dub debate doesn’t really happen outside of anime circles, but that was kind of a lie. It does happen here, and as I mentioned above, this kind of thing still isn’t quite there all the time. Still, that doesn’t diminish the value of such work. The fact that this is increasingly more common is proof enough that this kind of thing is seen as valuable, even if not all works receive the treatment. This is more the point I wish to make.
For me, I have a difficult time with subtitles, especially after an extended period. I have a neurological disorder that makes focusing and sitting still in a way where I can read said subtitles for a long time quite uncomfortable, if not impossible. Now obviously I do watch subtitled media, my extensive anime review history is proof of that, but if a dub is available I’ll almost always pick it. Hence, when Squid Game gave me the option, I jumped on that immediately.
I find I miss a lot less, am able to focus better, and staying in the media is a lot easier (meaning I need fewer breaks). This story is all too common in others who also value this kind of accessibility option. Are we getting a worse experience? Maybe sometimes, but it isn’t as if the original work is magically tarnished or diminished by the existence of dubbed works. Might I find some faults in this version? Yes, of course, but I promise if I listened to the original Korean version, I would find faults there as well.
The question of accuracy is often raised when this type of discussion is brought about. That somehow the original meaning is warped or lost entirely, but I find this argument to be fundamentally flawed as subtitles themselves are a form of translation, they too are just as interpretive. I’m not here to say that one is superior, or that you should feel badly for enjoying one form more than the other, but rather for understanding in the value of said accessibility, it allows for many more to enjoy the work.
For Squid Game, though I do not have concrete numbers or proof, my informal asking around has shown that a lot of people did watch this in English. Now some were unaware that this wasn’t actually in English to begin with, but I think that only makes the point more valid. Today it’s harder to tell that ADR work has been done, it really has improved since 1954, which is one of the earliest examples I could find of such a thing occurring.
Even with the uniqueness of Squid Game, had it only been available in Korean with subtitles, I do not think it would have taken off as much as it has. Just looking at other break out media from foreign countries is proof enough of that. For examples that my audience may recognize, look at One Punch Man, Attack on Titan or Demon Slayer, both having English dubs and easily found on major platforms. There’s real incentive to do this kind of thing, even if it isn’t for accessibility alone, because today eyeballs = profits, and this is one easy way to get that.
Why the Anime Industry Should Care
At the end of the day, why does any of this matter? For a lot of folks these options aren’t necessary or are nice little bonuses. While that can certainly be the case, I believe I’ve made a compelling case for why these kinds of services should be expanded in the anime industry where only some of these practices have even started becoming more available.
Non-English dubs of anime have been a thing for awhile, but it hasn’t been until recent years that major players in the distribution game like Crunchyroll have begun to take them seriously, expanding their catalog with dubs of several recent series, each in several languages. This is a positive step that is owed a lot to the precedent laid down in live-action media, a proven model of success for this kind of accessibility.
However, the anime industry still falls short of providing a truly inclusive experience as I mentioned in my Cinderella section. A company like Funimation is seriously missing a big opportunity to offer audio descriptions in some of their works. Not only would this be a show of good will to the community, but it is a potential opportunity to see increased revenue from an underserved population as anime only continues to become more and more popular with a general audience.
In a world where social changes like this are pushed every day, it’s weird to me that this aspect of society is often overlooked. Most abled individuals just don’t consider this stuff, not necessarily out of spite or malicious intent, but because they don’t always need these services. I’m not here to place blame, but to ask for understanding. Go out and advocate for this kind of thing, because if you don’t, well things just aren’t likely to change. Doing so may not benefit you directly, but who doesn’t want their favorite show or film to be enjoyed by everyone?
Thanks for joining me on a fairly informal look at accessibility in media. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this, and if you did, please consider sharing it with some of the bigger companies along with your thoughts for why they should look into expanding these kind of options. What media do you think could benefit from this sort of thing? Let me know in the comments below. If you want to support my work and see more stuff like this, then consider a donation via the buttons below. Finally, one last thank you for taking the time, and see you in the next one!