In 2001, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away topped the Japanese box office as the highest grossing film in Japanese history, overtaking the international favorite Titanic, and received worldwide acclaim that surfed the beginning of the western anime boom of the early 2000s. Now, in the era of internet and being able to find these movies available legally online, the big questions are really starting to surface…
Subbed? Or Dubbed?
The debate is between watching a film in its original language while reading subtitles, or to listen to a film that has been dubbed into a new language so that the characters appear to be speaking (presumably) the watcher’s native language. If you’ve watched foreign cartoons on TV, you’ve probably seen dubbed. If you seek them out online, you’re likely to find subbed. Streaming services provide both options, so it’s really not a huge deal unless you’re watching the redub of Neon Genesis Evangelion on Netflix, which maybe went a bit off the rails with a few choices— but it’s actually not unusual for those differences to appear. With different languages having different nuances, it’s pretty common to have to decide if you’re going to interpret something literally, or change a few things around to make easier sense in the new language, but not have it be an exact translation.
The same way that Spanish may interpret lots of phrases (‘a little bit,’ ‘not enough,’ ‘slim pickings’) to a single word which in Spanish accomplishes them just fine in multiple situations (‘poco’) in Japanese you might get the literal translation ‘the moon is lovely tonight,’ and end up translating it ‘I love you.’
Generally the resulting interpretations will still give you a very similar story—it can’t get but so far off with the same visuals, even if your name is ‘Ghost Stories’ from the early 2000s and you’re intentionally trying to go awry. Still, even the more seriously interpreted stories tend to change things around that the story will ‘make sense’ to the audience it’s intended for. Spirited Away may not be the most obvious example of this, but it is perhaps one of the more elegant ones, because almost no one seems to have noticed the difference.
The story follows Chihiro, a sulking young girl who is upset about moving to a new home with her parents, when a wrong turn instead takes the family into the spirit world instead of the suburbs. Upon seeing the huge array of food in the spirit world, her parents begin eagerly devouring everything in sight, and to Chihiro’s horror, they begin to turn into pigs. Ghostly figures start to appear around them, and one even reaches out to Chihiro, it’s hand following her as she runs away.
The ‘reaching out’ gesture is actually a ‘come here’ gesture. It is not explained in the English dub at all—her parents simply turn into pigs. In the Japanese, you need to eat some food to survive in the spirit world for long, but only if invited. The shadowy figure in Japanese is trying to save Chihiro, as her counterpart Haku soon does instead, while in English it is left unexplained as a presumably menacing gesture.
Haku is made much more mysterious in English as well. In the Japanese, the first thing he does is formally introduce himself. In English, he says ‘good luck,’ and then vanishes. Remember—these are the same images on the screen, the same lip movements. Maybe ‘boku Haku’ has the same lip flaps as ‘good luck’ but when it’s the first meeting of someone, it’s a lot more ominous.
The English also has a habit of ‘dubbing the silences’ where no characters are shown speaking, and where in the Japanese they aren’t speaking at all, even. Sometimes this makes sense, where in one instance Chihiro steps in a puddle of bad luck and forms a symbol with her forefingers and thumbs. In English, another character offscreen tells her to form the symbol because it will help get rid of bad luck, like throwing salt over your shoulder as soon as it spills. Other times, it changes the tone of the entire story.
While working in the witch Yubaba’s bathhouse, Chihiro goes to visit her pigly parents in the stable. Haku joins her and offscreen warns her that “she’ll be turned into a pig too if she’s caught here.” In Japanese, no such threat is made. Chihiro is free to come and go as she pleases. In English, she is trapped.
This is perhaps the crux of the matter: the english version is a familiar story to U.S. viewers; a child must use their wits and guile to find a way to escape a dangerous situation. In Japanese, Chihiro can leave at any time: she stays out of loyalty to her family, and determination to rescue them. This distinction changes the view of the entire story and how she handles events that happen around her.
Chihiro doesn’t change much in the story if you’re watching in English. She starts out as a whiny and scared kid, but perhaps grows braver and more determined as she braves the bathhouse and the spirits around telling her how to behave.
In Japanese—she listens. She is still clever, but more than that, she is just learning how to follow rules, and to be polite. When they have a ‘stink spirit’ at the bathhouse, she isn’t blocking it or telling it to leave as other workers and patrons are, she simply does her job and gets an extra strong soap. When a guest starts giving out gold to make people ‘happy’ Chihiro declines it, as she has no use for it. When she finds someone trapped outside in the rain—she invites them in.
At the end of the film, when Haku is cursed for stealing a golden seal, Chihiro decides to return it and ask that the curse be lifted—because it is the proper thing to do. When she reaches the the witch Zeniba’s house to return the seal, she’s asked if she knows what the seal is. In english she says “yes I do.”
In Japanese she says, “no, but I know it is important.”
Chihiro in English appears to conquer the spirit world, outwitting or outrunning spirits, until she understands everything well enough to understand the consequences of her actions. In Japanese, Chihiro still does not know everything, but she has learned the rules of politeness and propriety in order to get by. In other words: Chihiro in Japanese has become an adult, while Chihiro in English has become a more wild kid than ever. The movie is essentially the same, but the nuances and changes of dialogue end up making a very different experience depending on which version you watch.
This is not to say one is better than the other necessarily—I would probably not have understood what was really going on in the Japanese version when I was a kid, but a little wild action kid just doing some stuff in the spirit world did make plenty of sense with the other types of kid’s stories I’d been given.
Now that, like Chihiro, we are adults though, we can make those decision on which version to watch, and which we prefer better, even though we may not understand everything going on all the time right away.
Personally, when it comes to sub vs dub, I recommend trying out both, and seeing how it turns out in the end.