Kaguya-sama: Love is War? Subtitle Drama Explained

Localisation is an important part of anime. Without it, we would all have to learn a whole other language just to watch buff shirtless men shoot lasers from their fists. I know just enough Japanese to know how difficult the job is, so when there was some controversy around the subtitles for Kaguya-sama: Love is War? Episode Five, it interested me beyond just my interest in the show.

Kaguya-sama: Love is War? is a currently airing anime that revolves around two young people on the student council in a Japanese high school who are clearly way into each other but refuse to be the first to admit it. Instead of doing the normal thing of just saying it and seeing what happens, the pair try to force, trick, and coerce the other into being the one who says it. It’s a cute show where the simple act of love is given the highest of stakes, something that works so well in anime and makes this romantic comedy stand out in the genre.

So What Happened?

During the currently airing season of Kaguya-sama, Aniplex US is in charge of the translation and localisation duties for the show while Funimation has the exclusive rights to stream the show, both the subbed version and the dub they are currently developing. In episode five, which aired on May 9th, a cheeky localiser snuck in a very topical joke regarding social distancing.

Kaguya-sama original social distancing line
What’s the deal with the social distancing?

The joke, as you can see, is pretty harmless and fits the tone of the show, though it is certainly a departure from what appeared in the original manga and a liberal translation of the spoken Japanese in the scene.

Of course, this being anime and the Internet, fans of the show took umbrage with this perceived departure from the creator’s original intent. On May 14th, Aniplex issued the below statement via Twitter:

The updated line reads as:

Kaguya-sama updated line
Why are you so far away from me?

It’s a small but noticeable change that brings the line closer to what appeared in the original manga.

Kaguya-Sama: Love is War and Comedy is Hard

This isn’t a new controversy in the anime community. It rears its head every now and then when comedic that are steeped in modern Japanese culture. Comedy, more than most genres, doesn’t make an immediate translation between cultures and languages. So changes have to be made to content to make it accessible to new viewers and readers who might not necessarily share the same cultural touchstones that make a joke work.

Most anime fans know this by now, so they expect some changes in their dialogue. In fact, in a good localisation, the viewer shouldn’t notice the difference. One of the critiques around this particular change is that it ages the joke and therefore the series. This is a valid criticism and likely a result of Aniplex employing someone with a solid background in comedic writing to assist with the translation duties.

Comedy has a stronger tendency to be topical. Ever try going back and watching old episodes of Mock the Week or Saturday Night Live? Sure, there are some skits and jokes that work despite the passage of time but a lot of them are going to fall flat because we don’t live in the same world they were written in.

So I don’t blame the localisation team for trying a joke that was very topical, even at the risk of dating the product in the long term. Its something that is bound to happen and can be good for the product even if I think that, in this instance, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. They took a risk and it didn’t pan out. I can respect that.

Wondering how COVID-19 is impacting anime? We’ve got you covered.

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