Sword Art Online is one of the most notable and recognizable anime series of the past decade. Its immense popularity both in the US and Japan has sparked an endless fandom, countless merch, and even a handful of spin offs, both video games and anime. However, despite the popularity, SAO hasn’t risen over the age old debate of English Dub vs English Sub. While no anime probably could, I am of the opinion that SAO provides one of the best examples of just how unique and different both a sub and dub can be.
Easing Into It
I was never really into anime until the end of my freshman semester of University. My friends both from high school and those I met at University seemed to be into it though. Despite trying over the years, there was just something about it I couldn’t fully get into. Although in the end, all it took was the right one.
One day, my friend told me “Here, I have an anime for us to watch that I think you might like.” I begrudgingly agreed to watch it. The series in question was SAO, and I asked what the brief premise was. He explained to me that players of a virtual reality MMORPG suddenly get trapped in game, and if they die in the game, they die in real life. My interest was piqued, to say the least. I was and still am a long time MMO player. And there had been many a nights spent with guildmates on Ventrilo and TeamSpeak about how it would be if we were suddenly in the game world, or if there was a perma-death.
So after watching the first few episodes, I was hooked. And I ended up bingeing the first season over the course of about a day and a half over a weekend. I connected heavily with a lot of the MMO elements and social dynamics displayed in the show. It was almost all there, and all too familiar to me. Elitist guilds, mass recruitment guilds, solo players, craftsmen players, certainly a diverse play-style base was represented in SAO. And even some of the…harder to talk about topics, like player loss. Let’s just say I’ve experienced the real life loss of a guildmate before. It’s hard to describe, and this ventures just a bit past the scope of this piece, but there’s something about the relationships formed in MMOs that are different than other online games.
Anyhow, it was through all of these threads that I connected with SAO as a series unlike I was able to do with past anime I had tried watching. To add into it, the “learning curve” so to speak was made more gradual by watching the English dub of SAO.
Broadening The Horizon
As previously mentioned, SAO got me started watching anime. After watching the first season, I became more and more interested in what other series were out there. I branched out to Log Horizon (which I wrote about not too long ago, you can check that out here), as well as The Seven Deadly Sins. Both in English as well. Habitually watching the English dub would be a continued trend for me, in the series I would really watch past this point. Because of this, I began to recognize the same English voice actors across series. For example, I recognized Bryce Papenbrook’s voice as Meliodas in The Seven Deadly Sins, as he also voices Kirito from SAO.
At the time, I didn’t really think too much of it. The English dubs sounded just fine to me. The actors were passable if not good enough, and I wouldn’t say my experience was ever hindered by watching the English dub of a show. I wouldn’t recognize the real difference between the Japanese voice actors and the English voice actors until it came time for me to watch season 2 of SAO.
When I wanted to watch season 2 of SAO, I went to the streaming service that had it at the time, but only the sub was available. After briefly researching, I discovered that Toonami had the exclusive rights to the SAO S2 dub at the time, and the only thing available on streaming services was the sub. For at the very least consistency’s sake, I wanted top continue watching the SAO dub. But at the same time also, I relaly wanted to watch S2. Well, the ladder won out, and I found my self watching the first couple of episodes of S2 in the sub format.
It was a little jarring at first, as I had been used to characters having a certain voice that was obviously changed, but little by little I got used to it. Eventually, I came to recognize how much more…natural and fitting the Japanese voice actors sounded at the roles. This isn’t to disparage the English voice actors or anything like that, but there was something about the Japanese SAO voice actors that were on another level. Despite being in a language I didn’t understand, things just flowed so much more naturally with the Japanese voice actors. Everything from dynamic range to expressions was on display. Needless to say also, the Japanese voice actress for Asuna in SAO, Haruka Tomatsu, has a lovely voice heard in the first ending for SAO: Yume Sekai. And, one of my main concerns that I had preferring the English dubs was alleviated: I wasn’t missing anything visually significant by reading the subtitles.
An Exception, Not A Rule
After this experience with SAO S2, I branched out even further with the anime I started to watch, not being limited by whether or not the show had an English dub or not. Especially as I got more and more into airing anime, to stay up to date with the latest and greatest, the only format available would be the English sub. From this point, I would mostly prefer the English sub format, despite once preferring the English dub format.
I was consistent with this trend of watching the English sub until I went back to watch Cowboy Bebop, a classic show that’s seen a sort of pilgrimage by many in the anime community. I started off watching the sub, but wasn’t overtly impressed. Sure it was fine, but it wasn’t exactly blowing me away. On a whim, I watched an episode with the English dub, and I was hooked from that point on. For whatever reason, the English voices in Cowboy Bebop seemed to match the characters much better, to the point that, in my opinion, the English sounded better than the Japanese.
From this, a realization occurred that provides a final answer to the sub vs dub debate.
What’s The Point?
This realization, was that it is absolutely up to the viewer’s preference whether or not the dub or sub is better. I would seriously recommend any anime watcher to sample a bit of both, and figure out which one sounds better based on their preferences. Both sides of the debate, regardless of objective superiority, fail to take into account the subjectivity the viewer may have. For example, to me, it makes more sense for Kirito from SAO to sound like Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, the Japanese voice actor. But, to me, it also makes more sense for Spike from Cowboy Bebop to sound like Steven Blum, the English voice actor. The only issue arises when the writers for the dub decide to fundamentally change dialogue in order to push an agenda, but that’s neither here nor there. It all comes down to viewer’s personal preference, and what they’re looking for. Don’t let “purists” try to persuade you as to what you “should” be watching. It’s all up to you.