Whether you rejoice over or revile an anime with an English dub track, there's little doubt that having English audio greatly broadens any given anime's reach and potential audience. It's all but impossible to book an anime onto broadcast TV without an English voice track, and sales figures show the presence of English audio helps an anime title -- whether series or standalone film -- sell that much more vigorously.
The average quality of any given English anime dub has gone up significantly in the last decade or so, thanks to better voice talent, more attentive voice casting, and keener direction. Out of the dozens of titles released each year, though, a few stand out by dint of being successful adaptations of tricky source material, maverick or attention-getting voice-acting performances, or some other approach that makes it impossible not to sit up and take notice. Here's a list of our standout favorites, in alphabetical order.
1. Black Lagoon
The dialogue in the original Black Lagoon manga was a masterpiece of expletive-bombing vulgarity. The anime adaptation needed to preserve every bit of that foulmouthed-ness, or it wouldn't have been Black Lagoon. Thankfully, it did -- doubly so in its English dub version, where everything from Dutch's catchphrase "Amen, hallelujah and peanut butter" to Revy's four-letter guttersniping was not only reproduced but amplified.
- Maryke Hendrikse as Revy. It's a shame nine-tenths of her dialogue cannot be reproduced here. Hendrikse, by the way, also voices Gilda and Spitfire in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic ... although her dialogue is a lot more family-friendly in that show.
2. Cowboy Bebop
Perhaps more than any other single series or film, Cowboy Bebop is routinely cited as an example of how to do an English dub of an anime right. It's not just the voice actors, who are beautifully chosen, but the sassy dub script which also suits the sardonic, world-weary nature of one of anime's staple masterworks.
- The whole principal cast, but especially David Lucas as Spike Spiegel. Cynicism never sounded this suave or self-assured.
3. Excel Saga
Never mind for now that Excel Saga has about as many detractors as it does admirers. What made dubbing this self-conscious parody of anime clichés such an exceptionally tough job was not only the machine-gun pace of the dialogue, but the sheer number of puns, doubletalk, in-jokes, out-jokes, cross-references and tons of other near-untranslatable things that were somehow made not only coherent but funny for an English-speaking audience.
- Jessica Calvello and Larissa Wolcott as Excel. Calvello's brilliantly over-the-top performance was cut short after half the show when she damaged her vocal cords and had to be replaced by Wolcott -- who sounds so much like Calvello that most people not clued in never noticed anything had changed.
A show this sprawling and complex -- not to mention this closely scrutinized by legions of fans -- could have ended up a mess, or been a case of a couple of solid lead roles surrounded by an ocean of mediocrity. But somehow they made this whole thing work, and the end result is one of anime's more recent across-the-board success stories that can be watched in English without feeling like you're missing anything.
- Maxey Whitehead as Alphonse Elric and Vic Mignogna as Edward Elric , with Whitehead's vulnerable turn as Alphonse being almost as crucial as Mignogna's brash and fiery Edward.
- Speaking of fiery: Christopher R. Sabat as Alex Louis Armstrong and Stephanie Young as Olivier Mira Armstrong. You're almost frightened to find out what happens when they end up in the same room together. (They do. It's frightening.)
Another example of English dubbing done with impeccable taste and class. Done wrong, this series would have been an incomprehensible welter of techno-gibberish and pokey acting. But both dub script and voice team were among the best assembled for any anime production, and the results speak for themselves.
- Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Richard Epcar as Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou, respectively. Both did such phenomenal jobs that they are now more or less synonymous with their respective characters.
6. Golden Boy
This ecchi comedy revolves about a young man whose drive to learn absolutely everything he can puts him (literally) in the laps of one woman after another. The relatively laid-back Japanese audio stands in stark contrast to the English dub, which is way over the top. Some people (like me) find the very fact of the original audio's restraint to be funny, but others prefer the English track for the exact opposite reason.
- Doug Smith as Kintaro. (Smith, incidentally, is also a graphic designer who worked on the now-defunct Studio Ironcat line of comics.)
7. Outlaw Star
Gene Starwind and his ragtag crew (is there any other kind of crew in space opera?) knock around the universe and get into and out of all manner of trouble in Outlaw Star, a severely underappreciated show that deserves the same kind of attention that Cowboy Bebop received. It's also one of the few anime from the Nineties -- a time of largely anonymous and often uninspired dubbing -- with an English track that not only worked well then but holds up just as well now.
- Robert Wicks / Bob Buchholz as Gene Starwind. All (snarky) attitude, all the (snarking) time, and we love him for it. Look for him again in a solid supporting role as Paz in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
There are so many ways this dub could have gone wrong. Consider the premise: a cross-dressing young man insinuates himself with a crew of misfit female otaku. But the English voice casting makes this show, already heartwarming in its original Japanese edition, doubly so in its dub.
- Josh Grelle as Kuranosuke. It would have been the easy way out to have a female voice actor do duty for a cross-dressing character, but Grelle (nominally a supporting voice) is deft at giving us both the male and female versions of Kuranosuke.
- Monica Rial as Mayaya. Who would have thought the crackle-voiced actress who voiced the likes of Black Butler's assassin/maid Mey Rin and the vampire queen Mina Tepes from Dance in the Vampire Bund could manifest so radical a flipside? Mayaya in the original was gloriously bonkers, and Rial does magnificent justice to that character via her performance, which is a good octave or two down from her usual range.
Here is a dilemma: how to be faithful to the rat-a-tat potty humor of Japan's favorite kid with a filthy mouth? The solution was not to even try, and it might well have been the best possible option. FUNimation's English dub for Shin-chan -- about the adventures of a kid who might well be a close cousin to the casts of either Family Guy or South Park -- was rewritten entirely from scratch with the blessings of the original Japanese production team, and is very much in the vein of those two gleefully vulgar pieces of pop culture. (Sample dialogue: "Let's play CSI -- last one to the basement's a dead hooker!")
- Everyone. The real heroes here are the teams of adapters, who defied both logic and taste to make this thing happen.
10. Spirited Away
In all truth, most any of the English-language dubs commissioned by Disney for the Studio Ghibli stable of films for their releases outside of Japan are excellent. This one deserves special mention (along with Princess Mononoke), in big part because it was the first Ghibli film that "broke wide" with English-speaking audiences, and because John Lasseter (of PIXAR) personally oversaw the adaptation to make sure it was letter-perfect.
- Daveigh Chase as Chihiro and Suzanne Pleshette as Yubaba. The former, a spot-on child star; the latter, a veteran actress with stellar chops for the lead "baddie" (inasmuch as any Miyazaki film has a "bad guy").
- A bonus nod as well to David Ogden Stiers as the multi-limbed Kamajii. (Most any English-dub Ghibli film will sport many familiar names in the credits.)