Dubbing – or dumbing? Miyazaki’s case.

I was recently quite shocked by Disney’s dubbing of  Hayao Miyazaki‘s movies, specially   (Castle in the Sky (Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no takkyûbin). These are widely held as masterpieces in animation, so that they would seem to deserve special care. On the other hand, they fall in dangerous “children’s territory”. Some may be isolated in the dubbing process:

  • Translation, which is bound to introduce variations. Unfortunately, this will apply to subtitles also, unless they are used as visual aids to the listening. (In my case, this holds for English movies, certainly not for Japanese ones.)
  • Voice acting. For Miyazaki’s, and other movies from Studio Ghibli, this has been also criticized. In my opinion, the acting is usually excellent, and performed by top-notch actors: Anna Paquin, Elle and Dakota Fanning (cute to have sisters dubbing fictional sisters), Janeane Garofalo, Phil Hartman, Kirsten Dunst
  • Adaptation. This is the part where I was shocked.

Adaptation would concern the question of what to dub in order to adapt the movie to a different audience (also, the musical soundtrack). It seems in order to Westernize these movies:

  • completely new dialog is inserted, often to fill “empty” sequences (the usual Western horror vacui)
  • same with music score: just as in stores, it seems some music must be playing, or else we, poor Westerners, get bored
  • “foreign” features (humour, cultural references) are altered or eliminated
  • some characters acquire new personalities

Don’t be to quick about taking the easy way and blame Disney for it all.  Studio Ghibli has carefully supervised the dubbing, and Miyazaki himself seems to have approved it. My very personal (and perhaps wrong) explanation is that the Japanese are trying their best to adapt a product to a “new” market.

But, they are wrong: people, and very specially children, should be open to new ways of storytelling, and be exposed to a sensibility different to the predominant one. That’s what I think, at least, and that’s what I am trying to do, even if my kids have to endure the original Japanese and I have to do all the reading…

What follows is extracted from wikipedia articles on Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service, with my comments. See also my book about Studio Ghibli (nice feature, wikipedia books.)

Castle in the Sky

  • A significant quantity of background chatter and one-liners were added (even more so than in Disney’s dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service), filling in moments of silence and increasing the frenetic effect of certain scenes.

This is just amazing. In the first sequence, the pirates just keep chatting and talking like mad because, of course, we have to hear what they are saying (even from 100 meters away), we need to be told what they are planning (the tension!). Of course, music should be playing because we can’t stand old, boring, wind howling. Then, I switched to Japanese and never went back.

  • Composer Joe Hisaishi was commissioned to rework and extend his original synthesizer-composed 37-minute soundtrack into a 90-minute piece for symphony orchestra in an effort to make the film more accessible to US audiences who are accustomed to a more substantial musical accompaniment.

The same thing here. I absolutely loved the landing in the Castle, when after the storm not a single sound is heard (ok, I did check the audio to make sure that was on purpose). It seems we Westerners cannot stand silence.

  • Pazu and Sheeta, as portrayed by James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, are made to sound as several years older, placing them in their mid-teens, rather than their pre-teens.

Why oh why? They are still so clearly children!

  • Several modifications were made to dialogue spoken to/about Sheeta by members of the Dola gang, including a declaration of love from one of the pirates. In the original Japanese version, the dialogue presented Sheeta as a potential mother figure for the pirates, instead of a potential romantic interest.

Thereby destroying the charm of the Dola gang’s boys, who are pictured as big children (similarly to the pirates in Porco Rosso).

… Words fail me. So, the movie is originally called “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”, an explicit homage to Swift, but then the reference is dropped! The beautiful reference to Treasure Island (easily, my favourite adventure book) is also gone. If this is not dumbing down kids, I don’t know what is.

(Incidentally, the word “Laputa” dropped from the title, too, but that’s due to the word sounding so ugly in the Spanish language.)


The character of the cat Jiji changed slightly. In the Japanese version, Jiji is voiced by a female performer, while in the American version Jiji has a more distinct male voice — possibly for fear audiences would think he is female, until he develops a romantic interest in the white Persian cat living nearby — and also has more of a wisecracking demeanor. In Japanese culture, cats are usually depicted with feminine voices, whereas in American culture their voices are more gender-specific.

OK, this is a change I can live with. The assumed default gender for animals is always troublesome (why do you call a squirrel “she”? an American friend once asked us.)

In the original Japanese script, Jiji loses his ability to communicate with Kiki permanently, but in the American version a line is added that implies he is able to speak (or she to understand him) again. Miyazaki has said that Jiji is the immature side of Kiki, and this implies that Kiki, by the end of the original Japanese version, has matured beyond talking to her cat.

This is outrageous, changing the ending of the movie. I don’t think this was done so much as to keep a completely happy ending (the ending is quite happy as it is, as tends to be the case with Miyasaki-san), but to leave everything explained. It seems at the end of the movie, everything must be nice and clear, and no room for interpretation (such as the one the author provides) should be left. This is in contrast with many other movies, such as My Neighbor Totoro, where numerous questions are left open.

Update: Unbelievable: I found out the Spanish dubbing spoils one of the most touching scenes in Kiki’s. When she returns from her first delivery, she finds a delivery sign on the bakery’s window, made out of bread. We watch from the outside as she goes inside, inquires Osono about it, then hugs her husband, the baker. No sound is needed in this marvelous scene… but Spanish translators seem to think otherwise – we are therefore able to hear the superfluous dialog (from outside the shop!), lest out little heads miss something: “Who made this sign?”, “Well, my husband did!”, etc…


3 thoughts on “Dubbing – or dumbing? Miyazaki’s case.

  1. I can completely relate. I prefer to watch non dub anime now because it just sounds terrible in English. Instead of showing a movie that you can use your imagination to figure out some things, you are made to only draw the conclusions, the studio who dubs it, wants you to. Some kind of brainwashing as well as giving into lazy thinkers. It’s so sad that the original vision of a piece can be ruined by the “need” to westernize. Don’t these filmmakers know we have enough of that genre already?

    • They did? Oh well, I’ll check that when I get to watch it (I missed on theaters, partly because I was afraid that would happen).

      On DVD, English subtitles seem to be transcriptions of the English dubbing. It is therefore instructive to keep those (revealing e.g. how the silences are completely filled in “Kiki”), then watch the movie with more accurate subtitles (from, e.g. opensutitles.org).

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