This debate crops up with some regularity. First of all, it’s pointless and stupid to tell you which you should prefer. But there are some interesting things about brain science and anime history that can be added to the mix.
Let’s take a look at the data:
I’ve had the impression that older anime fans like me were the only ones who preferred subs, but apparently that’s not the case. The International Anime Research Team has been surveying anime fans at conventions and online since 2014, and studying other aspects of fandom as well. They publish the results of their surveys, and wrote a book in 2021: Transported To Another World: The Psychology of Anime Fans that you can download for free. Here’s the result of their question about subs and dubs:
That’s a surprise. Over 60% of the people surveyed preferred subtitles. Maybe this is older fans? Nope! They show age data for 2021 Survey (They vary the questions each year):
So what’s going on?
Obviously it’s not age or how long you’ve been an anime fan that’s driving this subtitle preference. If you’re over 30 you’re practically invisible. I’m guessing there are fewer older people going to anime cons, but a big draw at most anime cons seems to be meeting the dub voice actors. I suspect their online notices may not be reaching older fans, but there’s no arguing that anime has become a lot more popular in the last few years.
Here’s my guess: Cons and streaming services want to bring in new people all the time. More people = more profits, and you need new viewers/attendees to replace ones you lose to attrition for various reasons. Even nonprofit cons have to bring in new members or they’ll gradually die out.
New and casual fans are less likely to view subtitled anime. They’ll start out with what’s new and popular, that they see promos for, or their friends recommend. Maybe later there might be something more specialized that isn’t dubbed yet, or it never will be dubbed. But the growth for new anime fans is with dubs, so that’s what gets promoted.
Most of the scientific studies I’ve found are about subtitles for language learning and education, with only a few about watching fiction. None of the studies I’ve seen use anime specifically. Two I found used French or another European language with English subtitles. One hypothesis was that viewers would remember less from a subtitled viewing because their attention was divided between the text and the images. This turned out not to be the case- the first study found that subtitle viewers remembered more about the movie.
Another study looked at what viewers remembered, comparing “bridging references” with “outside references”. Bridging references were connections within the film. You might remember that earlier a character said they were afraid of heights, and now they’re faced with the challenge of crossing a swinging rope bridge. Or that bag of money is lost in the park, and later someone chases their frisbee into the bushes and finds a bag. You know it’s the money. “outside references” link to things outside the film. It might be to a trope (in a horror movie, teens that enter the basement one at a time are going to die ) or a symbolic reference (wilted flowers might symbolize a relationship ending, or death). They’re any sort of connection you make to something outside the film.
The study found that those who viewed a dubbed version of the film made more outside references, and the subtitle watchers made more bridging references. They didn’t give a reason, but I suspect it’s because the subtitle viewers kept their eyes on the screen more than the dub viewers did. More bridging references means they remembered more about the film.
I think all of this is mostly because subtitled anime forces you to pay attention to what you’re watching. Maybe the people who prefer subs are getting more out of their viewing experience, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. You can multitask during most English-language series, texting or folding laundry and occasionally checking the screen. You can follow along with the dialog, This is also a reason why shows with complex plots are rare and get canceled on American TV- people can’t follow them.
History of anime subtitles
In the old days you had few choices if you wanted to watch anime. Very little came to the US. Most of the commercial releases were “localized” to remove any trace of Japanese-ness. Names and locations were changed and episodes were chopped up or eliminated entirely. To this day, other cultural references to history, Buddhism, Shinto, or Ancestor Veneration routinely are cut or sanitized. In the case of Card Captor Sakura, they edited the show to make the boy the main character in “Cardcaptors.” Many of the dubbed shows sounded like they handed random people the script and said “Here, read this.” Anime was ultra-niche, so the main commercial anime genres were shows for children and ultra-violent ones.
The other choice was fan-subtitled works – fansubs. While some were undeniably bad, sometimes hilariously so, some were excellent. One reason for the high-quality ones is that they were totally non-commercial and escaped the “Time is Money” trap. Most fansubbers put in a lot of work, and they wanted to earn a reputation for quality. Their ‘handle’ was their personal brand.
Fansubs could be almost any genre. The down side is that fansub groups often wouldn’t deal with you unless you had shows they wanted for trade. No money changed hands. You mailed them a tape and return postage. If you were lucky there was a university anime club near you, like Animania at University of Michigan, that screened hours of fansubs at their monthly meetings.
Eventually fans pestered Cartoon Network and SciFi to show anime, and we got some stellar dubs like Cowboy Bebop.
Now in the streaming era with the firehose of new anime, the old “Time is Money” has returned and they don’t want to pay voice actors a fair wage. They also drop most shows from their catalog after a short run, never to be seen again, so if you don’t watch quickly enough you may not get to the end of a series.
Sometimes a dub takes a while to appear. Miyazaki’s Nausicaa was released in 1984, but a dubbed version didn’t appear until 21 years later! (I saw a fansubbed version at an Animania screening in 1993). Totoro was released in 1988, with the Disney dub finally appearing in 2006!
I’m not sure if Kimagure Orange Road from 1987 was ever dubbed, and that was a big fantasy/romance favorite. It may be one of the many shows that will never receive a dub because there aren’t separate sound/music and voice tracks. That’s a problem for a lot of older shows. And dubbing can be expensive. Nozomi’s kickstarter for dubbing the 26 episodes of Dirty Pair needed $275,000 minimum. The live-action Korean movie Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho apparently hasn’t been dubbed into English either, and it won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film.
The other factor to consider is that using subtitles is a skill, like playing the violin or ice skating. It’s going to be harder when you first try, just like any new activity, but you’ll get better with practice. Older fans learned to watch subtitles out of necessity, and by now we’re pretty good at it. If you want to learn, avoid shows with fast-paced dialog.
The 2nd paper is The Impact of Subtitles on Comprehension of Narrative Film by Mina Lee , Beverly Roskos & David R. Ewoldsen