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Lake Charles, Louisiana, United States
Hello, and welcome to my blog! I like to write about children's literature, fandom studies, video games, feminism, and pop culture in general. I've recently earned my Ph.D. in children's literature ( Fall 2012) at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I also teach English (composition, British literature, and women's literature) at Sowela Technical Community College. Oh, and I like cats! [Banner image artwork by Yuki Midorikawa]

Monday, February 20, 2012

Misadventures in Dubbing: The Borrower Arrietty

After seeing the American dub of the Studio Ghibli film "Kari-gurashi no Arietti," or "The Borrower Arrietty," (distributed by Disney in English as "The Secret World of Arrietty"), I was left feeling as if I'd watched and understood only about 80% of what I knew deep down had to be a more than decent film.  I have always found Studio Ghibli films to be horrendously dubbed, and this one was really no exception.  So I did my best to hunt down the original Japanese version of the film.

Here is a list of the differences I noticed -- but take these notations with a grain of salt.  I would probably have to return to the theatre and rewatch the American dub to be absolutely certain about some of these:


(1) Japanese:
The most obvious difference is in the character of Shou.  "Shou" is a common Japanese name for a boy.

(1) American:
Shou's name was changed to "Shawn" for the American dub.  This seems a rather bizarre attempt to Anglicize a character who is in all other respects clearly Japanese.  There are numerous instances of books, products, papers, and other items bearing Japanese lettering.  Shou/Shawn eats with chopsticks in several dinner scenes, and both he and Haru (the housekeeper) leave their outside shoes at the door and wear slippers indoors (a uniquely Japanese custom).  Why change nothing but the name?  Niya the cat also receives a name change: Nina.

(2) Japanese:
In the Japanese version, Pod is clearly disappointed in Arrietty's botched first borrowing.  When he catches her prowling around inside the walls of the big house, he chastises her quite sternly, earning an obedient apology from her.

(2) American:
In the American version, Pod (voiced quite excellently by Will Arnett, whose wife, Amy Poehler, voices Homily, Pod's wife and Arrietty's mother) is a kind and forgiving man who even boosts Arrietty's confidence by congratulating her on not panicking when Shawn spots her during their midnight run.  This comforting/congratulatory dialogue replaces a more mundane exchange in the Japanese version.


(3) Japanese:
A topic is broached in the original version that doesn't appear in the American one: divorce.  It is revealed that Shou's parents are divorced; his father is no longer in the picture, and his mother is chastised by his mother's aunt ("Aunt Sadako") for leaving for a business trip and neglecting her sickly child.

(3) American:
Here there is no mention of divorce.  Shou simply reveals to Arrietty that his parents are too busy to take care of him.

(4) Japanese:
Pod and Homily share a rather cryptic discussion about a big "change" that must occur now that Arrietty has been seen by the "beans."  The audience is kept in the dark until Arrietty herself figures out that her parents are planning to move.

(4) American:
The original cryptic discussion between Pod and Homily is dubbed so that audiences are immediately aware that the family intends to move.  It's unclear if Arrietty is also made aware of this, and that it was never a secret to begin with, perhaps suggesting that Pod and Homily, as kind, loving parents, would never keep a secret from their daughter.

(5) Japanese:
In a pivotal scene between Shou and Arrietty, Shou blithely speculates that Arrietty's entire species is on the verge of extinction.  He thoughtlessly ignores Arrietty's insistence that he stop, seemingly unaware that his words are hurtful to her.  When he finally does apologize, he reveals that he is the one who is going to become extinct (he reveals he is going to die because of his poor health).  Shou's selfishness and seeming inability to acknowledge Arrietty as a fellow thinking, feeling (albeit small) human being is juxtaposed with his  childish and very real fear of dying.  In essense, he is a boy who copes with his own mortality by reveling in an obsession with death.

(5) American:
Shawn does not seem to share Shou's deep obsession with death, and he is more considerate of Arrietty's feelings.  In the Japanese version, he reveals that he wishes to protect her (not for her sake, but for his own, as he's been weak all his life and wants to feel useful).  This part of the conversation is left out in the dub.

(6) Japanese:
In the final scene, Arrietty gives Shou her hair pin for luck.  She assures him that he did, in fact, protect her.  Shou looks happy and relieved and promises that he will never forget her.  The film ends with images of Arrietty sailing down the river with Spiller (a semi-wild borrower who appears to have a crush on her).  The viewer is led to believe that Shou's morbid predictions were, in fact, mere selfish adolescent speculation: clearly, Arrietty and Spiller's budding romance suggests that the borrower species will carry on.  Shou's own future is left in doubt.  Did he die after his operation the way he believed he would?

(6) American:
Arrietty tells Shawn she is giving him her hair pin so he'll remember her.  He assures her that he will.  There is no mention of him having protected her since the original conversation about protection never took place.  Shawn's motives for helping Arrietty remain unanswered, causing his character to lack a fair bit of depth.  As Arrietty and Spiller sail down the river, Shawn's voice assures the audience that he did, in fact, survive the operation, and now stands a year later remembering his friendship with Arrietty.  Because Shawn also opened the narrative, he in effect frames it, somewhat confusing the audience as to who the hero of this story really is.

Homily, Pod, and Arrietty

My thoughts about these differences are mixed.  I'm sure it's apparent that many of the changes were made for the supposed benefit of American child audiences.  Touchy subjects like divorce and morbidity were removed.  Arrietty's father's stern demeanor was softened.  Shou becomes the less self-absorbed, but otherwise personality-less Shawn.

But I'm left wondering about the true root behind the various changes made.  Do we have a situation wherein certain material can be considered suitable for Japanese children but not American children?  Or is "The Borrower Arrietty" simply aimed at a slightly older audience than "The Secret World of Arrietty"?  The previews shown in the theatre clearly suggest that advertisers believe they are marketing to a very young audience.  Is it simply the American belief that all animated films are by nature created solely for very young children?  But films like "Shrek" and its sequels should have put such thoughts to rest.  Then again, "Shrek" was sternly criticized for the adult and crude humor that many felt was inappropriate for a child audience.

As usual, I don't have any definitive conclusions to make.  I wonder how others have felt about either version of the film.  Did anyone else wonder at Shawn's motivations?  Am I the only one who thought his framing of the narrative (when it was Arrietty's name in the title, not his!) felt a bit off?

On a personal note, it should come as no surprise that the voice acting and dialogue in the Japanese version are vastly superior to the American version.  I certainly intend to purchase the DVD when it comes out, and I more than likely will never watch the American dub again.

FYI: Do check out this article by Tim Maughan over at Tor.com.  Maughan talks about the film as an adaptation of Mary Norton's book and about the film's young director, a possible successor to the brilliant but sadly aging Hayao Miyazaki.


  1. I'm a little confused. Watched what I assume is the American version in theatres here in Canada, and the protection conversation was definitely in there, as was Arrietty's later assurance that Shou (Shawn) did protect her after all.

  2. Gahh ... like I said, I'll have to re-watch the version in theatres right now (the American version). You may be right!

  3. I seem to recall that Shawn did say something about protecting Arrietty.

    Are Ghibli films always horrendously dubbed? I saw Spirited Away both ways, and I only saw one major difference between the two - relating to when and how the audience discovers Haku is a dragon... Anyway, the translation seemed pretty good.They didn't change names or anything.

    I haven't seen Arrietty in Japanese yet. Where did you find it?

    Anyway, thank you for pointing out some of the differences between the two. It looks like there's also going to be a second (non-American) English dub. I'm excited to see how it turns out, and whether or not it's closer to the Japanese version.

  4. I found a bootleg copy of the Japanese version; I don't know how else to get it. I intend to buy the DVD as soon as it's released here :)

    There is a British dub that was released maybe last year?

    As for Spirited Away, I've only seen the English dub of that (didn't know anything about Japanese film at the time), and for Howl's Moving Castle, I've only watched the original Japanese. I really did not want to see Arrietty in theatres because I hated English dubs of foreign films, but my friends insisted on dragged me with them!

    And keep in mind that I've only seen the American version once, in the theatre, so like I said earlier in the post, my comparisons can't be verified just yet. I was going on memory.

  5. there was a ghibli festival at a local movie theater and i went to see this with some friends. i am a huge anime and ghibli fan and employ a strict "no-dub" rule, but since my friends wanted to see this one so bad and it happened to be dubbed (one of the few that weren't offered with subs), i decided to relax. i knew going into the movie that it would be completely different from the original, because of the liberties disney takes while producing these films.

    i was out of breath at the end of the movie from scoffing so much and i don't understand how anybody could think this was a good movie. i knew that the original japanese version would be completely different and intend on watching it this summer. glad i could get an idea of the differences between the two movies.

    my disappointment in this movie lies solely on disney and not on studio ghibli which I have complete faith in and i honestly don't think they could make a bad movie.

  6. Having seen both the American and British dubs of the movie, I think I can say, based on what you've mentioned in your post, that the British version is more similar to the Japanese.
    It doesn't change the names of the characters, Shou's pivotal conversation with Arrietty does include his original disregard for her feelings as he talks about Borrowers becoming an extinct species. He finally apologizes and tells her about his operation, and also apologizes for being unable to protect her; this inability makes him feel useless. At the end, Arrietty thanks Shou for having protected her, and Shou's future is left in doubt.
    Neither of them mention divorce, and in both Pod comforts/isn't angry with Arrietty after the failed borrowing. I seem to recall he does scold her later, though not that sternly. I don't remember when the audience learned the family would have to move in either version. I did like Arrietty's voice acting better in the American version, but that's probably partly because I saw it first.
    Overall, I'm not sure which version I liked better. I would like to see the Japanese version (subbed, as I don't speak Japanese), and see what I think of it in comparison with the other two.

  7. GAh! Disney is so annoying! Why can't they just leave it alone! I want to get the pristine Japanese version but my daughter, age 10, will not be able to keep up with the subs so I have to get the horrible dub. I think the Japanese version makes more sense for the reasons the Borrowers had to leave. In the American version, the audience was left wondering why, in the end, they stubbornly had to leave when Shawn was so kind, but it sounds as if he (Shou) was not originally so well intentioned. And I think changing the names is an insult to people's intelligence not to mention just a bit rascist! Thanks Disney! :(

  8. In the American version, Shou/Shawn also hurts Arietty's feelings by talking about her species going extinct and talks about wanting to protect her.

    In all versions, the movie opens with Shou/Shawn narrating "The day I left the city to spend a week in the house where my mother grew up. A day I'll never forget." This implies that he survives the operation and lives to remember that week. So there was't really a mystery to start with.

    It was interesting that Shou/Shawn's note to Arietty was redrawn to have english words instead of japanese. I wasn't expecting actual change to the art but it's appropriate. There may be other visual changes. Makes me wonder if they will E.T. the US bluray release of totoro and put bathing suits on the children.

    I found the touching exchange between Arietty and her father after the botched borrowing to be an improvement in the American version.

    I'm fine with the names being changed. I suppose having one of the main character's name sounding like "shoe" may be distracting to kids. I don't feel that they are overly trying to wipe out the japanese elements from the film, but perhaps they want to minimize the distractions and allow the audience to more easily relate to the characters and plot. I think in the original book, the boy is not named, but it would be silly for Arietty to just call him boy. This is similar to The Man With The Yellow Hat, who got slapped with a name when his movie came out.

    I don't understand Japanese, but going by the english subtitles, in all versions, Homily talks about having to move with everyone at the dining table. A few scenes later, Arietty tells Shou/Shawn that if they are seen by humans, they have to move. So I guess moving is not a secret and Arrietty already knows about that.

  9. From what I read here the English version is closer to the original. I watched the English version which includes shos talk about extinction and protection. I also preferred the voices in the English voices, but what voices people prefer is of course very different.

    I don't understand why they would change the names of the characters. This movie is japanese and so it gives sense that they have japanese names. I guess they do it because it is easier for american children (or adults) to understand names they are familiar with. I saw the first 20 minutes with the American dub and I was a bit confused about the names when I switched to the English dub as the English version kept the original names.

    When I read you're text about the fathers personality I understand the movie better. I couldn't figure out why they had to move away as the father had decided because he seemed like a nice person with who they could have found a solution and reasoned with. It gives more sense they are moving away with the way he is in the Japanese version.

    The American version added a sentence in the end to make the ending happy. In my opinion that conflicts with the whole idea of an open ending. Myself I hate open endings but I still don't think you should change a movies ending.o

    In conclusion this is a sweet, beautiful movie and I am happy I watched the English version. I don't necessarily dislike the american version. I just prefer the English version. I have not seen the complete American version or the Japanese version and can therefore only share my thoughts about what I do have seen. I enjoy watching the studio Ghibli movies and Arrietty is no exception.

  10. I live in New Zealand and the English version played on tv. I had missed the beginning so sourced the film and to my horror the voices were all different and the names had changed. Arrietty went from sober to over the top bubbly/ extremely stereotypical US accent. Honestly, as a fan of dubs I must say that the US dub is appalling and they really let me down with this film. Watch the UK dub! Or if you prefer subtitles, the Japanese voice cast is supervised by Studio Ghibli and guided by the director so always does a really great job.

    Notably, I think it's better to watch a sub par dub at the theatre than to not support the films at all. Keep giving to the industry that creates this magic and art.

  11. Well I just watched the American version, and everything that you claimed to have been missing is actually in there, so...

  12. In the Disney dub, Sho's aunt says, "I suppose the divorce couldn't be helped, but why couldn't she be here when her son needs her so?" So the divorce is mentioned.

  13. Also, Arrietty says at the end, after giving Sho her hairpin, "You protected me after all." That is the Disney dub. And earlier Sho did say that he wanted to protect her.

  14. In both the Japanese and American versions Shou/Shawn’s parents divorce is spoken of. Shou/Shawn doesn’t say anything to Arrietty but when Shou/Shawn is eating dinner with his aunt and Haru, Haru brings up the divorce in casual conversation after talking about the crow flying in the window.