Sunday, March 22, 2020

let's rate the anime dubs

Recently in the wake of Oscar success for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite – the first best picture nod for a subtitled foreign-language film – the old “subs vs dubs” debate erupted anew, and Hollywood’s cognoscenti found itself behind the curve of an eternal anime-nerd argument. Namely, what’s better, watching them there Japanese cartoons with English subtitles, or watching them dubbed into English? I submit that today this is a meaningless debate, as modern technology means we can enjoy both as we choose. Anime titles are delivered more or less intact and many DVDs or streaming titles come with subtitles and English language dub tracks. Gone are the days of haphazard editing or the dumbing-down of complex plot points, and the medium’s Asian roots aren’t disguised but are now a selling point. 

the internet has opinions 

But this was not always the case. For the first thirty years or so, badly edited dubs were all we got! And let’s face it, the UHF TV stations, kiddie matinees, and video rental family sections of America weren’t seeking to advance the cinematic art form, they were interested in selling popcorn, Hot Wheels, and rentals. If that meant goofily-dubbed cartoons from Asia, well, goofily-dubbed cartoons from Asia is what we got. 

But what was it like, watching these primitive, problematic, sometimes culturally insensitive localizations? Can we, from our 21st century perspective, arbitrarily assign our own subjective values to these different English language releases? Well, I sure hope so. Otherwise this column is going to be mighty short. 

Panda And The Magic Serpent is pretty indicative of where these things were headed – the panda is incidental to the story, which in Japan is Hakujaden or “Legend Of The White Serpent”, the first color Japanese animated feature and an adaptation of a Song Dynasty legend about a boy, and a girl, and a snake, who is also the girl. This movie fits perfectly what Americans would think of if they heard the term “Japanese animation” in the late 50s – it’s perhaps the most visually and culturally “Asian” anime film of the period. If you want the cinematic version of a kitschy Chinese restaurant, this is it. Order me the Mu Shu Pork, will you? 

RATING: number one exotic pagoda oriental magic palace and cocktail lounge 

Alakazam The Great might be the first anime film to really impact the West, not only due to repeated TV screenings in the 70s and 80s, but it was also the first localization to fill roles with popular stars of the day, “the day” being 1960. You can nitpick the dub all you want – the Buddhism is removed entirely from this Buddhist folk tale formerly known as “Journey To The West” – but casting Jonathan Winters and Arnold Stang gives this one a unique midcentury comedy vibe that draws us in like a magnet. Can you imagine what kind of nonsense Winters got up to in the outtakes? Somebody find those tapes. 

RATING: Great 

Fred Ladd’s 1964 Gigantor version of TCJ’s Tetsujin-28 is chunky, funky and clunky, just like Tetsujin himself. In the Americanized version produced for Trans-Lux, Jimmy Sparks has never sounded more pre-pubescent and Inspector Blooper channels Gale Gordon at all times. Gale Gordon, he was in The Lucy Show with Lucille Ball, you’ve seen Simpsons characters make fun of him, read a book sometime kids. And that theme song! Half Calypso novelty song, half football chant, it’ll stick in your head long after you’ve forgotten what happens in every single episode of Gigantor

RATING: Ten Thousand Gigantors 

ABC Films’ 8th Man didn’t stray too far from TCJ’s cartoon version of Kazumasa “Harmagedon” Hirai and Jiro Kuwata’s cyborg detective manga. Dubbed in Copri International’s Miami studio, which was sometimes used for CIA propaganda broadcasts aimed at Castro’s Cuba, the hardboiled nature of the show came through in bellowing, stentorian Dragnet-style narration and an unshakable conviction to whitewash everything Asian about the show. In practice this meant describing all the Japanese signage as being part of “The Museum Of Oriental Art.” 

RATING: Making those signs Oriental sure doesn’t help find your way! 

Making those signs Oriental sure doesn’t help find your way

Jungle Emperor VHS release

Kimba The White Lion is always said to be the first color Japanese animated TV show, but you know what, I’ve had so many of these stupid factoids shoved into my eyeballs that turned out to be wrong that I can’t even any more. Who knows. It’s a show, it’s in color, it’s been dubbed twice, the first time by Fred Ladd’s radio-drama-veteran crew fresh from Astro Boy, and in the 90s for bubble-gum giveaway DVDs. Billie Lou Watt gives Kimba some jungle gravitas and Ray Owens earns a paycheck shamelessly ripping off Walter Brennan for his Dan’l Baboon voice. You know, Walter Brennan, he was Grandpa on “The Real McCoys” and an entire filmography worth of movies including the terrific “Bad Day At Black Rock” and the stunningly terrible “The Oscar.” 

RATING: Jungle Love 

cursed image #749
The Amazing Three

Amazing Three is one of those lost TV cartoons where the 16mm prints of the English dub are sitting in somebody’s basement while he tries to get $30K for them on eBay. Why won’t one of those Silicon Valley tech-bros pony up the cash and rescue this show from sweet oblivion? You know the story – Galactic Command sends three agents to Earth with a mission to decide whether or not to blow us all to hell, and these three agents transform themselves into Zero the duck, Ronny the horse, and Bonnie the bunny, because Tezuka had a thing for transformations. The localization is by the Prince Planet Copri Productions team, what’s it like? It’s kooky. Our heroes, their human being pal Kenny, Kenny’s Secret Agent Man brother, and a parade of international villains and local goofs bellow, shout, holler, stutter, and smirk their way through the dialogue. Zero, the duck with the Beatle haircut, growls at everyone and everything, all the time. It hurts just to listen. 

RATING: it’s a wonder 

Little does Speed realize that Racer X is actually his older brother
Speed Racer, on the other hand, moves like a lubed-up 500 horsepower engine, blasting through 52 episodes of Tatsunoko auto-racing action. Speed and Trixie and Pops and Racer X and Spritle and Inspector Detector are apparently paid by the word and on a mission to jam as many syllables as possible into every mouth movement, whether they match or not. Peter Fernandez makes it work with a brazen disregard for logic and a breakneck pace that never lets us think how silly it is that a teenage race driver is involved in international espionage or how he wins races in loafers and red socks. There’s a reason everybody remembers this Trans-Lux show, and that’s because it’s great. 

RATING: go speed go 

Fables Of The Green Forest is one of those shows you see on kiddie-shelf Blockbuster rentals and it really challenges your commitment to rent everything that looks Japanese, and you rent it, and that commitment is challenged further. Based on a series of American children’s books from the early 20th century, produced by an early 70s team of Japanese animators that would go on to work on world-famous productions, and dubbed by people recruited from AA meetings and shopping mall hallways, this localization is positively jet-lagged. Entire story arcs are devoted to intensely irritating characters like Chatterer The Squirrel, his speech impediment challenged only by the confusing, almost stream-of-consciousness script, almost Burroughsian in its impenetrability. 

RATING: “oohhh. Ahhhh. Ooohhhh.” 

oohhh. Ahhhh. Ooohhhh

Lupin vs Clone
Lupin III Mystery Of Mamo – this legendary 1978 film has been dubbed into English four or five times, but the first attempt is the best, a jazzy take that fits Lupin like a glove that helps him walk up walls. Sure, some of the names get changed, but TMS was gonna do that anyway. Maybe you saw this one as part of the Cliff Hanger laserdisc video game, maybe you saw a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, or maybe you bought the recent Discotek DVD release, which you should do. Monster trucks, immortal geniuses, and Pop Rocks make this the finest Lupin movie! 

RATING: compared to him we’re stumble-bums 

Starvengers – Jim Terry Productions released five different Toei anime series as part of their Force Five package and this one, their version of Getter Robo G, is emblematic of how Americans dubbed Japanese cartoons in the 70s and 80s. Their method: take the source material, throw out all the names, keep as much of the story as the visuals force you to keep, and then go wild on it. Starvengers has bad British accents, poor production values, cheap video titles, the occasional celebrity impersonation, and a cheerful energy that keeps the whole thing moving in spite of having to start where the first Getter Robo series ends. This was shown on Atlanta’s WANX-46 in an hour time slot – we got an episode of Star Blazers, and then two of Force Five, either Starvengers and Grandizer or Gaiking and Dangard Ace, or Spaceketeers and something else. Maybe Starvengers again. Somebody at 46 didn’t think this one through. 

RATING: Foul Tip 

Captain Harlock & The Queen of A Thousand Years – this awkwardly named series lives up to its awkward name. The series comprises two completely unrelated TV series, produced five years apart by completely different creative teams, and edited together like a first-year film student’s poorly thought out final project. This hamfistedly made video Frankenstein mystifies viewers, repels fans of Captain Harlock and Queen Millennia, and surely infuriated the typesetters at the newspaper’s TV section trying to cram this title into their layouts. All of Carl Macek’s overwritten pomposity is in full effect here, overworked to the point of incomprehension thanks to an impossible mission. Sample of actual narration: “Across the immensity of deep space, the incalculably powerful Mazone armada pushes relentlessly onward, swallowing everything in its path, sweeping across worlds beyond number. Like a tidal wave of terror, the bulk of the fleet crashes across the surface of planet after planet, drenching world after world in an irresistible tide of subjugation. But as the Mazone snake twists and turns, its constricting coils fail to find the artificial asteroid that now hides Captain Harlock, his ship, and his crew.” 

RATING: tidal wave of terror 

WATL 36's famous "find the unicorn" contest

Dagger of Kamui, the 1984 Rin Taro film animated by Madhouse and produced by notorious producer Haruki Kadokawa, is a hallucinogenic, sprawling epic of gangs of ninjas battling over an immense treasure hoard that can either save or destroy the Tokugawa Shogunate. Caught in the middle, the half-Ainu boy Jiro grows to ninja manhood in a journey that takes him across the Pacific to California and back to confront his ultimate destiny. As an 80s film starring ninjas, this one was pre-sold for export, and America was not slow to glom onto it. Along with Macross, Phoenix 2772, Locke The Superman and others, Kamui was part of the Peregrine Films “Dynamagic" package that was later released to home video in the States under the Just For Kids label. Dagger Of Kamui became “Revenge Of The Ninja Warrior,” got forty minutes hacked out, and received a utilitarian dub that tried at times to match the otherworldly cadence of the Japanese dialogue, but let’s face it, hearing three otherworldly ninja shrilly announce their presence works better in Japanese. 


Vampire Hunter D, and his friend, D(oris)

Vampire Hunter D was an early star of the OVA world, a keystone in the struggle of 80s anime nerds to show the world that Japanese animation was a Serious Art Form For Adults, Man, and also important in the strategy of Streamline Pictures, the distribution company set up by former Harmony Gold Robotech czar Carl Macek to release Japanese animation outside the constraints of syndicated television. Vampire Hunter D fit the bill as an edgy, violent animated film with enough supernatural shock and the occasional shower scene to clearly define it away from TV kidvid. But Streamline’s less than stellar dub, which features comical, vanishing and reappearing accents, stiff line readings, and bad takes that somehow made it into the final cut – somehow undercuts the seriousness of the endeavor. 

RATING: I won’t return the castle 

In The Aftermath is what happens when you have some army surplus hazmat suits, a permit to shoot at an abandoned power station, and the rights to the Mamoru Oshii / Yoshitaka Amano art film Angel’s Egg. That is to say, you take the dreamlike visuals of what may be Japanese animation’s most arthousey film and tack them into a cheap post-apocalyptic bunker movie. The result is a mess, a boring mess; imagine a world where Angel’s Egg beat Akira to the rep cinemas and wowed the critics, paving the way for an explosion of visionary expression beyond the edgy cyberpunk boob ninja tentacle rape we got in the 90s? But no; this is why we can’t have nice things. 

RATING: rotten 

sure, why not
he's a shock
Fist Of The North Star has been an amazing success. The original Buronson/Tetsuo Hara manga was ridiculously popular, spawning side stories and sequels and prequels, a long-running anime series, nine different spin-off manga stories, four theatrical films, five OVAs, novels, video games, pachinko games, a dedicated e-reader preloaded with the manga, a live-action American direct-to-video movie, and a possibly unlicensed Taiwanese live action film, making it one of the most lucrative media franchises of all time. Of course you wouldn’t know it here in North America, where Fist Fever Failed to Finalize in spite of every attempt. Is this wasteland Mad Max/Bruce Lee fantasy too peculiar for Western tastes, the way the franchise mixes deadpan seriousness with outrageous camp too jarring for our palates? Maybe. All I know Streamline Pictures’ early 90s dub of the 1986 Fist Of The North Star film punched its way into theaters and home video only to be met with viewer apathy. Some of the blame lies with America simply not knowing they should be awed by the amazing martial arts wizardry of Kenshiro and the rest. But the localization didn’t help. A soft-spoken Kenshiro, attempts to mitigate the ridiculous ultra-violence with quips, and a sad under-mixing of the heavy metal soundtrack muted the impact and left viewers confused and unimpressed. 

RATING: I’ve got a splitting headache 

Ninja Robots? You never saw ‘em, unless you lived in Australia, Pakistan, India, or the Philippines, where the English localization of the very 1985 Studio Pierrot series Ninja Senshi Tobikage aired. Was this show dubbed in LA, or in Miami? Sources vary. What we DO know is that this very 80s show got a very 80s theme song, keeping the original Tobikage theme and adding English lyrics about “fighting Zaboom” and “the power’s in you, you’re in the machine” all wrapped around a stirring refrain of “Ninja Robots, Ninja Robots!” It’s all very ‘2001 A New Wave Godyssey’ if you catch the Mr. Show reference. Ninja Robots is a perfectly reasonable localization of one of those anime series that looks amazing and enigmatic when all you’ve seen is the opening credits, but the actual show itself gets rolling and the story of teenage Martian colonists using the titular ninja robots to protect an alien princess from the aliens who seek to conquer the galaxy, well, it’s both overly complex and played-out at the same time, if that’s possible. 

RATING: zaboom 

they could use a Ninja Spellcheck, is what they could use

More successful was the Graz Entertainment version of Sunrise’s Samurai Troopers, known here as Ronin Warriors. Instead of hiding its Japanese roots, this show embraced the very Shinto concept of reverence for the spirits of departed, in this case ancient samurai warriors whose mystical powers enable five good-looking young Japanese men to don primary-colored armor and do battle with the forces of evil. The Ocean-produced dub was earnest, took the more fantastical material seriously, and even had the guts to leave the kid sidekick’s name as “Yulie” which, let me tell you, is a name that had a lot of us checking and re-checking our Japanese to English dictionaries back in the day. 

RATING: Samur-riffic

It was the mid 90s when Ronin Warriors appeared, and North America had been smacked by a one-two punch of (a) films like Akira wowing the critics and forcing us to take Japanese animation seriously as an art form, and (b) shows like Power Rangers making Megazord-sized piles of cash. The twin jackhammer-strength finishing blows of Pokemon and Sailor Moon were just around the corner, and the attitude of the outfits localizing these cartoons had changed entirely. The contempt and disregard of producers who saw anime as a blank slate with which to fulfill their frustrated literary ambitions was replaced with either a refreshingly professional disinterest, or, in the case of companies like AD Vision and AnimEigo, an earnest, fan-driven desire to do right by the source material. 

As always, the final solution to any sub vs dub debate is for you, the viewer, to get off his or her caboose and learn Japanese, thereby opening up an entire world of entertainment no longer gate-kept by professional or amateur translationists. Or, you can simply tell yourself it’s just a show, and you should really just relax.

-Dave Merrill