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5 Action Dubs You Really Ought to Hear

7 min read

In the first of this short series of preview columns, I looked back at 6 dubs with a largely comedic focus from the glorious decade in English anime dubbing, 1998-2008, a time where it was harder to find a bad dub than it was to stumble upon a fairly okay one. But there were not just decent ones, there were a large number of genuinely good dubs, and from that number, there are a select few which, in my opinion, were outstanding. Today, I’m going to talk about 5 dubs that are about the action, action which you really ought to hear.

To some extent, action dubs can be a bit harder than comedic or dramatic ones. In the latter two groups, you will often have dialogue-heavy scenes, which are, in the end, the “action” of those types of shows. With straight up action shows, you often have the opposite set up: the action is all done through visual scenery, so parts where “people just sit around and talk” are seen as boring or detracting from the experience. That is true for poorly written, poorly scripted action shows. That is not the case for these shows, all of which combine visual excitement with sharp dialogue and stellar performances. Dubs that you really ought to hear.

Cowboy Bebop (Animaze; directed by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn):

If we are going to talk about great dubs from the past, it is impossible not to go back to the one that perhaps started it all in terms of the Golden Age of English Anime Dubbing. While today it will almost assuredly sound a little dated to current and new dub listeners, at the time, Cowboy Bebop was the gold standard for anime dubbing in English. It became the English dub so good, even the Japanese praised it. One person connected to the show said that Koichi Yamadera’s Spike was good, but that Steve Blum’s Spike was “sexy.” When compared against the dubs of the Streamline era and earlier, Cowboy Bebop stands out in very stark relief with its solid casting, memorable performances, and most of all, natural and realistic feel that made one stop thinking of it as a cartoon. That was the real problem with many dubs before this one: they sounded far too much like Saturday morning cartoons, which have their place, certainly, but employ a dubbing style that ruins any attempt to create a more mature mood. Sure, there is some weakness here and there in minor roles, but Blum’s Spike is the epitome of cool, Beau Billinglea’s Jet is grizzled experience etched in stone, Melissa Fahn’s Ed is goofiness personified, while Wendee Lee’s Faye provides Exhibit A in how to make what is, after all, just a concoction of ink on paper that pretends to move into a certifiable sex object.

Key Moments: Just about any interaction between Spike, Jet and Faye.

Black Lagoon (Ocean Studios, Vancouver; directed by James Corrigall):

Foul-mouthed and unashamedly proud of it, the dub for Black Lagoon represents a true fearlessness in dubbing. Animation tends to be seen as kiddie fare in North America, which often results in deliberate softening even when adult themes are involved. No such bowdlerizing goes on here. In all of its foul-mouthed glory, Black Lagoon tells you to sit the *deleted* down and shut the *deleted* up while it recounts for you the bloody and unscrupulous adventures of the Lagoon Company, seen through the eyes of their newest employee, the naive Japanese former salaryman who now goes under the name “Rock” (Brad Swaile). Swaile gets Rock’s character down quickly, presenting him as a clueless lamb delivered into a den of lions. The most hungry of those lions being, as is proper, a lioness: the sexy and deadly “Two Hands” Revy (Maryke Hendrikse). While Swaile whines and flounders, Hendrikse snarls and curses. Rounding out the Lagoon Company are Dean Redman’s Dutch, who screams badass with just his voice, and tech guy Benny (Brian Drummond), who is not your average geeky computer guy, having seen too much in this world. Mention must be made of Patricia Drake’s powerful presence as Balalaika, the head of the local Russian mafia, whose ruthlessness is matched by her cold as ice demeanor. With solid secondary and incidental performances all over, filled with language not safe for wimpy American TV, this is not a dub for the young ones, but one that adults can truly enjoy.

Key Moments: “Don’t cry, you fool.” Revy and Eda; Dutch’s take on running a business.

Last Exile (BangZoom! Entertainment; directed by Eric Sherman):

While he’s somewhat overused today and thus doesn’t have as strong an initial impact as he once did, Johnny Yong Bosch’s Claus Valca is still as fresh today as when Last Exile was originally released back in 2003/4. Though the show suffers from a few shortcuts (obvious double-casting, though some of the actors double cast have good range and cover it up well), the performances have a power to them that overcomes the minor quibbles. It is powered by a great ensemble cast of talented people, not just Bosch but Kari Walgren as the spunky Lavie Head, both of whom contrast sharply with the gloomy force of doom that is Crispin Freeman’s Alex Rowe, a man who is already dead inside but will not depart this life until he has had his revenge against the person he holds responsible for his lover’s death. Joshua Seth captures the audience’s attention with his off-the-wall nut-job Dio Eracles, while Julie Ann Taylor is the restrained, but sad, princess in hiding. Michelle Ruff pulls double duty as cute little Alvis Hamilton and the tough-as-nails, but actually fragile inside, Tatiana Wisla, a young fighter pilot who puts too much pressure on herself to be the best. Ruff is actually far more impressive in the latter role. I cannot pass by without drawing special attention to a particularly evil sounding Mia Bradley in a deliciously wicked role as the self-absorbed and vicious Queen Delphine.

Key Moments: Dio’s saying “Immelmann!”; Sophia’s talk with Claus; Mullin Shetland’s chant.

R.O.D. the TV (New Generation Pictures; directed by Taliesin Jaffe):

There would probably be a riot among some long-time fans if I did not include this one. One of the most honored shows in the past awards programs run in the English Track, to the point that it became near-impossible to recognize any other good dubs during its domination of the precursor to the ADR Awards, R.O.D. the TV does deserve most of the praise it gets. Taliesin Jaffe assembled an incredibly talented cast and brought out the best from them to give life to this rather complex and at times confusing show. Hunter MacKenzie Austin, Rachel Hirschfeld, and Sarah Lahti provide voices that meld seamlessly into the Paper Sisters, Michelle, Anita, and Maggie, three women who have the power to manipulate paper into anything they wish. Each gives their character real emotional depth. The supporting cast is also top notch, with no secondary, minor, or incidental roles sounding off. Especially notable is J.B. Blanc as “Mr. Joker,” who was once a hero, but has, from desperation, turned villain. In his portrayal, you can still sense the fading embers of his once heroic self, now turned to unscrupulous ploys in order to hold on to a waning power. With this dub, Jaffe assured himself of a place among the top rung of ADR directors of the era.

Key Moments: Mr. Joker speaking about reviving Britain; interaction between the Paper Sisters.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Animaze; directed by Kevin Seymour, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn):

While the movie may have come first, the dub for the television series would surpass it so far that when Mamoru Oshii made a second movie, there was no question that the TV cast would be used to record the English dub for Innocence. The reason was simple–the cast for the television series was just that good. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, whose voice oozes mature sexuality, was the natural choice for playing the Major, Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg vixen who is not above using her artificially created sexiness to accomplish her goals. Richard Epcar is the brooding Batou, a cybernetically-enhanced hard man with one soft spot, an unrequited love for the Major, while Crispin Freeman is the Everyman focus for the viewer, the still “natural” human Togusa. Under the watchful eyes (and more importantly, clever brain) of Aramaki, played with the full depth of aged grace and gravity by William Frederick Knight, the members of Section 9 fight the bad guys in a dystopian future where the one place you take for granted as your own, your brain, is open to attack if you choose to join into the completely wired world that humans inhabit in Masamune Shirow’s creation. While it occasionally gets bogged down in pseudo-science babblespeak (like many a live-action science fiction show), the actors deliver their lines with aplomb and keep things moving, never allowing it to sink into dullness (unlike what happens at a couple points in Innocence). Action scenes and action dialogue are given the proper emphasis without veering into cartoonish caricature.

Key Moments: Batou and the Major discuss why she uses such a “weak” prosthetic body; Aramaki navigating among the hidden agendas of the bureaucracy; Togusa’s reflective moments.

So, there you have it, 5 Action dubs from that great era of dubbing that stand out among a very good number of high quality dubs. In my final installment of this preview series of column, I plan to discuss 5 dubs which are largely dramatic in character and which manage to plumb the depths of human emotion without going overboard. See you then.

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