Akemi's Anime World

Akemi’s Anime Blog AAW Blog

On the Pitfalls of Bilingualism

Movies are in an awkward position when it comes to bilingual characters, since of course most actors don’t do too well outside their native language and maybe an extra dialect or two. Were they only watched in the country of origin that might not be much of a problem, but of course the world is now rather flat, so unless it’s dubbed people somewhere are going to know that Arnold sounds just as bad in French as he does in English.

Anime is in a particularly awkward situation, both because Japanese people are particularly bad at English accents (doubly so American English), and because they’re pretty much guaranteed to be watched by a good-sized English-speaking audience, many if not all of whom are watching it subtitled.

It’s always weird, then, how little most anime productions seem to care about dredging up a native-speaker for quickie walk-on roles.  Seems like a non-actor pulled out of a college class with a native accent would be preferable to the blatantly-awful non-native accent they usually go with (compounded by not having a native speaker at least read over the lines for a simple grammar check). Really, you’d think that if you were going to publish something in a major magazine or put it on video in a form likely to end up in a foreign country you’d at least bother to grab a native speaker off the street and ask them if the grammar makes sense. Heck, simple pride in your work and not wanting to be laughed at by thousands of foreign anime fans would seem like it’d be  more than enough to spur at least that much effort.

It’s always a pleasant surprise when a production does go the extra mile (really more like an extra few feet), like the native-accent walk-ons and grammatically correct, realistic onscreen English text in Daphne in the Brilliant Blue (plus consistent use of translation hardware), or the Australians they found to do the kidnappers in the Kimagure Orange Road OAV Hawaii episode. They may have sounded stiff and awkward, but at least you didn’t laugh at their accents.

Then there are the series that just fudge it, like Planetes, which operates under the assumption they’re speaking English unless otherwise specified, or Best Student Council, with its monosyllabic half-American character (though I admit her dialogue was far more fun than it should have been, and the last-episode explanation was a great joke) and her incoherent, sort-of-bilingual American mom.

Blood (the movie, at least—haven’t seen the TV version) would probably be the best-case scenario; Yuki Kudoh is as bilingual as the main character is intended to be, the one other bilingual character (the base nurse) is very good, and the rest of the roles are natives in the appropriate language.

I’d been wondering how they were going to handle Ohno’s American friends in the Genshiken 2 anime. I was quite impressed that they decided to full-on go there, leaving a solid half the dialogue in the relevant episode in nearly-perfect English. Huge points for effort, to be sure, though you figure given the self-referential material they must have assumed there would be similar geeks watching the show in America eventually. Ayako Kawasumi does a perfectly believable job as Ohno, who is bilingual but could certainly have an accent that strong, as anyone who knows some foreign students can attest (heck, I know people who’ve lived in the US for years who have an accent that strong). It’s disappointing that they didn’t get a native English speaker to voice Angela, particularly since she has no Japanese dialogue at all to worry about, but Yuki Kaida does a remarkably good job at sounding American—certainly well above what most voice actors can manage (Wikipedia says she is in fact bilingual, and also speaks some French and Chinese). She embarrassingly stumbles on a couple of should-have-been obvious words with funny spelling, but that’s relatively minor.

It’s that “nearly” that’s weird, though; the dialogue repeatedly used the word “sensible” in place of “sensitive,” which given the otherwise consistent grammatical accuracy of it (and Kaida’s level of English skill) shouldn’t have gotten by even a basic proofreading if the translator understood the context at all. How does something like that get by the editorial staff? Still, a good effort is better than none at all.

The Blade Cuts Both Ways

Of course, if you flip it around, English-speaking anime fans are in an unusually awkward position with things like this. Ignorance is bliss indeed—we, unlike Japanese fans, notice the poor English whether we want to or not. We’re cursed to cringe at every mangled pronunciation, however well-intentioned, snicker at unfortunate grammatical errors, and generally get our suspension of disbelief kneecapped by even minor mistakes whenever the topic of native English speaking comes up. If anything, dub fans have an advantage there. So really, my desire to see better English in anime is an entirely selfish one—I don’t want to have my viewing pleasure tripped up by should-be-trivial bits of English.

None of this is to say that the problem is unique to Japan, of course—there’s no shortage of awkward Japanese (I’m looking at you, Tom Cruise) in Hollywood movies.

I Have Seen The Enemy, and He is Me

This is something of a non-sequitur, but I this week had the somewhat disturbing (to me) revelation that I am what I mock. See, I have a tendency to get annoyed by Americans who litter their online ranting and real-world speech with random Japanese. I’m not alone—throw a rock and you’ll probably hit a webcomic that makes at least one joke along the lines of “idiot gaijin fanboy/girl who speaks no actual Japanese.”

The revelation was that I, in actual fact, insert far more arbitrary Japanese into everyday conversation than any of these people do. Listen to Akemi and I have a conversation, and you’ll get a bizarre hodgepodge of English and Japanese that’s pretty much unintelligible to anyone but us. I did not equate one with the other, but really, they’re more similar than different—mutilated language hybrid understood by almost nobody. For her, it’s the same as all those annoying anime characters who insert random English to sound cool—the personality may be different, but the effect is the same. (She, unlike me, has been aware of this for some time, and has to work hard at not doing it when in Japan so as not to sound like a tool.)

In my defense (or perhaps not—this might be worse), I’ve long gone out of my way to pronounce Japanese names and terms (say, Tsunami or Karaoke) with a flat American accent when speaking English, and vice-versa when inserting English into a Japanese sentence. I could pronounce them “right,” but it seems somehow show-offish to break the flow of otherwise normal accent with something pointedly not that the people I’m talking to probably can’t pronounce that way were they to try. It’s also a little easier not to shift accents mid-sentence, at least for me. (I will admit to not even trying with longer titles like  Kyouran Kazoku Nikki or Urusei Yatsura, though.)

Anyway, in the name of linguistic harmony, I’ve realized the relative error of my ways, and have decided to put more effort into helping rather than sneering. I figure if I do my part to improve the comprehension of actual Japanese, that should reduce the desire to use incoherent Japanese, or, failing that, at least make it more correct.

Code-E to Mission-E Transition: What?!

So I just crossed the boundary between Code-E and its sequel, Mission-E, and I have to say:  What the hell?! No, seriously, WHAT THE HELL?!

I can honestly say I have never seen any direct sequel that has a more drastic mood and thematic change than these two series. I can’t even think of anything that comes close. The Empire Strikes Back and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor are practically twins in comparison. This is one of those situations in which, when you describe it, statements like “That was incongruous!” should include the common adjectival modifier beginning with F, which I have chosen not to use on this website. It’s not just warranted, it’s practically required.

See, Code-E is an unusual little story about a nervous girl trying to work out how to deal with a superpower—being a walking EMP weapon whenever you get excited—whose main effect is making life difficult in the modern world. It technically qualifies as high-school slice-of-life comedy/drama, with a touch of low-key romance. In practice, its defining feature is low key. As in, that series has less excitement than anything this side of Someday’s Dreamers. The episodes have a leisurely pace, the comedy is pleasant and mild-mannered, the drama is incredibly mellow, the romance is even more subtle, and there is absolutely no action at all until the last five minutes of the final episode.

Mission-E is essentially Read or Die with more electromagnetic fields, less paper-based magic. As in, people with crazy superpowers ninja-jumping across rooftops, wicked martial arts knife fights, driving a classic Cobra Mustang through roadblocks, secret organizations, glowy super-suits, and basically a whole bunch of wicked superspy action. In the first episode. Meaning that the mood and onscreen action is the polar opposite of anything in Code-E. Heck, it has more action in the first five minutes than the entire 12 episodes of its prequel.

It’s not that either of these things is bad; quite the contrary, Code-E was enjoyable and Mission-E looks all kinds of interesting. And it’s not that the transition doesn’t make sense within the story—Code-E kept hinting that there were spies (though all we saw were comic relief) and evil organizations at work trying to harness the power of the gifted Type-E people, so it’s no particular stretch to assume five years later (that’s how much time has elapsed), once they got out of school and into the real world, the characters would start to use their assorted talents (both superhuman and not) to do good in the world and take the fight to the bad people. It’s not even that I have a problem with one segueing into the other.

It’s just that calling the change of pace extreme is an understatement. I feel like there is an entire transition series between the two that somebody forgot to make. Maybe two of them. I fail to see how somebody goes to a production company and tells them “I want to make an incredibly low-key high-school slice-of-life series that’s set-up for a raging superpowered action-thriller-comedy.” Who funds that?!

Aside from being completely broken, mentally, by the utter and complete theme reversal, I am enjoying it, and I like the idea of getting attached to some kids in a relatively normal environment then get to see the super-spies they grow up to be (it’s also, come to think of it, pretty unusual to have a series about kids and a sequel about the same people as adults in which the former kids don’t transition to a support role, a la Allison and Lillia or Record of Lodoss War). In fact, it gives you a much better hook into them as adults, and less need to spend time on things like building romance (we’ve already seen that stage, so it’s ok to just start out in a stable, committed relationship, with children in at least one case).

I just feel like I had spent enough time with the characters that I kind of wanted to see some of that transition, rather than having it do a several-year jump just when things were starting to get exciting. Still, very interested in seeing where this is going.

Also, Code-E had a massively incongruent intro theme—exactly the flavor of hyperactive jazz that opened Read or Die, except the accompanying visuals are as everyday and non-active as the rest of the series, and it has nothing to do with the feel of anything else. It would fit perfectly with the sequel, though, and though Mission-E gets a new theme, it’s similar and this time works.

Incidentally, as of this writing all of Code-E and all but the last episode of Mission-E has been fansubbed, but neither are licensed. If that’s still the state of affairs when I get to ep 11, I’m going to have to fansub the last episode so my anime-buddies who don’t speak Japanese can enjoy it, too. If anybody knows how to go about distributing such a thing once it’s finished, drop me an email or leave a comment so I can share. Either that or somebody get around to licensing this thing already!

(Non-sequitur aside: In general description, there are several parallels between Code-E and Code Geass. Both have the word “Code” in the title, both take place in a near-future world in what would geographically be Japan, both star a high school student with a subtle superhuman ability in a world with very few other people with superhuman abilities, and both eventually work toward their protagonists being heroes trying to change the world. It would be difficult to come up with two series that have that many particulars in common that are more diametrically opposite than Code-E and Code Geass. Also, if you took Lelouch and created his exact opposite, you would not get Suzaku, you would actually get Chinami.)

Emma: Anime and Manga Comparison

After reading the complete manga on which Emma is based, I’m rather surprised at how disappointed I was with the manga. The anime makes some substantive changes, and with two (or three, depending on taste) exceptions they’re very much for the better.

It’s interesting to note that the first two books of Emma cover the entire first season of the anime; the subsequent five—one of which is extra-thick to boot—cover the second season. This says something about how slow the anime is for the first season, taking its leisurely time establishing the main characters, their innocent, halting romance, and the people around them. For those who prefer a somewhat punchier story, the manga will be preferable in this section—it certainly feels more lively. It also makes a difference that when you spend three pages on Emma taking her glasses off and getting ready for bed, you can skim past it in a few seconds; that takes quite a bit longer in real-time onscreen.

Personally while I liked the somewhat livelier manga pacing, I did appreciate the mellow, wistful feel of the anime. The other substantive difference is that the anime spends noticeably more time establishing Elanor (and William’s siblings), which gives you a better hook into them once they become more central to the plot. It also gives Emma and William’s relationship more time to flow along in happily vague terms before reality hits hard, giving more punch to things once they do go bad.

The second season is quite similar to the manga through about book five, but takes a drastically different path at that point. This is where I would say the anime also does a much better job with the characters. The manga introduces a kidnapping plot, travel to America, and then a comparatively slow non-segue into a real relationship in its final two volumes. Now, if you’ve only seen the anime, your reaction might be like mine when this was mentioned to me:  “Kidnapping plot?! Say what?”

The thing with the anime version is that it is romance and drama, not melodrama—it maintains a remarkably grounded, real, and oh-so-British feel right through the big extremely-indirect showdown with the Campbell family. It never once resorts to histrionics or cliche plots—there is indirect political scheming and business dealing in addition to very low-key manners of the heart. The manga, in contrast, pulls out most of the penny dreadful stops, tossing in a kidnapping, several tearful, screamy scenes, and and oddly drawn-out wind down that is caught somewhere between epilogue and finale. This isn’t inherently bad—there’s emotional impact to a lot of it, and I like the firmer emotional connection to Emma’s friend Tasha—but in contrast to the anime, and indeed the rest of the manga, it seems overblown.

The anime, in place of this physical separation—and the implied emotional separation—goes with a much more real segment of Emma merely avoiding William, which in a way is actually more effective from the standpoint of an emotional connection you can empathize with.

The other interesting change is more subtle; because the manga doesn’t put any effort at all into establishing any alternate romantic tension, there’s really no question at all how it’s going to turn out. Elanor, in the anime,  really does have a substantial amount of innocent appeal, where she’s rather underdeveloped in the manga; Hans is barely even present in the manga, let alone any kind of romantic rival. Since in the anime both Emma and William have appealing alternate options, you wonder if maybe they couldn’t just move on and forget their feelings for each other. Thus, when the two big emotional scenes—which again are far more low-key than the manga—roll around (first the ball where they see each other again, and then the fire at the end, which is a minor event much earlier in the manga), they have much more impact. You feel the repressed heartache and share in the elation that much more when you aren’t entirely sure where things are going.

On the same note, the manga is quite explicit almost from the start of the post-Emma period in which William is playing perfect son that it is, indeed, an act. The anime doesn’t tip its hand near as obviously, leaving you wondering if maybe William really has moved on, again heightening the impact when he lays eyes on Emma—the shot of him coming to meet her in her room afterward is quite good in the manga, but more powerfully romantic in the anime, where you suddenly feel the repression much more strongly.

The end is also quite a bit different; the manga choses to leave things on a relatively clear path—and oddly chummy with the two parental women in the story—but very much unfinished, while the anime builds to a much more traditional moment-of-truth crescendo, followed by a brief, far more satisfying epilogue. While I appreciate the up-in-the-air nature of the manga’s tack, the end seems to trail off more than grip as finale, since it already hit the big moment several chapters earlier. While you can also call the uncomfortable point at which William’s relationship with his father and siblings is left realistic, it honestly feels more unfinished, like Mori (the author/artist) didn’t want to bother figuring out how things work out. Then there’s that it has gone much farther in establishing William’s father as a villain, having had a somewhat-willing part in Emma’s kidnapping, which it doesn’t follow up on at all. There’s also the peril that, when you establish a much more blunt villain, lacking any denouement at all seems unsatisfying; in the anime, since Campbell’s plot is distant and comparatively abstract, you can accept a somewhat low-key, political foiling of it and the related implication of his shame as comeuppance. In the manga, if he’s going to do something blatantly criminal like have thugs kidnap a woman and haul her off to America, you rather expect a little more than it just not working as backlash for it.

The manga does do one thing notably better, which is the relationship between the two older couples in the story, William’s parents and the Molders (oddly changed to Meredith in the CMX English manga translation). The latter, being German, are more openly romantic and attached to each other than the British characters, something the anime implied but didn’t really show in any detail. This would have taken no extra screen time, so it was an unfortunate omission. I also much preferred its handling of the absentee Mrs. Jones and her husband’s relationship.  Both versions make clear that they are still husband and wife, but that she lives elsewhere due to being unable to cope with stifling society. Where the manga does eventually show them talking and doing things together (and her with her younger children) on occasion, she pointedly stays away from all of the above in the anime for no particular reason that is explained. Given that the change wouldn’t have taken any time or interfered with any of the story, this was again an odd change.

There were three other bits in the final portion of the manga that I liked very much that didn’t make the anime. One couldn’t have carried over; having Emma’s confident determination to get back on her feet after being dumped penniless in America was a nice bit about her personality—almost enough to offset her being rather weepier and emotionally weaker in the later parts of the manga relative to her quiet strength in the anime.

The second also would have been difficult to work into the different plot flow of the anime, though from a symbolic standpoint it was subtly beautiful: William finally takes Emma to get a new pair of glasses. Since it had been established that she was attached to her glasses despite not being able to see all that well with them anymore, having her relent and allow him to replace them (or at least the lenses) with ones that let her see the world—and, as the manga depicted it, William himself—more clearly was a symbolic acceptance of wanting more for herself, and taking a further step away from the past and into a new life. Maybe it comes of knowing what it’s like to have a too-weak glasses prescription, but I kept wondering when she’d get that dealt with, and it was a powerful enough image that it would have been nice to have worked this into the anime somehow.

The third was a wonderful, almost wordless scene with Elanor being drawn out of her melancholy by three Indian girls her wacky sister brought back as retainers, who go about miming her facial expressions. That could have worked in the anime—and in fact, due to her being a more substantial character there, would have probably had more impact—but I can see why it was left out both for time and that it avoided introducing more than a quick bit of her sister traipsing off to India. Monica’s doting-if-wussy husband was a fun aside that also would’ve broken up the flow.

The manga also established a nice language barrier between the German Molders family and their original household staff and the new English hires, but it would have been too complicated to handle the same in the anime without either bilingual actors or a lot of contortions to keep you up on who was speaking what language when—square speech bubbles are rather easier.

Looking at the manga itself, the art is simple and unassuming, but has a very nice feel to everything—both the reserved-yet-elegant character designs (you really have to love Mr. Campbell’s face) and the pleasant, true-to-life backgrounds (uncommonly detailed compared to a lot of shoujo manga). The art improves somewhat through the run of the manga, and it’s surprisingly pleasing to the eye for something that isn’t in the least bit flashy or obviously eye-catching. The character designs and soft-yet-lived-in feel of the environments carried through well into the anime, though the manga somewhat surprisingly had a lot more nudity. (Exclusively, as you might guess, Mrs. Molders and some of her German household staff, what with their improprietous, unashamed dress and bathing habits—the same thing was established in the anime as well when a single scene in which Mrs. Molders showed more skin than the entire first season combined, but without any actual nudity.)

(On the topic of uninhibited Germans, there were a couple of bits with two of the more reserved Molders maids that seemed to be hinting that one was unsuccessfully flirting with the other; I’ve chosen to assume it was just them being chummy in their aloof way so as not to introduce a bucket of additional shoujo stereotypes, but I am curious what the original intent was.)

In all I did very much enjoy the manga, and some of the different directions it took the characters in were as pleasing as experiencing the scenes that were the same again. That said, the sharp melodramatic turn it takes toward the end seems so much less grounded and realistic than the early parts that, while enjoyable, it just doesn’t feel like it fits properly. The slightly more traditional, yet also more reserved, realistic, and British, finale of the anime has both more tension and a more satisfying conclusion, and frankly fits quite a bit better with the rest of the setting, story, and characters. The manga gets a slightly hesitant recommendation, while the anime I can speak of with far less reservation, and given its improvements with the tension, I’d recommend watching it first if you want to enjoy both. It’s nice, I must say, when the animation team actually brings something better to the table rather than taking something away.