I’ve watched a fair number of foreign films and TV shows in my life, particularly anime. These days which anime I watch mostly depends on what’s on Hulu and Netflix, and almost all of it is subtitled. Sometimes its ideal for the show or movie, other times I find myself wishing it had been dubbed over. This leads to the question: which is better?
In general, there is no answer between the two. The best option, of course, is to be able speak the movie or show’s original language, though this isn’t a reality for an American audience. Since the majority of foreign films and TV shows I watch are from China and Japan, I will be focusing on works from those countries with one important exception from American cinema which I’ll get to later.
My first exposure to a foreign movie was probably the Godzilla franchise, of which my favorite installment is Godzilla: Final Wars. I’ve tried watching this same movie both subbed and dubbed, and I vastly prefer the dubbed version as is the case for all Godzilla movies I’ve seen. So dubbed is better, right? Not so fast, because I’ve also seen both versions of Kung Fu Hustle, and the jokes are MUCH funnier in the subbed version. OK, maybe subbed is better for comedies and dubbed is better for action movies? No again, as from what I’ve heard Pokemon: The First Movie was deeper and more interesting subtitled compared to the dubbed version I saw (which was borderline infantile in its dialogue).
Probably the most conflicting example of the dubbed vs subbed debate (for me at least) is the Dragon Ball franchise, specifically the TV shows. For those of you who didn’t close the window after seeing “Dragon Ball”, let me explain.
Both versions of the show have pros and cons. The subbed version preserves the personality of the main character (Goku) instead of making him a Superman clone in the dubbed, the story line and dialogue remain more mature, and a fair number of the voice actors, particularly the original voice of the villain Frieza, are much more enjoyable to hear emote compared to their dubbed counterparts. However, in the subbed version Goku is still voiced by the same actress who voiced him as a child and it’s constantly annoying to hear a fully grown heavily muscled man sound as though he hasn’t hit puberty. Additionally, his original personality is obnoxiously childish and, to be honest, an idiot.
The dubbed version overall has a better voice cast (particularly for Goku) and the changes in dialogue make him easier to stomach, but as I mentioned this makes him seem like a Superman ripoff. The different dialogue also makes this show more family friendly, so if you’re looking for which version to watch with your kids I would recommend this one over the subbed. There is one crucial difference, however, of why I like the dubbed over the subbed and helped me make my own general criteria for which to choose.
In the Dragon Ball franchise, the main draw is the well animated fight scenes and visual transformations that the characters go through. In the Godzilla movies the focus is on Godzilla himself and his fights with other monsters. Kung Fu Hustle is first and foremost a comedy, and even though its fight scenes (which are themselves hilarious) didn’t change between the subbed and dubbed versions, the funnier dialogue and jokes in the subbed version made it a much better movie. This brings me to Inglorious Basterds, an American movie with more subtitles than English dialogue. Why doesn’t anyone care that this has enough subtitles to be a foreign film in all but name? It’s because of the importance of dialogue to the film.
Inglorious Basterds‘ dialogue, like in almost any movie by Quentin Tarantino, is its strongest element. We don’t care that we have to read most of it because those scenes are about what is being said, not the special effects happening at the same time. This is why I prefer dubbed Dragon Ball and Godzilla, because I don’t care as much about what the characters are saying as I would while watching Hero, a film that changes significantly throughout its running time through a slowly revealed backstory. If I miss a line in Godzilla: Final Wars, I can still enjoy the movie. If I miss a line in Hero, I’m completely lost.
When deciding which version to watch, ask yourself the following questions: how much do I care about the story/dialogue and am I looking for a family friendly version? If your answers are “not much” and “yes” respectively, then watch the dubbed version. Otherwise, stick with the subbed version to enjoy a work’s original intention.