THE BOY AND THE HERON English vs. Japanese Dub Comparison of This Animated Masterpiece

The Boy and the Heron (known as How Do You Live? in Japan) finally received its wide release alongside its brand new English dub. For many Western audiences, the first question before stepping into the theater is: "Which version should I watch?"
The Boy and The Heron

The Boy and the Heron (known as How Do You Live? in Japan) finally received its wide release alongside its brand new English dub. For many Western audiences, the first question before stepping into the theater is: “Which version should I watch?”

A Quick Overview of Subs, Dubs, and Rubadubdubs

The discussion of “subs vs. dubs” is more of a joke on itself than an actual discussion anymore. The obvious answer is both are good in different ways. Studio Ghibli, in particular, has been a shining example of well-made, star-driven English dubs ever since 1996, when Disney took over worldwide distribution rights.

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As the Ghibli brand grew in popularity, the names got bigger. The biggest downside of having movie stars attached to these films is that live-action stars don’t always adapt to the format well, and lesser-appreciated voice-acting veterans get pushed out in favor of the bigger names.

In favor of subs, watching any Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli film with the original Japanese recording can offer a more authentic experience, especially for films directly set in Japan, like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and The Wind Rises. The culture surrounding these films is extremely important to their narratives, so watching with subtitles is a valid choice. However, for most Western viewers, having the option to watch a film for the first time without worrying about missing any of the visuals due to reading the subtitles might be more beneficial.

The Japanese Dub

My bias will be showing in this particular discussion because I am not as well versed in Japanese pop culture as I am in Western pop culture, but regardless let’s stumble our way through discussing the Japanese recording of The Boy and the Heron first.

Most notable is the inclusion of Takuya Kimura in the role of Mahito’s father, Shoichi. Kimura is known for being a huge icon in Japan, starring in the leading roles of iconic J-dramas like Long Vacation and Hero, as well as voicing Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle. I find this casting for a more minor role significant for the audience’s perception of this character, like the protagonist’s relationship with his father.

Other Ghibli alumni show up, including the vocal talents of Kaoru Kobayashi, Jun Kunimura, Keiko Takeshita, Jun Fubuki, and Shinobu Otake. Actress Ko Shibasaki, known for iconic roles in Battle Royale and One Missed Call, plays one character at two points in their life, perfectly shifting age in her voice that does not immediately clue the audience in before the reveal. Finally, prominent younger actor Masaki Suda plays against type wonderfully as the untrustworthy and abrasive Grey Heron, as opposed to other roles playing less rugged or raspy-sounding characters.

This version of The Boy and the Heron is perfectly calibrated and authentic to the story being told. Line readings match the energy of scenes, whether for intense or comedic purposes, and the elegant localization of the original script does not hold back on the strangeness of this plot nor the more culturally specific details.

The English Dub

The Boy and the Heron is Hayao Miyazaki’s first film in ten years and could very well be his final film. It seems like this could have been the last chance that these actors could have at staring in one of his films, and for the English dub at least, this means filling even the most minor roles with A-list celebrities.

The Boy and the Heron Still - 4
Courtesy of GKids and Studio Ghibli.

With a truly stacked cast, beloved actors like William Dafoe, Dave Bautista, and Mark Hamill only appear for a couple of scenes at most. These performances leave quite an impact and work well for cementing these important figures in our minds long after we leave the theater.

Florence Pugh perhaps gives the best performance of the cast with two different performances for the same role, and she effortlessly eases into both sides of the same character. Christian Bale, just like Takuya Kimura, came back nearly twenty years later after playing Howl in 2004 to play Shoichi Maki.

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Most surprisingly, Robert Pattinson plays the role of the Grey Heron, presenting a voice that is completely unrecognizable from his past work but undeniably right for this character. This casting, alongside Bale and other previous Ghibli contributors, is an intentional choice from the collaboration of Studio Ghibli and Gkids, as mentioned in this interview with Dave Jesteadt for this article on IndieWire. The parallels with the Japanese casting fully cement this vocal dub as an interesting exchange of culture and how the creators wanted Western audiences to share a similar experience when it came to casting.

The Bottom Line

If you want the most authentic and rewarding experience for your first watch, I’d recommend the Japanese-spoken version of the film. That being said, go ahead and watch the English dub too. After you watch both, go back and watch the subtitled version again. The Boy and the Heron only increases in value every time you watch it because there is always something new to discover. It’s Miyazaki’s weirdest film yet, but it encompasses much of his life’s work while questioning his contribution to the animation industry and the world at large. If you are able, catch it in theaters while you can!

The Boy and the Heron is playing in theaters now, both subbed and dubbed. You can find out if it’s playing at a theater near you on GKids’ website.

About The Boy and the Heron

The Boy and the Heron - Domestic Release Poster

Release: December 8, 2023
Original Story and Screenplay Written and Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Sound Designer/Re-Recording Mixer: Koji Kasamatsu
Supervising Animator: Takeshi Honda
Art Director: Yoji Takeshige
Production: Studio Ghibli
Distribution: GKIDS
Japanese Voice Cast: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Ko Shibasaki, AIMYON, Yoshino Kimura, Takuya Kimura, Jun Kunimura, Shohei Hino
English Dub Cast: Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Gemma Chan, Willem Dafoe, Karen Fukuhara, Mark Hamill, Robert Pattinson and Florence Pugh

Synopsis: After losing his mother during the war, young Mahito moves to his family’s estate in the countryside. There, a series of mysterious events lead him to a secluded and ancient tower, home to a mischievous gray heron. When Mahito’s new stepmother disappears, he follows the gray heron into the tower and enters a fantastic world shared by the living and the dead. As he embarks on an epic journey with the heron as his guide, Mahito must uncover the secrets of this world and the truth about himself.

Which version of The Boy and the Heron do you prefer? What do you think about Studio Ghibli’s past English dubs? Let us know on social media!

KEEP READING: The Boy and The Heron Review – Not The Best 1st Miyazaki Film to Watch


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Ian Lloyd

Ian Lloyd enjoys surrounding himself with outdated technology and pretending to have good opinions. He loves watching movies that everyone else hates as well as films that no one cares about - except for him. But by far, his favorite thing in the world is to write down all the nonsense in his head that he is constantly thinking about and labeling it as a "review" for "people" to "read".