Opinion: Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA, The Case for Subtitles



So, most that have met me know that I’m adamantly against watching “foreign” films with dubbing. I always prefer to see them subtitled, even if the subtitling isn’t as well handled. I’ll even go so far as to buy the original foreign release, rip it to my computer and then download the subtitles from the internet.  My rationale (and anecdotal experience) has always been that you lose something in the original actor’s performance when you can’t hear their original voice and dialog delivery.  You lose the truth of the performance.  This applies doubly to animation where the performance is often manufactured to match the language and culture it was created for.  Now having unfortunately seen AKIRA in dubbed form (as research), I can safely say I was right in more ways than I’d originally thought.

AKIRA in All It’s Forms

If you listen to Joe Peacock, a self appointed aficionado of the anime adaptation, you’ll learn quite a few interesting tidbits about how it was adapted to the english language for its original 90s stateside release.  I met Joe at DragonCon a few months ago (as of this article) where I sat in on his panel discussion and presentation of the AKIRA anime.  Joe is a life long fan of the feature, having discovered it at the mind altering age of 12.   Since that exposure, he’s made it his mission to collect and share his love of the property with fans and newcomers alike.  He’s amassed quite a collection of original cel art from the feature and nearly as much general behind the scenes information on the original release of the film.

I was so fascinated by his presentation that I had initially thought to book him (and did) for our podcast in hopes of having him share his story with you all.  Unfortunately, that does not appear to be in the cards anymore (as often happens), but not before I had completed quite a bit of additional research (for the interview) into AKIRA and all its derivative works.  Part of my research involved re-reading all 6 volumes of the english Manga translation, as well as rewatching the anime itself — in both english dub and quickly followed by the original japanese language (with subtitles) version.  Which brings me back to my article.

Roundabout…Full Circle.

My research began with reading the manga source material.  I thought it prudent to re-read the work that inspired the ground breaking animated film, primarily as an aid to rooting out how much the intent of the book was recaptured in the eventual animated film.  Turns out the anime which was directed/translated by the manga’s creator (Katsuhiro Otomo) does a half-way decent job at translating the essence of the source material.

Lost were minor things.  The scope is much narrower in the anime (surprising to think for anyone that has seen the film).  The manga storyline continues past the events of the animated film, sort of.  The ending is very similar, but there is essentially more than one showdown with Tetsuo in the manga, as compared with the one big one in the film.  Understandable.  The more missed of the changes include the fact that  certain characters are either marginalized (Lady Miyako is unrecognizable), or subtly re-purposed — Kaori (Tetsuo’s hanger on) seems to play the same role, but ends up being quite different because of a couple changes to her origin and personality.  Political subplots are scaled way down, but surprisingly intact for the anime version.  Otherwise, quite fair job distilling things for a single film.

Oh, The Dubbing!

So, it seems like all gravy until you come to the english dub of the film.  Now, I’m referring to the original release dubbing.  Not the Pioneer release version which I have yet to watch dubbed.  The original 90s release of the film which for many of its fans was their first and maybe only brush with the film — well, to say it was less than ideal would be to put it mildly.  Put another way, small adjustments turn a powerful narrative into a forgettable, if not at times outright irritating watch.

At it’s core, the Akira story is about adolescence and maturity — or rather a juxtaposition of the two.  The subject is approached from the big picture, as well as the smaller more intimate stage.  On the macro, you have the story of humanity (adolescence) playing god, succeeding at it, but not having the maturity to understand what they’ve done.  On the micro, you have the story of two friends — Kaneda and Tetsuo.  Tetsuo is the adolescent who wants to grow up too fast.  He wants to be seen as an equal to Kaneda, the “big brother” figure and leader of their motorcycle club.  Kaneda, the more mature of the two tries to impress upon his buddy the virtues of patience.  The result is resentment from Tetsuo.  That’s the manga, and that’s the japanese dubbing.

Watching the english dub you immediately begin to notice inconsistencies with the character portrayals.  For example; Kaneda and crew in the japanese versions are wise-asses, they do drugs and get up to mischief, but they aren’t out to ruin things for everyone else.  At least not as a primary motivation.  They simply want to blow off steam; otherwise they like to keep to themselves.  The english dubbing paints them as aggressors, out to start trouble with rival gangs and the citizenry in general.  In other words, completely different motivations.  Another change, and the most critical in the film is the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo.

In the manga, Tetsuo looks up to Kaneda.  There’s a little brother, big brother dynamic which is evident in the words they use and the way they treat each other.  It’s clear Tetsuo wants to be treated as Kaneda’s equal, however and this is causing friction in the way Tetsuo reacts to Kaneda coddling of him.  Kaneda knows Tetsuo isn’t ready for the tougher aspects of being in a gang and it’s evident that any words or actions toward Tetsuo are meant in the most positive of ways.  Again though, the english dubbing turns the dialog’s meaning on its top and the result is scenes where it seems very much like Kaneda has been turned into a bit of a bully.  Teasing Tetsuo on several occasion; which understandably makes Tetsuo’s turn towards the dark side an inevitability and really something that could easily be blamed on Kaneda.  It changes the narrative drastically by only changing the (seemingly) simplest dialog and performances.

By the end, Tetsuo’s new found powers burst out of control and the audience doesn’t care.  Some might even wish him ill for having been such a brat throughout.  That’s with the english dub.  The original dialog portrays Tetsuo as sympathetic, and the audience is engendered to well sympathy.  You want him to survive this new ordeal, despite his attitude earlier in the film.  You’re pulling for a happy ending though one may not come.  All of this from the flip of a switch; Japanese audio > English audio.

So, that’s why most that have met me know that I’m adamantly against watching “foreign” films with dubbing. I always prefer to see them subtitled.  My rationale (and anecdotal experience) has always been that you lose something in the original actor’s performance when you can’t hear their original voice and dialog delivery.  You lose the truth of the performance.


Original surviving founder of Fanboy Confidential, the podcast, and this supporting website. This is the fruit of his labor, created while on his off days from saving orphaned children from forest fires.

Only some of this is true.

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