Ponyo: subtitles vs. dubbing
From Comment, Words
posted on February 10th, 2010

With foreign films I guess the assumption is always to watch the subtitled version, not the dubbed version. But with animation I’m only just now realising this is dead wrong. Late to the party, I know. My logic has always been: I want to hear the ‘original’ voices and follow the script on the subtitles, not listen to a bunch of jobbing Hollywood b-listers chew microphones through some kind of Disney-ised, morally compromised script?

But now I’m forced into a rethink, thanks to a conversation with a spectacularly well-informed barman in the upstairs coffee shop at the Duke Of York’s in Brighton. They have posters up for the new Studio Ghibli animation Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, which opens in two weeks. It’s profoundly exciting news for anyone into Ghibli animation, and will hopefully rebuild my faith in the studio after the disaster of Tales From Earthsea, where Miyazaki’s inexperienced son Goro was given the film of Ursula Le Guin’s classic pioneering fantasy novels, after Dad had chased them for years. Goro fucked it up big-time.

We’re in happier days now though: the Duke Of York’s will screen both the dubbed and subtitled versions at different times. Mainly, they’ll show the dubbed version earlier in the day, for the kids, then show the subtitled version for artier wonks. It’s part of the Picturehouse chain, so hopefully a bunch of decent arthouse cinemas around the UK will do the same. So anyway, I’d assumed I’d pootle along to the subtitled screening like a grown-up.

Until the fella behind the bar made a couple of powerful counter-intuitive points that have stuck with me: first, if we’re watching a magnificently animated masterpiece, why on earth do we decide to miss out on bits, because our eyes need to frantically read across the bottom of the screen? Secondly – and here’s where the real revelation is – he pointed out that Studio Ghibli aren’t exactly using quality actors for their original Japanese voiceovers. No, of course they hire whoever’s a big name in J-pop or whoever won a national reality show to be their name ‘voiceover’ artists.

Then, funnily enough, when it comes to the North American dub, because the movies are still treated as quality, foreign, perhaps even arthouse product, the talent that’s hired tends to be from the ‘proper’ end of the scale. Primarily this sweetly bourgeois misconception of art versus populism is a measure of just how we can mis-perceive any non-Hollywood films, compared to how they’re seen at home.

We think of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle as arty masterpieces. Yet that doesn’t mean we should be fooled into thinking they’re anything other than huge mainstream blockbusters in Japan. Until Titanic came along, Princess Mononoke was the biggest grossing film in Japanese history. It’s a bit like novelist Haruki Murakami being venerated in the west in highbrow, psychedelic magic-realism terms, when his hip romance Norwegian Wood was such as massive bestseller in Japan he had to leave the country to escape the celebrity. The sexier non-magical books of his are read like classy chick-lit over there. (OK, maybe that’s pushing it but you get my point.)

So for Miyazaki’s Ponyo, the English dub stars Cate Blanchett and Tina Fey, as well as, gulp, a Jonas brother and one of the Cyrus clan (Noah, not Miley). And even these two American teen pop stars are, if anything, appropriate, consistent choices for the younger roles.

The final argument is the experience. Despite Miyazaki being arguably my favourite living filmmaker, I’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli animation in the cinema. So sayeth the man behind the counter filling the coffee mug: first go see the dub, immerse yourself in the spectacular animation and enjoy the story. Then either go back to the cinema to see the subtitled version, or purchase that version on DVD.

Ponyo may not be Miyazaki’s greatest work, largely because it’s apparently aimed at a younger audience than the last few, making a return to the innocence of My Neighbor Totoro. However I hope it’ll still blow my mind. The film is an expression of the director’s obsession with the sea, which he’s apparently personally hand-animated himself, without any CGI. My God. I need to ignore the devil in the details and treat myself.

(a version of this entry was published in the Morning Star this week)

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