Terminally Dogmatic: The Controversial (and Superior) New Eva Dub

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(I typed this on a phone and IPad, so forgive the lack of bells and whistles for now. My laptop is busted.)

When Netflix announced that it would be featuring the seminal anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, fans of the 1995 TV series by studio Gainax, as well as neophytes who hadn’t yet seen it, waited anxiously to see how it would be handled by the streaming giant. Especially of curiosity was the possibility of a brand new English language version of the show, supplanting the previous one done by licensor ADV. Cast members from that dubbed version, including Amanda Winn-Lee, Tiffany Grant, and Spike Spencer all but confirmed that Netflix was going a different direction on social media. 

To my continued surprise, this elicited discontent among longtime Eva fans who actually cherished the old ADV version. I say surprise because I had never thought of the old dub as being particularly popular. I know I didn’t, and still don’t, care for it, and occasionally my personal enmity obscures my view of outside consensus, but I was still baffled that fans were raging in droves over the original dub cast not returning. I suppose fans appreciate consistency, but to prize it over quality? Did they really think the old cast did that good a job?

Because in my estimation, the new Netflix dub of Evangelion outclasses the ADV one by leaps and bounds . It’s not even close.

But let’s start with the one real flaw of the new English dub (and no, it isn’t the absence of “Fly Me to the Moon” in the ending credits, that’s more of a rollout blunder than a dub issue), some of the overly literal translations, such as “Third Children” instead of “Third Child”, or the big Kaworu “I like/love you” kerfluffle. Studio Khara, now the studio who handles Evangelion, mandated some of these changes, and while they are annoying, there are no more translation flaws than in the ADV dub. 

With that out of the way, I may as well give my general opinion on the old dub as a whole and how the new one is an improvement.

One word summarizes the difference: nuance. The new dub has it, the old one doesn’t.

While not the worst dub of its generation, the ADV dub suffers from an over abundance of broad, hammy acting. It does leave an impression, yes, but it obscures the subtleties of the characters’— and this is especially true of certain key figures— various moods and quirks. The result is a dub that is only memorable because of its camp stereotypes and comical exaggeration. It creates the image of a parody, that of intentional humorous bent to a largely serious television show with themes on depression, miscommunication, and alienation. Evangelion is not a comedy.

The new English dub doesn’t treat the characters as jokes. For instance, the portrayal of the series lead, Shinji Ikari, by Casey Mongillo. Unlike Spike Spencer’s simple, obnoxious whiner stereotype, they give him a sense of fragility and sensitivity that speaks to real emotional turmoil. Despite his return to the role in the Rebuild of Evangelion movie dubs, Spencer hasn’t really moved too far beyond the tepid mediocrity of his ADV performance, while Mongillo owns the role almost immediately. 

Likewise, Stephanie McKeon finds the little details of Asuka’s personality in a way that highlights every shade of her character, from her pride, to her need for attention, to the bottomless self-loathing of the later episodes. Tiffany Grant is certainly passionate about, and even in, the role, but the volume of the performance obscures the wrinkles. Instead of a wounded teen girl who overcompensates for her loneliness, Grant’s Asuka often sounds like a stock “bitchy girl with an attitude”. It may be memorable, but it’s not particularly good. Again, it’s like a comedic simplification, as if for an “abridged” spoof.

Versatile Carrie Keranan takes on Misato Katsuragi with at least as much vigor and emotional vulnerability as Allison Keith. Ryan Bartley’s Rei is just as starkly distant as either Amanda Winn-Lee or Brina Palencia’s turns. Ray Chase has every bit the command and shadiness in his Gendo as either Tristan MacAvery or John Swasey. Erica Lindbeck has all the self-possessed confidence and subtle weariness of Sue Ulu or Colleen Clinkenbeard’s Ritsuko. And Johnny Yong Bosch…

Wait, Johnny Yong Bosch is in Evangelion now?! Well, yes, and his Toji is excellent, though I also like Justin Cook’s take in Rebuild. They’re both doing their “likable delinquent” voices, though Bosch is responsible for adding a lot more thoughtfulness to his larger role in the show and handles it well.

 A small favor, in my estimation, is that the following characters no longer sound intensely grating: Kensuke Aida, Hikari Horaki, Keel Lorenz, and Shigeru Aoba. Good for Netflix for at least making these supporting characters palatable. Their voice actors don’t necessarily stand out for their brilliant performances in this, as they’re not major roles, but they were a noticeable improvement from their ADV counterparts.

But let’s face it, folks: nostalgia dies hard, and sometimes the familiarity of a poorly done production works itself into a “comfy” experience that many loathe to replace. We saw this with the advent of the new, more accurate Sailor Moon English dub, and before that with the Dragon Ball Z Kai dub. A lot of nostalgic anime fans would gladly sacrifice progress for consistency, regardless of the improvement. I myself am not entirely immune to this, preferring Manga Entertainment’s Patlabor movies 1 and 2 dubs to Bandai Visual’s (only as far as Captain Gotoh and a couple of other characters, though). I recognize it for what it is, though: an appeal to the familiar. 

I say embrace the change. Don’t be shackled to the familiar just for the sake of memories. The new Evangelion dub can proudly stand next to the Japanese original version in conveying the nuances of the characters that the old ADV dub smoothed over for easier consumption. Don’t let your pity for the previous cast stand in the way of progress. Why would they even bother to redub the show if they were just going to bring back the old cast? Let the old dub stand separately. The new one’s time is now.

I just hope any future physical release brings back “Fly Me to the Moon”.

-    Penguin Truth
(2019)