kaigou: pino does not approve of where the script is going. (2 pino does not approve)
[personal profile] kaigou
[Edited/consolidated to reduce where I rambled. Wow, those cold meds are something.]

For a little background, read [personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist's A perhaps-obvious point about shipping and voice work, and don't skip the comments, which are equally insightful.

The TL;DR version is that voicework can completely alter our impression of a work, which is (as Phoebe says), probably completely obvious. I think there's a side-issue at work, though, which is that the voicework can also tell us how the voice-actors, themselves, approached the work—and our impression of the work, therefore, is informed by the actors' interpretation. That is, interpretation as the output (the voice recordings) and interpretation as the input (their own view of a character, a story, the conflict, and so on). I'll refrain from quoting too much of the original post & replies, since you can read it there, but I do want to call out this example, from [personal profile] aquila_black:
...my first introduction to Naruto was one of the movies, dubbed into English and shown once at our local theater... The movie had interviews with several of the American voice actors, the Japanese voice actors, and the manga-ka himself. The middle-aged American lady voicing Naruto was embarrassingly informal and unprofessional, and had nothing interesting to say about her character. The Japanese voice actress gave the camera a serious, well-thought out response about the responsibility she felt, at portraying the emotional complexities of an orphan who projects a relentlessly cheerful exterior, while often feeling desperately alienated and alone. Needless to say, it was a night and day difference. The Japanese actress convinced me that her character was worth my time.

In short, I see the output-interpretation as hampered or stifled by the lack of input-interpretation. Or, in the instance of the Japanese voice actress, the output is significantly enhanced by the amount of input she gave it.

This is not that unusual for Japanese seiyuu, from the interviews I've seen. It's the English-speaking VA who spends considerable time watching the original, thinking about the character, that's the unusual one (and they do exist, but there's plenty more who don't know of the original or seem to care). A similar case in point, for me, was watching the VA interviews that came with the US release of the Cowboy Bebop movie. Spike's VA (from the series) didn't do the movie-Spike [See comments in re this statement.] Faye's VA... well, I recall the question was something about playing Faye, and the answer was mostly about how awesome it was to hang out with the gang, and we all get along well, and blah blah blah.

(Not saying VAs are the only ones who do this; I've seen many actors/actresses asked about their character and answer with how hard the filming was, or doing their own stunts, or how close the entire cast got to be. Okay, some actors/actresses just don't like to analyze a character, and insist it should be left to the audience. Except I'm not asking for the definitive meaning; I just want to know the actor/actress or VA actually gave characterization as much thought as I'm going to give it while ripping it apart.)

The reason the other VA non-responses stood out was because Edward's VA spent no little time explaining how much thought she'd put into trying to communicate Edward's utterly-Japanese wacky dialogue into an English equivalent (IIRC, the VA doesn't know Japanese). She put time and effort not just into understanding Edward, but into crafting the translated dialogue with the director and scriptwriter, to "find" Edward's English voice. That's a lot of extra work, though, for a job where you're probably only making a pittance, anyway. Not everyone can, or will, or even is allowed to, go beyond like that.

But criticisms like mine do put a lot of weight on VA shoulders, and I think we need to shift some of that to where it belongs: the director. If you're in a play, and you don't know or haven't yet seen where the story's going, it's the director who says, "read the line like this," or "the character is actually feeling like ___ but showing an expression of ____ because s/he is thinking ___." There's a reason for the old joke about the actor asking, "what's my motivation!?" When all else fails, the one who can best answer that is the director... and I think we may have a substantial lack of directors in US VA work, from the results I'm seeing. Either that, or the English-speaking VAs are so incredibly bad that no amount of directing would save 'em. Hard to tell from the final product.

Speaking of the final product, in re Kuroshitsuji, let's have a comparison. All three examples from the first episode, with apologies for the quietness of the American dub—I got it from the hulu, so it's squashed for online playing. (I tried to amp it a little but stopped short of risking distortion.) All dialogue is from the Shinsen-subs version, except for an instance or two where the household J-student pointed out a subtle distinction for a better translation.

This first example is from the dinner scene, after Sebastian rips the tablecloth out from under everything, without disturbing even the water in a glass.

Ciel: There was a small stain on the cloth, so I had it removed. Please pay it no mind.
Sebastian: I am sorry to have disturbed you. Please enjoy your meal at your leisure.
Guest: I am humbled, Earl Phantomhive. He really is talented.
Ciel: He only did what was natural as my servant.
Sebastian: It is as my master says. I am but [hell of] a butler.

Now, re-listen, and this time pay attention to the last little response from Ciel, after Sebastian delivers his favorite pun on akuma, which does translate (somewhat) nicely into English as helluva (butler). You may need to turn it up, because it is a barely-aspirated sound, but it's there.

Did you hear that? To my ears, Eng-Ciel sounds like "hmph"—a kind of flat sound, that comes across a little irritated. Jap-Ciel's clearly more of a snort, the kind of sound you make when you're amused, might risk laughing, but you're keeping it to yourself. There's more nasal-snort aspirated quality to the "hmph", and it gives me the distinct impression (unlike the dub) that Ciel is not only amused, he's in on the joke. It's the true punchline to Sebastian's delivery, whereas the Eng-Ciel sounds like someone who's a little annoyed by Sebastian's words.

This next one might be a little strange, but I divided the lines up (or tried) so it's one line from each, with the original immediately following. Eng-Ciel, followed by Jap-Ciel, followed by Eng-Sebastian, then Jap-Sebastian, and so on. Listen to the vocal range in Ciel, as well as the intonation and implications (or lack thereof). Again, dialogue from Shinsen-subs version.

Ciel: What is this? The fragrance is weak.
Sebastian: I brought out an Italian tea to match our guest's tastes.
Ciel: Italian?
Sebastian: In Italy, coffee is the main apertif, so there are not very many good after-dinner teas. Does it not suit you?
Ciel: That's right. I don't like it.
Sebastian: I shall bring the dessert.
Ciel: Yes. Be diligent until the end, as befits the hospitality of the Phantomhive family.
Sebastian: Yes, my Lord.

It's more noticeable to me, in this one, with the two Ciels back-to-back, but when I relisten to the first example (above) and then again to this one, I finally pinpointed the difference: Jap-Ciel has moments where he actually sounds like he's not sure—where he's looking to Sebastian to give him the answer. In contrast, Eng-Ciel sounds distinctly annoyed by almost everything, which may be an aspect of adopting an accent (the Britishism, which I presume isn't native to the VA), or may be the VA's impression of how an aristocrat 'should' sound—somewhat demanding, verging on short-tempered, even uncompromising. Listen to the way each delivers the question, "Italian?" Eng-Ciel sounds quite put-out by this, even irritated. Jap-Ciel sounds a little startled; I'd even say querulous.

The other marked difference is in the actual timbre of the voices. Both English and Japanese versions have a female VA in her mid- to late-twenties, as I understand... but to my ears, the English version doesn't sound like she's pitching her voice any lower than usual. The Japanese version is—like so many of our other adolescent heroes, ie Naruto, Edward Elric, Allen Walker, and so on—working hard to pitch, what's probably a natural-level voice equal to Eng-Ciel, even lower.

Maybe I'm just sensitive to that, and how it changes the sound, because my own voice is pitched lower, and at times I will purposefully pitch it even lower than that. (Somewhere in my pre-teen years, someone made a comment about how my voice was girly on the phone. That's when I started working for a lower pitch, intentionally, because I disliked the idea that I might be seen/heard as girly—giggly, bubbly, etc.) I'm aware that forcing a lower pitch does sort of a similar thing as trying to force a considerably higher pitch—your voice kind of aspirates out. (Not being a trained vocalist or even non-trained, I don't know the proper word.)

Hmm, think of some female pop singers who are probably altos, but who try to force themselves into a soprano note—the voice will go almost breathy, losing all substance. Even Mariah Carey—undoubtedly a soprano of some power—will go breathy when she hits the uppermost range. Similar happens when you try to go really low, and you can hear that in Jap-Ciel's delivery. On the plus side, this kind of breathiness is somewhat akin to how a boy's voice sounds in early adolescence, when his pitch is dropping but his vocal cords aren't entirely there yet.

That, though, is where the director was sleeping. That, to me, is when the director should be saying: push yourself, drop your voice a little more. And also: Ciel is not irritated, Ciel is still (underneath it all) a fourteen-year-old boy with questions, and Sebastian has answers. Ciel can be something other than permanently annoyed; Ciel can have more than one note.

And last, have an example of where range—and having a soundman who is NOT asleep at the board—can really have a major impact. This is from the first minute of the very first episode, when we meet the two main characters. Dialogue again from Shinsen-subs.

Sebastian: Once one has rejected faith, it is impossible to pass through the gates of Heaven.
Ciel: God? Would someone who believed in God summon you?
Sebastian: Then, I will ask thee but once: it is thy wish to form a contract?
Ciel: Enough! Form the contract and grant my wish!

First, the subbers used an archaic form of English (which is traditionally meant as an intimate version, not as the formal/distant version, but I'm willing to forgive that since it's archaic enough that most people hear "thy" and think "church" or "Shakespeare" and therefore "fancy"). This formality and/or archaic element is missing in the English translation, and I'm not sure why. That archaic aspect invokes (so to speak) the sense of ritual that's happening here.

Second, Eng-Ciel is putting some effort in pitching her voice lower (more noticeably than any of the other examples, at least), but the intonation is... it's a little off. It sounds flat. And it's only partially the VA, in this; I think it's the soundman lacking, too. Jap-Ciel gets echo, and Eng-Ciel doesn't. In fact, the reverb is much lower on the English version, all around, and that reduces the sense that they're in a vast space occupied by only the two of them.

Third, I put my writer's hat back on and notice some of the nuances. Like, why alter the subtle aspects of Sebastian's lines when we don't even see his mouth (and have no lip movements to match it to)? "I'll ask you once more" is not the same as "I'll ask you only once". In the Japanese, Sebastian clearly doesn't waste his time; he'll ask and it's now-or-never on the reply. The dub-version's stupid lip-flap obsession means they had to find extra syllables and they did it by having Ciel give the line about "stop asking all these tedious questions", which meant they had to alter Sebastian's line to be (re)asking.

Impression: in the original, Sebastian appears out of nowhere and says, "you sure want this?" and Ciel says, "yes! do it already!" and we're into the story. In the English version, Sebastian appears and proceeds to say a lot more, and the camera only turns on as Sebastian's saying, "are you really really sure?" and Ciel's like, "good god, stop boring me to death, yes, I'm really really really sure, alright?"

Yes, I accept that you can't always translate directly or exactly—different languages, different voices—but the English version adds something that didn't exist in the original. And that's that Sebastian offers warnings and additional ways out, rather than stating his case and offering only once. It's radically different dynamic.

The other noticeable deviation is in Ciel's line: "Enough! Form the contract and grant my wish!"—which is very much a order, no two ways around it. The English version—"stop asking these tedious questions and let me know if we have a deal"—may observe the lip-flaps but boy does it rearrange Ciel's character. It sets up his irritation at Sebastian's humor—"tedious questions"—rather than Ciel asserting himself with simply "Enough!". The implied question—"let me know if we have a deal"—turns inside-out Jap-Ciel's demand, hell, his order of "grant my wish!"

One of the most crucial characterization elements of Kuroshitsuji—in fact, the characterization I'd argue upon which the entire story hangs—is that the viewer/reader must believe that Sebastian (or anyone) would take orders from Ciel. That in turn hinges on us seeing (via Sebastian) that this kid is someone able to give those orders. The Japanese delivery and meaning, in the very first opening sequence, asserts with absolutely no equivocation that Ciel is ready, willing, and damn well able to give an order—and in their very first interaction, he does just that. He takes the commanding role.

In the English version, Ciel answers Sebastian's question not with an order, but with another question: "You're being bothersome, [I don't know], you tell me". The "let me know if we have a deal" puts the ball back in Sebastian's court. It makes Sebastian be the one to decide, not Ciel, and undermines from the very beginning the crucial aspect of Ciel's ability to order around (let alone fascinate or intrigue) this ancient and powerful demon.

Maybe I should've had that last example first, because it does color (really subtly, but it's there) how the cast may've interpreted their characterizations. At least, listening to the dialogue choices in that segment then in turns inform what I see playing elsewhere, in the English dub. Sebastian is frequently amused, even a little seductive (as also mentioned by some of the commentary on Phoebe's post), but he doesn't sound to me particularly entranced, and he rarely comes across with the softly worried way that Sebastian's Japanese VA sometimes sounds.

Being worried about Ciel's preference or opinion is a sign that Sebastian is not the true decision-maker. He's the tool, one with his own power and motivation, but he's still Ciel's tool, and he even states as much. Frex, he conveys dutiful distress (per usual butlerian standards) when discussing the difficulty of finding a decent Italian post-dinner tea, but his expression shifts into further concern when asking for Ciel's response.

Whether he is truly sincere isn't the issue (and I'll get into the double meanings in a bit). What rules the day with these two characters is how they appear, and they play their roles very well: Sebastian appears to be genuinely sincere, and Ciel gives the concern its due gravity. I didn't see what I liked so much about these kinds of Ciel-Sebastian private moments until I had the English to contrast, and those tones of childishness "no, I don't like it!" Ciel's delivery is a near-whisper. It's like he's talking to himself, and his mind isn't made up—quite yet—but in the course of saying it, he decides.

He begins with the rather non-committal phrase so de na, which is (I'm told by the J-student in the house) the informal, and slightly more masculine, version of desu. It's more a statement than a question, so it could be "that's right" or "you've got it" or "that's how it is". The English Ciel is flatly (and even with a note of disgust) "nope, don't like it at all"; it doesn't open the door to Ciel's thought processes, and in fact, makes him less interesting. The Japanese version is delivered as though Ciel's thoughts are: "You're right [and now that you mention it / now that I've considered it], I find I don't like it, after all."

Like other places in the dub, Eng-Ciel's finality just seems childish, to me. It's because our first introduction to Ciel—when the chips were really down—he threw it back on Sebastian ("you tell me"). That continues to color the rest of my impressions. Sebastian's amusement gets twisted into condescension when set against Ciel's delivery (even if, in isolation, Sebastian's English delivery is relatively decent)—because Ciel, as the characterization plays out, is not in control: his little expressions of self end up being read as a child stomping his foot and insisting, while his butler looks on with patronizing humor cloaked as amusement. Japanese-Ciel's strong-focused resolve becomes narrow-minded obstinacy in English-Ciel.

The same lack of range in the contract-making example is what's lacking here, too. While discussing it with CP, his reaction crystallized for me what's missing: intimacy. Ciel's Japanese voice—like a number of the other low-pitched female-as-boy voices—has a breathy quality, and whispering is what you do in intimate situations. It draws you in; instinctively, you may even lean closer to hear better, and when the voice shifts suddenly to almost a full shout, the contrast is double. Yet the requirement is that first you be drawn in, and I think the extent to which Japanese vocal tracks use the power of whisper is something American vocal tracks (and soundmen) haven't quite mastered or maybe even realized at all.

Eng-Ciel's delivery lacks intimacy, so there's nothing to extrapolate this intimate delivery—between we the audience and the character, or the character speaking to himself—into a deeper intimacy between Ciel and Sebastian. I may be mangling that explanation slightly (sorry, headcold and the benedryl is having fun with me right now), but my logic goes something like this: the way Ciel is voiced—the whispering, half-voiced, low-pitch—is like an aside onstage, or half-talking to himself. We, the audience, are included—and so is Sebastian. In other words, Sebastian is as close to the character as we who could potentially stand inside Ciel's shoes and see through his eyes. That's the power of a well-delivered whisper, to give you those nuances as to who gets such intimacy. (Note, too, that Ciel doesn't deliver his lines in that same half-whispered tone to his other servants, for instance, or when he's speaking to business partners.)

The other aspect of the Japanese delivery is an intonation. I wouldn't call it amusement, nor uncertainty, but it's an underlying something that hints at a double meaning. The English delivery is so flat, it's as though Ciel (and/or the VA) is unaware of any double entendre in his words. That finality closes the door on double meanings, when in fact, the vast majority of Ciel and Sebastian's dialogue is loaded with double meanings.

Going back to the post-dinner conversation, here are the double meanings I read into it. Ciel decries the tea's fragrance as weak; Sebastian says it's Italian to match the guest's tastes—he's highlighting that what the guest is used to (Italian tea) would be weak (stupid, or ineffectual, or just no-good) to Ciel. After all, in England, the host could reasonably assert that the guest abide by local preference and drink English tea, and given there aren't even many good after-dinner teas, it's especially striking that Sebastian delivers one, anyway. The "does it not suit you?" could be expanded to mean, "do Italian things not suit you," which in turn is "does this Italian thing [guest] not suit you", and Ciel decides that in fact, it doesn't suit him. Dessert signals the end of the evening, and Ciel concludes the layered conversation by telling Sebastian to work "until the end", per the Phantomhive hospitality (adding a darker meaning on 'hospitality').

And, as will become apparent if you keep watching the series, Sebastian most certainly gets that he was just given a clear and direct order, and signals that with his "Yes, my Lord"—because there are plenty of other times that he only answers "Yes" or "I understand" or "Right away" or similar. The "yes, my lord" is his direct response to a direct order, really, even though a good half or more of the time, Ciel doesn't preface his orders as such. The intimacy they have allows Sebastian to clue in on what's an order and what's just casual observation.

This is one of the delights of the series, and the reason I rewatch it despite having some annoying filler episodes, and a crazy AU-canon second season: all the dialogue is laced with double meanings, and there's room to argue this way, or that way, all night long. The story won't even be pinned down and pay off, even when it's spent an episode pretending to promise. Frex, in episode 9, "His Butler, a Phantasm", Ciel spends almost all of the 25 minutes trying to secretly catch a picture of Sebastian with a special camera that supposedly shows a (deceased) entity that matters most to the picture's subject. (In a portrait of Finny, his long-dead bird appears in the frame.)

After 20 minutes of machinations and utter failures, Sebastian reveals he's known all along (as the audience suspected). He chides Ciel, saying Ciel could've just ordered him (but where would be the fun in that, Ciel's expression seems to say)—and then Sebastian bribes Pluto the dog-boy into destroying the darkroom and the one picture that might've successfully developed. Next, we see Ciel asleep in his office, the camera unguarded, and Sebastian studying the camera thoughtfully. Cut to exterior, where Pluto has crawled up the manor walls to cling to the window and whine for Sebastian. The final pay-off appears to answer the question of who's most important to the sleeping Ciel, since it's open whether this camera can hold two subjects (Ciel and Sebastian) or only one subject (Ciel) and one object (whatever dead thing he most longs for).

Except the picture as shown is of Ciel, sleeping; Sebastian, next to him; Pluto the dog-boy outside the window. Pluto's inclusion is necessary for the mislead. In the scene where Pluto runs to Sebastian for a reward (after destroying the darkroom), Pluto doesn't run off with his treat, he stays, and is further upset when Sebastian tells him to sleep outside. It's pretty obvious that Pluto the dogboy has puppy-love for Sebastian. Sebastian, then, might be in the picture because he's what's most important to Ciel (as Meiran assumes), or he's in the picture because he's what's most important to Pluto... in which case, nothing is that important to Ciel. The humor and the trick in the pay-off (of Pluto's inclusion) hides the underlying meaning, and distracts from the fact that one might at least expect to see Ciel's parents in the picture with him, or maybe his recently-deceased aunt. Pluto's inclusion adds humor, and it opens the door to multiple interpretations, like Finny's idea that both Pluto and Ciel are fixated on Sebastian... but that humor disguises that Ciel's answer is also right there: not that Ciel's desire was overridden by Pluto's, but that Ciel has no desire/lost-love (for anyone dead), at all.

[note: edited down the rambling now that I'm not so fuzzy/loopy on cold meds anymore]

As a [rather long] footnote, I also think Kuroshitsuji is a particularly hard nut to use as an example of English/Japanese dubbing skills or styles: because this particular storyline might have hit some buttons. Short version? Look at all the crap Harry Potter got, and he's a good guy. Ciel is not, by any stretch, the good guy. Sympathetic, undoubtedly (and written to come across that way) but good in the moralizing Western way? Not even close. Oi, his story starts off with him selling his soul to the devil. It's hard to find a bigger button amongst the extremist religiosity currently rampaging the US.

For that matter, Ciel is downright rewarded when he makes ruthless choices (per my discussion with Phoebe about the end of S1 and Sebastian's return)—but to see this as Ciel's active choice, we're back to what the entire story hinges on: that Ciel can make that choice, that he can make that order. If Ciel was not the operative who made the ultimate choice (he stated he wanted the contract, but it's Sebastian's decision whether to grant it), then Ciel loses some of the power he's given in the original storyline. He becomes Sebastian's plaything, instead of the other way around.

That might be your only compromise if you like the story, or were hired to like the story, but (for whatever reason) just cannot stomach the notion of a kid barely into adolescence already making a pact with a demon. Much easier to allay that discomfort by introducing wiggle room: that the demon made the choice, that the child is being a child with no true depth of understanding, that the child is being manipulated. Presenting Ciel as a foot-stomping, petulant, emphatic character just undermines him, however subtly, into Sebastian's tool—instead of the ruthless, cruel, determined man-in-child who freely uses, and commands, an ancient demon. The latter would most definitely be anything but a 'good' guy.

Those of us experienced in any degree of anime fandom are probably familiar with this, at least in the way the Japanese storyline freely adapts and recycles tenets of Western myth/stories, and Xtianity is a hot button for the US, right now. Every culture has its hidden hot buttons. I think it's also why a lot of Japanese mangaka like to play with Xtian elements: It's distanced; it's not their hot buttons. (There's intersectionality and all that jazz, but who-hit-the-button isn't really the point here, so let's save that for another post. Suffice it to say that I don't consider xtianity to be a protected case, so if Japan wants to write fancy costumes and wacky Vatican-ordered gun-carrying nuns in garters, it can do it 'til the Dominicans come home.)

A'course, the cast and crew of the English dub might just as much be insistent that their personal beliefs didn't impact them... but even me, who's (a) pretty inured to Japanese fast-and-loose with Christian theological concepts and history and (b) pretty non-religious and/or apathetic about religion anyway, still blinks a little at the notion of adapting this particular story for an American audience. I'm not immune to the USian social pressures, and I'm not even in the position of having to potentially justify to some corporate bigwig about advertisers pulling out because they're being boycotted by some religious group that doesn't like the "sell your soul to the devil" storyline in a kid's cartoon. (And, in the US, pretty much all cartoons remain "kid" cartoons, no matter how much work Adult Swim has put into changing that perception.)

So I can't help but wonder if such hot buttons might be informing some of the subtler changes in the presentation, translation, VA work and direction. It's almost impossible to measure, since I'm talking about a level of "too much" that's well below our conscious radar. ETA: but, as [personal profile] maat_seshat notes in the comments, it may also be that it's not strictly "religious" so much as it is a moralistic kind of discomfort with confidently and unabashedly immoral characters.

This took all day on benedryl, so I think I'll turn the mic over to the rest of you, now.

ETA: forgot to mention this, but at least one member of the English Kuroshitsuji cast does deserve some mention: the VA for Meiran did a remarkable job of matching the Japanese VA's peculiarly hoarse-raspy-funny delivery. It's not a total match-up, but the VA gets points from me for not only mimicking the Japanese Meiran-style, but doing it with a low-class Brit accent as well. Well done, that.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
锴 angry fishtrap 狗

to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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