Opinion Prone

My opinions, let me tell them to you.

Japanese Sound Effects

November 8, 2008 Editorial

So I was working on my final for Sequential Art. It wasn’t a sudden realization or anything — I’ve thought about this a few times before — but it occurred to me again that the Japanese have the most ridiculous sound effects ever. Seriously, they have sound effects for pretty much everything, including things and actions and events that… don’t make any sounds. This is a far, far cry from sound effects in American comics (and perhaps European comics? I really have no idea since I don’t read any) where half the sound effects are just the verb they’re trying to describe, like “scratch scratch” or “stomp stomp.” As such, I’ve found it to be very, very frustrating trying to incorporate sound effects into my own comics because there just aren’t that many to choose from, and it kind of feels stupid using verbs as onomatopoeias when they obviously aren’t.

Of course, there are some American artists that will use Japanese katakana sound effects in their pages even though the comic is in English and reads left-to-right. Off the top of my head, I know Christy Lijewski, a SCAD grad, and rem, a Houstonian, both do this (though sometimes rem draws right-to-left). The difference is that both of them legitimately know the language, and I don’t (yet?), so I guess I’d feel a little pretentious using katakana in my comics even though I could probably pull it off well enough.

So the question of the day becomes… why aren’t there more English sound effects? Why don’t we also have sounds for things like “shock,” “silence,” “rudeness,” “flailing,” or “a quick glance sideways”? Sure, it is kind of ridiculous to have sound effects for things that inherently have no sound, but it certainly is useful. One of my roommates hypothesized that Japanese theatre might have inspired some of their sound effects since it might not have always been apparent what was going on in nondescript genres like shadow and puppet theatre, so they could have utilized a wide range of informative sound effects to help things along? Honestly though, I know little of Japanese theatre and am really just grasping at straws here.

Either way, I don’t really think America has such an extensive, nonverbal theatrical background, so maybe it’s a legitimate guess either way. British and American stageplays relied on wide arm gestures and overacting to get things across. Manga had to have made up a lot of stuff on their own though, and American comics have been around just as long, so again, why don’t we have sound effects like じ~ (ji~) for “silence” or “staring”? Instead, we will just actually use the word “silence” or “stare” or an elipse (“…”) to get the point across, which isn’t nearly as visually pleasing in my opinion. Besides, I’m more inclined to believe that じ can be used in a serious scene than “silence,” which just looks comical (…haha, pun).

I wonder how those sorts of conventions get started. Is it just something that one mangaka decides to do and others eventually understand and implement it also? Who decided that じ should represent “silence”? Or that いそ (iso) should mean “moving happily”? They aren’t real onomatopoeias like ちゅ (chu) or ふふふふ (fufufufu) which actually represent sounds, so they aren’t self-evident… unless the Japanese all just have a hard-wired, instinctual knowledge of sound effects that aren’t sounds. Does the first person to use the sound effect just throw in an editor’s note? How long does it take to integrate in a new sound effect? Does anyone ever sit back and wonder why the hell silence has a sound effect?

Meanwhile, in America, comic book artists are throwing things against walls trying to figure out what kind of sounds they make (seriously, I know people that do this), but once again, those are still real sounds. No one is trying to come up with “sound effects” for actions. I guess logically, it would make sense to just represent actions with the verb for the action, but it’s just so… logical, I suppose. Not exciting. Not interesting. I am interested in these strange Japanese sounds for things that don’t make sounds. Using “knock knock” for knocking is kind of lame. But even for things that do make sounds, I feel like the American library of sound effects is very limited. Specifically, I have a scene where a woman is crying. I was trying to come up with a sound effect for sobbing, but… all I could come up with was “sob sob” — decidedly lame. Very lame. But what else do we use to represent that sound? When I visualize someone crying, I guess it kind of sounds like “hua hua” with the occasional “hmf” for sniffing and “hnn” or something, but that’s only after a lot of hard thinking and trying to translate those weird noises into words. And when I read those words, I don’t immediately think back to “crying.” Why is this so hard?

The amazing Japanese sound effect dictionary linked above describes しく (shiku) as “sobbing” or “whimpering,” and I guess I could hear that as a crying sound. Is it more apparent to the Japanese? (How the hell did these translators figure all this out anyway?) It’s all a mystery to me… but I do still wish that Americans would just make something up for those sounds, even if they don’t make a whole lot of sense. At least then I’d have more options. I wonder if people will just think I’m retarded if I start making up weird-ass sound effects in my comics. Maybe years later, they will eventually adopt “ghnnnnn” as the sound for American silence and a cartoon show will make fun of it by having someone actually say “ghnnnnn” when they are trying to represent silence. That would be kind of awesome.

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  1. Sara on November 8, 2008 7:11 am

    Concerning how the sound effects get started, and why everyone seems to understand despite there being no dictionary or telepathic infection type of thing going on…

    There is a general consensus for understanding the phonetics behind the sfx and how to interpret that meaning. /s/ sounds and /f/ sounds are pretty light, so they might signify wind blowing or something lightweight in nature, while /d/ and /n/ sounds are kinda heavy and tonal so that would explain why ‘don’ is like a heavy step or deep drum.

    Following that kind of inherent language cue, if you’re a native Japanese speaker it wouldn’t be a problem to take a wild yet accurate guess to the meaning of a freshly made up sound effect. For foreigners like us, it takes a bit more time to catch on ~~

  2. Kiriska on November 8, 2008 7:26 am

    That makes sense, but it still doesn’t explain the sound effects for things that aren’t really sounds like silence and sudden revelations. ‘s’ and ‘f’ sounds are pretty soft in English too, considering “shhh” is very widely accepted as a “quieting” noise or command. Same with ‘d’ and ‘n,’ as used in things like “dan dan DANNNNN,” etc. :3

  3. Tora on October 4, 2010 2:12 am

    Well, the thing being that there aren’t sounds per se for such things as “shock” or “sudden realization”. They are sounds that represent states of being.

    They’re funny because we think they’re sound effects but they’re not. Even consider “bling-bling”, “the sound of light bouncing off a diamond”. Light… doesn’t make a sound like that. But it’s cool, so we’ll say it.