Gone But Best Forgotten #2: Old-School Dubs

I don’t know why I’ve put writing this one off for so long. I intended to write this article ages ago, but just never got around to it. At times, I could blame the delay on some topics that interested me more cropping up, other times, I’d put the blame on not knowing where to go next with these, but in the end, enough is enough. It’s time to put this sucker to rest.

I guess the best place to start would be to define what exactly I’m talking about when it comes to “old-school dubs”. This is one of those things where a barrage of short clips would likely clear up any confusion, but given the impermanent nature of video clips of anything that could even be construed as copyrighted material online, it might just be easier to try to explain the concept in words that rely on clips that could easily be taken down at any time, leaving this entire blog woefully incomplete and broken at some point down the line.

The dubs I’m talking about actually started up way before I was born. You had stuff like Harmony Gold’s Robotech, which turned three entirely separate anime series into a single franchise in the West. Another good example would have to be the work of Streamline Pictures, a dubbing company that existed in the 1980’s and 90’s, that did somewhat more accurate translations than most companies, but still managed to rewrite scripts in order to increase accessibility to more mainstream American audiences. Of course, the company that comes to mind for me, when it comes to early dubs, would have to be Saban.

Founded in 1983, Saban Entertainment was in the dubbing game back in the 80’s and 90’s as well, but were fairly extensive in their changes. The main shows I remember from them were Samurai Pizza Cats, Digimon and Transformers: Robots in Disguise. They also co-produced the first two “seasons” of the original dub of Dragon Ball Z, leaving an indelible mark on the franchise is our part of the world that lasts even to this day. Saban would do many of the general tricks common to English anime dubbing at this point in time: changing names to be more coherent and/or pronounceable for English-speaking audiences, changing various cultural references to match the new target region, censoring out elements that might be considered to risque for children in the West, all that good stuff. But the thing about Saban’s dubs that I really loved was the lack of reverence for the source material. Like, you’d have characters all but break the fourth wall to effectively mock the story they were in, characters making snarky remarks over clearly recycled stock footage, basically treating the anime with all the gravitas one would expect a cartoon to be treated with. You know, because that’s what it was: a cartoon.

The weird thing about this whole trend with dubbing is that, it’s not even unique to English-speaking countries. Loads of Latin American  countries would often dub cartoons originally made in English to change up various references and make it more palatable to their new audience. Hell, even as far back as The Flintstones and even to this day with shows like The Simpsons, the dubbing staff would often make changes to the script, to the names of characters, et cetera, just to make things more appealing domestically. I personally don’t see a problem with that. Hell, even Japan’s ended up doing that with Western cartoons. Honestly, I’d like to see every weeaboo who’s bitched about calling rice balls “jelly doughnuts” defend what Japan did to Beast Wars. Seriously, look at this. At best, it’s no different than what companies like Saban did, and yet, you don’t hear anyone from Japan froth at the mouth of those changes, do you? At the very least, not to the extent you’d hear about how “filthy gaijins are bastardized the glorious art of anime” you’d get from weeaboos.

Speaking of above average segues, the reason this trend likely died is due to the rise of the weeaboo. Yes, I know they prefer being called “otakus” or whatever, but frankly, that never made any sense to me. The term “otaku” in the original Japanese is generally identified with creepy shut-ins with a hard-on (some more literal than others) for childrens’ media. It’s literally an insult and these self-professed Japanophiles are using it like a badge of honor. It’s like those people who get tattoos in a different language that they think means something deep, but in reality, it translates to something like “I’m a stupid foreigner who eats dog shit”. Which, in all honestly, is pretty frickin’ hilarious. A bit of an aside, I know, but this isn’t really something I could derive an entire rant out of. So, yeah, bonus mini-rant. It’s like one of those Russian nesting dolls, only with inane rants on the internet. You can’t beat that value!

Anyway, back on topic, the rise of insular otaku culture in the West wasn’t the cause of the death of this style of dubbing: even well into the period where more accurate dubs were more common, bad dubs still existed, more often than not brought to us by 4Kids Entertainment. 4Kids’ (4Kids’s?) dubs lacked the light-hearted ribbing of Saban’s work: they just had a tendency of being boring, essentially marrying the worst elements of kid-friendly and accurate dubs, leaving a script that had anything deemed inappropriate for children removed and replaced with, well, nothing. Quite simply, I think that far too many weeaboos somehow only remember 4Kids dubs and somehow retroactively applying their outright terribleness to every “non-accurate” dub throughout the medium’s history in the West.

The ironic part about all of this is that, among the dubs that are generally considered “acceptable” among even the most hardcore of weeaboos would be Samurai Pizza Cats, Saban’s magnum opus. The funny thing about this one is that apparently, when Saban obtained the rights to this series, they weren’t given the original scripts, so they had to improvise new ones entirely from scratch just based on the raw footage they were given. It’s one of those rare cases where an anime ended up being way more popular outside of Japan. Of course, what’s even funnier is that I doubt there’s a single weeaboo, at least of those my age and older, that don’t owe their anime obsession to a “poorly-made” dub in the first place. Be it Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, either version of Astro Boy or Gigantor or even the original dub of One Piece, a lot of otakus got their first taste of anime back when poor dubbing was quite common.

Likewise, while I wouldn’t say insular otaku culture directly killed the concept of less-authentic dubs, they certainly didn’t do much to help them either. After the anime bubble burst for whatever reason, the “genre” has gone back to its niche status and unfortunately, this has led to some more conservative method when it comes to dubbing. Sure, it’s more accurate to the source material, but it’s almost pointless now: most hardcore weebs would rather just watch things with the original Japanese audio with English subtitles anyway! Not to mention the fact that despite the quality of dubs improving, they’ve also gotten significantly blander. It’s ironic: I’m constantly hearing about how incestuous the Japanese anime industry has gotten and at the same time, the American scene has become almost a microcosm of the same exact problem, on a much smaller and more insignificant scale.

One thing I’ve opined on with various people I know that are still into anime is that it seems that with strikingly few exceptions, the majority of women dubbing lines in anime at this point in time literally sound identical. As in, they’re all doing the same exact voice all the time always, I’m literally incapable of telling them apart at this point. That’s not to say that the men are much better off, but there’s a much wider range of acceptable voices on the male side of things. Given the fact that I grew up loving Molly’s crazy-ass Brooklyn accent in DIC’s original English dub for Sailor Moon, hearing her sound just like any generic anime woman in the recent Viz Media redub was almost heartbreaking. For fuck’s sake, she had a crazy accent in the original Japanese version! Why make her sound generic? It’s so pointless.

I guess that’s the main reason I’m nostalgic for older dubs: they just came across as more fun than the current stuff around today. At the same time, I can kind of understand why the old style fell by the wayside. Dubbing inaccuracies are all well and good when you’ve got a wider market to sell stuff to, but given anime’s recession in the West, I suppose a safer route is far more necessary. The only real problem is that given how close more recent dubs try to come to the source material, their existence strikes me as pointless. There’s got to be some way that we can create a sort of “anti-4Kids” dub: one that could be accurate while including more culturally relevant outsiders in order to bring new fans into the fold.

Of course, I may have spoken too soon about the death of this particular form of dubbing: recently Saban Entertainment’s reemerged and brought Glitter Force, a dub of Smile Pretty Cure to Netflix, much to the chagrin of a couple of my weeb friends who consider Precure to be among their guilty pleasures. Of course, since then, Toei’s apparently regained the rights to the franchise in the West and with rumors swirling about a new season in development, it’s hard to say where this franchise could be heading, it’s hard to say whether Toei will continue the current trajectory or going for a more accurate dub for the sake of creepy otakus who obsess over foreign children’s cartoons.

Now, creepily obsessing over domestic children’s cartoons, on the other hand, is completely normal…

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