Story Pile: Oddtaxi

I have a concern about what I can only describe as ‘That Guy’ Media. I don’t have a precise list, but there are some kinds of media that slot into a particular space where someone, usually a white millenial guy, will exhort you that oh man you gotta check this out. And then they’ll hesitate almost performatively, like we I mean they’ve practiced this in the bathroom thinking about how we’re going to explain it to a stranger or a friend or some other captive audience, and it’ll be something like ‘… I can’t tell you much without spoilers,’ that eventually degenerates into ‘look, Just Watch It’ or something like that.

When I talked about Knives Out, in an effort to give a view on the movie that was interesting if you hadn’t seen it and interesting if you had, I did so thinking about something that was missed in the swirl of commentary about this movie. These articles aren’t being written for no reason, they’re written because I want to talk to you about something, and I want to talk about it in the context of something that I’ve watched or read or listened to. It’s when I engage with something and words about it want to get out of me.

And Oddtaxi is boy howdy the kind of series that makes me full of words. A frustratingly large number of them are “Have you watched Oddtaxi? Oh, okay.”

But talking about Oddtaxi runs the risk, at least in my mind, of making it into That Guy Media. It’s not even as pure as the Gay Effusing you get when an anime has two hot girls who like each other where a commentator just foams “It’s good. It’s good. It’s good. You should watch it. It’s so good.” for ten minutes. It’s the smug cousin of that, which lacks the purity of “Oh My God I’m Finally Seeing Media I Like,” and is instead the same voice that asks “Oh, Have you seen the Raid?” or “Do you know the twist in Fight Club?

If you’re just here for an as-brief-as-possible, why-should-I-watch-this summary, I’m going to say that I like Oddtaxi, an anime I watched in its entirety in one day and which reminds me of Durarara!! and Paranoia Agent, but less bleak or apocalyptic. Lots of competing narratives, clear use of imagery, clearly neurodivergent protagonist, great music.

Okay, so what am I going to talk about beyond the fold?

What could I talk about, if I’m not going to effuse about the text, about its ideas, or its concepts?

The Dub.

Understand that my history with dubs is traditional, and by traditional I mean I inherited it from people who are already dead. The history of dubbing anime is one where I arrived after Carl Macek had done what he did and the entire lurching monstrosity that is Harmony Gold had already shuddered into its hideous half-life. I came into anime fandom first through dubs, particularly dubs of Teknoman (Tekkaman Blade) and Evangelion and Sailor Moon and even rental VHS tapes of Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo OAVs. By the way, the fact that I put Tenchi Muyo on a day that was almost Star Wars day is one of those extremely funny jokes on this blog that nobody will ever notice, and I needed to note it somewhere, anyway, where was I.

Oh yes, dubbing anime in the 1990s.

It was famously not a good industry. There were all these apocryphal tales about really cheap and bad dubs, with some infamously weak dubs being framed as dubbed by people who didn’t care or weren’t getting paid or in some cases by ‘whoever was in the building at the time, including the Janitor.’ I couldn’t find any truth to these claims now, years later, but when I started going to an anime club and saw subtitled anime versus dubbed anime, there was a very clear, stark difference in quality.

This is a really useful little crystal of time for me, though, because at this point, fansubbers weren’t getting ‘all the anime’ and they weren’t making meaningful money doing it. Fansubs were people recording shows they liked, often in Japan, and subtitling them in their own free time, and there wasn’t a strong network of people doing it as much as there was a strong network of people sharing what they’d done. Fansubs therefore were often still just as personalised, just as imbued with bias and the difficulty of translation as before, but they were typically being done by A Guy, who definitely spoke more Japanese than you did, and you didn’t have two dozen competing scripts you could just google to see which you liked best or had the right characterisation for your preferences. There weren’t even agreed upon colours for subtitled text.

And this was the polarity for me: Subtitles that were bad in ways I couldn’t possibly demonstrate or prove, and dubs were bad in a way that stood out even to me. It didn’t matter the way the dubs were being made, or that particular process, I was still able to hear the lines of a voice actor and think it sounded like the kid at the school play who was too embarrassed to make a properly ‘pained’ sound when his Julius Caesar got stabbed.

Thus did I sit, on this side of this divide, for nigh on thirty years. Subtitles were good, Dubs were bad, and that was that.

The second voice I heard watching Oddtaxi was SungWon Cho, who I kinda default to think of as Prozd. This is because I think in part I’m always concerned about misplacing the G in his name or mentally misfiling on which o to use, which makes me afraid of being One Of Those White People, and if you think I’m being overly cautious about it, I was five hundred words into this article before I went back and checked I was using his name right and I wasn’t.

(Oh and the answer to ‘what is wrong with you’ is I was inculcated in a language system that mostly relies on a heavily structured phonemic block system that pretends it’s an alphabet but it’s really more like four competing syllabaries, as a thorough if rough read-through wouldn’t attest to that, but then we get into the whole space of how language shapes the brain and it doesn’t actually help the question of people getting his name wrong).

Point is.

I really like his Youtube channel.

I hadn’t set the language on the player to Japanese for some reason. It was weird, I just assumed well of course I’d start with the Japanese version on by default and the subtitles, that’s how I watched all the anime. When the dub started playing, I heard a line from a news presenter that pronounced ‘Nerima’ wrong —

Wait, did it?

Did I know how to pronounce Nerima?

I mean I’d been pronouncing Nerima in a particular way for years, that’s where Ranma 1/2 is set.

How confident was I that I could tell the ways this dub was getting Japanese words wrong? Then the voices rolled on, and I heard SungWon Cho, giving voice to Kensuke Shibagaki, one of a pair of radio comedians that form one of the many plot threads of Oddtaxi. And… I thought about this.

I know that SungWon is someone who has, for many years, worked very hard, on becoming a voice actor. I want him to succeed at that, because based on my observing his original work, he’s really good at it, and he’s not just good at it because he can Do The Funny Voice. SungWon is also very familiar with the way that dialogue is structured in Anime Fandom. It’s not just ‘anime makes jokes like this’ but rather ‘the people who engage with anime in English make jokes like this to evoke the way anime subtitles are structured.’

And I know he’s a good voice actor.

I know it because I’ve seen him voice act things that I liked.

… so I thought, you know what, hell with it. Let’s watch the dub of Oddtaxi. And it’s really good. It’s really bloody good and it was a fun watch and I flew through it, and in one point in the whole thing did I have a moment where I felt ‘hang on, what’s the Japanese there trying to communicate?’ What’s more, it was such a minor moment that I made note of it, then I didn’t remember it afterwards.

It’s such a strange thing to realise that there’s this whole discipline, related to an art form I love, that had so many problems while I was growing up and was so bad, and then, now, I had this arrested moment and realise: Hang on, I literally have no idea if it’s still bad. I’ve spent literal decades insulated from this experience. There has been enough time for voice actors to be born after I started watching anime, grow up watching all the same stuff I liked, and made themselves good voice actors for the work.

And I’m not even trying their work out!

There’s, I feel, two basic polarities of dubbing philosophically. There’s the dubbing which wants to be ‘origin invisible.’ The whole point of the dub is that you shouldn’t realise you’re dealing with the dub, the entire media should be presented as if the language being used to your ears is the language being used in the original text. The other polarity would be best described as ‘origin evident,’ which is where you get the kind of people who think that including honorifics and extremely specific ‘untranslatables’ in the translated text are the only way to be true to conveying every meaning of the media in question. These are philosophical questions that I find really interesting, but I’m not going to be able to make meaningful considerations on them if I don’t admit to myself that neither I nor my nakama are always right, and try some of these modern dubs out.

And anyway, if I want voice actors who care about the work to do their best I should at least give them some of my attention and try their work out.