Even If You Can’t Speak Japanese, You Should Try Watching Anime Without Subtitles

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When I was just beginning to learn Japanese, one of my classmates proudly claimed to me that she could understand anime without subtitles. That really took me aback at the time, since I assumed you needed to be fluent in order to understand what people were saying in another language. So I tested her. I played the audio of an anime episode without the visuals and asked her to translate the lines for me. It turned out she only understood a few words here and there. That was it.

So was her claim to being able to understand anime without subtitles just an empty boast? At first, I thought so, but when I started to watch anime raw I understood. The context and visuals convey so much nuance that the actual spoken dialogue become periphery to one’s understanding of the story. In other words, it’s very easy to understand the gist of anime without subtitles even if you possess very limited Japanese.

Where am I going with this? If you watch anime with subtitles, it’s very easy to get caught up in the words and not to see the bigger picture. That’s where I think the tendency among non-Japanese fans to read anime as text rather than as moving images comes from. Separating the “story” from the “animation” is pointless and misleading, because in anime the two become indistinguishable. But it’s easy to fall into this mindset when watching anime becomes a habit of passive reading.

When I suggested that this was a problem in an earlier post, a couple of readers commented that they were so used to analysing the story and dialogue in an anime that they didn’t know how to write about animation and art. One reason for this is that school emphasises literary analysis more than visual media analysis, but another equally compelling reason is that not enough people watch anime without subtitles on a regular basis.

Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t watch anime with subtitles. Comprehending the dialogue can only be a good thing and I sincerely appreciate the effort both fansubbers and official translators put into making anime accessible to us all. At the same time, you would be surprised at how your appreciation deepens when you rewatch an anime without the subtitles. (Some of you reading this may be able to attest to this.) Once you’ve satisfied your need to understand what every single line meansit becomes easier to put the audio and visuals into perspective.

But What About Dubs?

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Probably the most common reaction to an English dub (or one of any language, for that matter) is for the viewer to be distracted by the sound of the voices. Instead of contributing to the viewer’s understanding and immersion into a particular scene, the dub clashes with the anime’s atmosphere and takes the viewer out of the show.

The problem here is not that English-speaking actors don’t have any skill or that Japanese is an inherently better-sounding language. Rather, it points to the same feature of anime in general: the words themselves do not convey the most meaning – the sound does. This is true in all spoken media, where the audio needs to match the visuals. In anime’s case, the exaggerated movements in the animation are matched by equally exaggerated voice acting. The problem with a lot of dubs is that they attempt to match the pitch of the Japanese performances but they rarely match the tone. With the exception of a few voice actors who really take their roles into their own, many English voices come off as flat and do not convey much individual character.

In other words: if you could not speak English or Japanese, you would be able to understand the Japanese audio better than the English one.

(This all isn’t to say that I personally don’t enjoy dubs, because I do, but that’s neither here nor there in this discussion.)

Does Watching Anime Without Subtitles Affect Your Taste In Anime?

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Irrelevant, but it made me laugh

This is an interesting question and one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’ve certainly noticed a change within myself after spending half a year or so watching anime raw. I pay more attention to character movements and facial expressions in particular. Anime with flimsy narratives have started to appeal to me more, though whether that’s really a result of me paying more attention to the aesthetics or because I’ve been making an effort to become more open-minded in general is hard to say.

In any case, it hasn’t escaped me that the tendency among those to read anime as text is accompanied by an over-reliance on subtitles to comprehend the story. And when you do read anime as mainly text, it becomes easier to appreciate a cult classic like Legend of the Galactic Heroes. While I think that, as an anime, LoGH is distinctly slow and unappealing, it holds up a lot better when viewed as a novel in television format. It’s not a bad way of seeing anime, but I think it does potentially close off your mind to other possibilities within animation and it’s where some unhealthy brands of elitism can spring from.

Above all, I’ve tried not to stress here that Japanese knowledge is that essential to appreciating anime, because it’s not. It’s precisely because raws can be understood with minimal understanding of Japanese that’s the point here. That really says a lot about the nature of anime and what a remarkable medium it is for storytelling.

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So, anyone have any opinions on this? Do you ever watch anime raw? If so, how has it affected your experience with anime?

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Posted on December 6, 2013, in Editorials and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I’ve watched a few episodes of Gundam, super robot cartoons, and Precure. Since these shows are made for a younger audience, they weren’t hard to grasp! I’d watch them subbed the next day and most of what I understood holds up. It’s easier for visual shows as opposed to those that really rely on dialogue to drive the plot/characterization. I imagine LoGH would be hard without comprehending the stuff they discuss.

  2. I watched an episode or two of Joshiraku (a dialogue-heavy series) raw and enjoyed it more than I thought I would, which is not to say I understood much of it. It matters less with that show and more with other talky shows, like the Monogatari franchise.

    I read your post about criticism being too concerned with story and not with visuals, but there’s another hurdle to overcome when you try to describe visual things–they’re more abstract. It’s not just that we don’t get get art in school. Like music, after a point your means of description fall short because you don’t have the words, whereas when you talk about a story you are using words to describe words. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” as Frank Zappa is supposed to have said.

    • Like music, after a point your means of description fall short because you don’t have the words, whereas when you talk about a story you are using words to describe words.

      That very thought did occur to me, but then I thought that you’d be limited using words to describe anything at all, and it’s the ambition of any writer for their ideas to transcend the limitation of words, right?

      Anyway, thanks for the insight :)

  3. I’ve been linked to some stuff in Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere (talk about a text-heavy show!) without subtitles, and sure, I could understand the gist of what was said, and some nuances… but I like understanding everything, so while it can be interesting to do now and then, it can by no means replace actual watching.

    Of course, I lose some stuff with translation, but my Japanese is just enough that sometimes I notice nuance the translator couldn’t fit in, or a small mistake, and stuff like that – in other words, just enough to enhance my viewing. As an analysis-heavy watcher, it can be a nice exercise, but it can’t come instead of my regular viewing.

    You’re working hard to be a “weeabo” :P

    • Oh man, I hope you’re not serious with that weaboo comment because I was totally trying not to make out as if the Japanese language was the essential part of the “raw” experience! And in any case, it’s not as if I’m telling you to stop watching with subtitles – if anything, I’m suggesting watching raws as supplementary viewing after you’ve already comprehended the story. If you need the subs to understand the basic story, then watch the subs – just don’t rely totally on what the characters say for understanding the narrative. That’s all :)

      • If I were serious, I’d use an angry smiley or something, nah.

        Well, if you check my episodics page, you’ll see, I erm… notice too many things. I don’t need to watch subtitle-less to notice less things. Aside from tone, I even as I said pick up on some nuances the translation sometimes missed, in Kara no Kyoukai I ultra-noticed the colours of scenes and their effects, etc.

        If anything, I’d like to notice less now and then, heh.

      • BTW, if you watch an episode twice, since you already know the plot, it’s obvious you’re going to notice more things, such as small cues, but sure, turning off the subs can heighten it even more.

  4. Maybe 5 or so years ago now I got tired of waiting on subs to preview the new anime season so I decided to watch some raws. I was shocked to find that I understood 90% of what was going on. Since then I’ve tried everything from import games to audio dramas and even a few fully voiced untranslated visual novels.

    What I can or can’t understand is incredibly varied. Show me a Japanese game show and I’ll understand maybe 10% of it. Give me a fully voiced JRPG and I might be able understand the entire story. Ironically I’ve found the better the writing is the more easily I can follow it. Give me a game I know is shit and ask me to follow it in Japanese and I’m completely lost. Not only did this change the way I look at any, it changed the way I looked at stories in general. For one it made me understand how foreshadowing works. There is value in this exercise if only to learn that lesson.

    There is also a lesson of subtlety to be learned from watching anime without subs. It’s one that you won’t ever catch if you are too busy reading your anime. Sometimes it’s in the animation, often it’s in the tone of the voice acting. You learn to start watching eyes and hands in particular when you don’t understand the language. Eyes mean so much in a visual medium. I’ve come to understand that more from reading VNs than I have from watching anime, but very much true in anime as well. Eyes are one of the biggest factors in giving life to a character.

    Now I find I can understand most Japanese entertainment so long as it is spoken Japanese. I can’t read Japanese at all. Even with spoken Japanese I sometimes only understand 1 word in 5, but that can be enough for me to piece together the entire meaning without too much effort. Sometimes my friends even ask me to translate trailers and such for them… I have mixed results with that, but I can usually do it. Recently I played Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus and I don’t think I got confused by the Japanese dialog even once.

    There is a part of me that really wants to learn Japanese, but I’m honestly not sure where I should start. I don’t have time to actually go somewhere and take classes and something like Rosetta Stone won’t teach me how to read it. It’s also one of those things that’s hard to explain to someone else. If someone were to ask why I want to learn Japanese my honest answer would be something like: So that I can read otaku fiction and play Japanese porn games. The biggest thing holding me back is the fact that I don’t have any real desire to speak to Japanese people, I just want to better understand their fiction. I have a strange sense of guilt about that and it keeps me from seriously looking for ways to learn the language.

    • Interesting story of yours :) Looks like you’ve had a pretty similar experience to me with these things, although I have been taught how to speak and write Japanese.

      Ironically I’ve found the better the writing is the more easily I can follow it. Give me a game I know is shit and ask me to follow it in Japanese and I’m completely lost.

      It’s funny how that is, isn’t it? Assuming it’s not completely wordy, one of the signs of well-written visual media is that you can follow along with it using minimal effort. In this case, that means the Japanese is understandable even if you haven’t learned the language. I’ve noticed some similar things myself – it really depends on how well the visuals and the writing blend together to convey the same message.

      If someone were to ask why I want to learn Japanese my honest answer would be something like: So that I can read otaku fiction and play Japanese porn games.

      That awkward moment when you learn Japanese just so you can understand their porn. ;)

      Anyway, I say there’s no harm in learning a bit of Japanese here and there, even if you have no intention of going to the country. It doesn’t hurt anyone and you get something out of it. As long as you don’t turn weaboo on us lololol

  5. First, “Irrelevant” made me laugh too. Point for that.
    Second. I understand the point. In fact, I remember the first time I got the courage enough to watch an anime, I wanted to so bad, that I kick aside the fact it was subbed, yes, but in chinese. Oh, hard old days (the story is long…). Since then, I could watch some anime series or some anime movies with no subs or even in another languaje sub (my english is fluent, so I don’t even look for my language subs anymore). It is another experience. So I try it raw first, then subbed and then, I watch it again to mix all together.
    About the critics, I didn’t want to comment the post… but I think there will be always different ways to watch anime and, at the end, they animemakers for sure know that and that’s because we get all kind of anime, suit for everyone.
    I am going nowhere. Again, I enjoy reading your post. Good bye.

    • Great comment! Everyone really does have different ways to watch anime, so I try not to say things like “You’re doing it wrong!” but rather to suggest some new ways of looking at the same thing. It feels a lot more constructive and we all get something out of it. Sounds like you watch anime in a few different languages yourself, so it seems you’re used to looking at things from a lot of different angles, which is great!

      On a side note, glad my irrelevant choice in pictures could make you laugh ;)

  6. I tried to watch Danball Senki W raw but I ended up dropping it because while I can sort of understand the basic storyline and the battles, everything else was just lost on me. However, this is not the case with Cross Fight B-daman eS, perhaps because of the episodes are just 15 minutes long and everything is much more simplistic. I planned to do the same with Gaist Crusher thanks to subs being very slow and the way the anime was set up allowed for watching it raw, but I gave up when I realize that I will be watching around a minimum of 17 anime series this winter even after considering anime series which will end by this season and dropping Saikyou Ginga Ultimate Zero: Battle Spirits, which I found to be very weak, especially with regards of its card battles.

    It really depends on the specific anime series in question. If I can understand everything, fine. But if I can’t do that I would rather watch the subs or drop it. Then again, I do admit that reading subtitles while watching anime does distract viewers from appreciating the animation.

  7. I watched a few shounen anime raw about four years ago and tried a few videos of visual novels (which is a surprisingly quick way to learn a few Kanji, but it was such an exercise for my brain I decided to stop there). I basically have always used raw videos when it was my only option and because I just don’t pay attention to aesthetics I didn’t really get anything out of the experience other than a sense of accomplishment (I rate art styles as ‘generally appealing to me’ and ‘not’, and I couldn’t even tell when a fanfic changed from past to present tense between chapters until I read the author’s comments – this is basically a truth for me no matter how much I try).

    That said, it was an important experience because I felt more flexible after that with my options. On the other hand, I remember watching an anime movie in Japanese without the subtitles and it was quite taxing, with my only memory being “why am I doing this my favourite character is barely in this”. That was only a few years ago, so I guess I’m a bit iffy with RAWs overall (partially I guess I don’t have the practice). Perhaps it was less of complex subject matter and more of an increased pressure to understand everything because a few years had passed between the two experiences and “I was obviously better now than I was then, right?”.

    I’d probably be able to understand some shows more than others, but I guess that’s a given – even putting aside some show’s amount of talking, some shows heavily use key words that you might need a little to comprehend because they aren’t really common (quickest way to find out the words for murder and murderer would probably be to watch every episode of Detective Conan up till where it’s updated)…. I might try more sometime to get what you’re saying.

  8. I used to watch Pokemon in Japanese only with no subs, but while I can probably understand anime geared towards children since I know up to lower-intermediate Japanese well, I can’t with other shows. While I do agree somewhat that getting rid of the subs allows one to look at Anime as a whole package, I want to understand the story too… Since I hardly focused on listening comprehension, I probably have a hard time understanding opposed to reading Japanese text, which I have the time to fully understand it.

    On the similar topic, I don’t think one can learn Japanese just by just watching Anime for the fact that you won’t understand the grammar and Kanji and the fact that actual Japanese speakers don’t speak like Anime characters. Anime is only good for supplemental practice, just like Video Games.

  9. It seems subs for new anime are so widely available these days that I have little reason to watch them raw. The main exceptions are long-running children’s shows and… hentai.

    There are plenty of other media I am interested in consuming that lack subs or translations, from games/VNs to voice dramas to web videos, but many of them lack some part of the audiovisual component, bringing comprehension another big step up in difficulty.

    It may be fine and well to glean what you can from the non-verbal components of vocal and bodily expression, but it only takes you so far. If you find yourself watching raws very often, don’t skimp on some actual Japanese learning. Study the basics of the grammar. Look up recurring terms in the dictionary to expand your vocabulary. Try translating some lines. There’s a huge payoff for getting from zero comprehension to basic understanding (JLPT N5, N4, maybe N3). Beyond that probably requires more rigorous studying and constant immersion.

    It might be interesting to consider what types of meaning and information we can take from each component. For example, its easy to tell emotional content and personality from facial expressions alone, even with ones impossible in real life. If the plot is action-based, visuals should be able to tell the story well enough by themselves. Attitudes and character relationships with each other can be figured out from the nuances in how they speak to each other, even if you haven’t explicitly studied honorifics. Potential areas where the above become insufficient and translation becomes necessary include long exposition and non-physical comedy. (Think Fate/Zero’s “walking in circles” and wordplay-heavy works from writers like NisioIsin and Kumeta Kouji.) For the latter, even subs may be insufficient, and studying the original language is necessary. Mastery of puns is mastery of language!

    • In no way was I suggesting that watching anime is a good way to learn Japanese – because on its own it’s not, really. But I’m glad you picked up on those sorts of problems.

      (Sorry if this reply seems curt! I totally don’t mean it, but I’m pretty tired as I type this and all the comments seem to be walls of text, it’s hard to know what to add!)

  10. I attest to this, hence my looooong analysis on Eureka Seven raw in my RRV series. Subtitles are DISTRACTING. D:

  11. Great post; this is something I’ve thought about a number of times but typically ended up giving up on less than halfway through the episode (with the exception of the time I saw the last episode of FMA Brotherhood live on TV in Japan – still haven’t gone back and watched it in English). The visual component is one of the big reasons I really love when a series gets a good dub, or even a passable one. As an example, watching the dub saved Kanon ’06 for me because (a) I couldn’t stand the Japanese voices and the dub did well to turn down the squeakiness, and (b) KyoAni does marvelous things with character animation and being able to reliably pick up on it really helped my appreciation of the show. I wouldn’t have gotten past episode one or two otherwise. When I’ve seen a show dubbed, I typically feel like I’ve understood more of it than when I watch a subbed series, and often remember more of the little details (or even important plot points, which I often forget week-to-week with subs). I saw a couple episodes of Patlabor dubbed and, even though the dub was rather lacking and I ultimately had to switch back to the subtitles after a few episodes, I caught more of the show’s trademark subtle humor in the episodes I saw dubbed.

    Now, Patlabor is obviously not a very good choice to try and watch raw, but I imagine the effect is very much the same, especially once you’ve watched enough things raw to be able to understand a fair portion of the dialogue. Being able to pay full attention to the visuals (I don’t believe the people who say they can do it while reading subs) is a big part of getting the most out of an anime that a lot of people probably don’t get. I admit to being one of those people. The trouble I’m having is actually sitting down and starting to do this. In trying to come up with some ways to do it, my thought was that maybe a good way to start would be on a rewatch of an episode you’ve recently seen subbed, since you should be able to place most of the dialogue to the scenes by visual memory. Or the reverse: try to infer as much as you can raw, then immediately go back and watch it subbed.

    While I haven’t tried watching them raw, I have recently tried watching a few episodes of currently airing shows with notable visuals (Kill la Kill and Kyousougiga) twice, alternating between following the dialogue and the visuals more closely, and found myself a lot better off for it. I don’t have the time to watch Kyousou twice every week, though, which is a shame because my experiment of doing this for a few episodes has shown me that I am in fact missing a lot by not doing this – as much of the story is told through the visuals as through the dialogue, so it’s really difficult to get the whole picture in a single watch. Which is why I hope it someday gets a good dub, though after reading your post maybe a second watch of the series without subtitles sometime down the line might be good, as well.

    I’ve gone off on a HUGE tangent, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that you really hit on the head a lot of the thoughts that have raced through my mind whenever I’ve watched a dubbed anime after seeing so many subbed, and you may have inspired me to give this week’s Kyousougiga a subtitle-free watch.

    • You’ve brought up some really good points of your own in your comment! A great dub really does immerse you into an anime in a way that watching subtitles can never do and I always feel like it’s worth it to watch a dub – that’s precisely why I enjoy them so much. And you’re right – you don’t have to watch anime in one way or another. It’s always great to chop and change whenever you feel like it because every way gives you a new way to appreciate anime. Glad this post motivated you in some way!

  12. Strangely, watching anime was for me always a multi-culti thing. Back then in school I remember watching Pokemon with a friend in Russian, with another friend Pokemon in Turkish LOL :D When I started watching anime seriously, I watched most stuff in my own nativ-language, German. Only later I started to study the Japanese voice-actors and so on. But honestly I never had real intention to study Japanese language seriously, as many anime-fans do. 2 years ago I watched the original Saint Seiya anime and watched like 5 eps in Spanish and actually liked it :D I was amused that they confused some of the genders of the characters in the Dub. Another comedy anime show I watched in Mandarine-Chinese. Was also very interesting for me.

    My random thoughts to your post.

  13. I watched Bleach without subtitles, then watched the subtitled version when the fansubbers released it. Needless to say, I was pleased to see I had gotten at least half of the dialogue (or more) correct.

  14. Interesting post. I have to say I do agree with you that it is easy to understand the anime audio. Back in the summer when I watched at least 6 episodes a day, I found myself understanding what they were saying without paying attention to the subs. However, I still have a long way to go when it comes to learning Japanese. Perhaps I should start with signing up for a class.

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