Doug Walker, who does the Nostalgia Critic over on YouTube has been doing Disneycember where he reviews all of the Disney movies. He did a long series on the Miyazaki anime films that Disney brought over from Japan and frankly, I don’t agree with a lot of what he said and I think the reason we have such different points of view is because he watched them all in English with American voice actors and I watched them all in the original Japanese. Why do I think this is the case? Read on and see.
Doug spends a lot of time talking about the quality of the Disney voice actors and what they bring to the roles and I do agree, the dubs that I have seen have been largely very well done, Disney picks some big name stars and goes all out on their dubs, mostly because Miyazaki mandated it as a requirement for doing his movies at all. No changes, no rewrites, do it straight or not at all. I agree with that. But one thing that always gets done is localization, where the country that adapts the foreign work makes changes, often subtle, to get rid of culture-specific jokes and references that the new target audience simply wouldn’t understand. Most of the time, it doesn’t make a difference. Sometimes it really does. I do think that changing the voices and changing the references does, at least subtly, change the intent of the original director and that, I think, is problematic many times. After all, the original director got his actors to say exactly what he wanted them to say, exactly as he wanted them to say it. That isn’t the case when you put new people dubbing over the original lines, often adding their own spin to the characters.
And this is largely where I see the problem. Disney has put some actors that I really don’t agree with into the roles. They’ve changed genders on some of the characters, mostly because I’m convinced they had an actor they wanted to fit in, whether it made sense or not. The inflections and patterns of the new actors don’t necessarily fit with the old ones. They may be saying essentially the same things, but they are saying it in different ways and that affects how the movie comes off. Since I understand the original Japanese, since I understand the original Japanese cultural idioms and references, I get what the original director was trying to do and enjoy it as such. I don’t have to see it through a filter of what some American director thinks a Japanese director might have been trying to do, then trying to get an American audience to understand their perhaps faulty understanding of the original material.
Now I don’t think every Miyazaki movie is an absolute masterpiece, but I think his older works are excellent. Nausicaa, Laputa, Totoro, even up to the range of Kiki and Howl, those are fun movies that each stand on their own and are great films in their own right. You can’t compare them, which unfortunately, Walker does. Totoro is a small story about two kids and the spirits of the forest. It relies heavily on knowledge of Japanese mythology. If you don’t know that mythology, you won’t get the movie. It isn’t a sweeping story like Nausicaa, which is a raging war between two nations and the wilderness taking over the planet. It isn’t a chase movie like Laputa. These are all individual films that need to be judged that way, not “yet another Miyazaki movie that we have to compare to all other Miyazaki movies”. It does them all an injustice to think of it that way.
So while I’ll keep watching the Nostalgia Critic, I have to say that reviewing Japanese films, and he’s certainly not the only one to do this, I’ve seen people like Decker Shado do the same thing, you really need to go into it knowing what the films were originally about and judging them by that knowledge, not just what someone in America wanted them to be about and changed dialogue and localized content to make it about. It’s like watching Russian cinema without understanding Russian culture. It just doesn’t make sense in the end.