The anime club at my alma mater is called, I kid you not, the Giant Robot Appreciation Society, or GRAS. (Yes, they routinely get people who think the acronym refers to something else. That’s half the joke.) I was not actually a member, though I have several friends who were. What’s more, I was a member of the medieval society, and we shared a cubicle with them and the vampire live-action role playing group and, in theory, the Gaming Guild. (The guild didn’t exist that year.) I helped interview the prospective coordinator for the next year, because I happened to be in the cubicle that day. At the community college I’d attended, I’d sort of been a member of the anime club, inasmuch as that basically entailed showing up every Friday during summer quarter and watching anime for eight hours or so in an empty lecture hall.
I do have some anime credentials, you see. I have seen Grave of the Fireflies. I have seen Sailor Moon in the original, unabridged Japanese version. I own books of manga. I can tell you which Studio Ghibli films aren’t Hayao Miyazaki—and that his own preferred dub of Porco Rosso is, for some reason, the French one.
Wait, what? A preferred dub? Yes. Hayao Miyazaki says that he likes the French version, where our porcine pilot is voiced by Jean Reno. Likes it more than the Japanese version.
I always watch live action films subtitled. This, I must confess, sometimes leads to not getting around to films before I have to return them to the library. If it’s too hot, for example, I’m usually not inclined to sit down and read a movie. Especially ones that look only marginally interesting in the first place. I’ve seen films in more languages than I can remember without stopping to think—Spanish and Italian, of course, but also Mongolian, Polish, Farsi, and Bambara. (Moolaade.) But I’m more inclined to read subtitles if it’s not too hot and I’m not too tired or sore or busy.
Animation? Yes. I will watch animation dubbed. I admit it. Not just anime, either; I think I’ve only seen the English-language dub of A Monster in Paris. In that case, it’s mostly because that was my only option, since I was watching it on Netflix. Streaming, where you don’t have many options. And indeed, there’s some that I won’t watch any other way. If I am watching Ranma 1/2, I am too lazy to watch it subtitled. I just don’t need to engage that part of my brain.
I discovered years ago that the easiest way to anger an otaku is to point out that, when you get right down to it, all animation is dubbed. The only question is how well it’s dubbed. However, it is still what I believe.
There’s a kids’ anime that we watch (we dressed my son as the main character for Chibi Chibi Con this year) that we’ll only watch subbed, because the dub is very, very bad. The characters’ names are all Westernized, and far from trying to keep the intonation as close to the original as possible, they give one of the characters a random German accent even though the character is explicitly Japanese. I’m not sure about the quality of translation, but I do know that the character who becomes German makes a lot of jokes that are stupid puns based on how the language gets written, and that can’t translate at all.
On the other hand, yes, I’ll stick up for the Disney dubs of Studio Ghibli productions. They cast well. I’m broadly opposed to “stunt-casting” in animated films; voice acting is a skill, and not all celebrities have it. Even those that do are seldom as skilled in the job as people like Billy West. Not that much of anyone is as skilled at voice work as Billy West, not since Mel Blanc died. And, oddly, they don’t seem to have cast Billy West yet. However, you do get people like Phil Hartman in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Werner Herzog in The Wind Rises, Keith David and Tress MacNeille in Mononoke-hime. And at least Disney does have plenty of experience in getting voice performances out of celebrities, going back to at least The Jungle Book.
Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments against dubbing. Some of them are pretty good. You’ll note I talked earlier of the unabridged Sailor Moon; because they dubbed, it’s less obvious that the American TV release cut large chunks and combined episodes and otherwise played with the source material. That’s bad dubbing, and that’s why several people suggested to me that the reason I didn’t like Sailor Moon was that I’d only seen the American version. (Turns out they were wrong, but I can see their point.) Detective Conan is similarly troubled; that’s the one I was describing above. And, if I’m watching something really serious, like Grave of the Fireflies, I watch the subtitled version so I can get as much nuance as possible, given that I don’t speak Japanese.
However, there’s something inherently challenging in watching anything that originated in a language you don’t speak. Okay, so subtitles don’t have to worry as much about matching up with the original voices, but they do have to worry some. After all, each line of subtitling is only onscreen for a very short time, and whatever translation you provide still has to fit then. There are concepts that just don’t make it. The fan subs of Detective Conan actually put footnotes on Professor Agasa’s jokes, because they know their audience doesn’t read Japanese. And we have to pause, because there’s often a fair chunk of text there.
I’d even argue that it’s possible to miss cultural context in movies made and set in your own country and written in your native language, if it’s from a subculture you aren’t part of. It’s why, for example, there’s an entire site annotating episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I do agree that subtitles have a better chance of getting the context across, but I don’t think they can do so perfectly.
Sub? Dub? It’s up to you. But, yes, when approaching a new anime for the first time, I still do generally choose subtitles over dubbing, unless I don’t, for some reason, get the choice.