A fresh start is not only a good time to look forward to the exciting new discoveries that can come with a change of scenery, it is also a good time to look back at what has come before. Since I started writing about English anime dubs back in 2008, with my former column Eigo Kudasai (English, please), I’ve taken a look at a good number of recent dubs of the past few years. I have not, however, had a chance to speak too often about dubs from before that time, which is a shame, because the period from roughly 1998 to 2008 was a glorious decade for the dubbing of anime in English, a golden age. During that time period, a number of dubbing studios in several geographical locations were busily turning out productions of a fairly high quality across the board (with exceptions, of course). There were a large number of good dubs produced then, and a certain number of outstanding ones. While I intend to continue reviewing new dubs in my new column Press Audio, I thought I would start off things by taking a look back at that high period in English anime dubbing and pick out some of my personal favorites, dubs which I’m going to state, with confidence, you really ought to hear.
Since the overall list is rather long, it seemed best to break it down roughly into genre categories, though these division are not firm. Thus, the first six dubs are what I am very loosely calling “comedic,” as all of them are of a rather light-hearted nature, even if there is the occasional mixture of heavier drama. The process of whittling down does wonders for helping one to focus on what makes for a truly memorable dub versus a dub which is very good, very entertaining, but somehow not as gripping in its long term impact. So, there follows a few brief thoughts followed by what I thought were the key moments of the dub. They are in no particular order.
Girls Bravo (New Generation Pictures; directed by Patrick Seitz)
While the show itself is not really all that interesting, being a boob-filled fanservice comedy that is, perhaps, rather lame, the dub makes it an experience worth revisiting. Patrick Seitz’s comedic masterpiece will not allow you to look at a banana the same way ever again. While the leads Michelle Ruff and Yuri Lowenthal are good, the secret to this show is in the hidden gems of several minor performances: Lulu Chiang’s Kirie (whose voice will be familiar to most of you), Hunter Mackenzie Austin’s Lisa and most of all, Liam O’Brien’s tour de force portrayal of the overbearing Kazuharu Fukuyama. A mediocre show was turned into a comedy classic by this dub.
Key Moments: The banana. Any time Kazuhara was on screen.
Chobits (BangZoom! Entertainment; directed by Eric Sherman)
Some shows make it based upon the strength of the overall cast. Chobits on the other hand, again a show that by objective criteria is really only so-so (being a convoluted CLAMP mess), is elevated by a single performance above all: Crispin Freeman’s Hideki Motosuwa. The rest of the cast is very good, including Tony Oliver’s joking Shinbo, Michelle Ruff’s cute Chii, Julie Maddalena’s sweet Yumi, Wendee Lee’s sexy Takako, Mona Marshall’s precocious Minoru, and David Lucas’ sad but noble Ueda. But the performer who makes this dub something special is Crispin Freeman. Freed from the vocal and emotional limitations of the stereotypically growling, dark character slot in which he is often cast (too many instances to list; recently Durarara!!), Mr. Freeman is able to use his lighter timber to show us the full range of emotion, from love to agony, tenderness to anger, cheerfulness to sorrow. It is a bravura performance in both comedy and all-too-human drama. All for the love of a malfunctioning machine.
Key Moments: Hideki being clueless (which is most of the time); Takako and Hideki and that chat that one night.
Lucky☆Star (BangZoom! Entertainment; directed by Alex Von David)
While The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya may have received all of the attention and boasted perhaps one of Crispin Freeman’s best performances, the real winner of the Kyoto Animation to Bandai to BangZoom! chain of production as far as dubs goes is Lucky Star. Unlike the rather stiff and somewhat unsatisfying Haruhi, this show, under the supervision of Alex Von David (who also oversaw a decent dub for Rozen Maiden), sings. Wendee Lee pulls out of somewhere a voice one had never heard from her before then, a strange nasal concoction, to bring to life the super-otaku Konata Izumi, proving that Ms. Lee really does have incredible range. She is more than suitably matched by Michelle Ruff and Karen Strassman as the cute but clueless Tsukasa Hiiragi and sweet but klutzy Miyuki Takara. Of course, in a completely different, but excellent, class is Kari Wahlgren’s Kagami Hiiragi, the sarcastic observer of Konata’s fan-driven excesses. Her snide asides and acid commentary provide the much-needed antidote to Konata’s insular worldview. Overall, this dub just sings, with perfect comedic timing that brings to life the comedy of the original. It is also the closest one will ever get to hearing a sliver of what a Maria Is Watching Over Us dub might have sounded like.
Key Moments: “How do you do, kiron!”; Kagami being exasperated.
Ah! My Goddess TV (NYAV Post; directed by Sean Schemmel, Michael Sinterniklaas, Marc Diraison)
While this storied franchise already had two previous dubs, the first (Oh! My Goddess the OVA) provided by Coastal Carolina, the other (Ah! My Goddess the Movie) by Animaze in Los Angeles, the third time would be a real charm, providing what is, to my mind, the best dub for the characters, and a truly great dub all around. Eileen Stevens is the perfect Belldandy, supplying a voice and performance that exudes a peaceful warmth that you could believe would stop a raging battle. Drew Aaron’s Keiichi Morisato combines a naive niceness with a genuine feeling of youth, a great match for Keiichi. Vibe Jones’ Urd drips with mature sexuality while Annice Moriarty manages to make Skuld bratty and annoying without entirely alienating the listener. The casting is near flawless in the minor parts, a real feat considering that the New York pool is not quite as deep in terms of numbers (as heard in some other productions, where double-casting gets noticeable in a bad way). A few major dub related coups are involved as well, including the return of Juliet Cesario, the first Belldandy (from Coastal Carolina’s production of the OVA), here as Belldandy’s rival Peorth, along with a few other notable guest performances. The real heart of the show is the bond between Keiichi and Belldandy, and here the acting really shines. In this age of jaded cynicism, sometimes sincerity can sound downright hokey. Stevens and Aaron, however, manage to sound sincere without inducing any eye-rolling. It is an immense feat, and not something to be taken for granted. Strong comic timing is also greatly in evidence in this dub to which everyone should give a listen.
Key Moments: Drunk Belldandy; Urd trying to encourage Keiichi.
Azumanga Daioh (Industrial Smoke and Mirrors [ADV-Houston]; directed by Don Rush)
There are times where all of the elements just flow right. While not the only example of this, AzuDai is a great example of proper flow in an English dub. The ensemble cast seamlessly blends into their roles, even if Jessica Boone does sound a little strained at times as the insanely cute Chiyo Mihama. Though we all know that voice actors record separately, this is one of those dubs where they genuinely sound as if they are conversing in the same room. A good dub is especially important in a dialogue heavy show such as this one, and it is fortunate for all of us that ADV got it right. It is not only the students (Boone, Kira Vincent-Davis, Mandy Clark, Nancy Novotny, Christine Auten, Allison Sumrall) who are suited for their roles, the teachers as well were perfectly cast, with Luci Christian’s zany Yukari, Monica Rial’s long-suffering Nyamo and Andy McAvin’s–dare we say it?–creepy literature teacher with an unhealthy fetish for high school girls. Don Rush’s expert direction keeps this one on course for the entire run.
Key Moments: Kaorin’s delusions, “Cooking is so fun!”; Tomo’s antics; Osaka’s contemplations.
Petite Princess Yucie (Monster Island [ADV-Austin]; directed by Robert S. Fisher)
While he may not have directed many shows, and seems to be more a recording engineer, there is no denying that Fisher oversaw the creation of a real gem of a dub with PPY. To a certain extent, this is another case where a lead performance contains in itself such power and grace that it raises the entire level of the dub. Rachel Rivera gives the title heroine such a moving and affecting portrayal that it is hard not to be cheering her on. And compared to many others, Rivera genuinely sounds like a child. But it’s not only Rivera’s performance that impresses the listener. Her foil, Kelley Huston’s Glenda, is a perfect study in contrast, being over the top and larger than life compared to the more grounded Yucie, yet without crossing the line into caricature. Monika Bustamante’s Cocoloo rounds out the “power trio” as the quiet, almost invisible supporting friend. There are good turns by many others, and even a small role from someone who would later find a much larger stage in Flower Mound these days. Though the story takes a rather dark and menacing turn later in the run, the cast does a good job of keeping the light tone throughout much of the show, with good comic timing and the right kind of happy feel that makes a listener smile.
Key Moments: “Brat!” and all of Yucie and Glenda’s confrontations; just about any time Yucie speaks.
This list is not exhaustive nor exclusive. There were many other comedic dubs from the era which are worthy of praise, but these six were the ones which I personally feel are worth pointing out to others. Fortunately, all of them are still available, Chobits having the good fortune recently to receive a new blu-ray transfer released by FUNimation, so if you have not already picked any of these titles up, I strongly suggest that you at least rent them from Netflix, and then buy if you like them in order to show the industry that good dubs are still very much appreciated.
In my next installment, I will take a look back at 5 Action Dubs that I feel are required viewing. See you then.