Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse – Collection 1 (Sentai Filmworks)

January 20, 2015

Should we talk about the Sentai release?  Let’s talk about the Sentai release.

I haven’t listened to a Sentai dub in a while, because quite frankly, the ones I heard a few years ago were absolutely terrible.  I’ve heard some great dubs back in the ADV days – some clunkers too, naturally, but I know this is a talent pool capable of greatness.  But everything I heard from Sentai was just awful, and the fact that many of the actors were capable of much better only seemed to make the experience even worse.  I’ve heard they’ve improved since then, but the Sentai releases that I’ve bought in the past year are still in my backlog so I haven’t heard them yet.  So, I went into this dub with low expectations, but with the hope that it would exceed them – not unlike how I went into the anime adaptation itself, actually.

Before getting into the dub, let’s look at the subtitles a little.  I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison, but to my eye they look like a slightly cleaned-up version of the Crunchyroll subtitles. Many of the translation choices remain the same.  The rank of 少尉 is translated as “Ensign”, and 中尉 as “Lieutenant”.  These are fairly common translations for those ranks in anime (you can see them in Gundam, for instance), although they don’t strictly correlate with actual US Army ranks.  The name “Shiranui Second” is still rendered as “Shiranui Type 2”.  One thing that has changed is that names are much more standardized.  I seem to recall Ibrahim Dogulu’s name spelled three different ways in the Crunchyroll subs, but those instances have been changed to the correct spelling.  However, the worst is that, just like the Crunchyroll subtitles, the Sentai subtitles retain the Japanese words “Eishi” and “Chobi” rather than translating them.  This was by far the worst aspect of the Crunchyroll subtitles, and my greatest hope was that the Sentai release would fix it.  A shame.

The English dub, unfortunately, has a fatal flaw: it continues to use the Japanese words “Eishi” and “Chobi” in dialogue.  This is, without question, the worst decision they could have made, and it breaks the show completely.  How can anybody take seriously a show in which the lead character – an American, in the US army, assigned to a base located in America in which English is the common language, and whose defining characteristic is a hatred of anything Japanese – refers to his OWN JOB – a job invented by the Americans – with a Japanese word?  It doesn’t make any sense at all.  This is not a small mistake – Yuuya’s attitude towards the Japanese is at the very heart of the show, and now it is completely incomprehensible.  Reading the word in the subtitles was bad enough, but actually hearing an English-speaking Yuuya say the word out loud just drives home what a terrible idea this is.

For the rest of this post, I’ll do my best to review the rest of the dub, but the truth is that I went into this dub with only one major criterion: replace “Eishi” with an English word.  The fact that it didn’t is a very big strike against it in my eyes.

The dub script is an often overlooked part of an English dub, in that it has much more influence over whether or not a dub sounds good than most fans give it credit for.  The scripts for Sentai dubs used to be atrocious, and were probably the main reason the old dubs sounded so bad.  Scripts were often credited to the original translator and the ADR director, and listening to the dubs made it clear that they were simply using the subtitle scripts directly without any adaptation, and with only minimal changes done by the director when it became clear that a line wouldn’t fit the lip flaps.  This is death for a dub – lines that may sound OK when intended to be read as a translation of a different language sound unnatural and stilted when forced to be read aloud in English.  There absolutely needs to be a dedicated script adapter who actually does go through the script and rewrite lines to sound good in English.

Recent Sentai dubs do indeed credit the scripts to an actual person who isn’t just the translator, and this is probably the main reason why I’ve heard people say they’ve been improving.  The Total Eclipse script, credited to Nancy Novotny and director Kyle Jones, was pretty solid.  I often judge a dub script by how often a line is so poorly worded that I essentially try to “un-translate” the line back into Japanese to figure out what was actually being said.  In a bad dub, I’m doing this almost constantly because the badly worded lines pull me out of the experience so much.  In a good dub, I forget to do this because I get engrossed in the dub itself.  I don’t really recall doing this while watching the Total Eclipse dub, which is a very good sign.  My complaints are about mostly smaller things, individual moments rather than overall flaws.  The script sometimes takes advantage of lighthearted scenes to throw in certain modern-day slang that I wouldn’t have included.  Yamashiro at one point refers to Yui as a “bitch”, which is wildly out of character for her.  But again, these are very small nitpicks.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t go beyond that, adding that extra layer of polish that makes a dub truly great.  It does indeed rewrite lines to sound more natural in English, but it doesn’t put in the extra effort to push it to the next level.  It’s hard for me to explain, but the best dub scripts I’ve ever heard go beyond what’s written on the page, to the actual idea embedded in each line.  And then, just as the original Japanese writers wrote the line to express that idea in Japanese, the dub writers would then write a line to express that idea in English – without being a slave to the Japanese line.  To be done right, the dub writers need both to understand fully the ideas behind the show, and be good enough writers to write a strong English script that reflects those ideas.  When it works, though, a dub is even capable of surpassing the original Japanese language version.  Of course, it goes without saying that a script writer who could write an English-speaking Yuuya describing himself with a Japanese word doesn’t understand the show well enough to do any such thing.  But considering Sentai’s previous work, I’m happy to take the more workmanlike quality they have to offer here.

(Incidentally, the dub script changes the ranks to reflect the actual US Army ranks – 2nd Lieutenant and 1st Lieutenant rather than Ensign and Lieutenant.  That was unexpected but nice, particularly since the anime’s own English screens identify Yuuya as 2nd Lieutenant.)

All right, let’s (finally) talk about the performances.  Corey Hartzog plays Yuuya, and absolutely nails the role.  Hartzog has been in a lot of Sentai dubs, but I don’t recall ever taking special notice of his roles before.  But he just knocks it out of the park here.  From the first time he opens his mouth, I instantly accept him as Yuuya.  Yuuya is a very tricky role, particularly here in the first half of the anime, because he says some pretty arrogant stuff, but you still have to buy into him as a reasonably good guy trying to do his best.  Yuuya is our window into this world, so the audience should always be able to find a way to understand him.  I always found Hartzog’s Yuuya to be relatable, and I could always see his side of things, even when objectively he was spouting a bunch of crap.  Total Eclipse is Yuuya’s story, and having such a solid performance in the lead role really sets the right tone.

I wasn’t as wild about Krystal LaPorte’s performance as Yui.  Yui is in many ways a more difficult role than Yuuya because she’s just as complicated as he is, but after the first two episodes we rarely see things from her point of view, so she’s often a mystery on the surface.  Yui fundamentally doesn’t know what she’s doing, and tries to cover it up by projecting an aura of authority and confidence that only grows thicker as she feels more uncertain.  On the surface, she should be crisp and assertive – she gives orders and brooks no dissent.  LaPorte sounds a little too soft and unsure.  She, frankly, sounds too reasonable, as if she were actually trying to reason with Yuuya rather than demanding blind obedience.  Yui should be a brick wall that Yuuya keeps slamming himself against.  I actually like LaPorte’s performance as young Yui in the first two episodes, so I don’t think the problem is she’s a bad actress.  I think she (or probably more accurately the director) just interprets Yui differently than I do.  In that sense, I actually might like her performance more in the second half of the series, as Yui really does start to soften up and become more open to other points of view.

The other major characters are generally good, but just about all of them take about an episode to really settle in.  For example, Terri Doty (Tarisa) spends her first episode with a much lower and normal-sounding voice, before settling into a higher, more exaggerated performance that suits Tarisa better.  Brittney Karbowski (Inia) sounds like a fairly typical girl in her first episode too, while afterwards she sounds much more naive and innocent.  It sounds to me like everybody is kind of figuring out their characters as they record them, rather than hashing out how their characters should sound before recording.  Sentai is pretty infamous for recording their dubs very, very quickly, and this is definitely a symptom of that.  It’s unfortunate, because once they settle in, pretty much all the major characters sound about what I would expect.  But they just may not be getting the time they need to really understand their characters beforehand if Sentai really is forcing them to record at the pace that they’re rumored to.

(Another problem with recording so quickly is that sometimes mistakes slip through and there isn’t time to fix them.  For instance, at one point Vincent refers to the Type-94 Shiranui as the “Type-49”.  It’s really obvious, considering how often the number 94 is mentioned in dialogue, but either they were too rushed to catch it or they were too rushed to correct it.)

I did notice that the men tended to settle in much faster than the women.  Blake Shepard (Vincent) and Ty Mahany (Ibrahim) sound great from the very beginning.  I suspect part of it is simply that most of the men on this show should sound “normal”, while most of the women are either more complex or more exaggerated, so they all start off with a normal range and then figure out where to go from there.

Once everybody settles in, the direction and acting turn out much like the script – acceptable but unambitious.  In a really good dub, the dialogue flows so naturally that it’s almost inconceivable that all the actors were recorded separately.  This dub avoids the stiffness and awkward pausing that plague bad dubs, but it doesn’t have the flow of a really good dub.  I don’t mean to sound too down on this dub.  Everybody sounds good and in-character.  It’s just that, with the exception of Hartzog as Yuuya, nobody is really leaving a major impression that lasts even after the episode is over.

One thing I was worried about with an international cast of characters is cheesy accents, and we get some here.  Jay Hickman (Valerio), Emily Neves (Natalie), and James Belcher (Rogovski) all put on some pretty over-the-top accents.  Hickman in particular I have a hard time even understanding sometimes.  Valerio is a pretty comedic character, but he has his moments of gravitas, and they don’t come over very well with such a thick, cheesy accent.  Natalie is a lightweight character now, but I’m a little worried about what’s coming up for her too.  I don’t mind cheesy accents in comedic shows, but Total Eclipse is a little too serious for them.

I noticed something interesting in the credits: when the Japanese cast credits were too vague, the English cast credits would occasionally have a bit of fun.  And so it came to be that the instructor in Yui’s class from the first two episodes, who was merely credited as “Instructor” in Japanese, is credited as “Professor Eyepatch” in English.  The bald, bearded base commander from episode 9, who is credited only as “Commander” in Japanese, is also credited as “Officer Lincoln” in English (that one actually took me a while to figure out who they were even referring to).  For the record, both of them have actual names (Kouzou Sanada and Georgi Barakin), but those names were assigned later and did not exist when the anime was made, so there’s certainly no way the English staff could know them.  I certainly have no problem with a bit of whimsy when it doesn’t affect the actual contents of the show.

OK, let’s move on to trivia.  The release includes the standard creditless OP/ED.  However, they also include the 2nd creditless OP/ED as well, from the Terrorist arc.  But that’s not all: the version they include is not the one from the actual episodes.  They’re from the sneak peek from the special episode that played in between episodes 19 and 20.  In the week between that special and episode 20, they actually touched up the OP/ED a little bit.  The OP doesn’t have many changes.  The second-to-last shot, with Yui and Cryska, is empty in the preview OP.  I think they also fiddled with the timing of when the RLF members appear on-screen.  The ED has more noticeable changes.  The final ED has Cryska in the UN fortified suit she wears during the Terrorist arc, but the preview ED had a shot of her wearing her usual fortified suit.  And the big pan at the end, which in the final ED includes a shot of the ruined remains of the Shiranui Second and the Berkut in combat, only has a silhouetted shot of the two TSFs standing.  It’s really interesting that the Sentai release included these versions; I imagine the person in charge of supplying the creditless OP/ED on the Japanese side simply screwed up.  I’ll be curious to see if the second collection includes the finalized OP/ED, or if it’ll still be these versions.  I really don’t care much – the differences are pretty small, and the finalized OP/ED are actually available on the anime’s YouTube site.

(Also, while we’re talking about the OP, for anybody who only watched the broadcast version of the show, the home video release actually changed the OP slightly when they entered the Soviet arc.  Go take a look!)

I’m very aware that I’m the odd one out here in thinking that Total Eclipse is an exceptional show – in Sentai’s eyes, not to mention the eyes of the North American fanbase, Total Eclipse is a low-tier show. So it does please me that this is most emphatically not a “low-tier” dub.  The scripting, excepting the problem with the Japanese words, is far above the level that Sentai was turning in a few years ago.  The actors are generally cast well and give good performances.  Nobody is going to be winning any awards here, but this is nonetheless a dub that I enjoyed listening to, which is pretty good considering how many times I’ve watched this show (and played the game) with the Japanese cast.  And with the shakiness of the first few episodes hopefully out of the way, I am cautiously looking forward to an even better second half.