I was going to make this a V-Log but the first recording went wrong and I didn’t have time to try again if that pattern continued, so we’re going with an article. Over the past few weeks I’ve been posting videos from The Cartoon Cypher discussing anime dubs and countering some of the complaints made against it, either due to misconceptions or a particular complaint being outdated. Look, if you prefer a show subtitled in the original Japanese, that’s fine. Watch it any way you want. To attack the dub and those who prefer them as being “impure” is the point of the videos I posted. It also leads into a discussion I didn’t realize I needed to dig more into outside of the Robotech reviews until even the Cypher narrator seemed to be coming down against “hack dubs”, which is why I wanted to make it into a video but this is what I can put together.
So what is a “hack dub”? Unlike the more typical questionable dubs like Speed Racer a hack dub completely alters the show. You know, like Japan did with Beast Wars: Transformers and the US did with Ghost Stories or most 4Kids dubs. Now I’m not defending the practice as something that would work today; we live in different times. Anime is more popular and we have a better understanding of Japanese culture than we did. The case has been made that even modern Pokémon is still altered for kids in the US, which actually does lead into my point: if it wasn’t for hack dubs, you wouldn’t be an anime fan.
I want you to come back in time with me, to a period before the internet, before the dumb scare of the 1980s that Japan was trying to buy up every company in the US. In fact let’s go all the way back to the 1940s. Not to World War II specifically although it plays a part in this but just that period in general. Japan was still a strange, foreign place. Japanese culture is way different from those of us in the West or even the Middle East. In fact all Far Eastern cultures are different just as ours are different from theirs. That’s kind of how life works. Now I’m not defending the depiction in war propaganda beyond being war propaganda and there is no defense for the prison camps, but you don’t have to agree with something to understand why wrong things happen…if you ignore Twitter and use common sense. While Germany’s culture and even how Hitler was able to brainwash the German people at the time was easy to understand (and that was the only thing understandable about Germany under the Nazis) what they did was still wrong but it was a wrong we could understand because German culture was still close enough to our own to be able to relate to it. It’s why we don’t look at Germans and just see Nazi. We save that for people on the other side of the social/political debate instead.
Japan’s culture though is very different from ours. That means their puns are different even beyond the different words we use. Their alphabet is different. Their way of doing things is different. How they approach families may be different in a lot of ways. Their religion is one we are only just beginning to understand. Now imagine how that looked to people in late 1950s having just fought a war with them around a decade ago (give or take a few months) and have only just started to see them as something beyond a past enemy. Is it a surprise that Godzilla: King Of The Monsters was thought to need an American character to bridge that gap? Even “Godzilla” is thought to be a mistranslation but the kanji (a whole other form of writing letters) can be translated as either “Godzilla” or “Gojira”, so even that isn’t properly understood. Call it whichever, that movie or Akira Kurosawa films took a long time to be popular, and even then only with niche audiences. Most people won’t know who Kurosawa is (outside of hearing he inspired the first Star Wars and the original The Magnificent Seven) and while Godzilla has attained a level of pop culture it was through the 70s movies that the more serious G-Fans today like to look down upon, as if only the radioactive monster allegory for atomic weapons is worth anything. That’s a whole other article though.
Speed Racer, Astro Boy, and Gigantor never get referred to by their Japanese names even on anime commentary and review shows outside of mentioning they had a different name. Ultraman has gotten to stay mostly as is, and that includes the 4Kids version of Ultraman Tiga (they did add a few extra bits of dialog). I haven’t compared Ultra 7 to the Ted Turner dubs, but even then I would be going by subtitles, and those are influenced by translating the way Japanese people speak to how we speak in the West and making a good reading flow. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to keep up since sometimes their sentences are shorter than ours and other times longer. that was the hurdle that those old dubs had to overcome, something we’ve learned over time. That takes very dedicated professional as you saw not only in the Cartoon Cypher videos but other videos on dubbing I’ve posted. So even the subs are not completely accurate if you go by the alleged standards of the anime purist.
However, with the exception of the first Godzilla movie none of these have been hacked up necessarily. Again, if I understand the term correctly, “hack dub” refers to stuff like Voltron, Robotech, Battle Of The Planets, or Macron-1. These are major alterations of the source material. Harmony Gold had planned to just dub Macross but there weren’t enough episodes for a full season. Battle Of The Planets was altered to cash in on Star Wars. Voltron was intended to be a trilogy for possibly the same reason Robotech was created, to fill a full season episode count. However, these shows–like the other anime and tokusatsu that preceded them–were not made to cater to fans of Japanese media because that market did not yet exist outside of Japanese communities like the one that led to producer Edmund Goldman to make the translation. Even then subtitled movies from any non-English speaking country was reserved for cinephiles because the general public just wants to be entertained. That’s who these productions were made for, a general audience. I didn’t know anything about Japanese animation or even Japan when I snuck dowstairs to watch Battle Of The Planets every Saturday morning without waking my parents. I just saw a real awesome superhero show where the plane could turn into a phoenix and smash through everything. I even liked that they went to different planets because that was cool sci-fi stuff to that five year old boy trying to hear a cartoon at 6 in the morning before sneaking back to bed.
The only anime I watched were to me just another TV show. Tranzor Z was a show with a giant robot fighting monsters and that was all I cared about. It was all anyone watching these shows cared about. It wasn’t until the dawning of the home video market and companies looking to make a quick buck that the first “Japanimation” craze began in the US. This is what created the anime fan market but even then it took another decade to really form an anime community, and then the internet came along and brought everyone together. Even the famed movie Akira only really scored with hard sci-fi fans. The name won’t mean anything to the average person, and may still not if they ever get that live-action movie off the ground. The only reason Alita: Battle Angel has become a big name is that it got caught up in the whole debate surrounding Captain Marvel and how one should approach a female protagonist/hero. (As in the former does it right and the latter does it wrong according to Alita’s defenders, while anime fans go into the adaptation errors and debate if they’re forgivable or not. I still haven’t seen either movie.) Now we live in a time when there is a fan base for Japanese media, from anime to live-action to superhero shows to dramas to music to game shows. American Ninja Warrior got it’s start as the Japanese competition Sasuke. When those shows became the original Ninja Warrior on the now defunct G4 Network they wanted to bring it to the same masses that loved American Gladiators type shows, not “Japanophiles”.
Today there are fans of Japanese media who somehow think they now are well verse in Japanese culture and lifestyles. That isn’t the case of course but they like to think so. They’re fans of a romantic view of Japanese culture. However, these shows are translated to appeal to Western audiences, not just the Japanophiles. (And I’m not trying to be insulting with that term. It’s just a term, not a judgement.) Translation companies are trying to appeal to a wider audience because they want money and to show the power of animation beyond what you see in kids TV. Mostly the money though. Meanwhile the “hack dubs” show a good level of creativity when done right. “When done right” being the key phrasing here. Robotech was done right in that what you actually have was a unique narrative that only borrowed the beats of the three shows that made it up. Voltron forgot to properly connect them which is why the Lion Force was well received, the Vehicle Team not as much, and the Robot Team (or Gladiator Force, whatever you want to go by) was never given a chance. Macron-1 was a mess just for its failure to emulate the MTV style they thought would work with the kids. It’s the Transformers: Generation Two of its time. Even Battle Of The Planets for whatever faults you want to put on it tried to create this idea of a group of planets dealing with an alien empire looking to add to their dictatorship. They were playing to the market that existed, normal kids who wanted cool sci-fi action shows with robots or just cool ships.
We do see that in something out there today. The Power Rangers franchise is benefiting the same way anime did from these earlier shows.
The Power Ranger of course have an advantage. Godzilla, anime, and to a lesser extent Ultraman already paved the way for Power Rangers and Sentai, but outside of Ultraman (who mostly profited from the original 60s show and the Australian-produced Towards The Future) Power Ranger are using the same “hack dub” idea to bring the concept of Super Sentai to America. Dynaman tried with their Ghost Stories style comedic dubs, which could be one of the inspirations for the Abridged series, but it failed. Nickelodeon even trying airing a couple of the more kid-friendly Dynaman comedic dubs that used to air on USA’s Night Flight block but couldn’t pull it off. And let’s not discuss DIC’s failures at this point. However, Power Rangers was popular enough that fansubs of the sentai shows started being distributed and now Shout Factory has a number of them on DVD, through their on-demand ad-sponsored streaming service, and their streaming channels like Twitch and Pluto TV, with more coming.
The comparisons don’t stop there. Like Battle Of The Planets, Power Rangers uses original US footage to help create their new experience and like Robotech they’ve woven their own mythology apart from the shows that make it up. The idea of the Morphing Grid, the existence of Power Rangers and Ranger like heroes around the universe and in alternate realities are not things found in Super Sentai and there isn’t a really strong continuity between Sentai shows while Power Rangers, while not an air-tight continuity, probably does better than Doctor Who in that regard. (Faint praise, I know.) Now the idea of Sentai is popular with kids who will get older and see the actual shows and may or may not prefer it to Power Rangers. Sadly the only other attempts to learn from this are minor and with mixed results (the Guyver movies, Kamen Rider Dragon Knight, and the aforementioned DIC shows plus Saban’s own various attempts to capitalize on the formula they created), but that’s how Japanimation got started as well, and look where anime is today, not necessarily needing hack dubs but benefiting from shows that are marketed to kids rather than anime fans. Ignore stuff like the bad dubs of Escaflone or Knights Of The Zodiac, considering how few kids shows are brought up in anime fandom do you really think Pokémon, Yo-Kai Watch, or even Hamtaro would be celebrated in those communities if they hadn’t been brought over as mainstream kids shows?
Even the producer of the Ghost In The Shell anime movie thinks his movie needed to be altered for a non-Japanese audience. (I haven’t heard what he thinks of the live-action movie.) The creator of FLCL was involved with the dub while even the Ghost Stories gag dub came with rules from the animation studio. This is how you reach the widest possible audience, not by changing the important details but just the cultural ones. From what I’ve heard the failings of Netflix’s Death Note was more along the lines of the same adaptation errors I talk about with re-imaginings. Change too much and you get it wrong and people like me complain. Change enough and you have something unique but still respectful of the source material. When it comes to anime we are in a better position to maintain that respect. I wouldn’t want a show like Robotech to be made today as it was created. You could make something original, like they did with Exo-Squad, or try an “All-American” update. The Titan comics are British but the reason they miss the mark is they changed too much in tone and theme for both the characters and the world they inhabit–like the recent addition of time-travel among other mistakes. However, they’re the same adaptation mistakes Battlestar Galactica made in its re-imagining. You don’t need hack dubs for anime anymore, but there’s a reason Japanese shows are so popular but you don’t see shows from other countries except for the UK being popular like this. There isn’t a huge contingent of French animation fans, with Miraculous or Mysterious Cities Of Gold just being popular with average animation fans and kids. Foreign animation comes out but they aren’t as popular as anime is today and live-action Japanese programming is starting to become.
Maybe they need a good hack dub?