Finger Guns & ‘Just Cousins’: How Anime Dubs Overcame Pointless Censorship

In the golden age of streaming, vast libraries of anime content are just a button press and a subscription deal away. Gone are the days of dodgy VHS tapes with fan-made subtitles shared via address listings on online forums. Gone, too, are the days of being glued to Toonami or the WB in late afternoons of the late '90s and early '00s. (Though Adult Swim has recently resurrected the programming block for nostalgic and newer fans alike.) If you were introduced to anime this way, chances are that you were introduced to something that closely resembled anime but, oftentimes, wasn't quite the real deal: farmed from the source, chopped up and reconstituted into another product entirely.

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Anime of this period were routinely repackaged for young, western TV viewers and suffered from notorious censorship in an effort to "clean up" something previously seen as an adult-only niche. Some of the worst cases can be pinned on licensing company 4Kids Entertainment, which made huge profits -- possibly fraudulently -- from Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragon Ball Z Kai, One Piece and Pokémon. Most of the censorship focused on the kinds of things you'd expect not to see too much of in content aimed at viewers between the ages of 6-12-years-old: violence, cigarettes and alcohol.

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The problem was, companies like 4Kids' solutions sometimes yielded, in retrospect, laughable results. Its original dubbed version of One Piece, which began airing in 2004, suffered from some pretty rough editing choices: characters who were supposed to have cigars in their mouths simply hung open, slack-jawed. The exception to this was Sanji, whose smoking habit is as ingrained into his characterization as John Constantine. His cigarettes were swapped out for lollipops. Not exactly something a rogue of the high seas would want to be seen with but children watching at the time would have been none the wiser. This particular change is representative of much of 4Kids' localization decisions in One Piece and other similar anime.

While Eiichiro Oda's epic tale of piracy and outlaws is certainly full of comedy, by the time 4Kids was done with it, there was almost nothing but comedy; creating a bloodless, death-less vacuum where characters were more likely to crack a joke than deal with the gravitas of what was originally intended to be an emotionally pivotal moment. A fight between Luffy and long-running villain Crocodile has become infamous among fans for these differences: instead of using his own blood to help best his opponent as he does in the Japanese version, 4Kids swapped it for sweat. Editing violence in this way was by far the most common practice: In Yu-Gi-Oh!, death became the "Shadow Realm." In Dragon Ball Z, blood was recolored an alien green.

Guns -- which were much more understandable to get rid of -- were given slightly more creative inserts in One Piece. Firearms were turned into strange, toy-like instruments or, in the case of the Marines brandishing them, water pistols. (Quiver in fear, pirates!) At least One Piece's characters had something to hold, though: Yu-Gi-Oh!'s bad guys were usually left empty-handed, simply pointing their fingers at a target as threateningly as possible. Alcohol, on the other hand, was a much simpler switch -- it's easy to tell the kids at home that everyone's getting giddy on "juice." (Regular Show, an ostensibly adult cartoon that played for children on Cartoon Network managed the same trick by having its cast of animal slackers downing "soda.")

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Though young viewers at the time wouldn't have known the difference, it's easy for older and wiser anime fans to look back in disbelief at some of this. Some of the changes do smack of the puritanical: like erasing overspilling cleavage and renaming "Devil Fruit" into "Cursed Fruit." Other instances were just downright ludicrous.

But -- before getting too hot-headed -- it's important to remember that 4Kids was given a show aimed at teenagers in Japan and given the frankly unenviable task of hacking it up to satisfy what was required by broadcast standards for it to reach its target audience in America -- a target audience preselected, in a way, by prevailing Western attitudes to the purpose of animation as exclusively family-friendly entertainment. In an interview with Anime News Network, 4Kids Senior Vice President of Digital Media admitted that the company didn't examine what it was buying thoroughly enough when it came to One Piece and, when it did, regretted the decision. By this point, though, it had to go ahead with the localization or else lose its package deal.

As much as we can poke fun, without lollipop cigarettes and sweat fights, One Piece might have taken far longer to reach western fans, even if 4Kids' gutting of the source material resulted in a product so confusing to follow that the series ended up being canceled.

A key part of localization also involved disguising anime's Japanese origin. In the case of Pokémon, for instance, this famously meant referring to a common Japanese rice-based dish as "jelly donuts," with no effort made to make the food in question look any different. You'd think American kids would be able to cope with seeing a cartoon character eat a ball of rice, but back then -- and following a string of failures to successfully export Japanese media into the American market -- the recipe for success was built on the idea that western viewers would reject anything that came across as vaguely foreign. You'd also think that American kids would be able to cope with seeing non-white cartoon characters as well, but 4Kids apparently wasn't willing to let them do that either: In Episode 5 of the company's One Piece dub, fans have since noticed that a character's skin was inexplicably turned from black to white.

When it came to race, gender and sexuality in imported anime of this period, the editing decisions were understandable given the conservative policing of children's media, but no less forgivable. The violence of shonen anime was a hard enough sell, but the magical girl subgenre, created largely for and by women, proved an even more puzzling problem for western licensers. Nelvana (alongside Kids WB) was the first company to license Cardcaptor Sakura in North America, and decided that the action-oriented nature of the CLAMP series, along with the collect-a-thon element of capturing magical spirits in cards, meant it should be made to appeal more to boys who were already fans of Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon. As such, Sakura's name was dropped from the title -- becoming simply Cardcaptors -- and the show was re-edited to make Sakura's male rival-turned-love-interest, Syaoran Li, an equal star. In the words of a Mattel executive at the time, the thinking behind this rested on tie-in toys sale, and an assumption that "in America, girls will watch male-oriented programming but boys won't watch female-oriented shows; this makes a male superhero a better bet."

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Just as Sailor Moon's same-sex female couple were turned into "cousins" in its American incarnation, Cardcaptor Sakura -- a show with an impressive array of different kinds of relationships -- was stripped of all and any implications of gay or bisexual romance, mainly between Sakura's brother, Touya, and his boy-next-door love interest, Yukito. In the same way that 4Kids' One Piece dub became riddled with plot holes from the chunks of episodes the company pulled out of it, Nelvana's Cardcaptors had its original episode count drastically reduced from 70 to just 39, which would have been a paltry 13 if the cuts had been "maximized," in an effort to both masculinize and heteronormalize Cardcaptor Sakura as much as possible, cannibalizing many of the subplots that provided the emotional centering for its action. Fans who would go on to seek out the original Japanese version would discover a show that was almost unrecognizable compared to what they'd grown up with.

The introduction of Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim programming block in 2001 marked a huge shift in the way that anime was marketed, taking shows geared toward older audiences like Cowboy Bebop and Death Note from Japan and making no effort to switch demographics when they were imported to America. Both shows quickly garnered cult followings and, finally, licensers began to realize that anime wasn't just for kids. The advent of anime streaming platforms in the 2010s onwards diversified this audience even further. In the meantime, 4Kids has filed for bankruptcy (twice).

Both the quality and faithfulness of dubbing and localization have continued to come on in leaps and bounds: better voice acting, better translations and a better understanding of what the fandom that has built up around Japanese pop culture actually wants. This difference is particularly clear in the recent revivals of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, where "best friends" and "cousins" are finally able to live out and proud, while censorship decisions are now made on the grounds of not offending western audiences for the right reasons, such as problematic racial stereotyping. Anime fans are far more discerning these days but, luckily, so are the people bringing them the content they love.

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