Sharma & Kumar Escape from Reality
Anime cartoons in Japanese are not just for Japanese-speakers. Two Indian-American college students explain why subtitles are better than voices dubbed into English.
Eyebrows leaping off of a character's head signal surprise, and a tear falling from the forehead indicates embarrassment.
Avinash Kumar and Shivu Sharma look at each other with angry faces. Kumar swings both arms behind himself, bends over and sprints towards his friend, yelling "Chidori!" Sharma lifts his right palm towards Kumar's face and retaliates with a "Rasengan!"
The first time I saw my friends like this, two college students using play fighting words from a Japanese anime series, they could sense my confusion.
"It's 'Naruto!'", both yelled, dropping their superpower poses.
"Naruto" and other Japanese animated television series have been common obsessions in the United States for years now. According to Roland Kelts' 2007 book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., the term "anime ... has been common parlance in the American media, no longer explained or defined in parentheses." Anime Expo 2009, the largest convention of its kind, attracted over 44,000 fans to the Los Angeles Convention Center last July.
Though they did not attend the convention, Kumar and Sharma share an avid interest in anime. The two Indian-American UCLA students eagerly await the weekly release of "Naruto," waiting at least an hour for each 22-minute episode to buffer before they can watch on their laptops. I was the more baffled by their interest in this show when I saw that it was entirely in Japanese and that they have to read tiny subtitles at the bottom of the screen.
In a lengthy conversation with the two anime aficionados – after the week's episode was over, of course – I uncovered a basic history of how they got to this point. It all started in 1999, they said, when the television show "Dragon Ball Z" gained popularity on Cartoon Network as part of the "Toonami" block.
At the time, Sharma was unaware that "Dragon Ball Z" was a Japanese television show because it had an English dubbed track. It appealed to him because of the subject matter, not the foreign origins. In the early years of this show, according to Kumar and Sharma, there was no indication that the characters were even Japanese. Their blond hair and blue eyes made them no different from other cartoon characters on the same network.
What attracted them to this show over others were the consistent themes of anime: fantastical human beings with superpowers on a mission to … fight evil villains with superpowers. The stories usually revolve around a main male character, just a regular boy, who discovers his super abilities as he grows up and encounters the world around him.
"The anime plot really hit the chord that we grew up with," said Sharma, "being just a boy but wanting superhero special powers and the ability to do crazy things."
Like other "Dragaon Ball Z" fans, Kumar and Sharma began searching for more anime online. Eventually, they migrated from the dubbed show to the subtitled "Naruto." I asked if they felt any sort of language barrier or distance from the characters and subject matter of "Naruto" because it was in Japanese. They said they did not. Because they have been watching anime since they were young boys, my friends have not only picked up some strange vocabulary, but also know that eyebrows leaping off of a character's head signal surprise, and that a tear falling from the forehead indicates embarrassment.
Kumar and Sharma even believe that the use of subtitles helped them to learn these physical cues, in a way that a dubbed English track could not. The fluctuating intensity and tones of characters' speech, which would be lost in a dubbed version, work together with the drawings to express emotion.
That's important, said Kumar, because anime works best when the characters seem close to viewers.
"Watching anime is like watching theater or Broadway; it's definitely not going to be like watching a movie," he said.
Published: Tuesday, December 15, 2009